THC Testing is Bullshit and You're Getting Screwed
The sheer audacity of the claims seem to be careening ever more dangerously toward preposterous absurdity these days. Everywhere, in every rec-legal state, as the race for hip new genetics and the hypest flower reaches a feverish pitch you hear it: 30% THC is the new 20%. As every new state rec system comes online we see practically the same bell curve every time, ramping up sharply after the first six months to a year in. I read an article the other day about some furious, madcap new genetic in Illinois. The lab test results? Get ready, kids...THIRTY SEVEN POINT FIVE PERCENT THC!!! Crazy, right?
Wanna know what I thought? I stared blankly at the screen, motionless, for a second or two. Something carbonated and pressurized snapped in my brain, before I could hold it in.
Holy shit I fucking laughed. I laughed so goddamned hard I passed out in the kitchen. I think my neighbors still think I’m on meth from that day.
Because truly: I know this saga inside and out. All too well actually. One time at a spot I worked a while back, we had a Grease Monkey come in at 38.1%.
I just smoked some the other day. It was no better or worse than the 26.3% we got on the same strain, same room, one crop before. But I’ll tell you something: the day those lab results dropped, I drove dispensary to dispensary around the city of Portland, fielding frantic phone calls and all-caps texts from intake managers. I had the windows down, intermittently blasting Britney Spears and Slayer, shoving huge wads of cash in my pocket everywhere I went.
Laughing. My. Ass. Off.
How does this happen, exactly? Tell you what: you seem cool. I’ll let you in on a big, nasty-ass secret that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble with a lot of industry people.
The vast majority of 30% THC test scores on flower in the rec marketplace are UTTER BULLSHIT. The system is rotten and corrupt across the board. Testing labs have a financial imperative to compete to deliver the most inflated numbers possible, growers’ survival often depends on giving their business to the most crooked lab they can find. All these 30 percent test scores you’re seeing? Check the label: 90% of those are coming from a VERY small minority of testing facilities. You’re being lied to by unscrupulous factions of a desperately overcrowded industry, taken advantage of by cutthroat lab owners exploiting lackluster and vague state-mandated procedural testing guidelines. Furthermore, when you as a consumer ask your budtender for “Whatever the highest THC flower is” you are outing yourself as somebody who doesn’t really understand what comprises truly badass, enjoyable craft Cannabis. The THC numbers game is bad for the growers, bad for the plant and ultimately bad for the consumer. Today we’re going to talk about why this, how we’ve come to this point and actions we can all take to turn it around.
On with the shitshow…
Let’s say you’re a licensed grower. You’ve got a certain number of pounds you need to sell, for a certain amount of money, to make a profit and stay afloat. Let’s say you grow some truly kickass top-shelf (Go, You!) and you’ve built up your name. You stop in for your weekly chat with an intake manager at a dispensary you regularly sell to, only this time they’ve got no room for you on their shelf.
Turns out somebody else’s flower, some brownish nondescript mids from two seasons ago with no discernible nose, has taken your spot. The only reason? Theirs tests 32%. You ask which lab tested it, you and the intake manager share a knowing glance and a long groan. Is it better flower? Hell no. Will the consumer get a harsh, shitty experience? Absolutely. How do you keep your doors open and afford to continue producing something on the level that you’d actually want to smoke? You give it some thought. Your gardeners, office workers, trimmers and sales team are counting on you to have payroll covered. You’ve got a mortgage and a car and a family.
Enter: The Crooked Lab
Let’s say you’re a new testing facility. You’ve invested millions into your equipment and buildout, you’ve hired top notch lab techs. You open your doors, start seeing a trickle of business from growers. That trickle starts to die off. There’s this one lab across town, however, that despite a turnaround time on lab results of two weeks compared to your two days has all the business several labs could ever hope to have. Word on the street is they’ve got a sample collector in the field who’s got a “fast and loose” approach to how samples are taken and what THC numbers growers are getting in exchange for their extended wait time. You start looking at your bills, your payroll, your mortgage...and you have a long, sad, awkward talk with your field sample collector about ethics and the survival of the business.
