With No Uniform Cannabis Regulations, Safety May Suffer

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With federal legalization still hanging in the balance, cannabis is being legalized state-by-state. Each new setting that accepts cannabis forms their own rules and regulations which are not uniformed and could pose a danger. This has led to the phenomenon called “lab shopping”.

All across the United States (US), cannabis is beginning to be legalized both for recreational and medical uses. Due to the plant being illegal at the federal level and labeled a Schedule I drug, the government has left it up to the states to approve legislation that legalizes cannabis for either recreational or medical use. This is created a “patchwork of safety regulations” (1) which poses risks to consumers and their health.

By having inconsistent rules and regulations, it has become a very heated topic among the cannabis industry. 47 states accept some form of cannabis use in their state. It is still illegal in Kansas, Idaho, and Nebraska. In the states where there is either recreational use, medical use, or both, they have set up their own rules of how to make the plant safe for consumers such as, deciphering the acceptable amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in products.

“We don’t really know what’s going on behind the doors of each and every lab in each and every state,” said Anna Schwabe, a cannabis geneticist and the director of cannabis education, research and development for 420 Organics, in an interview with Stateline (1). “I don’t really have any sense of or any level of comfort for the numbers that they’re putting out.”

States often mandate that legal cannabis products are to be tested through a licensed laboratory for contaminants such as, heavy metals and pesticides, as well as potency.

Without uniform testing standards though, often there are inconsistent and unreliable lab results. This has led to some labs who test products for farms, to report false data. For example, these labs have been inflating THC levels in favor of the demand for potent products. This practice has been called “lab shopping” by producers according to Leafly (1).

“Some businesses will decide to contract with those labs because it means that their products will test stronger [in THC] and in theory, be more attractive to consumers,” said Morgan Fox, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML (1). “This is pretty unethical, and also an unfortunate byproduct of a financially competitive testing market.”


Lab shopping has caused some states to suggest recalls on products that were previously cleared for sale but then were found to have harmful contaminants in them. The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) suspended Scale Laboratories’ (2) testing license in May 2022, once regulators discovered more than 140 approved samples which were contaminated with E. coli, mold, and salmonella. OMMA also ordered a recall on 99 products connected to the laboratories’ supposed rules violations.

In 2021, Michigan recalled at least 64,000 lbs. of cannabis that had been connected to an estimated 18 health complaints. Some of those complications were allergic reactions, increased seizure activity, a chemical burning sensation, and paranoia (1).

In Oregon, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (OLCC), ordered a recall in June 2023 (1) because several batches of cannabis flower tested positive for mold and heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium. The cannabis flower product had been harvested prior to new testing requirements being updated which included test for microbiological contaminants and heavy metals.

“Having some standards of operation across the board would dramatically decrease the variation that we see among labs, but then we would have to have some sort of regulatory oversight to make sure everybody is following the rules [on THC levels and testing practices], which we already don’t have,” Schwabe commented (1).

Every lab throughout the US has their own set of testing standards for cannabis in regard to contamination and potency of cannabis’s cannabinoids. This could be a reason as to why there is an abundance of variance between states. In states that run the labs often have a “more standardized approach” (1) and some states issue licenses to independent testing labs.

With varying cannabis regulations between states, this could lead to dangerous implications on consumer health. According to a 2022 study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal (3), the study revealed how state-level regulatory disparities posed an increased risk of “contaminant exposure” for immunocompromised individuals (1). Having a weakened immune system could lead to these cannabis users developing fatal infections. It may also lead to some confusion with manufacturers, cannabis cultivators, and testing laboratories. The 2022 study also discovered that identical cannabis samples may be able to be considered acceptable in “one jurisdiction” (1) but may not be allowed in others. Unreliable test results are causing consumers to have to navigate irregularities seen with THC potency and different cannabis strain names listed in various dispensaries and states (1).

“If you’re thinking that Durban Poison is your go-to strain to alleviate whatever symptoms you are having and it works well for you, if you wanted to refill your medicine in a different state or at a different dispensary, you might end up getting something that’s not what you’re used to,” Schwabe said (1).

Each state regulates and decides what is permissible or prohibited when it comes to their cannabis products, according to Karmen Hanson, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) health program (1). “Legislators generally want to just have a program that works for their state in the way that they feel is best for their state, and that’s why they all look different,” Hanson said in an interview with Stateline. “What’s going to work in Colorado isn’t going to work for North Dakota or Texas.”

As states continue to mold their programs and update their laws and regulations, learning from other states as well as their own mistakes, things will progress and get better. “States are still very interested in the revenue, but they’re also more interested in things like getting rid of an illicit market, making sure that the products that people are consuming are safe or trying to end the war on drugs by legalizing cannabis and doing so in an equitable way,” Michelle Rutter Friberg, the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) director of government relations said in an interview (1).

Supporters of the cannabis industry though feel that regulatory consistency, may turn consumers away from illegal options, often found to be more dangerous as they are not grown or stored in sanitary environments. “You don’t know what’s in it, especially at a time when we’re talking about things like fentanyl. That’s more of a reason now than ever to talk about the regulation of products like this,” Rutter Friberg explained (1). States are enforcing new measures to protect consumers and provide a safeguard on cannabis products. For example, Colorado and Washington have limited products like edibles to 10 mg of THC per serving, with a maximum of 100 mg of THC per package or 10 servings (1,4,5). In Connecticut (6), edibles are confined to 5 mg of THC per serving with a maximum of 100 mg of THC per package. Massachusetts is similar to Connecticut but instead of 5 mg of THC per package, edibles are limited to 5.5 mg of THC per serving and can be as high as 110 mg of THC per package (7).

Another large issue in the cannabis industry is nostalgic packaging (8). Colorado began in 2017, banning the sale and production of edibles. Specifically in the shapes of animals, fruits, or humans because these types of shapes could be appealing to children (1). In order to combat this, cannabis products are being made with child-resistant packaging with the hope that these kinds of products won’t land in the hands of children.

Advocates for cannabis believe that through federal legalization, a solution including uniformed regulations and consistent standards for the industry would be established. Due to its’ illegal status at the federal level, cannabis isn’t able to receive the research funding it deserves. The hope with federal legalization is to also open more doors for cannabis research funding.

“If [the federal government] legalized it, that would open the doors tremendously and wipe out some of the issues that we have,” Schwabe said (1). “We could all work together as one industry and start working on some of the things we don’t know … and start working toward making it safe for everybody.”


  1. Hernandez, A. As More States Legalize Pot, Their Uneven Safety Rules Can Pose A Risk (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  2. Suspension of License, Medical Marijuana Product Recall Linked to Alleged Testing Laboratory Rules Violations (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  3. Jameson, L. E.; Conrow, K. D.; Pinkhasova, D. V.; Boulanger, H. L.; Ha, H.; Jourabchian, N.; Johnson, S. A.; Simeone, M. P.; Afia, I. A.; Cahill, T. M.; Orser, C. S.; Leung, M. C. K. Comparison of State-level Regulations for Cannabis Contaminants and Implications for Public Health (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  4. Safety with Edibles,consume%20and%20its%20impairing%20effects. (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  5. WAC 314-55-095: Cannabis Servings and Transaction Limitations. (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  6. What Kind of Edibles Will Be Available for Consumers in the Adult-use Cannabis Market? (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  7. 935 CMR: Cannabis Control Commission (accessed Jul 24, 2023).
  8. Colli, M. Delta-8 THC Brands Warned Over Child-friendly Packaging by FDA and FTC (accessed Jul 24, 2023).