Cannabis Lab Testing

Massachusetts has finally moved another step closer to the recreational sales its residents have been waiting for. Originally planned to begin on July 1, the slow moving licensing process has so far prevented all recreational sales. The Cannabis Commission that governs the state’s marijuana program has released seven provisional recreational retail licenses so far; however, there are still a number of hurdles to clear.

The state took a big step forward this week when it issued two independent lab testing licenses, awarded to MCR labs in Framingham and CDX Analytics in Salem. These two facilities already test medical marijuana for the state’s cultivation centers and dispensaries, and hope to soon be testing the recreational product. Adult use dispensaries need to test all of their products with recreationally licensed labs and complete final building inspections and employee background checks before recreational purchases can begin. While it is great progress that these two lab licenses have been released, an unexpected issue has come to light about the way that these labs test their product. They use different methods, with each claiming that the other’s is incorrect. The state requires testing not only for cannabinoid profiles, but also for mold and bacteria content.

MCR Labs employs a technique called plating, which involves taking a small sample of product and placing it in a petri dish with a medium that encourages the growth of microbes. After a determined period of time, the lab counts the number of colonies that grew from the sample and determines whether it exceeds the maximum amount allowed by the state. Plating is a widely used process generally recognized as the standard way to test for microbial content.

CDX Analytics uses a process known as qPCR, which uses mass spectrometers and chromatograph machinery to determine the number of microbes by analyzing the DNA and measuring how many times the genetic codes of the microbes divide. This technology is newer and has been banned in Nevada for failing to identify known contaminants.

Both CEOs from the two labs claim that the other is providing false results. CDX asserts that their test measures what is present in the sample in real time and gives a more accurate result for what the consumer will find on the shelf. They also declare that the plating method stifles the growth of some contaminants and encourages the growth of others, creating false positive results. This could lead to the increased use of pesticides and fungicides in the cultivation centers, which can be harmful to the consumer. MCR Labs, on the other hand, claims that the qPCR method is flawed in the way that it extrapolates the final number of microbes, therefore allowing products to go to market with contaminant levels that exceed the guidelines by the state. MCR Labs claims to fail approximately 30% of the samples they receive; CDX alleges they fail around 15%. This could become very risky because cultivators are more likely to send their samples to the lab that they think will give them passing marks. If either of these methods truly does provide incorrect results, consumers are at risk. So far, the Department of Health and Cannabis Commission have refused to take a position on either side of the argument.