A cancer patient buying a $ 20 Coma Treats personal pizza expects the buzz and knockout pain relief that comes with 350 milligrams of THC, the ingredient that would likely give even an experienced consumer an intense high.
But the pizza may not deliver on its promise.
Hazy science drives the making, testing and marketing of marijuana-infused edibles, a fast growing segment of Oregon’s booming medical marijuana market.
The state assures consumers that medical cannabis and cannabis-infused products undergo a battery of lab tests for everything from pesticides to potency before landing on dispensary shelves.
Yet when it comes to potency that promise is largely an empty one, a three-month investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.
Medical marijuana testing in Oregon is done by a cottage industry with an estimated 19 labs operating without oversight or clear scientific standards. While Colorado’s testing industry is subject to tight regulation involving audits and on-site inspections, Oregon public health officials don’t actually know how many marijuana-testing labs operate in the state.
And even when staffed by experienced scientists, Oregon labs produce wildly inconsistent potency results, leaving patients with no idea of what they actually are consuming regardless of the labeling.
The problem is compounded by a lack of accepted scientific standards for testing marijuana-infused foods. The result: Each lab decides for itself the best way to measure how much THC — short for tetrahydrocannabinol — an edible product contains.
What’s more, when it comes to marketing medical marijuana, potency sells, creating pressure to churn out impressive results as labs compete for lucrative contracts with producers, some of whom spend thousands of dollars a month on potency and pesticide testing.
“It’s a ridiculous, upside-down market,” said Ric Cuchetto, lab director of ChemHistory, a marijuana-testing lab in Milwaukie. “People are buying on potency and yet there is not a lot of value in the results.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive commissioned a respected analytical chemist to conduct a detailed potency analysis of 15 marijuana-infused edible products sold in Portland dispensaries and found only one contained accurate potency information on its label.
The analysis was performed by Rodger Voelker, scientific director at OG Analytical, a marijuana-testing company in Eugene. He tested marijuana-infused products ranging from ice cream to kombucha.
The results were all over the place.
The majority of products claimed to be stronger than they were. A dozen labels overstated the amount of actual THC. Among them: a chocolate chip cookie that claimed to have 197 milligrams of THC, but instead contained 52 milligrams. The difference is enough to noticeably alter the duration and strength of the high.
Labels on two products, a container of salted caramel ice cream and a chocolate truffle, understated the amount of THC. The ice cream actually had about 54 percent more THC than stated.
Unreliable potency testing isn’t the only issue effecting consumers.
This occasional series by The Oregonian/ OregonLive examines the science of testing marijuana, consumer safety and public policy as Oregon expands from allowing medical marijuana to a legal recreational market. This installment: Oregon’s unregulated marijuana-testing labs produce wildly inconsistent results when it comes to the potency of marijuana-infused edible products, a fast growing segment of the consumer market.
» How potent are marijuana edibles?
The Oregonian/OregonLive found inconsistent and confusing packaging of edible products. Only four had expiration dates. Eight offered no warning about the product’s potency or delayed effects, both key issues when it comes to consuming marijuana-infused foods.
Oregon’s lack of oversight of medical marijuana labs has implications for consumer safety when the recreational cannabis market begins to roll out in 2016.
The new law doesn’t require that cannabis sold in recreational outlets undergo testing, but a committee of Oregon lawmakers assigned to study marijuana policies tackled the issue at one of its first meetings this year.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana consumers say getting accurate information about what they’re eating is critical.
“It’s dangerous for everyone,” said Tina Martinez, a Portland woman who relies on marijuana-infused candies to cope with chronic nausea from gastrointestinal disease. “For it not to be correct, that’s kind of like mislabeling food.”
Martinez, 44, who takes morphine daily to manage crippling pain, said accurate potency results matter, especially to medical marijuana patients.
“There are other people who think about it like they don’t really care, they want to get high,” she said. “That is not my situation. I have to pay attention.”
Owners of companies producing marijuana-infused products were surprised to learn their labels were at odds with the potency tests commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Several said they devote a significant chunk of their budgets to state-mandated testing for pesticides, mold, mildew and potency.
