We have all heard the reports of THC inflation occurring in the industry. Rob O’Brien, CEO of Supra Research and Development, decided to do his own research. He purchased 46 products from the BC Cannabis store system and tested them for potency. “The total THC values in all of the tested samples were below label claims. The observed deviation ranged from -9% to -48%. Only 3 samples were within -15% of the label claim. In other words, 93% of the samples had total THC values greater than 15% below label claim,” Rob says. “This is a serious problem. There is a general belief that labels cannot be trusted, and that has undermined the credibility of the testing labs and the regulatory framework in Canada.”
The cause of the issue
How did the Canadian industry get to this situation? “When cannabis was legalized, there was significant political pressure to ensure youth were protected and not encouraged to use cannabis. Therefore, strict regulations were developed, preventing any marketing or advertising that could entice youth to want to try cannabis. Products were to be put in plain packages with only a company logo on them, and to inform users of the potency of the product, the Total THC and Total CBD values had to be included on the label.” Rob explains that the unintended consequence of that is that, other than THC, the consumer had little information to gauge the quality of the product. “Soon enough, THC per dollar became the criteria that consumers were considering, and the highest THC products began to sell more.”
In Canada, cannabis is sold legally through provincially regulated distribution centers that act as the main purchasing channels. “In order to ensure product sales were maximized, they developed purchasing systems that evolved with sales metrics. Initially, THC content was in the 7% to 15% range. But over time, provincial wholesale purchasers have begun raising the level of THC that would make a product considered high quality. For some provincial buyers, this has gone as high as 27% as the threshold, and some packaged material has exceeded label claims of 35%, which is bordering on the limits of plausibility.”
Health Canada has mandated a series of COAs are required with each lot of cannabis, which includes pesticides, microbiological contamination, heavy metals, and cannabinoid potency. “In order to secure sales, it appears that producers were doing what was required to get as high a COA for the harvest lot as possible. That included selecting premium buds and perhaps using a lab to generate an overly optimistic COA,” Rob says. “As a natural product, cannabis has a degree of variance with THC content between buds, with the largest buds having a higher THC content than lower ones, and this variance can be 30% or more. Using a single harvest COA for all dried flower products is simply not reflective of what is in the package. Further, as buds are processed using mechanical means to trim, sort, and package, there can be considerable tumbling and mechanical disruption that can dislodge trichomes, which is where the cannabinoids are contained. There are fewer large premium buds than smaller buds, and these weigh 2-4 grams or more. Clearly, you cannot include 2-gram buds in 1-gram bags, so those packaged products are the smallest buds or fragments. If the manufacturers use the high COA from the harvest on all their packages of different sized product, then most packages will be significantly off label claim.”
That is what Rob sees as the cause of the problem. “However, both the provincial wholesale purchasers and the manufacturers have some responsibility here, as they are profiting from the problem. Consumers continue to make buying decisions based on THC content and are selecting what contains the boldest lie, rather than highest THC content.”
Harming industry integrity
Of course, this is a major issue for consumers. “If consumers are purchasing products that have 40% less material than the label claim, then that is a form of consumer fraud. There is a general belief that labels cannot be trusted, and that has undermined the credibility of the testing labs and the regulatory framework in Canada,” says Rob. “Still, I do not believe that THC content is a very good indicator of quality, no more than alcohol % is a good indicator of wine quality. Accordingly, even though the 1-gram packages of the product I examined contained -25% to -48% below label claim, there were no complaints that I am aware of about the overall quality of these products. The truth is that THC is not a good metric of quality. My main issue with elevated label claims is fraudulent sales, not poor quality. If you cannot trust potency values on the label, how can you trust that pesticides and toxic metals have been tested properly? Other countries importing Canadian cannabis need to believe in the integrity of our regulatory framework and testing lab capacity.”
In a March 15, 2023, information session presented by Health Canada to producers, they clarified that testing for cannabinoids was required on the finished form of cannabis. “If packages were tested after packaging and honest labels were printed based on that testing, I expect that the cannabinoid content would be reasonably accurate. At the current time, Health Canada does not have a mandated label variance limit, as they state the product has a high variance. That should be changed to a limit of ± 20% or lower. This is consistent with the Australian limit, and in Europe, it is ± 10% based on European Pharmacopoeia. As I understand it, THC inflation is not an issue in these jurisdictions,” Rob says.
As the organization responsible for the purchase of wholesale products, the provincial distributors should be held responsible for ensuring the package labels they sell through their network are correct. If products sold through their channels are tested independently by an ISO 17025 accredited lab and found to be less than 20% of the label claim, they should be recalled and the provincial distributor fined. If products were tested when received, this issue would be resolved quickly.
Rob himself has filed a formal complaint with both Health Canada and the BC Cannabis Store system on March 1, 2023. On March 15, Health Canada held an information session for stakeholders, where they clarified what testing was required and when it was required. Specifically, cannabinoid testing is required when the product is in its finished form. On March 24, Health Canada announced a review of the Canadian cannabis regulations that included requesting input on packaging and labeling requirements for cannabis products. “Although it is unlikely that my complaint caused this, it has provided me with tangible data that I can present to recommend new changes. In addition to this, the BC Cannabis Store has now recognized that the inappropriate use of harvest test data may be the cause for the label discrepancy, and so that may lead to positive change there as well.”
A new study
Rob is now launching a second study to examine the cannabinoid content of pre-rolls and infused pre-rolls currently in the Canadian marketplace. “With these products, the shredded material is used, and the argument that natural variance between buds prevents a reasonable variance limit from label claim is thus not valid. In some cases, pre-rolls include lower-quality trim material, and if the product is not tested in finished form and harvest COA is used instead, then the variance could be larger. Because we can purchase packages of 10 or even 50, we will also be able to test and understand the variance between individual pre-rolls. We will use this information to propose better regulations for this popular product category.”
A number of other labs across Canada have indicated an interest to become part of this study. “We will use this to also conduct an interlab study, which will include the development of a consensus procedure to test pre-rolls and to compare results between labs.”
The study will be funded from the organizers’ own funds as well as donations.
For more information:
Supra Research and Development