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Now that we have a bit of background on the cannabis industry, the next logical step is to look more closely at the regulations and standards that shape it. This chapter looks at the federal, state, and local regulations and the slowly evolving standardization process for laboratory testing of cannabis in the U.S.

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2. Regulation and standardization

Federal regulation of cannabis

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On October 27, 1970, the Controlled Substances Act put into place five schedules or classifications of drugs that would be regulated in some fashion, and drugs were initially classified into those schedules, followed by annual reviews and updates.[1] Marijuana was initially placed under Schedule I[1] and remains there today.[2][3][4] As a Schedule I drug, the federal government is indicating marijuana has[1]:
  • "a high potential for abuse";
  • "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States"; and
  • "a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision".

Then came the Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973, which took existing enforcement entities such as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and placed them into a new, unified entity called the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).[5][6] Then President Richard Nixon said of the transition[5]:

The enforcement work could benefit significantly, however, from consolidation of our anti-drug forces under a single unified command. Right now the Federal Government is fighting the war on drug abuse under a distinct handicap, for its efforts are those of a loosely confederated alliance facing a resourceful, elusive, worldwide enemy.

The DEA was given numerous responsibilities, including but not limited to the development of enforcement strategy; investigation and prosecution preparation of suspects violating federal law; regulation of drugs and other controlled substances; and coordination and cooperation with state and local government drug enforcement efforts.[5] Since then the DEA has taken various steps—with guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[7]—to regulate and enforce the availability and use of controlled substances such as marijuana. As the decriminalization and legalization efforts of states have increased in past decades, this has brought federal regulation and enforcement conflicts to those states that have decriminalized and legalized, largely due to the federal government's insistence on maintaining marijuana as a Schedule I drug.[8][9]

Numerous changes in policy and controversies have occurred since the Controlled Substance Act and DEA were implemented, including a 22-year-long effort by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to have marijuana rescheduled (1972–1994).[10] However, the following talking points represent the most recent important federal-level changes and rulings that impact federal regulation of and enforcement of laws relating to cannabis.

October 19, 2009: The Ogden Memorandum

Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden issued a memorandum "intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion" in regards to state-based laws allowing medical cannabis.[11] The guidance essentially told U.S. attorneys to not prosecute those entities complying fully with state cannabis laws. Researchers generally agree that this memo acted "as a catalyst for expansion of [state-sanctioned and gray market] cannabis supply in states with poorly defined regulations," though the degree to which it influenced such growth remains poorly documented and requires further investigation.[12] To be sure, it likely had some effect, as the number of licensed patients using medical marijuana in the state of Colorado increased from 4,800 in 2008 to 41,000 in 2009, and operating dispensaries jumped to more than 900 by mid-2010.[13]

June 29, 2011: The Cole Memorandum 1

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memo as a follow-up to the Ogden Memo, muddying the waters in the process. While stating that the stance of efficiently using department resources as outlined in the Ogden Memo still stood, Cole also made it clear that large grow-ops that didn't qualify as "caregivers" had sprung up since.[14] The language of the memo essentially said "get off your butts and nail those suckers."[15] Cambron et al.[12] and Fairman[16] suggest this memo had some impact as evidenced by declines in cannabis patient registration from 2011–2013 in Colorado, Michigan, and Montana.

August 29, 2013: The Cole Memorandum 2

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a follow-up memo to his original two years later, following 1. on the heels of then President Obama reiterating publicly that the Department of Justice (DoJ) was to not focus unnecessarily on states that had passed legalization laws and 2. Washington and Colorado legalizing recreational use of cannabis.[12] The second memorandum sought to reduce the emphasis on the size of the grow-op and increase emphasis on—by a case-by-case basis—"whether the operation is demonstrably in compliance with a strong and effective state regulatory system."[17] The memo also clarified specific cases where federal enforcement would be warranted, including distribution to minors, interstate transport, and preventing drugged driving (though it didn't state how). Generally speaking, states saw little federal intervention except in the case of state law being broken or requiring dispensaries to move further away from schools.[18][12] Despite the memo, some attorneys continued to see Cole Memorandum 2 as nothing more than unclear language that had no legal weight for anxious growers and distributors in states where cannabis was legalized.[15]

