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Wed Sep 29 2021 08:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

Data integrity sacred at Midwest’s only Leafly-certified cannabis lab

5 min

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Next time you visit a cannabis dispensary, look in the bargain bin where retailers put discounts on products they haven’t been able to sell. They tend to have THC content under 20%.

Funny thing is, many products with less than 20% THC may be higher quality cannabis than those labeled with higher potency, said Nick Jikomes, Ph.D., director of science and innovation at Leafly, an online community dedicated to cannabis education. And many of the higher-priced products don’t really have 20% THC anyway.

“I just assume that every label is about 5% inflated,” Jikomes said. “The true average THC content for cannabis flower is about 18%. Yet, magically, there is this statistically high number of products that test at 20% or higher.”

How can that be? In some cases, cannabis labs lack the equipment, testing methods and scientific expertise to do better. In other cases, the lab and its client – the cannabis grower or processor – may be misleading the consumer.

After all, when the marketplace equates potency with quality, there’s an incentive for growers and labs to label cannabis products with higher amounts of THC. But all that does is cheat the consumer and foster a narrow-minded focus on potency as the only relevant measure of quality, Jikomes said.

That’s why Leafly created a Certified Labs Program. Leafly Certified Labs share a commitment to providing accurate and trustworthy data so consumers can have confidence in the cannabis they buy.

State regulations already require cannabis products to meet certain safety standards as measured by lab testing. But even if the results are in compliance that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re accurate. Labs certified by Leafly, however, undergo quarterly audits to ensure their testing results are statistically valid and not artificially inflated.

“When states are certifying labs, they’re simply not looking at what they need to look at, which is just the data,” Jikomes said. “All you need to do is audit the data from that lab and plot it out, and you can see quite clearly when a lab is inflating numbers.

“A substantial number of the labs have THC distributions shifted upwards.”

There are many cannabis labs in Michigan, but only one is certified by Leafly. In fact, PSI Labs is the only Leafly-certified lab in the entire Midwest.

The independent, third-party lab in Ann Arbor is proud to be aligned with other members of the cannabis community who are committed to producing safe, reliable and consistent products with accurate consumer data on the label.

Proficiency testing is one way PSI Labs ensures analytical accuracy. The lab participates in various studies where third parties provide samples similar to what you would find in a dispensary. PSI Labs receives the samples as unknowns, tests them and reports back its findings. The organization conducting the proficiency test then reveals the sample’s true values and, in some instances, gives PSI Labs a performance score.

“We take a lot of pride in being able to repeatedly hit the very center of the bullseye,” said Frank Barretta, MSc, director of quality and compliance at PSI Labs. “We constantly evaluate the performance of our calibration curves to ensure that we’re reporting accurate data.

“There’s an element of integrity that’s involved.”

In addition to its emphasis on data integrity, PSI Labs has the capability to analyze a range of analytes that go far beyond mere compliance and potency.

Imagine looking at the Nutrition Facts on a box of crackers. Only judging a cannabis product by its THC content is like only looking at the number of calories in a serving of crackers. It’s one measure of the product, but far from the only measure. And in most cases, it’s not even a contributing factor to the quality of the product.

On the other hand, compliance testing doesn’t include many cannabis attributes that do contribute to the quality of a product. For example, you won’t find terpenes on the label. Yet, terpenes can have a big impact on the final product.

“The primary objective of compliance testing is consumer safety,” Barretta said. “However, our clients are also concerned with upholding an element of product quality.”

The testing at PSI Labs not only goes beyond compliance in terms of the product, but also in terms of the process. After testing a sample, lab personnel conduct a thorough data analysis of the results to identify anything out of the ordinary. Then they consult with the client about what in the manufacturing process might have caused the deviation.

For example, when the cannabis distillate in a longstanding client’s vape cartridges showed elevated levels of certain metals, it stood out like a sore thumb – especially since the client’s other products were routinely in compliance. The scientists at PSI Labs got wide-eyed over the findings and excitedly went to work figuring out what happened. They devised a series of leaching studies to determine where the metal was entering the distillate.

It turned out that it was coming from the metal in the cart hardware itself, so the client changed to a different cart.

“Our existence is rooted in client relations. It’s why we’ve been able to succeed,” Barretta said. “When a sample fails a compliance test, we don’t just fire off the number and move on to the next sample. We hand deliver that message.”

Most labs considered for Leafly certification are turned away because the results they produce are inaccurate – either because of incompetence or even fraud. But for the few Leafly certified labs across the country, a dogged commitment to operational excellence is pushing the entire cannabis industry forward.

The end result, hopefully, is a marketplace full of cannabis that’s not only in compliance with state safety regulations but also of high quality – with no need for potency inflation.

“As the cannabis industry continues to mature, we have been able to contribute to the onboarding of cannabis-specific analytical methodologies that are being acknowledged as best practices by world-renowned standardization organizations,” Barretta said.

“We hope these efforts ultimately raise the testing bar for all cannabis labs and increase the overall quality of every cannabis product in the licensed market, regardless of who tested it.”


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