When a customer buys marijuana at a dispensary, they have a right to know what they’re putting in their body. That was the premise of allowing a legal market in Massachusetts, where marijuana products are supposed to be rigorously tested and accurately labeled.
However, in reality, customers do not know the properties of the marijuana they buy because labels are inaccurate and misleading. Levels of THC potency — a measure of the psychoactive compound that causes a high — are often inflated to entice buyers. And contaminants may be present despite testing results that say otherwise.
That was the conclusion of an investigation published by CommonWealth in December.
A major reason for the discrepancies, according to that investigation, is that while products must undergo testing, there are not sufficient standards governing how samples are selected, what testing methods are most accurate, and how to calibrate testing machines. There is even a lack of basic systems like how to calculate total THC. Because dispensaries and growers can shop between testing labs, labs are incentivized to use methods that report the results their clients want — high potency levels and less contamination — even if they are not the most scientifically accurate.
On Friday, the research subcommittee of the Cannabis Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the state Cannabis Control Commission that oversees state marijuana regulations, considered a slate of reforms that would impose stricter standards and oversight on marijuana testing labs. The proposed actions to improve oversight were informed by a survey of cannabis testing labs, growers, consumers, patients, and industry workers.
The proposals would go a long way toward informing and protecting consumers, building trust about product safety, and standardizing an industry that is now the Wild West, with little oversight and little ability to weed out bad actors.
As Cannabis Control Commissioner Kimberly Roy, the commission’s liaison to the subcommittee, pointed out, the benefit of a legal market is the assurance of safe products. “At the end of the day, it’s the testing that sets us apart from the legacy market,” Roy said.
The proposal recommends that the Cannabis Control Commission adopt a standard for what is THC and how to calculate and label it. Currently, labs include different cannabinoids, chemicals in the marijuana plant, under the category of THC and use different methods for calculating potency.
Accuracy in labeling is important both to know the likely effect of the drug and to ensure a fair price, since customers are often willing to pay more for products with higher THC levels.
The proposal would promote transparency by making lab testing data public. The Cannabis Control Commission currently only collects that data internally, through the tracking system labs use to report test results. Releasing the data would let someone see, for example, how often each lab fails a sample for a particular test, which could help determine if a lab is conducting a test improperly.
The recommendations would urge state regulators to begin a secret shopping program, in which regulators buy products off the shelf and test them, which is already authorized under state law. Roy implied at the meeting that the commission is already using this program when necessary. It should not be left up to journalists and independent researchers to discover discrepancies between labeling and reality.
The recommendations would require quarterly audits of labs, so the Cannabis Control Commission would need to hire individuals with the scientific skill sets necessary to understand and monitor lab operations.
The subcommittee will also consider forming an ongoing working group to discuss what other protocols and regulations need revisions. The Cannabis Control Commission would also, under the proposal, consider the feasibility of creating a lab to set standards against which other labs can be measured, by looking at similar efforts in California, Michigan, and Maryland.
Dan Delaney, a lobbyist and the executive director of the Association of Cannabis Testing Laboratories, which formed in late December and represents about half of the state’s dozen cannabis labs, said the labs support more oversight and hope regulators take the recommendations seriously. Labs have reported losing business when a dispensary takes their product to another lab that reports higher potency numbers or passes more products. “The reason we formed the Association of Testing Labs is we were concerned about lab shopping and concerned about mislabeling,” Delaney said. “The only way to combat that is to have more oversight and more visible oversight so there’s a deterrent effect.”
The subcommittee plans to vote on the recommendations in April. While details may be changed before the April 7 meeting based on public comments, the basic premise of the recommendations — clearer standards and definitions, greater transparency, and improved oversight — must not change. The recommendations should be approved and sent to the Cannabis Control Commission, which should incorporate them into state regulations.
The federal government requires accurate labeling of food and drugs. In the absence of federal cannabis laws, it is up to states to ensure that testing and labeling of cannabis products is just as rigorous.
Medical marijuana patients depend on accurate labeling to get effective medicine, and recreational users deserve to know what they are consuming.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.