Cannabis testing laboratories play an important role in ensuring consumer safety and quality throughout the industry. These laboratories face many challenges—from the variety of samples in the industry to changing regulations and testing requirements and everything in between. In this interview, Sarah Ahrens, Founder and CEO of True Labs for Cannabis LLC, explains her philosophy and approach behind building her cannabis analytical testing laboratory in New Jersey. She also covers current developments in the cannabis testing industry and what needs to be done to ensure it has a transparent and productive future that benefits producers and consumers alike.
Can you tell us about your background? What are the main reasons you chose to start True Labs for Cannabis LLC (TLC)?
Sarah Ahrens: Before entering the cannabis industry, I had a successful career in sales, but if I were to start my career over again, I think I would have become a research scientist. My interest in cannabis and being a part of a new market, combined with my interest in science, led me to land on the idea of starting a cannabis analytical testing laboratory.
Beyond my professional background and interests, though, lies a personal passion for quality. Transparency and integrity are rooted in my DNA. I want to know what goes into the products that I buy for myself and my family. I’m health-conscious—I read all the ingredient labels and buy organic as much as possible. So, it was easy for me to see how I could help bring safety and transparency to the New Jersey cannabis market. It’s not a coincidence that TLC also stands for “tender loving care.”
Did you face any unique challenges as the first woman-owned testing laboratory on the East Coast?
Ahrens: There are challenges associated with starting any business, but it has been a big benefit and a differentiator to be the first certified woman-owned cannabis testing laboratory on the East Coast. It feels good to be the first, but I certainly hope I’m not the only woman-owned laboratory for long. We need more women leaders in cannabis and in testing.
There have been challenges I’ve faced as a female entrepreneur, though, and particularly when it comes to access to capital. Being in the cannabis industry has its own banking and capital restrictions but combine that with the fact that less than 3% of investor capital goes to women-owned businesses, securing funding becomes a really steep hill to climb. It has certainly helped that I have a lifetime career in sales, but most female entrepreneurs are not so lucky. There’s a lot more the industry could do to break down gender barriers when it comes to financially supporting women business enterprises (WBEs).
What has been the most unexpected or rewarding experience you’ve had since starting TLC?
Ahrens: There have been several already. It feels special to blaze a trail by being the first certified woman-owned cannabis testing laboratory on the East Coast. I also never expected to play a big advocacy role, but it is so important in a market that is just getting started. It has been a great experience to develop a louder voice to stand up for consumer safety and robust testing standards. It is also amazing how small this industry can get so quickly, and how there are very few degrees of separation between people in cannabis—it starts to become a very large family.
But hands-down, the most rewarding experience has been to see my dream of starting this business become a reality. On that note, I must give a shout out to our Chief Science Officer, Dr. Carl Christianson. He has been the best partner and scientific leader I could have ever imagined, and True Labs would not be where we are today without him and his guidance.
Why is it important to note that your laboratory has been “built from the ground up?” What sorts of challenges did your team face while building this laboratory?
Ahrens: At True Labs, we are dedicated to our craft: cannabis testing. Being 100% focused on servicing one industry allows us to continuously innovate, offer a wider array of industry-specific testing, and increase efficiencies. Our scientific leadership team has more than 18 years of cannabis testing experience! That is very hard to find in a new market.
We’ve built our lab in a way that fits our values and ideals, with integrity threaded throughout our processes. We are using advanced technology and instrumentation as the cornerstone of the state-of-the-art facility we set up. So, we are not just taking someone’s cookie cutter approach to turning around a profit, but we are purpose-driven and truly focused on being trusted partners for our customers. We also want to be a reputable source of knowledge and insight for consumers.
As far as challenges go, we’ve experienced what you would typically see for any startup business, namely timeline delays for various reasons and added and unexpected costs, although we’ve had some pleasant surprises with cost reductions and savings as well.
Tell us about what a typical testing process looks like (or will look like) at TLC. What unique challenges does cannabis pose in standard testing laboratories?
Ahrens: The reality is that a typical testing process is non-existent. The variety of sample types and evolving regulations, combined with the push to continually improve upon our own procedures, make this a truly dynamic environment.