Cameron Yee, 45, owner of Lunchbox Alchemy, a Bend company that makes medical marijuana extracts and edibles, including a popular infused candy called “Squibs,” estimates that he spends about $ 4,000 a month on product testing.
Yee’s fruit-flavored jelly candies are infused with butane hash oil and come in individual plastic containers. He aims for each to contain 100 milligrams of THC. The one analyzed by The Oregonian/OregonLive was labeled with 105 milligrams of THC. Results showed it had 52.
Products labeled with triple-digit levels of THC are generally intended for experienced consumers looking for a powerful high. (For comparison, Colorado defines a single serving as 10 milligrams of THC in its recreational marijuana market; the state has no recommended dose on the medical side.) For a regular marijuana consumer, 52 milligrams is likely to disappoint.
Yee, whose products are sold in about 60 dispensaries statewide, was frustrated by the results.
“This is really a difficult thing for us,” he said. “We can’t get the same results from multiple labs. They are always different and that is the problem with us and edibles in general.”
Yee works exclusively with one lab, Cascadia Labs in Bend, but has taken his products to multiple labs to verify results only to get back inconsistent potency levels, some off by as much as 150 milligrams.
He said he trusts the results he gets from Cascadia and believes his product is as potent as advertised.
Jeremy Sackett, owner of Cascadia Labs, said he respects Voelker’s analytical skills and that OG Analytical does a “very good job.” Sackett said he uses a different method to create test samples for each product, which could explain the different results.
Voelker took a test sample from a portion of the product, which he ground up in a food processor or blender. He then extracted the THC from that test sample. Sackett extracted THC from the entire product after dissolving it in a solvent. He said his method ensures he’s capturing THC that may be concentrated in a certain part of the product.
Sackett, who has lobbied Oregon lawmakers for strong lab regulation, said analyzing edibles is “extremely difficult.” The challenge is complicated by the stiff competition among labs, which typically don’t share information about best practices for testing products like edibles.
“We are happy to share and open up any data that we have,” said Sackett, who holds an undergraduate degree in biochemical pharmacology and worked in pharmaceutical testing labs. “That is good science. That is what is required for a regulated laboratory.”
Andy LaFrate, president and owner of Charas Scientific, a state-certified marijuana-testing lab in Denver, reviewed OG Analytical’s test results at The Oregonian/OregonLive’s request. He said even solid labs staffed by experienced chemists may generate inconsistent results.
“No matter how many Ph.Ds. they have on staff and how expensive their equipment is, there is error,” he said.
In Colorado, the state mandates lab testing for recreational marijuana, but not medical cannabis. (Washington, too, requires lab testing for recreational but not medical marijuana.) Colorado marijuana labs are state certified and subject to regular audits; the state requires certain academic credentials of scientists who test the drug.
And still the state has struggled to accurately analyze the potency of edibles. LaFrate said even if a lab develops a standard method that works well for measuring THC in brownies or gummy bears, “next thing we know there is ice cream or pizza we need to deal with.”
“As a consumer, I would just be kind of wary of the fact that most of these edibles are testing lower than what they claim and a lot of them substantially lower,” said LaFrate, who holds a doctorate degree in chemistry. “Some are less than half of what they claim.
“As a consumer I would be like, man, I am not really getting what I paid for,” he said.
If the Lunchbox Alchemy candy is weaker than its label claims, that’s a surprise to Brad Zusman, owner of Canna-Daddy’s Wellness Center, a dispensary on Southeast Division Street in Portland.
Among edible products, the Squib is a top seller. Zusman figures he sells up to 200 of the $ 10 candies a week.
“That’s $ 2,000 on that one item,” he said. “It packs a great punch.”
The question of potency
David and Heather Williams were surprised to see the potency analysis showed that one of their Coma Treats pizzas labeled with 350 milligrams of THC had just 52 – an 85 percent difference.
Of the products tested by The Oregonian/OregonLive, none had a wider discrepancy compared to how it was labeled.
David Williams, 44, whose company is based in Springfield, wondered if the THC was concentrated in a part of the pizza that wasn’t captured in the test sample. Maybe the pizza used in the analysis was an exception. Or maybe Voelker’s test methods were off.
