Regulators suspended a state-certified Bellingham pot lab for deficiencies in its practices and for failing an unusually low number of samples for microbial matter. It’s the latest step toward assuring pot-lab integrity.

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The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board has suspended certification of a Bellingham pot lab after auditors found an unusually low number of samples had been failed for microbial matter and they noted other deficiencies in lab practices.

Auditors with the RJ Lee Group recommended that the lab, Peak Analytics, get recertified when it has corrected all deficiencies and met state rules.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) suspended Peak Analytics last week. It was one of 18 labs in the state certified to test legal marijuana products for potency and microbial matter such as e.coli, salmonella and mold.

In an emailed statement, Tom Hubbell, general manager of Peak Analytics, said the lab “has been working closely with the RJ Lee Group to improve and clarify internal (procedures) to ensure consistency in testing practices.” The lab has submitted to auditors a study aiming to validate its microbial testing methods, Hubbell said. That study is under review by auditors, he said.

The suspension comes after the LCB had received a complaint about the lab’s testing results, said agency spokesman Brian Smith. Auditors analyzed three months of 2017 results from the lab. The rate of microbial failures at Peak was 1.69 percent of samples tested, according to auditors. The average for other certified labs was 11 percent for the same time frame.

Industry groups and an independent watchdog had called attention to high potency results and low foreign-matter failures earlier this year.

Lab integrity has been a hot topic since Woodinville data scientist Jim MacRae started writing last year about how labs that offered the most favorable results to growers seemed to get the most testing business.

Follow-up analysis by MacRae found course corrections by some labs. But Peak Analytics stood out for its consistently lower failure rates and higher potency results, he said. Potency is measured by percentage of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

MacRae said the audit confirmed his findings on Peak’s microbial testing. Peak led all labs in the number of tests it performed in the last four months of 2016, according to MacRae’s analysis.

Another lab, Testing Technologies had its certification suspended last year after a similar audit. MacRae said that his analysis showed Testing Technologies was the “friendliest” lab before its suspension. The Poulsbo lab was recertified in October.

Accurate testing is important for consumer health and safety. It has been used an argument for the advantages of legal regulated marijuana over black market products.

After seeing Peak’s low failure rates, auditors made an unannounced visit to Peak in June. During that visit, “numerous deficiencies were noted that we feel put the validity of the current testing process at risk,” auditors wrote.

They found inadequate practices, such as lack of documentation, not flagging suspicious results and improper preparation of samples for testing.

“It is the auditor’s opinion that there are a number of microbes that are not being accounted for and the test is biasing to less numbers and hence passing rather than presenting an accurate analysis,” the audit said.

In their observation, auditors did not find Peak delivering higher results for potency, as MacRae did in his study of earlier months of data.

But they did question some of the lab’s practices in regards to potency.

One sample of pot was reported to have zero percent moisture. Auditors noted that zero moisture would falsely inflate the potency value and Peak should have flagged these results and followed up with the grower and the LCB.

Another sample was so unusually high in potency that auditors asked to see data related to its testing. But the lab couldn’t locate the data. Auditors said that sample should have been investigated for adulteration and possibly flagged for state regulators.

“Peak is working diligently to navigate through these temporary challenges as quickly as possible,” according to Hubbell’s statement. “The current circumstances are being viewed as an opportunity to improve and build on our operating procedures.”