When a sample comes in the door, the first challenge is ensuring that we gather as much information about the sample as possible, helping us determine the best way to prepare it for testing. These questions range from sample type, added ingredients, and the stability of the sample. From there, we assess the types of tests requested or required, as this will influence the workflow. Once we have all the information and the right plan in place, it is then all about an efficient plan to obtain the necessary data points, ensuring that we are utilizing the proper controls and continually monitoring the integrity of our processes.
After gathering these data, everything is triple checked, and finally the data set is aggregated into a usable report, or certificate of analysis (CoA), for our customer. At True Labs, we make sure to back this up with any additional support required to read, interpret, or understand the CoA.
How important is the CoA you provide for cannabis products tested in your laboratory?
Ahrens: Extremely important. Without a CoA, there is no proof that products were tested and no insight into what substances and contaminants were identified and quantified. A CoA is like a report card, in that it details whether you are passing or failing, and for the latter, it details how you’re failing. However, the CoA is just a representative document meant to summarize all the work that went into generating that data. The most important thing we can do as a lab is make sure this is presented clearly and concisely, making the information accessible and usable for every consumer.
What do you think consumers need to understand about CoAs? Are there any good resources for people to learn how to read a CoA?
Ahrens: It is not easy for a consumer who has no experience reading CoAs and has not been given a tutorial on doing so, to understand what they are looking at. Sure, the phytocannabinoid profile or terpene profile should be easy enough to understand, but the measurements used do not always translate into a consumer’s understanding of product potency. True Labs published a guide on how to read a certificate of analysis that anyone can access (1).
Why is it important to your facility to offer testing services above and beyond those currently required and regulated by the state of New Jersey?
Ahrens: True Labs is designed to be a “one stop shop” for all cannabis related testing needs. While most of our business will come from compliance testing based on the New Jersey testing regulations, it has been an important part of our business model to offer additional value-add services to our customers. We are not a compliance factory; we are a true partner to our customers and really want to help our customers enhance their business operations. As an example, if we can certify that a grow room is free of harmful contaminants prior to seedlings going in, it provides value for the cultivator and can save them serious headaches down the road. True Labs wants to be that trusted testing partner for producers at every step of their operations.
Now that New Jersey has fully legalized cannabis, how much demand do you anticipate seeing on the testing side?
Ahrens: The demand for third-party testing in New Jersey has been trickling in as the market gets up and going. There are several reasons for this. The testing market is in this interim limbo state. Labs are just starting up, with only a few operational, and so the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission is hesitant to require all operators to go through a third-party lab for testing. Testing with a third-party lab is optional right now. As more labs come online, and as more of the newly licensed cultivators and manufacturers start planting, harvesting, and producing, there will be a huge demand for third party testing.
In the same sense, it is hard to see how New Jersey can have a big legal market without product testing. We have a state lab that has been conducting the medical cannabis testing, but they do not have a microbial assay and they only test the first batch of a cultivar in the first year it is grown. You can essentially say that no testing is really happening in New Jersey. To have a legal cannabis market, you must ensure the health and safety of consumers. Once the Commission requires producers to test with third-party labs, there will be a ton of demand.
Can you explain the practice of “lab shopping”? How can the industry combat it?
Ahrens: Lab shopping is a nasty habit that has creeped up in various markets. Essentially, it is when a producer selects or switches to a lab that can give the producer the results they are looking for. Typically, this is in the form of THC potency or passing contaminated product. It is gaming the system.
Unfortunately, there are labs out there that will bend or dismiss their morals and are willing to risk their entire business by tweaking methods or data so that the producers get the desired results, not the honest results. Thankfully, though, there are ways a market can combat this.
The first step is awareness. Luckily, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission is very aware of this issue and has some processes set up to prevent it from happening. There are a few methods to prevent lab shopping, including having a state-run lab to verify testing results and do spot-checks, such as a secret shopper approach. The state can also require round-robin proficiency testing program among all the labs in the state, which essentially verifies results each lab gets on the same sample. Finally, the state can require that labs are certified under a third-party system, like ISO 17025.
Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for a business to choose a different testing lab to partner with, but these reasons should focus on the integrity of data, the efficiency of generating reports, and the customer service of the lab. The manipulation of data is something that should not be tolerated in our industry. Our hope and expectation is that bad actors will be identified and removed from the equation as the industry continues to grow and mature.
