The European medical cannabis and CBD industries are continuing to grow rapidly, seeing swathes of new businesses enter the market in hopes to get a foothold in the nascent industry as it expands.
As with many new industries, it has grown faster than regulation can keep up with, meaning that the market is awash with untested or mislabelled products.
This has helped invigorate a parallel industry centred around product testing, making it more ubiquitous and affordable, as the industry adopts a greater focus on transparency and quality in products.
Despite this, data suggests there is still a long way to go, with many products on sale remaining poorly tested, or not tested at all.
Furthermore, industry stakeholders continue to raise concerns about the high cost of testing, especially with reputable and trustworthy labs.
With the European industry favouring the medical cannabis route, ensuring products are reliably tested is vital for patients, businesses, investors, and the reputation of the industry at large.
Industry stakeholders have suggested that in an optimal ecosystem, testing and analysis would simply be used to measure the products quality and legality, and only as a final failsafe against possible dangerous contaminants.
However, in the current market environment, due to a lack of transparency around product origin and supply chains, testing remains the primary means relied upon by industry operators to determine the safety of products.
A tragic example of the importance of testing for patients and consumers was the 2019 vitamin E acetate case, seeing around 3000 people hospitalised and 70 people die in the US alone.
Following reports from across the country of a growing number of lung injuries, health officials found vitamin E acetate in the damaged lungs of 48 out of 51 patients who had fallen ill or died of lung injuries, the vast majority used products containing THC.
For comparison, no vitamin E acetate was found in the lung fluids of any of 99 healthy individuals in a comparison group.
For cannabis producers and sellers, having an in-depth understanding of the content of a product intended to treat a particular condition or someone with additional ailments that could cause complications is vital.
Without watertight assurance of consistency and safety, patients, prescribers and manufacturers are blind to how much and exactly what medication is being administered.
Testing is the only way to determine the cannabinoid makeup and terpene profile of a product, two variables which are the most important when choosing a strain for a particular effect.
Due to the nature of cannabis, a cultivar grown in one part of the world might look identical to a cultivar grown elsewhere, however the amount of cannabinoids and terpenes could be vastly different in each.
Testing can determine this specific chemical makeup of a product, enabling it to be targeted more specifically for certain conditions or intended effects.
The rise in testing is also increasingly allowing businesses to accurately assess the value and quality of products.
Products sold cheaply without a Certificate of Analysis (CoA), or a dated certificate, can now be easily identified as being of questionable standard.
The lack of product testing in both the medical and CBD industry has driven a general lack of trust in the industry from patients, consumers and regulators.
A 2021 study by Leafreport, which reviewed 2946 products from 136 CBD brands for purity and potency testing, found that less than half of tested the majority of their products for potency.
Furthermore, just 13% tested the majority of their products for potency, while a quarter of brands carried out no purity testing at all.
Earlier findings suggested that around 60% of 221 products sent for third-party testing did not match the CBD levels advertised on their labels, with just under half of these differing by more than 30%.
Last year, the company released a further study which found that more than half of 52 tested CBD products currently marketed for sleep contained the wrong amounts of CBD, CBN, and/or melatonin.
This, unfortunately, has meant that for many the industry continues to be viewed as a ‘wild west’, with many businesses pushing ‘snake oil’.
In the European CBD industry, the road to achieving compliance is labyrinthian, comprising a mix of international, EU, national and sub-national legislation.
The most common category of CBD products across the EU are effectively being sold under legally grey conditions, with many businesses simply ignoring the Novel Foods status of CBD and continuing to sell products while assessments are ongoing.
These conditions mean that the industry is all but self-regulated, with governments struggling to divert the resources required to police the complex system currently in place.
Despite this, many operators are now adopting their own standard practices, hoping to ensure that when regulation and enforcement eventually catch up with the industry, they will be on the correct side of the law.
In the quality control landscape, standards of testing are currently often considered guidelines, rather than as legally necessary. This leads many businesses to shop around for labs which may give them a favourable result.
As the laws are cleared up, and the Novel Foods process nears a conclusion, businesses who have adhered to high standards and have participated openly in the process are expected to be the only ones which will still be operating in five-years time, with the ‘grey market’ eventually being cleared up.
Speaking to Business of Cannabis, wholesale cannabis marketplace Atalis’ Managing Director Jonathan Hogg said: “The reality is that there’s still a way to go until the industry fully gets behind product testing and recognises how imperative it is — not just to enhance the reputation of the industry, but to ensure products are safe for consumption, to ensure consumers or buyers know exactly what’s in their product and, by doing so, to build trust.
“Because that’s what both buyers and consumers want. They want transparency. They want to know exactly what’s in the product they’re buying and they want reassurance that it’s of a quality that they’re looking for and expecting.
“But, ultimately, as an industry what we’re working towards here is something much bigger. This isn’t just about product testing, this is about establishing standards that act as a benchmark for product quality. As the industry continues to mature over the coming years, these standards will become absolutely critical.
“And that’s why at Atalis we’ve partnered with an ISO-accredited lab to offer testing services to all of our buyers and sellers. In fact, we’ve even made it imperative that every product on Atalis marketplace has a valid Certificate of Analysis (CoA). By doing so, buyers have peace of mind that the product they think they’re buying is exactly what they’ll receive.”
In order for consumers, regulators and investors to regain trust in the industry, the expansion of affordable and reliable testing is essential.
Thankfully, a burgeoning testing sub-sector of the industry is now emerging, with many established laboratories which test food, chemical and medical products now offering testing services which cater to the cannabis industry, alongside the emergence of specialist cannabis labs.