Legal cannabis has made its way across many states but functions differently across the country. One thing consistent across the world of legal cannabis in the United States is a lack of consistency and obstacles in the way of creating better standards because of its federally illegal status.

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No Federal Oversight in the Industry

While cannabis is illegal on a federal level, there will continue to be no governing body ensuring all goods on the market are compliant with quality standards, or even determining what those standards should be. It’s up to the individual state to set requirements for testing cannabis on the market. And then it’s up to the testing laboratory to create reproducible, reliable, and defensive results. Test results must come from accredited labs to be considered reliable. Labs typically test moisture, pesticide, and cannabinoid content alongside microbial impurities. However, some labs skip over pesticides or other tests.

Why Quality Assurance Matters

Selling reputable products that are true to their label is crucial. Cannabinoid content and terpene profiles must be accurately labeled according to test results so consumers can trust in what they’re purchasing. Consumer trust goes further than that, though.

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Customers are trusting their dispensaries to provide products that have been vetted for moisture content, mold, contaminants, heavy metals, pesticides, and anything else that could be damaging to their health if consumed. Failing to maintain quality assurance and provide compliant products means losing consumer trust, potentially damaging consumer health, and winning a bad reputation as a shop that sells deceptive products.

Washington State’s Pesticide Problem

Uncle Ike’s, a dispensary in Washington State, began testing some of their own products on the shelf in 2018. Several items failed their tests, showing illegal pesticide content and subsequently getting pulled from the shelves. This brought a lot of attention to the poorly structured system in the state. This was also following a report showing that over 40% of Washington state’s legal marijuana had illegal amounts of pesticides. Washington was in the minority here as it didn’t require marijuana to be tested for illegal pesticide content before hitting the shelves, unlike other recreational states across the country.

The state has taken steps to create its own standard for testing, passing a bill to make a standard for cannabis testing labs to be accredited. This is crucial, considering testing was previously done by a small group of labs who were known to help their customers by only providing results that would benefit them. Which leads to the next point: laboratories must have a system in place to keep them accountable. As a marijuana retailer, it can be difficult to navigate who is producing honest results and who is producing inaccurate data (intentional or not.)

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Before laboratories do anything with samples, they need to have a system in place that guarantees they will be providing accurate results. Otherwise, it’s not reliable. So how does a dispensary maintain quality assurance of their own products they’re selling?

How to Maintain Quality Assurance at Your Dispensary

There’s no easy answer. It varies from state to state, depending on individual regulations for testing and compliance. If dispensary owners don’t trust the testing systems in place, testing products at random is a potential way to clarify what’s going on with their products. Still, this can be time-consuming and may result in having to pull products off the shelf.

Vet Your Vendors 

Products stocked in your dispensary should always have test results available. But it’s up to you to decide if they’re reliable. Justin Viviani of the Oregon Weedery told us the rules are already in place in Oregon, and the requirements are good, it just comes down to whether or not you trust the rules have been followed. “I get to know growers and shop with brands that have a name to lose,” said Viviani.

“I always prefer to stock products from a well-established company that has something to lose versus ones looking for a quick dollar.” As a result, the store tends to stock more expensive items, avoiding the cheaper options that may cut corners to provide a lower cost. “I’d much rather pay for products that I know the producers are being paid well for because they have enough of a profit margin,” Viviani added. “It’s the best defense we have.”

For Tim Dodd of Sweet Flower dispensary in Southern California, choosing which vendors to partner with is similar to conducting an interview. “We’re asking poignant questions of potential vendors, weighing the provided answers, checking references, and understanding if their product fits our needs,” said Dodd. “Sandwiched in between these metrics is the simple assessment - is this a quality product that our reputation can stand behind?”

In a world where there is no all-encompassing oversight, getting to know your growers and vendors may remain the best defense against quality assurance problems. “When we onboard a vendor we require them to provide us that testing material and we have a separate affidavit that each vendor signs that acknowledges that we operate within the legal boundaries of the state and acknowledges that they don’t have the restricted pesticides,” Origins Recreational owner Jon Sherman told the Stranger (Seattle) when news of the Uncle Ike’s pesticide testing broke out.

Get the Receipts

Stacy Lidie of Leave It To Nature in California has faith in the state system, saying her best way to maintain quality assurance in-store is to stick to the law. Vendors in California are required to have a state-licensed test for all products and report it directly to the Bureau of Cannabis Control. She noted that the state may be giant, but that they’re there for consumers because all required tests for legal cannabis are reported back to the bureau. “Vendors hit us up all day, but we don’t accept unless state-licensed,” said Lidie. “Unless they’re licensed and active through the state, providing me with all the regulations and a COA upon delivery, I don’t even mess with them.”

Pay Attention to Detail and Have a Plan in Place

As a marijuana retailer, it’s crucial to pay attention to everything coming in and out of your store. Even more important is having a plan in place for when something bad pops up. “Attention to detail is extremely important when it comes to quality assurance,” said Dodd. “This is inclusive of scheduled auditing of inventory for expiration, freshness and any abnormality of packaging.

Having an SOP in place for intake procedures to assess all of the pertinent compliance needs for products and additionally, an SOP in place for recall procedure is equally important.” You can’t just expect that since the product has test results listed it’s in the clear. Maintaining quality assurance means looking at all aspects of the product, all the time.

“We monitor and inspect our products daily. We look at expiration dates, as well as storing products to MED standards,” said Darrick Payne, Vice President of Compliance and Jaan Tonisson, Product Manager for Cannabis One, which owns The Joint in Colorado. “We test our flower and pre-rolls periodically for mold as a quality assurance measure, to ensure that our customers are getting the safest product available.

To do all of this requires having well-trained budtenders, good communication throughout the store, and organization. If all employees are not constantly on the lookout for abnormalities or products that may not be compliant, problems will arise.