The grower meets the sample collector. There’s a nervous handshake. They eye each other up and down. They step into the office.
Instead of selecting a half ounce of buds at random from a fifteen pound bin, there’s a small jar on the table. In this jar are hand-selected top buds, busted up as small as possible, rolled in a healthy layer of kief. You can’t actually see the flower itself: these are essentially moonrocks.
Two weeks of pins and needles later, the tests come back: Thirty something percent, by God! Who knew? The grower hangs their head in shame but the lights are still running, employees still employed. The lab has scored a new business partner who is really something more of an addict to their services. Both parties’ livelihood and survival are fully dependent on the lies they’ve transacted, and both parties know it. That lie gets passed on to the dispensary, and then to you.
This happens every day. Everybody in the industry knows it.
To all my peers and friends who’ve provided for themselves and their families propagating this nonsense: Yeah, I’m saying it. We all should be. This has been coming a long time now. Let’s show some fucking balls. Let’s own up to our bullshit and conduct ourselves as honest businesspeople. Let’s get mad about these lies. Let’s Win.
There’s something we need to confront, as a culture of recreational Cannabis consumers.
It’s a theory we’ve operated under for a long, long time: The higher the THC, the “better” / “stronger” / “danker” the weed. The story of Cannabis has been portrayed under this narrative for quite a while now: I legit spent more time studying THC numbers in High Times throughout high school in the 90s than I did studying math (But not to worry: selling drugs got all my math skills right back in shape in the evenings after band and late detention).
It was an amazing concept, on paper: gas chromatography testing could accurately analyze the chemical components of a bud and provide a uniform, tangible concept of how utterly awesome Phish was going to be next weekend. I believed that shit like some folks believe Joseph Smith dictated the word of God directly out of a top hat using his mighty Urim and Thummim. I was a level 8 Thetan of what hip new genetics were going down in Amsterdam at the time. I pissed my friends off to no end with that noise. Some (most) of them still just barely tolerate my ass.
It turns out that as far as accurate testing is concerned, THC levels can vary wildly within an individual plant, let alone several samples taken from a bin. Numbers will be higher or lower depending on what part of the plant the flower grew on, what angle to the sun or light fixture it had, how much of the tested flower had a huge stem etcetcetc. Individual flowers on a plant can have range differential of as much as 12% - 15% depending on who you ask. What this means for the consumer is if 14 grams are being taken out of 15 pounds, which buds are chosen can in effect produce wildly different outcomes in the final cannabinoid testing numbers. The only way to generate a truly accurate and equitable THC percentage would be to grind up test the entire 15 pound batch, which sadly would leave nothing left for people to smoke. Which would suck: I do love to smoke.
To complicate the matter further, the advent of new scientific research and data has begun to disrupt and rewrite our concept of how Cannabis works. We now know THC is by far not the only factor to be considered in how high you get or what kind of effects you experience. More accurately, it was the first person to sign the guestlist at an extremely vivid and well-attended party. The “personality” of a high, the soaring / uplifting or couchlock / introverted nuances that determine true enjoyability and depth: this in fact has virtually nothing to do with cannabinoid content whatsoever. How cannabinoids bond with terpenes on their way to the brain: THIS is the Magic. This is where that one time you got really, unbelievably high, happens. I’ll guarantee you: somewhere on a dispensary shelf there is a jar of Zkittles that tested at 12% THC that will rip your soul from your chest.
The idea that Cannabis can be judged on THC content alone is the 1980s tail-dragging dinosaur lumbering behind our swifter and more complete modern understanding of terpene interaction, the endocannabinoid system’s polyamorous affinity for a diverse stable of compounds and the demonstrable fact that the right genetics, in the right grower’s hands, can produce truly individual and inimitable Art.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat in depth on this topic with Portland’s own Dr. Adie Rae. Dr. Adie is a Cannabis pharmacologist, neuroscientist and one of the principal architects of the Cultivation Classic, the northwest’s premier yearly competition and expo of all things Craft Cannabis. She had some deep insights as to what produced winning entries from this year, exceptional cultivars that survived the rigors of double-blind evaluation through a pool of 150 independent judges analyzing entrants through an exhaustive list of variables and a final review by Cascadia Labs, widely regarded as one of the most legitimate and upstanding testing facilities in our state’s history.
