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A Look Inside the Massachusetts Cannabis Testing Controversy

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Nearly two years on from Massachusetts voting to legalize recreational cannabis, the state’s residents are still waiting for authorized cannabis product retail stores to open.

The voter-approved law contains a clause that requires all cannabis products to go through potency analysis and contaminant testing from a licensed cannabis testing laboratory before it can be sold, mirroring the legislation adopted by other states selling legal recreational cannabis, such as California and Washington.

The trouble with this law is that until recently, Massachusetts had not issued any recreational cannabis testing licenses to any of the established medical cannabis testing laboratories, creating a roadblock to the retail cannabis industry.

Barriers to licensing

Massachusetts had originally set the target of opening the first retail cannabis shops in the state by July 1st, but that date came and went without any significant developments, and without the announcement of any updated target date.

The analytical requirements for the testing of recreational cannabis are extremely similar to those for medicinal cannabis in the state, but in order to hold a recreational license, the testing laboratory is also required to sign host community agreements with the locality they are based in. Public opinion on the issue of cannabis legalization varies between different counties in Massachusetts, and local opposition groups have been making it more complicated for some prospective license applicants to get approval.

Last week it was announced that Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission has approved the applications of two cannabis testing facilities, CDX Analytics of Salem, and MCR Labs of Framingham, for a recreational cannabis testing license. Both labs have been issued provisional licenses pending some final inspections, but as both labs already hold medicinal cannabis licenses, it is expected that both will pass the final inspections and become full license holders.

This comes as good news to many cannabis dispensaries in the state, which are already being awarded licenses to sell recreational cannabis once the testing requirements can be fulfilled.

A closer look at the testing facilities

ProVerde Laboratories, in addition to CDX Analytics and MCR Labs, are the only independent testing laboratories that are licensed for medicinal cannabis testing in the state, but the three labs do not use identical testing methodologies. The approval of both MCR Labs and CDX Analytics to test recreational cannabis samples despite using different testing methods has ignited debate over whether the current system is open to abuse by producers who can “shop around” for favorable results.

One key aspect of the debate is the use of differing methods for microbiological contamination testing. Two of the labs, ProVerde Laboratories, and MCR Labs, use a traditional testing technique known as “plating”. This involves taking samples of cannabis and loading them onto Petri dishes containing a gel-like growth medium that encourages the growth of microbes that may be present in the sample. By counting the number of microbial colonies that develop, highly-trained technicians can statistically assess the type and prevalence of different microbes present in the sample, and then compare the observed levels against the state regulations to determine if the batch should pass or fail contaminant testing.

In contrast to the other two testing facilities, CDX Analytics carries out its testing using an arguably more targeted approach based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology. The PCR method works by amplifying identifying segments of DNA in the sample that are characteristic of cannabis and known microbiological contaminants. This information can then be used to calculate the extent of any contamination present.

The testing methodology debate

While the PCR method is relatively new in the quality testing world compared to plating, it does have the benefit of being a much quicker method than culturing microbial plates, taking only a couple of hours to produce results compared to the days it can take for some cultures to mature. Proponents of PCR also say that culture-based methods are open to more sources of error than PCR, as not all microbes will culture well on all types of growth media and even the most seasoned technician is not immune to the occasional identification error.

“With a DNA-based method, you get a real-time survey of what’s in the cannabis — it’s representative of what’s actually being sold on the shelves,” said Brianna Cassidy, CDX Analytics’ Chief Scientist, in an interview with the Boston Globe. “With the culture-based method, you’re only counting whatever happens to grow in that environment you’ve created on the plate.”

Supporters of the culture-based plating technique counter by pointing out the long history of their technique as a common testing method in other industries, such as in cosmetics, and its endorsement by the US Food and Drug Administration for food science research.

“Plating has been tested and accepted by every food manufacturer and scientific organization,” explains Chris Hudalla, the Chief Scientist of ProVerde Laboratories, also to the Boston Globe. “The method they’re using is accepted by nobody.”

Hudalla also harbors concerns over cannabis producers attempting to exploit the different systems to give them favorable results.

“The industry knows they have a higher passing rate with qPCR, and they don’t care whether it’s right or wrong,” Hudalla continues, “They continue to release contaminated products to consumers, and we’ve lost significant revenues to them because DPH and the CCC permit them to use this technology.”

Defendants of PCR put the difference in passing rates down to the culture-based methods growing off-target microbes that can inflate the number of microbes detected which leads to more samples failing testing.

The position of cannabis regulators

By issuing testing licenses to both laboratories, and with no plans to standardize one technique over another, it appears the position of the state is to let the free market take its course as cannabis testers can choose their method of preference for themselves.

Cannabis testers and cannabis advocates feel that by doing this Massachusetts health officials have failed to moderate the debate and in doing so have undermined the public’s confidence in the state’s cannabis testing system.

Also speaking to the Boston Globe, Kamani Jefferson, President of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council encapsulates the situation the public is currently facing, saying, “It’s hard to walk into a dispensary right now and really trust that the products are safe. They [dispensaries] can point to the label and say it’s been tested, but until the state steps in and sets some standards, they can’t really say it with a straight face.”