December 16, 2014 to current: Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment

A tenuous truce of sorts arrived with the passage of the Rohrabacher-Farr (today known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) Amendment in December 2014. The amendment prohibited the DoJ from spending funds to prevent or enforce against state laws that allow for medical marijuana cultivation, distribution, and use, particularly when those actions are performed consistently with those state laws.[19] Before being passed in December 2014, the amendment had actually been introduced and defeated six times in the previous 10 years.[20] The DoJ later went on to challenge the amendment on several occasions, from U.S. v. Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in 2015 to a collection of 10 different cases from California and Washington in 2016. In all these instances, the courts ruled against the DoJ, setting precedent against further department action.[21][22]

One of the downsides of Rohrabacher-Farr is that it has essentially acted as a short-term rider attached to several spending bills since December 2014. Due again for renewal in April 2017, and with the new Trump administration coalescing—including Trump's demonstrably anti-drug U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions—some in the industry were concerned the amendment would not be renewed, opening the door again for the DoJ to implement stronger enforcement.[23][24][25][26][27] However, the Amendment continued to live on as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer taking over as co-lead with the retirement of Rep. Farr. As of December 2018, the amendment is renewed through December 8, 2018.[28] Alternative bills are continuing to be proposed, including a more permanent version of Rohrabacher-Blumenauer introduced by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California; however, Speaker Paul Ryan has implemented rules prohibiting amendments to budgetary legislation, and the fact remains that Congress remains reluctant in hearing bills that would change the country's marijuana laws.[29][30]

August 11, 2016: DEA denies petition to reschedule marijuana out of Schedule I

A request made by two governors and a psychiatric nurse practitioner to the DEA asking it to reschedule marijuana into any other schedule other than Schedule I was denied, as had been done with previous attempts in 2009 and 2011.[2][3][4] Reasons included known health issues such as prenatal exposure and negative impacts on several biological systems, as well as limited research data and new drug applications.[8] At the same time, however, the DEA also recognized the need for further research and the lack of legal marijuana sources for researchers, publishing a policy statement stating intent "to increase the lawful supply of marijuana available to researchers."[31] However, that statement of intent has not been acted upon as of December 2018.[32][33]

State and local regulation

As of December 2018, thirty-three U.S. states have put some sort of broad decriminalization or legalization laws for cannabis on the books.[34] In October 1973, Oregon became the first state to enact decriminalization laws for marijuana, imposing a $100 fine for possession of less than an ounce. Eleven other states followed a similar path within five years.[35] The next wave of changes began with the passage of medical marijuana legislation in California—the Compassionate Use Act—in November 1996, followed by similar legislation in Oregon and Alaska in 1998, Maine in 1999, and Colorado, Hawaii, and Nevada in 2000.[12][36] Other states continued to add decriminalization and medical marijuana laws in the 2000s. But it wasn't until 2012 that Colorado and Washington became the first states to make recreational marijuana legal, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia in 2014.[12] Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada followed suit in 2016[37], with Michigan doing the same in 2018.[38]

As shown by Cambron et al. in 2016 (before the November election results)[12], dispensaries, possession limits, and interstate ID card acceptance can vary significantly among affected states. California, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington lead in number of dispensaries; Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington in maximum possession limits; and Arizona plus five others allowed ID cards from other states. Yet allowed dispensaries can number in the single digits, possession limits can be as low as one ounce, and numerous states still don't honor ID cards from other states.[12]

Then there's the matter of state differences in testing, enforcement, advertising allowances, etc. It helps to turn to professional associations and organizations—who often lead the charge for improved, more relevant standards—to sort through the variances. The Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), for example, has published its Guidance for State Medical Cannabis Testing Programs to help sort through the confusing tangle of existing testing laws, where they exist. They exemplify this variation of law in their document[39]:

As with most programs in the United States, every state takes a different approach. For example as of January 2016, New Jersey’s Public Health & Environmental Laboratories only test cannabis plant material. Just across the Hudson, however, New York’s Public Health Laboratory will not be testing any plant material, only cannabis extracts. In addition, the New York Department of Health will provide an oversight role for commercial cannabis laboratories that are licensed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and approved for testing cannabis products. On the other hand, New Jersey state government does all testing in-house for the medical cannabis program.