“The single most important finding we came across this year is that of the top ten most enjoyable flowers, 70% of them had less than 20% THC,” she says. “In fact, one of these top-scoring cultivars only had 6.8% THC.”
“I completely understand what it is like to shop for the greatest value. But these results suggests that the greatest value is in a flower’s enjoyment, not its potency.”
I asked her if there were any further factors that stood out in determining overall enjoyment of a particular entry by the pool of judges.
“It looks like a strong predictive factor of a winning flower is a pleasant aroma. We found correlations between a nice aroma, a nice overall psychological effect, and euphoria. The nose truly knows! Obviously the aroma is driven by the terpenes, but it’s not just about which flower had the MOST terpenes. Rather, there is a very subjective, yet somehow agreed-upon idea of what smells good. This is really similar to perfume; there are thousands of perfumes out there that have sandalwood as the top ingredient by volume, but some of those perfumes smell divine, and others just smell like a bag of candy. It’s the overall formula, the ratio of the terpenes that somehow makes it enjoyable.”
Finally - and here’s the smoking bong of the matter - I asked her about a rather toothy and imposing elephant within our state’s testing community. I was curious: did Cascadia’s testing differ at all from testing accompanying flower into the entry process?
“As a part of the competition [entry] process, cultivators submitted their compliance results (certificates of analysis, demonstrating that the flowers had passed for pesticides etc.). After Cascadia ran each flower through a rigorous panel of cannabinoids and terpenes, I had an undergrad student of mine compare the original certificates of analyses with Cascadia’s. We found very profound differences in the results for some labs, whereas others were very similar to Cascadia’s. Specifically, we found one lab that reported higher THC values (but not CBD values) for EVERY SINGLE cultivar that it had analyzed. A lot of the THC values were 6-7 percentage points higher than what Cascadia found. On a consumer’s package, that could be the difference between a 14% THC flower and a 21% flower... that’s a major sales incentive at the dispensary counter. We were pretty alarmed by this, and we turned over the de-identified data set (no lab names) to the regulators in Oregon, with the hope that they would investigate the matter further.”
...And there, friends, you have it. This is actually happening.
In the end, a proper appraisal of fine Cannabis and a true understanding of its potential is in fact several dimensions more complex than judging fine wine. What does this mean for the refined consumer?
WHAT WE CAN ALL DO
Personally: I want Cannabis to be grown better, smoked better and enjoyed more thoroughly all around. You should, too. Here’s some small but concrete steps we can all take to get past the bullshit and make this happen.
To the public:
Most importantly, above all else: Trust your nose and your eyes before you trust lab results on a sheet of paper. In Weed, as in life, this very simple practice will get you much closer to where you need to be. Look past the business and into the Art. Find the growers whose work speaks to your senses. Get to know what they’re all about. In the end: your brain will thank you.
When you walk into a dispensary and see some flower you’re interested in, your first immediate questions should be 1) Who grew it; and 2) Who tested it. Bluntly put, dispensaries that can’t automatically answer both of these questions should endure the side-eye from every customer who walks in until they get their shit together. There’s IPA and then there’s Root + Branch Brewing’s “Do We Live in a Society of Spectacle?” IPA; the difference between them is not ABV. If you want to find something truly spectacular to write home about, train yourself to ask the right questions. You won’t be disappointed with the outcome.
Once you get to know your growers and the labs who test them, the patterns will undoubtedly begin to emerge. It’ll become readily apparent fairly quickly which growers are doing phenomenal work that sticks to your palate and illuminates your senses. I guarantee you’ll see a direct correlation between true, quality-grown Cannabis and a dedication to labs that promote raw honesty over fluffed numbers.
