Can You Trust What's in Your Weed?
It’s common knowledge that product quality plays a strong role in consumer decision making. Health Canada’s most recent National Cannabis Survey reports that 76 percent of consumers are motivated by quality and safety when deciding where to make their purchases.
The cannabis legalization roll-out across Canada received some backlash for a lack of accessibility and the quality of the available product. There have been scandals regarding the use of banned pesticides, reports of grey market cannabis making its way to the public, and stories of our neighbours to the south fighting accusations of forged lab tests.
Behind the scenes, lab testing is a mandatory part of the quality assurance process that costs upwards of $3,000 per single-sample batch. The current reputation of laboratories is sub-standard at best, with only a few companies actually adhering to the GMP-level standards that have been set.
As it stands, the Canadian industry measures quality assurance by testing the chemical makeup of the product, including cannabinoids and terpenes, and screens for contaminants such as mould, heavy metals and pesticides. Cannabis producers are not currently required to test or disclose publicly the entire chemical composition of their cultivars.
Testing only the basic chemical makeup of a product fails to distinguish each particular cultivar and the individualized impact it may have on a consumer's endocannabinoid system (ECS). As science progresses and we learn more about the plant and the ECS, the shortsighted disregard of the true potential to accurately match cultivars to a consumer’s biological needs will become intolerable.
When it comes to cannabis, there’s a long-held but incorrect belief that simply looking at a plant’s morphology can determine its effects. Indica and Sativa have long-ruled as cannabis descriptors, simplified to mean that shorter plants with broad leaves are sedative-leaning and that taller plants with slender leaves are energy-inducing. The truth is that looking at the full chemical makeup of plants is a much more accurate way to determine what effects a certain cultivar can achieve.
Lab tests can provide a breakdown of cannabinoids and terpenes. This ratio and the interaction of these compounds with each other can provide consumers with practical information that will help direct them to the right strain for a desired effect. The science is available, it's just not widely shared.
There’s even another level of data that would be helpful to consumers. Testing only the chemical makeup of cultivars fails to determine its true genetic composition. Determining a plant’s genotype in addition to chemotype provides important information regarding how CBD and THC levels are expressed. Like humans, cannabis inherits two copies of a gene. A plant’s genetics influence the plant’s ability to produce THC and CBD depending on the cannabinoid enzymes it inherits.
Genetic testing also provides a direct link to the origin of a plant. It ensures that the end consumer is getting the product that they believe they’ve purchased. In other words, you know that the Blue Dream you just bought is actually Blue Dream and not just a name.
This type of verification also guarantees that a cultivar has come from a legal source. According to Statistics Canada’s fourth quarter report, household spending on cannabis totalled $5.9 billion at an annual rate, with $4.7 billion still attributed to illicit sales.
Current testing and reporting is also limited in that is does not distinguish between unregulated and legal products. The chemical makeup of the plant does not trace it back to its origins. Illicit product can still find its way into the legal stream, thus failing to combat diversion in the industry.
All of this leads to one simple reality: as testing continues to improve, we should be demanding full transparency from our cannabis companies. It’s the only way to truly ensure that a product is what it claims to be and that its qualities match consumer expectations and medical requirements.