Can you imagine taking a different drug than what you thought you were taking? Or taking a drug with the wrong dosage? If you are being treated with medical cannabis, then this is a likely occurrence. We might as well call it medical cannabis roulette. What you see is not always what you get.

Over 50% of cannabis product recalls reported by Health Canada in 2019 involved potency mislabelling. For example, dried cannabis was sold with a label incorrectly stating a THC potency of 0.3%, while the actual potency was tested 69 times higher at 20.7%! Since THC has psychoactive effects, a higher level than claimed can impact consumers wellbeing, especially if they are not expecting it. In a recent study by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, only 38% of products tested in the UK were within 10% of the advertised CBD content, while another 38% had less than 50% of the advertised CBD content.

Accurate cannabis labelling is a challenge due to several reasons. The cannabis flower is very complex with hundreds of active compounds. No two cannabis flowers are the same, even when they originate from the same plant. Industry testing protocols for measuring cannabis potency are based on a simplistic approach to accuracy. Small sample sets are tested and then results are attributed to the entire batch from which the samples were taken. These protocols work well with standardized products in which the variance between samples, especially when taken from the same production batch, is negligible. But when testing cannabis, this is not the case.

After sending a cannabis sample to a laboratory we may ask if the analysis was accurate? Maybe. But is the sample representative of the batch as a whole? Unlikely. To complicate matters further, there is no common testing protocol for professional laboratories. Each one is free to choose its preferred methodology. Two labs may run equally valid testing protocols, but results may differ. Meanwhile, in a market in which a 1% rise in THC potency can lead to an 8% price increase, there are those willing to spike their products with, for example, synthetic THC or Kief (the powder made from glands that have been sifted or rubbed from the cannabis buds and leaves) to achieve higher potency readings.

Nearly every week there is a news headline someplace about a mislabelled cannabis product. Consumer trust is at risk. Under these circumstances it is also impossible to build confidence amongst the professional medical community. Doctors must be assured that the products they prescribe to their patients are consistent, safe, effective and predicable. Without their support, medical cannabis market growth will slow down.

As consumers, we expect labels to provide a short description of the product benefits and risks, as well as relevant information to dispensers, patients and their caregivers. Labels need to provide accurate, clear and actionable information to all users of the product, with a primary focus on the prescriber, whose relevant clinical knowledge and ability to understand the label’s content is assumed. These days, unfortunately, cannabis label accuracy cannot be taken for granted.

As cannabis legalization spreads, competition will increase and so will regulatory oversight. Unless cannabis companies prioritize quality management, the frequency of product recalls will rise leading to embarrassing, potentially dangerous and costly consequences. It will derail their efforts to build trusted brands and live up to market expectations. With each recall comes brand degradation, financial losses and loss of confidence amongst medical professionals.

Cannabis manufacturers must stop relying on end-of-line testing by external laboratories. Yes, this is required by law. But commercially it is not enough. The cannabis industry winners will be those wise enough to invest in real-time testing solutions for in-house use at their production lines to monitor quality, including potency, every step of the way.  Real-time testing technologies, such as those being developed by GemmaCert, a pioneer in cannabis quality control solutions, offer the speed and versatility that provide an effective, affordable and reliable solution for analysing cannabis potency.

GemmaCert’s patented technology is based on Near-Infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). This is a well-established method for in-process control and testing, widely used in pharmaceutical manufacturing. For years the FDA has encouraged the development and adoption of real-time quality control solutions based on NIRS. As a result, NIRS is widely used to inspect incoming raw materials, real-time monitoring of various production processes, through to final product control and packaging.

According to Dr. Guy Setton, CEO of GemmaCert, “cannabis companies face enough challenges these days. Testing should not be one of them.” GemmaCert units are being used by cannabis companies across the supply chain in over twenty countries. Setton added that the “when it comes to quality management and risk mitigation, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Smart cannabis companies will follow in the footsteps of their pharmaceutical peers.” It is not enough to develop better products. They need to build much needed trust with consumers, healthcare practitioners and regulators.