Washington analyst notified Nevada regulators of suspicious rise in THC

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Data from Canalysis, a Las Vegas lab that opened this year, was not included in the analysis presented to the state.

An analyst’s presentation to Nevada’s Marijuana Enforcement Division in September prompted the state to launch an investigation into possible THC manipulation at cannabis laboratories. But the Department of Taxation, in what appears to be a violation of state law, won’t identify the names of the labs where THC content has increased at a rate that alarms regulators.

Dr. Jim MacRae, a data scientist and consultant from Washington, wrote last week on his blog that he met with Nevada marijuana regulators in September to share findings gleaned from data provided by the state, albeit in a less than desirable format.

“What impressed me most is how rapidly Nevada escalated the issues suggested by the data and how quickly the state acted,” MacRae wrote. “What impressed me least about my interactions with the state of Nevada was how difficult it was to get access to the relevant Nevada lab data.”

Not only did his request take a year to fulfill, but the Department of Taxation “blinded” the data, despite a state law that makes the information public.

“That is unfortunate, because the consumer advocate within me would very much like to call out the growers and retailers that appear to be reinforcing and financially supporting some of the labs whose data are clearly different than those of the others,” MacRae wrote.

The data indicated average THC content of marijuana flower tested at nine Nevada labs increased from a little more than 18 percent in January of 2018 to just over 22 percent in May 2019 with suspiciously low failure rates, says MacRae.

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The average THC content of marijuana flower from January 2018 to May 2019 is shown in green. Courtesy Straight Line Analytics.

The maximum THC levels of marijuana flower tested in Nevada increased from 19 percent in February 2018 to 21.5 percent in May 2019.

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The maximum THC content of marijuana flower tested in Nevada is shown in green. Courtesy Straight Line Analytics.

Cannabis flower tested at one lab increased in THC potency from 20 percent to more than 25 percent in the period of a year and four months.

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The red dotted line shows the increase in average THC content measured at an unidentified Nevada lab. Courtesy Straight Line Analytics.

“I presented my work on a Thursday afternoon and met with members of a number of government departments on Friday. The following Monday, the Department of Taxation published a notice to the labs that put them on notice the Department was ‘aware of and investigating potential inflation of THC levels by cannabis laboratories’ and that such behavior was not acceptable.”

Department of Taxation spokeswoman Eden Collings confirms the state acted after hearing MacRae’s findings.

“The information contained in his (MacRae’s) findings seemed to confirm that some marijuana testing facilities in Nevada were intentionally manipulating testing results,” Collings said in an email. “Although the Department had taken action against certain labs in 2018, these findings further clarified that any efforts to curb this abuse to date resulted in only temporary changes.”

The higher the THC content, the more money a batch of marijuana fetches for the grower, putting pressure on labs to deliver the highest numbers possible.

But is higher THC content necessarily indicative of manipulation?

Dr. Glenn Miller, Professor of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at UNR, says an increase in THC of a few percentage points wouldn’t surprise him.

“Given the variables in processes among labs, industry advances, and public demand for high THC content, it’s not at all surprising,” says Miller, a former member of Nevada’s Independent Laboratory Advisory Commission.“With all due respect to my friends at the Department of Taxation, they are a bit lacking on the analytical side.”

Industry consultant Jason Sturtsman agrees.

“You have major players buying up cannabis growers in Nevada, so you’d expect to see an increase in the potency of the product,” says Sturtsman. “The standard is 20 percent and higher. No one wants a THC level under that.”

Lobbyist Will Adler, who represents the lab industry, did not respond to requests for comment.

THC levels detected in illegal cannabis have increased in recent decades, according to the National Institutes for Health. 

“In the early 1990s, the average THC content in confiscated cannabis samples was roughly 3.7 percent for marijuana and 7.5 percent for sinsemilla (a higher potency marijuana from specially tended female plants). In 2013, it was 9.6 percent for marijuana and 16 percent for sinsemilla.”

Allegations of THC inflation are not unique to Nevada.

“I’ve done a great deal of work on Washington state and have seen similar patterns here,” MacRae says. “In speaking with people from Alaska, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado and California, there is a general belief that ‘bad labs’ are inflating THC (and CBD) levels in each state. The problem only gets bad if regulatory oversight and enforcement are lacking.”

“The work I shared with the state of Nevada in September clearly shows some labs are producing data that are qualitatively different than that being produced by others,” MacRae wrote. “Nevada knows not only who these labs are, but where they are and who is responsible for their operations. Nevada knows which products they have tested and on which store shelves those products currently lie. Nevada knows how many consumers are purchasing these products each and every day. Nevada knows how much tax revenue they are making off of the sale of products tainted in this way.”

MacRae’s analysis appears to have been an epiphany for Nevada regulators, who say they are implementing measures to address THC inflation, imposing disciplinary action, and soliciting vendors “to develop and conduct interlaboratory testing.”

In November, the state alleged “misleading” THC results stemmed from a Sparks lab, but refused to identify the products at issue.

Regulators won’t say why they are declining to identify the labs that produced the results analyzed by MacRae. While the state provided the data to MacRae at no charge, the Department of Taxation attached a price tag of more than $8,000 to a similar public record request from the Current.

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.