A friend recently told me that her physical therapist recommended she try a salve containing THC and CBD in a 50:50 ratio. "But get it in Portland or Seattle," the PT said. "I don't trust the numbers on stuff up here."
This is just one example of how the problems plaguing Alaska's legal marijuana testing system, which I described in an April op-ed in these pages, are affecting the market. Those problems include inadequate sampling methods, imprecise testing and, most importantly, strong financial incentives for growers, retailers and test labs to inflate potency numbers. I reminded readers that the Marijuana Control Board and the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office have had evidence of inaccurately labeled cannabis and edible products as far back as Fall 2017. And I suggested that the testing working group appointed in January by the board to address these issues is unlikely to fix the problems anytime soon.
A few days after my op-ed appeared, marijuana board vice chair Brandon Emmett and AMCO director Erika McConnell responded with an op-ed of their own. They claimed my criticisms of their offices were unwarranted, and they asked for patience while the testing working group and an audit, being conducted by the state's Environmental Health Laboratory to review the procedures used by Steep Hill Alaska and Canntest to analyze samples sent to both labs by AMCO last December, moved toward completion.
Well, the audit report was released in early June, and the testing working group delivered its first public communication as part of director McConnell's June report. What, if anything, did we learn?
The auditors were unable to conclude which lab's results were more representative of the true potency. However, their report also states in several places that one of the two labs had not followed some of its own standard procedures and committed fundamental analysis errors. Unfortunately, even though the board received written comments highlighting these statements, discussion of the audit at the board's June meeting was confined to generalities, and the errors were never brought up.
The testing working group met in July to hear about the audit, but its discussion centered on more documentation, and efforts to discuss the identified laboratory errors were simply ignored. Just like the marijuana board, the testing group members ended their session with no better understanding of what the audit uncovered than when they walked in. Their months of phone meetings have resulted in some recommendations on sampling and labeling, and that's about it.
Those meetings make it painfully obvious that marijuana control office and the board lack the expertise or apparently even the interest to understand a technical report on lab operations. Although AMCO comes down hard on retailers who are caught for fairly minor infractions, when AMCO's own audit identifies lapses by a testing lab, there is silence.
A new testing lab has recently opened in Wasilla, and another to be located in Fairbanks is in the application process. The lessons that could have been learned from a thorough investigation of the Steep Hill-Canntest discrepancies have been lost, and thus procedures at these new labs will suffer from the same lack of effective oversight.
Pesticides and heavy metals are being considered as additional required cannabis tests in Alaska. Where will oversight for those more complicated tests come from? On top of all that, Alaskans will soon begin growing industrial hemp for CBD and other products. How will this new industry be regulated to ensure the plants contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the maximum allowed amount?
Other states with regulated cannabis industries are way ahead of us in addressing nearly every aspect of sampling, testing and reporting, and we can learn from their experience. Alaska's cannabis regulators must be mandated to pursue the best practices that are being developed nationwide and must be given the resources to function effectively, including hiring people with technical expertise. A complete solution to Alaska's marijuana mislabeling quagmire will ultimately require the state to conduct its own confirmatory testing of samples, probably through an arrangement with an existing state agency lab or the university. Marijuana tax revenues are growing rapidly, and this is where some of those funds should be directed.
Growers have their own issues with the current regulations and their enforcement. Consumers' obsession with high THC means that low-testing flower can't be sold profitably, so growers want to be permitted to re-designate it as trim, which is subject to a lower tax rate. Some also propose changing from the current per-weight tax to one based on percentage of price. If the state is going to change the marijuana tax structure, it should consider taxing in proportion to potency. This would address the growers' concern and also help counteract the market pressure for high potency numbers.
Alaska needs to rework its game plan for regulating the legal cannabis industry, and the governor and the Legislature need to take the lead. Whatever your views on legal cannabis, I think every Alaskan would agree that we should do it right or not do it at all.
Tim Hinterberger was chair of the Ballot Measure 2 campaign and scientific director of Steep Hill Alaska.
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