San Diego

California Marijuana Products Delayed by Backlogs in Testing Labs

Delays could drive sales back to illegal market, industry experts say

With peanut butter, white chocolate chips and about 1,000 milligrams of THC, “The Elvis” was quite the delicious and powerful marijuana treat for some.

The 400-calorie cookie came with a warning: “This is a high potency medical product for experienced consumers only. If you are new to edible cannabis, chose a lower potency product.”

“The Elvis” is one of hundreds of cannabis products that can no longer be legally sold, since California implemented new testing, packaging and dosing standards on July 1.

For edibles, the state now imposes a limit of 10 milligrams of THC per serving and 100 milligrams of THC per package.

State law requires all products be lab-tested so the consumer is aware of the amount they are ingesting, according to doctors and scientists.

“The role of labs, not just our lab, but all labs is so important to keep people safe and let folks enjoy the product or use it for medical purposes with the confidence that they’re not going to get sick because of something they’re ingesting,” said Robert Brodnick, the chief scientific officer at Pharm Labs.  

This new law requires all cannabis products, including marijuana flowers, undergo extensive lab testing for pesticides, pathogens and potency, which industry experts say is forcing distributors to wait long periods of time for products to be tested and approved.

It’s left some consumers unable to buy some of their favorite products, retailers say.  

San Diego’s licensed marijuana retailers said they are also experiencing shortages on some strains of flower cannabis because of backlogs in labs capable of testing the marijuana.

With 31 labs licensed to test products for distributors serving more than 400 licensed dispensaries in the state, it has been very difficult for labs and dispensaries to keep up with demand, both retailers and scientists confirmed.

“That’s why we saw most of our brands not ready to be on shelves on July 1,” said Wayne Scherer, who operates a collective in San Ysidro.  “That first week, it was very difficult to keep our shelves stocked. There was a day where we had very few options for flowers.”

None of the licensed dispensaries in San Diego said they’ve completely run out of product, but selection is still limited a month after the new law went into effect.

“It’s not back up to par yet, and some of the major brands people are accustomed to buying still aren’t available yet,” Scherer said.

Scherer said customers tend to blame the retailers for the industry-wide issue.

“Consumers, in general, they don’t really understand what’s going on,” he said. “We can explain it to them as best as possible, but really they end up blaming the retailers for the situation, so we bear the brunt of it when a consumer can’t find a product that they’re depending on.”

Green Lion Partners is a Denver-based company focused on early stage development for cannabis industry businesses.

President Jeffrey Zucker said the backlog could drive California sales of marijuana back to the black market, and punish companies for following all the state’s strict new guidelines for products.

“The lack of testing facility licenses that have been given out combined with the backlog at the few existing ones are keeping good products off the shelves in California,” Zucker said.

Zucker said the state needs to speed the process up and the state needs to license more labs.

 “Should this backlog continue, there’s the potential to push sales back to the illegal market something to which California’s exorbitantly high taxes are also contributing,” Zucker said.

San Diego’s PharmLabs is one of only 31 marijuana testing labs in a state with more than 400 licensed retailers.

Located in the Midway district, PharmLabs says business is booming with about five times the amount of work and clients. At PharmLabs, the staff doing the testing are all scientists with expertise in chemistry and microbiology. They use the same equipment, including robotics, that’s used in the food industry and to test pharmaceuticals.

 “(The new state regulations) has forced us to grow our teams at least two-fold here, and our clients are coming to us with a lot of business,” said Brodnick of PharmLabs. “We are very, very busy but happy to be busy.”

Brodnick said it’s very important for the consumer’s safety that products, especially edibles, are tested for potency. But, he admits there have been some growing pains with the new regulations.

“Prior to these regulations, you could mix whatever you want in whatever you want, label it and sell it. So, it’s kind of a mixed bag of what you get,” Brodnick said. “Testing is really, really important. It’s one of the most important issues in cannabis, and it’s one we need tight control over to eliminate some of that stigma.”

However, Scherer said even the most potent edibles were not shown to cause long-term negative health impacts for the consumer, and he believes there could be some flexibility from the state on the testing requirements as the new laws are implemented and more labs become licensed.

He said the industry has not developed uniform standards for testing yet, which has caused some labs to get different results on the same products.

 “Right now, it’s just creating chaos in the supply chain without really providing the reassurances they’re claiming to offer,” Scherer said.

Brodnick said there are international standards for analytical testing in cannabis. A spokeswoman for PharmLabs said the lab is internationally accredited, which is a requirement by the state of California under the new regulations.

“It helps bring more credibility to the industry because the accreditation is difficult to achieve. Laboratories did not previously have the accreditation requirement to operate in the medical cannabis space,” the spokeswoman said.

Brodnick said it's better to be safe and accurate than fast, just to please the retail shops. 

“What we need to see is more very good laboratories,” Brodnick said. “A lot of people got into this business not knowing what they were doing, and there’s been an evolution. The investment does need to be made into good scientists, quality systems and doing business the right way.”

In the meantime, what happens to all those marijuana cookies?

Industry experts say products with more than the legal dosage will have to be destroyed if they cannot be converted or repackaged to a lower dosage product.

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