Bug your favorite growers on IG. Ask them about grow methods, terroir, who they test with and why. It’s your lungs and your brain. You deserve to know. Furthermore, when you find a budtender who can correlate these answers on the spot, throw an extra dollar in the tip jar: this is a person who actually gives a shit about our industry and we need to keep them around.
And at the end of the day, if you really don’t feel like you’re high enough with something the label is telling you is 15%: Take a second hit. Congrats! You’re at 30% now. Repeat as necessary. Heck, with the proper tenacity you’ll be soaring along at 120%, even 135% in no time...
To the dispensaries:
As I mentioned to your customers just now, make sure your budtenders are up on their game and know, intimately, the Cannabis they’re selling. Your growers should be stopping in to have chats with your staff about their practices. How they grow is just as important as what they grow and your staff needs to be savvy to this. It’s a clear mark of quality and pride to walk into a spot and see that they list, proudly, which growers they rep. The time has come to stop having the “Who’s killing it right now” conversation in private amongst ourselves as industry workers: even if it’s a $2 gram, there’s enough people growing rec so you should be stoked on WHICH $2 gram you’ve got to offer. This raw numbers game is killing all of us, yourselves included. Take pride in what you do and whom you choose to work with.
There’s a few shops out there that either downplay or don’t even show THC numbers on their shelves. You guys know who you are, and serious fucking kudos to you for going so far ahead of the curve. In a broader sense, anywhere that displays the name of the farm in a bigger font that the THC score: you’re on the right side of history. I’ll be stoked in five years when you’re still in business.
To the labs:
Take pride in your work and trust in science. We all KNOW the brick walls you’re up against and the very easy paths of darkness you can take to make all your problems go away. Get aggressive on social media and in person in dispensaries. Develop direct relationships with the general buying public. You need to hype yourselves just like any other business, it’s how you do so and what aspects of your operation you highlight that matter. Throw your analytical balls in the ring and make it plain that your methods are transparent and you judge yourself not by the high numbers you put out but the accuracy of your science. Do vendor days like any other provider of Cannabis services. Avoid the easy money and build your reputation on solid ground.
To the growers:
Get proud! Grow what you smoke and don’t let a lab tell you otherwise. Stand behind your weed 110%. Spend just as many man hours out in dispensaries talking directly to consumers about what you grow and why you grow it as you do in the garden. Yes, I know you like to sleep occasionally: now is not the time. Running a game means just that: running. You CAN build your niche, through blood and sweat and a river of tears. Don’t build it on bullshit.
Work with other growers. Work with dispensaries. Let’s talk about this en masse and stick together. If a group of growers organized and co-hosted a vendor day not built around THC numbers or how flashy their stickers are but to have a barbecue and a series of speeches talking to and educating the public about good farming practices and a sustainable culture: This is how we build the community we absolutely need to survive. Let’s put our energy in the right places instead of shafting each other with false science. Let’s rise above rather than rot below. Prohibition was a struggle none of us will forget anytime soon, nor should we. We beat that fucking rap, now let’s beat this one.
There it is, y’all: Let’s Fight, Let’s Win, Let’s Smoke Better Weed. Demand it at every opportunity. We were born to overgrow, now’s our moment. Not to worry, see you around the circle, Onward…
“Dick Bailey Fitts is some newbie clown who started taking dabs recently and now he thinks he's hot shit. He for sure hasn't been growing as long as you and probably spends his free time raving about his favorite hotdog water carts to all his old frat bros from that expensive state college you hate. I'll bet he's middlemanning some fucking cockjob hemp biomass deal right now as we speak. When it's done him and the other 34 Chads involved will probably don their male rompers and head down to the nearest upscale tiki bar for low carb mojitos and shitty fucking cigars they don't even know how to smoke properly. Boy he pisses me off. Fuck him.”
-Dick B. Fitts