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The Pros and Cons of Standardizing Potency Testing in the Cannabis Industry

When it comes to cannabis testing in the United States, we can all agree that it’s essential to get it right. The regulations that mandate cannabis testing and the labs that perform the required testing in each state are in essence the safeguards we have in place to protect patients and adult-use consumers across the country. However, regulating cannabis requires a fine balance. Is it possible to create a perfect framework that ensures products are safe and accessible but also supports and promotes healthy business practices?

Recently, the salience of potency inflation and the accuracy of product labels have been hard to overlook. On one hand, we have seen instances of cannabis testing labs that skirt business ethics in hopes of retaining their position in competitive markets. On the other hand, many frivolous lawsuits have been filed over discrepancies between initial Certificate of Analysis results from a tested sample and potency test results from products pulled off dispensary shelves at a later date.

Lab shopping is a huge problem, despite state attempts to restrict it (Adams, 2022). Many dispensary buyers employ THC minimums, meaning that if a bud has less than 20% THC, lots of storefronts will not put that product on the shelf (Swider, 2021). This effectively puts pressure on cannabis testing labs to produce higher potency results, so their lab can continue attracting business (Swider, 2021).

Potency testing is only one of many important tests that cannabis testing labs perform across the country, but a test that plays a much different role than the others when it comes to the economics of cannabis products. In a perfect world, we would hope that the regulatory framework in place affords guidance and supports alignment across the labs performing this test. This is where the topic of standardization comes in.

Conceptually, standardization is about the enforcement of conformity to ensure consistency and uniformity. As it applies to potency testing, it boils down to something like this; all labs would have to follow the same potency testing procedures (sample preparation, test methods, etc.). In theory, this should level the playing field for those who perform this test for cannabis and hemp customers. However, standardization of potency testing has both pros and cons, and while there are some challenges it may address, there are others that it doesn’t.

Historically, standardization has provided an enormous amount of confidence and rigor to myriad processes around the world. There is no doubt that, when implemented appropriately, standardization can lead to exceptionally improved and consistent outcomes. Lab testing and product safety are no exceptions and have benefitted immensely from the implementation of standardization.

Speaking from a pharmaceutical perspective, labs are incentivized to be accurate and consistent. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are not interested in pharmaceutical products “containing” more of the active ingredient than what is actually in there; they want to get it right. They recognize a critical safety concern related to inaccurate dosing and understand that strict regulatory structures are in place to ensure their lab is held accountable for its actions. However, as we have learned, things have played out somewhat differently with cannabis.

Consumer infatuation with high-THC products has caused challenges at all levels of the supply chain, including lab testing. While standardization of potency testing procedures may help address some challenges being faced, it cannot address them all:

  1. Cannabis is a plant and therefore expresses itself in different ways under various environmental conditions, both from an inter- and intra- plant perspective. This means that no matter how accurate and consistent you are with potency testing, you can never guarantee that the potency results from a representative sample that was tested initially for a batch will match the potency results from a fully packaged product that has traveled through the supply chain and potentially sat on store shelves for months.

  2. Sample collection methods typically fall outside potency testing standardization protocols, which is a major contributing factor to inflated THC results.

  3. Lastly, and ultimately, standardization does not eradicate or necessarily prevent unethical behavior. Just because a lab can prove they know how to do it right when being watched does not mean they always will. This is especially true when it could mean retaining or losing an important customer or, even worse, their entire business.

The problem is cut and dry; the demand for high-potency buds sway many testing labs into focusing on profit instead of ethics, effectively putting consumers at risk. Because potency inflation is a common practice, many businesses are forced to choose between staying afloat unethically or sinking alongside the ethical ship (Paulson, Swider, and Eisenberg, 2022).

It could better serve everyone if, instead of focusing on potency, the market paid more attention to consumer experience. That is – every person is unique and therefore has the potential to experience individual benefits and prefer different effects from cannabis. Characteristics like aromatic profile (created by terpenes, esters, aldehydes, thiols, etc.), cannabinoid profile, flavonoids, and more can culminate into a diverse range of cannabis products that could benefit patients and adult-use consumers in a multitude of ways.

Steep Hill is a distributed network of cannabis and hemp testing labs providing regulatory, quality assurance, and R&D testing services to growers, processors, distributors, and retailers across the United States. Our services are easy to use, and our teams are committed to providing the best possible solutions to some of the cannabis industry’s toughest science challenges. We offer a seamless experience from sample submission to COA, all while leveraging cutting-edge Information Management Systems and analytics to provide our customers with the results and insights they need, all while keeping their schedules in mind.

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Adams, B. (2022, August 16). Potency inflation runs rampant in cannabis industry despite measures to combat it. Forbes. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from

Paulson, E., Swider, J., & Eisenberg, Z. (2022, July 28). The inflated THC crisis plaguing California Cannabis. Cannabis Industry Journal. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from

Swider, J. (2021, May 5). Lab shopping: Highlighting the need for checks and balances in CannabisJosh. Cannabis Industry Journal. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from

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