“We don’t know,” Williams said. “That is the thing. If it’s 50 (milligrams of THC), I’ve got no problem putting 50 on it.”
Added Williams: “These numbers, we just go with what we are given. It’s the one part of our business where we are at the mercy of other people.”
Coma Treats features several products that contain more than 100 milligrams of THC, an effort to draw consumers looking for potency. After all, potency — combined with personal tastes and price — drive the medical marijuana market.
Some consumers also pay attention to the amount of cannabidiol, or CBD, a product or dried flower contains. Patients say CBD has health properties but doesn’t give consumers a high.
“At the end of the day, most people are going to go with that 150 milligram gummy that’s the same price as the 100 milligram cookie, even if they would rather have a cookie because you are just getting much more value,” said Matt Walstatter, owner of Pure Green, a medical marijuana dispensary in Northeast Portland.
Coma Treats’ commercial kitchen churns out chocolate bars, brownies, pepperoni pizzas and a Thin Mint knockoff. The chocolate-dipped “Wake and Bake” spoon, spiked with 60 to 70 milligrams of THC, is intended to boost the buzz of an ordinary cup of coffee.
The Williamses pay “easily a couple thousand” a month to an outside lab that tests their products. Occasionally, they’ll hire a second lab to verify results, though they aren’t required to.
They frequently sample their own product to double-check their strength.
“We know how effective the pizza may be,” Williams said, “but we don’t necessarily know how strong it is.”
Williams said his company meets state requirements by having their products tested. It’s left to marijuana product makers to sort out which lab to hire.
“You have to pick one,” he said. “There are times where (labs) will, in the past, flat out say, ‘What (potency) do you think it should be?’ I wouldn’t pick one of those labs.”
After seeing OG Analytical’s analysis, Williams said he decided to take Coma Treats’ products to a different lab.
Drew Edwards, owner of Canna Lab, performed the initial potency tests on the Coma Treats pizza. Edwards, a medical marijuana patient and grower who started his lab three years ago in his garage and has since moved to a downtown Eugene storefront, stands by his analysis. He said a Dutch university has certified that his testing methods are sound.
He added that Oregon’s marijuana-testing industry is a competitive one that does not serve consumers.
“It’s a dirty, dirty business right now,” he said. “There are people out there who are doing back biting so they can make payments on their equipment.”
Gary Stevenson, 62, owns Beems, a Portland baking company that makes cannabis-infused cookies. He said lab results on his products were so inconsistent that in January he had batches of all five of his cookies analyzed for potency at three labs. He spent about $ 1,500 on the tests.
None produced the same results. The peanut butter cookies, for instance, turned up THC levels ranging from 154 milligrams to 391 milligrams. He took the unusual step of adding all three results to each package so consumers could judge for themselves.
“I thought it was laughable and tragic,” said Stevenson, who bakes in a commercial kitchen. “It’s the same cookie. All of the cookies I took in were baked on the same pan, in the same oven, at the exact same time.”
Susan Lind-Kanne doesn’t leave her Sandy house without a white container of Gummiez tucked into her purse. She counts on the candies, which contain 10 to 25 milligrams of THC, to ease severe arthritic pain.
The Oregonian/OregonLive purchased one container of the candies for the analysis. The label said each contained 25 milligrams of THC; OG Analytical found the slice contained 4.95 milligrams.
The disparity prompted Lind-Kanne, 59, to wonder if the pain relief she experienced was psychological.
“It would be nice if it was accurate,” she said. “But I acknowledge this industry is in its infancy, and it’s very fluid. Things are going to change.”
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the agency charged with overseeing the recreational marijuana industry recently noted “deficiencies” with medical marijuana testing and urged lawmakers to establish a licensing and third-party lab certification process for labs.
Tom Burns, director of marijuana programs for the OLCC, recently told a legislative committee that Oregon needs strong standards and regulation for marijuana testing.
“It is important that you get a handle around the whole lab issue,” he warned the committee that was established to look at Measure 91’s implementation.
“Without doing this you run risks,” Burns said. “You get different results depending on where you send your product. You get different results depending on whether you are an expert in testing. It becomes a problem for the consumer.”
— Noelle Crombie
— Graphics by Mark Graves