If someone offered you a bowl brimming with a purple, strange smelling substance and said, “Eat this. You’ll love it,” you’d at the least ask them what it was before putting it in your mouth, right? If you answered no, then take this advice with love. Don’t put eat it until know it’s safe. That advice applies to consuming cannabis, too, especially since the introduction of legal cannabis into the market is relatively nascent and federally unregulated. This is why cannabis testing, a scientific process gauging the varying levels of compounds and chemicals present in the product, beneficial and not, is so important. Testing equips consumers with knowledge and keeps them safe from harmful substances and unwanted effects.

Why is Testing Important?

Like most folks in the agricultural industry, cannabis growers use pesticides. Even when handled appropriately, pesticides—toxic chemicals such as fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides designed to kill living organisms—pose environmental and health risks.  In the cannabis industry, a lack of proper testing can exacerbate these risks for unsuspecting consumers.

SC Labs, a pioneer in the testing industry, tests cannabis for potency, terpenes, residual solvents, pesticides, and microbial contamination by measuring the various levels of the compounds present in the plant.  However, not all labs test this way. Cannabis testing Some labs only test for pesticides.  Some only test for molds. Some labs test for a variety of things but with subpar equipment and methods.  This is why, in addition to demanding excellent testing, it is important for consumers to know who is doing the testing and what exactly is being tested.

So, What is Actually Tested? 

The best cannabis testing measures the levels of the following components found in cannabis plants:

Cannabinoids, terpenes, residual solvents, pesticides, and microbial contamination

Cannabinoids include the better-known THC and CBD in addition to several other beneficial chemical compounds produced by cannabis.  THC, the component responsible for the sensation of euphoria, is also linked with the alleviation of pain, nausea, insomnia, stress, and appetite loss.  On the other hand, it can produce feelings of paranoia and distress in some consumers. Knowing the actual levels of THC in a product can make a huge difference for consumers either looking to benefit from the compound’s assets or to avoid its symptoms. A misrepresentation of the cannabinoid levels could be frustrating at the least and devastating at the most.

Terpenes are the olfactory compounds of the plant; they are the oils that make cannabis smell like pine, cannabis testing, terpenes berry, mint, or one of the many other scents produced by different strains.  In addiction to permeating the atmosphere with delicious flavors, different terpenes, like cannabinoids, are connected with the following medicinal properties: anti-insomnia, anti-psychotic, anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety, painkilling, anti-septic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory.  Again, accurate knowledge of what terpenes are present and at what levels can help consumers purchase the right cannabis for their specific needs.

When cannabis manufacturers are creating a product, they use residual solvents—chemical-free or harsh chemical solutions—to extract terpenes and cannabinoids from the plant.  Certain solvents leave behind unwanted residue on the final product.

Testing allows manufacturers to gauge the safety of their extraction process and adjust for better results

Pesticides are the spawn of Satan, possessing cannabis flowers and turning them into evil weeds.  I’m kidding.  Sort of.  Pesticides, while useful in controlling diseases, pests, and weeds are linked to adverse health effects on children and impacts of environmental decline such as water contamination, mass animal deaths, and animal mutations.

Microbial contamination is inevitable in a natural product, but some forms of contamination are dangerous and should be avoided.  An excellent lab test will screen cannabis for aerobic bacteria, yeast and molds, viable coliforms such as E. Coli, and shiga toxins producing Salmonella and E. Coli.  This type of testing is essential in protecting consumers from ingesting or inhaling dangerous agents. 

Problems With the Current System

 Although it has been legalized for medical and/or recreational use in 28 states, cannabis’ status as a Schedule I drug makes it federally illegal.  This is problematic for exactly 198,564 reasons, one of those being a lack of federal oversight when it comes to testing. Because there is no set federal policy for growers to follow, testing standards vary from county to county, and, according to an interview with Alec Dixon of SC Labs,

“This makes it challenging to really put out products that are clean and safe by common standards.”

An example of this problem in action is the current standard of pesticide testing.  One commonly used test is the Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Many in the agriculture industry utilize this test because it tests for over 200 different forms of pesticides. Although the ELISA test assesses an array of pesticides, it doesn’t test for the specific substances that cannabis growers use. Again, the lack of federal oversight and the infancy of cannabis testing mean that there are not a lot of tests specifically designed for cannabis.

Another problem with testing is the ability for dispensaries to cannabis testing, testing for pesticides misrepresent their lab results, fabricate lab reports, or choose labs with lower standards. The sketchy thing about this is that several labs claimed that they were already testing for mold, but no one failed those tests. The truth is, there are some labs with lower standards, and sometimes companies will turn to those to avoid discovered failure.

Looking Ahead

Independent lab testing of cannabis is extremely important. Knowing what’s in your cannabis is just as necessary as knowing what’s in your food or medicine. However, given the infancy of cannabis testing and the lack of federal oversight, there are too few and too inconsistent standards to ensure that every dispensary is offering its consumers safe products.

So what do you do?

Don’t take a bite of the weird-smelling, purple soup before knowing what the heck it is. Knowledge is power, so ask your dispensary who it tests with and look into that laboratory. If your dispensary doesn’t use an independent lab or shies away from giving you clear and direct information regarding testing, it may be time to find a dispensary that takes your health just as seriously as you do.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.