As such, unlike their federal counterpart, it's difficult to make broad generalizations about cannabis regulations and their enforcement in the states. It becomes even more difficult when examining states that don't have clear, well-considered regulations or strong enforcement powers. Cambron et al. emphasized this issue in regards to the supply side, saying: "States without clearly defined regulations for medical cannabis supply have fostered gray markets for cannabis whereby individuals without documented medical conditions are able to easily obtain medical cannabis authorizations. This scenario has created substantial challenges for law enforcement in multiple states."[12]

Cole et al. argue that in the end, it will take pressure on the federal government "to set up policy guardrails to steer state regulatory systems" in a more unified and safe direction. Drugged driving, use by minors, interstate distribution, relation to crime and firearms, consumer safety, and advertising are all issues the government should be tackling towards that goal, they say. Not that states aren't addressing these regulatory concerns; they are, but not in consistent ways.[40]


While federal, state, and local governments wrestle with the regulatory frameworks surrounding cannabis, scientists and government officials are carrying on, doing what they can to harmonize those regulations with emerging industry standards and guidelines. For example, state officials from Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington teamed up to give a presentation called "State Regulatory Approaches to Cannabis Testing, Operations and Product Logistics" at the July 2016 Cannabis Quality, Strategies and Solutions Summit. That presentation focused on the harmonization of regulatory standards and frameworks across states, as well as discussions of what scientific efforts are required to support those standards and frameworks.[41] Additionally, organizations such as Americans for Safe Access Foundation (ASAF), American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), and the American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS) have been developing standards, methods, and certifications for analysis, extraction, labeling, and laboratory operations surrounding medical (and recreational) marijuana.[42][43][44][45][46][47]

Notable among those organizations is the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), which worked to produce internationally applicable voluntary consensus standards for various parts of the cannabis business chain, including cultivation, extraction, laboratory testing, and packaging. FOCUS completed its public review process and finalized its standards in July 2016, though at that time it wasn't clear how to gain access to them.[48] New information came to light in March 2017, when FOCUS and ASTM International announced a collaboration between the two entities, which in April 2017 saw the formation of volunteer committee D37 at ASTM and the further adaptation of FOCUS' standards to future ASTM releases.[49][50]

The newly formed Committee D37 agreed to pursue cannabis standardization in six key areas[51][52]:

  • indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture: e.g., pest management, water considerations, environmental site assessment, and sustainability
  • quality management systems: e.g., quality considerations, due dillegence
  • laboratory testing: e.g., sampling, stability testing, purity testing, analytical methods, and proficiency testing
  • processing and handling: e.g., drying and curing, exposure management, waste management, storage
  • security and transportation: e.g., packaging, shipping management, risk assessment and mitigation, occupational health and safety
  • training, assessment, and credentialing: e.g., laboratory training, clean room management, quality inspection, patient and physician education

Since its founding in April 2017, Committee D37 has made strides towards its goals. Meeting every January and June[53], D37 has made progress on developing several standards and creating a set of standardized terminology to be used across them.[54] Its first two approved standards arrived in May 2018, concerning testing methods for determining water activity in cannabis samples, as well as the range of water activity that is "safe and effective" for storing samples.[55] In August 2018, the committee announced a new standards project that would result in two guides that "will provide sampling procedures critical in generating accurate laboratory results, which in turn could lead to improved consumer safety."[56]

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Citation information for this chapter

Chapter: 2. Regulation and standardization

Title: Past, Present, and Future of Cannabis Laboratory Testing and Regulation in the United States

Edition: Second edition

Author for citation: Shawn E. Douglas

License for content: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Publication date: December 2018