THC levels will become a reality again in California in 2024

The test results of the millions of pot smokers in California are expected to drop significantly this year. But don't worry – the grass remains as strong as ever.

State officials began efforts to curb the harmful practice of “THC score inflation” across the state in 2024. In January, the Department of Cannabis Control began enforcing new rules that require all labs to test in the same way. So there are no more suspicious “40% THC” levels on flower, and that’s a good thing.

You can already see the more accurate THC numbers hitting shelves. Instead of saying “35% THC” or “30% THC,” a jar might say “25% THC” or “20% THC.” There has been a noticeable decline at the retail level since the turn of the year. Most of what still has crazy numbers are the leftovers from the end of 2023.

State inspectors are visiting labs, and about two dozen labs are following the new standard. The others need to evolve, the DCC told Leafly.

At least for now, the numbers are back in line with reality.

Josh Wurzer, Founder, SC Labs

“There are currently 23 laboratories that can test flowers and non-fortified flower products. “The ministry continues to actively review verification reports for laboratories seeking to be compliant to test flowers and floral products,” the DCC said in a statement to Leafly: “Laboratories testing flowers whose verification report has not yet been verified.” The Department is considered non-compliant and may be subject to disciplinary action.”

One of California's oldest labs, SC Labs, is approved to continue testing. Josh Wurzer, president and co-founder of SC Labs, was once outraged by the new rules, but now also sees their benefits: less unrest in the market.

“When DCC announced this method, I was initially against it because I still see a million ways that a lab that wanted to drive up THC could also drive up levels using the DCC method,” Wurzer said to Leafly. “But you know, just based on what we've seen since the beginning of the year, at least for now it seems like maybe the numbers are starting to reflect reality again.”

Potency inflation was out of control

Label, cannabis(H_Ko/AdobeStock)

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Growers regularly reported a THC arms race as competitors “searched for the highest levels in the lab to stick on bags.”

The SC Labs team has heard a lot about it over the last few years. It started with a few people cranking it up and a few labs doing it and everyone moaning about it.

“And then over the last year it got to the point where I'm suddenly hearing stories about salespeople in some labs saying, 'Hey, what numbers do you need for this?' And it reaches that number,” Wurzer said.

If we can't trust, the basic number we look at is THC concentration, one of the key selling points to persuade a consumer to enter the regulated market.

Josh Wurzer, Founder, SC Labs

SC Labs claims bad labs have driven some honest labs in California out of business by issuing fake high scores. Consumers had to see THC levels above 25 or 30% or they wouldn't buy it.

“It's gotten to the point where there are only a handful of labs that don't do this stuff,” Wurzer said.


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How California cleaned up its labs

Efforts to clean up cannabis testing in California date back to 2021.

The Office of Administrative Law approved the Department of Cannabis Control's regulations to standardize cannabinoid testing methodology in July 2023. This includes the same testing methodology for all licensed testing laboratories in California.

The rules cover everything from the size of the solvent bottle that labs use to really basic language changes like “must” to “should.”

Sample preparation is more precise

The biggest difference is that the way labs perform sample preparation is much more specific.

“They are very specific about the sample weight, so they have us weigh exactly 0.2000 grams and we ask ourselves: Well, what's the plus or minus about that?” Obviously you can't weigh exactly 0.200 grams every time. Do you know how long it will take to pluck a small flower seed from there to get back to three zeros? And they say, 'No, no, that's what it says,'” Wurzer said.

In addition to the challenge of quickly obtaining the perfect sample size, the extraction process can force you to perform additional testing. Wurzer said the method makes it difficult to measure in one go the full range of smaller cannabinoids, those that make up less than 1%, and then those that are present in high concentrations.

“Just because of the different volumes and dilution factors that they chose, it's just some tricky things,” Wurzer said.

For example, the issue with measuring minor cannabinoids in January and February impacted growers and sellers of specialty strains high in THC-V.

Double the testing time

Wurzer says that between delivery requirements and labor time, they spend almost twice as much per sample. He's talked to other labs and they say they're feeling pretty much the same way, too.

We asked Wurzer if it was kind of crazy to see the state doubling the base costs of its businesses. He was confident the results would be worth it.

“If we can get to grips with the potency problem, which I think is kind of an existential thing for California cannabis that kind of delegitimizes all the quality control testing that we do,” Wurzer said, “If we can’t trust, then… “The fundamental number we look at, THC concentration, is one of the key selling points in getting a consumer to enter the regulated market.”

So if the goal is to curb THC inflation, Wurzers don't mind the increased costs.

Enforcement is also increasing

After the rules came out in the summer of 2023, there was much mystery about how heavy-handed enforcement would be during this important transition for the industry.

The regulations took effect in October and then became mandatory for compliance on New Year's Day.

Wurzer said there are no insurmountable obstacles or hurdles. He understood that many people simply didn't take it seriously, “they thought it wouldn't happen or weren't paying attention.”

The new wave of 24 compliant laboratories in 2024 were already following the new rules.

Wurzer says the methodology alone won't stop the inflation of THC levels, but the enforcement actions we're seeing from the state will help the cause. For example, tricks some labs use include weighing out extra material to give people the results they want. Laboratories can also falsify the results, but at least the inspectors are now watching.

Recalls also show that the system is working

A January recall image from the California Department of Cannabis Control. (About X)

Wurzer also pointed to the DCC's recent product recalls as further evidence of stricter compliance. In California, a recall is called an embargo. Wurzer believes it appears they may be cracking down on some things that shady operations would often do. Wurzer believes a number of factors are at play, but the most important is that the new methodology is moving forward.

Next up: Cheaper and faster lab accuracy

The rules can be further refined later. Wurzer says there is a faster and cheaper way to test accurately, but he will accept the new regulation.

“I think people can still cheat, but so far it seems to have some effect and so I'm not going to complain about it now,” Wurzer said.

Expect to see more labs come back online for the California cannabis industry in the coming weeks and months.

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