Opinion: California must stop cannabis companies from inflating THC numbers ~ California

Billboard for cannabis
A cannabis billboard on University Avenue in Hillcrest. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Most Californians can simply walk into their local, licensed cannabis dispensary and purchase a variety of products. Few consumers read the label of each product and make a purchasing decision. Too often they actually grope in the dark about what they are buying.

Research shows that a product’s price, THC percentage, and a budtender’s recommendations are the top things consumers look for. There has been a disproportionate focus on THC percentage, partly due to an inaccurate notion that potency directly correlates with quality, and partly due to a lack of awareness of the important role terpenes and other cannabinoids play.

A knowledge gap is normal for emerging industries, but it’s not the case for more mature substance markets like alcohol. Most people don’t just look at the alcohol content when buying a bottle of wine. Instead, they consider the variety, region, flavor profile, and of course, price.

Cannabis isn’t here yet, and it certainly doesn’t help that regulators in legal markets only require companies to disclose THC and CBD percentages for recreational and medicinal uses. This inadvertently reinforces consumer belief that THC is king.

This focus on THC potency has encouraged cannabis companies (brands, breeders, distributors) to play the system, especially when the economics are challenging for legal operators. If consumers remain fixated on THC potency, some companies are willing to fool customers because they can charge more.

Cannabis products high in THC are sold at a higher price, which has encouraged cannabis companies with bad actors to look to similarly bad testing labs willing to use bad science or commit fraud to rig results. The industry refers to this practice as “lab shopping”.

Regulations usually require the THC content on the label to be within a relative percentage of actual tested results. In California, that threshold is 10%, allowing certain labs to manipulate results or brands to get creative with their label claims.

These shady practices have created a systemic problem of potency inflation that hurts everyone involved. Lab shopping has often resulted in the worst performing brands and labs doing better, while high performing brands and science first labs have suffered. This creates an unnecessary and unsafe cycle of misinformation that puts the customer at risk. As a result, potency inflation has spread like wildfire with scammers rarely being held accountable.

Lawsuits have recently been filed in Arkansas and California alleging that companies misled customers about the THC content of their products. These suits can fail because they’re not based on actual science, but they help shed light on an issue that needs immediate attention.

Corners of the regulated cannabis market now function like an illegal one. California Atty. General Rob Bonta recently announced a year-long program to eradicate illegal cultivation, but public opinion needs to be enforced on this issue as well. California lawmakers should introduce regulations that support a system for validating laboratory results by requiring well-designed comparative studies and recalls when products fail. All cannabis test results should also be made public.

These measures would ensure transparency and security for consumers and entail consequences for companies that cheat.

Consumers know the exact levels of each vitamin in their food, the alcohol content in each drink, and the full calorie content of a can of soda. Cannabis shouldn’t be any different, but that’s not the reality today – even in our regulated market. That needs to change.

Jeff Journey is the CEO of SC Labs, a cannabis and hemp testing company, and a US Air Force veteran. He wrote this for CalMatters, a nonprofit journalism company dedicated to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.