How do consumers’ buying trends affect what is tested, such as terpenes?
Ahrens: What I see happening in New Jersey is probably not too dissimilar from every other state, in that what consumers want, need, or are buying doesn’t translate up to the regulators. This is likely because there really aren’t any consumer advocacy associations to pool voices together.
It is also a reason why businesses in the cannabis market need to be vocal and advocate for consumers. Typically, the health and safety targets are covered by regulation, but innovative new products are market driven. With these new product classes, the need for additional testing targets may arise.
At True Labs, we have built an operation capable of providing a range of techniques in anticipation of this challenge. In addition, our team brings a diverse set of experiences to the table, helping us partner with our clients to support the creation and innovation of new product classes.
You are working on creating testing guidelines that are the “best of the best.” Can you tell us more about the process of creating these guidelines (who else is working on them, how do you plan to get them approved at a higher level)?
Ahrens: Every organization needs an association—a way to pool voices and stand up for what you believe in. Therefore, I started the Laboratory Testing Committee under the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association (NJCBA), which I am now chairing. We have pulled together labs starting up in New Jersey, as well as various other experts in physical and biological sciences, medicine, public health, or similar.
Before the committee formed, several of our members had been collaborating informally to create a guidance document for the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission on what New Jersey’s testing standards should be. The testing standards proposed were developed by holistically looking at best practices throughout the US and reasonable testing standards both from states with existing cannabis markets that have some excellent testing regulations, as well as from various national and international standards organizations. Now that we are formally grouped in the NJCBA committee, we are providing the Commission with additional related documentation detailing specific aspects of testing which support our original guidance and working to ensure the formation of a robust cannabis testing industry. We do our best to communicate these advanced scientific regulatory recommendations in a clear and logical way, helping the Commission and consumers alike see the importance and benefit of these recommendations.
What do you think are the most important factors for the guidelines you’re working on?
Ahrens: In the guidelines we have created, we have strived to maintain a balance between operational practicality and product safety, while maintaining the integrity of the testing market. It is important that we do not overburden testing labs or producers, and even more important that we ensure consumer safety.
Product safety is the differentiator for the legal cannabis market. The key to creating guidelines is making sure that we have several expert voices working together, while doing our best to hear the needs and concerns from the other impacted areas of the industry, all supporting the same goal of product safety. There is no perfect regulatory platform, but we aim to develop one focused on health and human safety, while maintaining fairness in an emerging market.
How can other interested parties get involved with developing testing guidelines?
Ahrens: Reach out to me! The NJCBA Laboratory Testing Committee is interested in working with any person or business who has an interest in ensuring consumer safety and upholding the integrity of the testing market. The more perspectives we bring into the conversation, the more robust our testing guidelines can become. We are also happy to share what we have already developed, as we want it to be critically reviewed. Feedback is a gift.
How do you envision the future of the cannabis testing industry in New Jersey? And in the northeast as a whole?
Ahrens: There remains a lot of work that needs to be done within the testing ecosystem. As I mentioned, regulations need to be honed, the market is in a growth stage that will ultimately stabilize, and during the next two years or so, labs will be adapting in real time as regulatory bodies and producers alike grow with this industry. As the maturation of the market starts to materialize, labs will be embedded as an integral part of the supply chain, and more traditional operating challenges should become the focus, from increasing efficiency, bringing the newest technologies into our operation, and providing the best customer service.
What goals or new projects are you working on for TLC?
Ahrens: Right now, we are all hands-on deck with the anticipation of the New Jersey cannabis market opening and expanding. We are eager to support this initial phase of the market and are currently focused on preparing our lab to be ready to operate efficiently at these early stages. Beyond this, we already have ideas for which projects come next, although I am not going to publicly reveal what those are yet (smiling).
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Ahrens: Starting a business in the cannabis industry is not for the faint-hearted—it takes grit and determination. Some days it is really, really hard, but there is a quote I love that has helped to pull me through: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” It is a reminder to keep moving forward despite your fears that want to hold you back, and to keep reaching for bigger goals. I am really excited about the potential for the New Jersey cannabis market, and just as excited to have True Labs play a critical role from the beginning.
Visit the True Labs for Cannabis LLC website to learn more.
E. McEvoy, Cannabis Science and Technology® Vol. 5(5), 46-47 (2022).