The next hurdle for Alaska's growing marijuana industry might be finding a way to test the companies in charge of testing, as labs in Alaska that are responsible for determining the potency of marijuana products before they hit the shelves are coming up with significantly different numbers.

There are only two testing facilities in Alaska: Steep Hill Alaska and Canntest LLC. Steep Hill presented numbers to KTVA from their customers Tuesday, who got samples tested at both labs.

Steep Hill CEO Brian Coyle says Canntest’s total THC results were higher in all 16 samples; the difference was greater than 20 percent in 11.

THC, which stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol, is what gets consumers high, so it’s the number most of them are looking at.

“High THC is what the customers are seeking. The retailers want it, the cultivators want it, so they can sell their product for a premium, and that's what brought us to this situation,” said Coyle.

He says cultivators have told him, “We're gonna send our samples to both labs, and whichever one gives us the higher result, that's the one we're gonna use.”

Steep Hill also bought products off the shelves at retail stores that they found to have an “unbelievably” high THC content and retested them.

Sixteen out of 17 samples had more THC listed on the label than what Coyle says Steep Hill’s lab found, and 12 varied by more than 20 percent, the highest being a flower called "Gummy Bear" with a difference of 114 percent THC between the label and Coyle’s lab.

“I don't know what's going on, but it's not consistent, it’s way out, and that's more than normal inconsistency you would expect between two different labs,” said Coyle.

Steep Hill’s scientific director, Tim Hinterberger, told KTVA, “If people think that they can't trust the numbers they see on labels, they have no reason to go to a regulated business when they can buy, probably for less, on the black market.”

KTVA took the numbers to Canntest to find out what they had to say. Scientific Director Jonathan Rupp said he has questions about how Steep Hill conducted its tests but also wants to get to the bottom of the wildly different results.

“We don't know what happened to this sample versus this sample,” he explained, looking at Coyle’s numbers.

He wants to make sure apples aren’t being compared to oranges and says it’s upsetting to hear his lab has been accused of inflating THC results for financial gain, saying, “I would never do that.”

In a statement posted online for its customers, Canntest wrote, in part:

The reported discrepancy in potency values is likely due to more than one source. Differences in testing are one possible source, but major potential sources exist outside the testing facilities as well. For example, sample choice and sample handling can have a large impact on testing results. However, this would not explain why one lab's numbers are consistently higher than the other. One possible source of consistent testing bias is in the reporting of percentage by dry weight versus shipped weight. Again, this would not explain the range of numbers shown in Steep Hill's post, but could contribute. This is similar to another discrepancy in the industry, reporting total THC as the addition of THCA and THC, rather than the activated value of 0.877 x THCA. This could be another contributing factor. Other potential sources exist in the implementation of the testing methodology, but without direct cooperation between labs any differences are difficult to determine.

Coyle says while Steep Hill is blowing the whistle, so to speak, it’s not their job to investigate. Rather than pointing fingers at anyone within the marijuana business, he says he’s calling on regulators to fix the problem.

In a statement, Steep Hill outlined some ideas for change:

  • We urge the Marijuana Control Board and AMCO to immediately investigate these inconsistencies and to require all laboratories to participate in Proficiency Testing.
  • We urge the State of Alaska to initiate a secret shopper program to test retail products because testing the final product is the only way to ensure the safety and accuracy of the products consumers are purchasing.
  • The State of Alaska has state of the art chromatography equipment in their Crime Lab but to our knowledge they have not used this equipment to confirm the accuracy of tests on cannabis. This lab could provide a third-party check of test results coming from licensed testing labs.

Erika McConnell, director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, told KTVA the state is convening a committee to address testing issues in Alaska, but could not provide specifics on how long that will take.

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