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Modern Canna’s Laboratory Director, Jini Curry, recently hosted an episode of Teach Me in 10 – a video series that invites scientists to talk about their field in 10 minutes or less. This article provides an overview of Jini’s presentation, along with the episode’s video linked towards the bottom.

What are cannabis testing labs?

Cannabis testing labs are a third party service whose sole responsibility is to test products that contain cannabis. These products may be THC- or CBD-dominant. Cannabis laboratories work both directly and indirectly with the growers, manufacturers, producers, and retailers. Thus, making them an essential element towards ensuring that the product is safe for human consumption, while also meeting the regulatory requirements. Additionally, they are liable for ensuring that the label claim on final product packaging is trustworthy and correct. This assures patients, customers, and the state that the product is safe for consumption.

What types of testing do cannabis labs provide & how are these tests performed?

The two most common types of testing services include potency and terpene testing. The potency test uses high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which quantifies the concentration of cannabinoids present in a given cannabis sample. The most common cannabinoids tested are: THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, CBN, CBG, and CBC. Terpene testing is another popular analysis. Terpenes are naturally occurring chemicals that give different cannabis cultivars their unique aromas, flavors, and even colors. In order to test for terpenes, gas chromatography with mass spectrometry (GCMS) is utilized. This determines which kinds of terpenes are present in a given sample and what their concentration levels are.

In addition to potency and terpenes, the presence of harmful substances and contaminants are also tested for. Heavy metals, such as:

  • Arsenic 
  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Mercury

These metals are detected and quantified using ion coupled plasma with mass spectrometry, or ICPMS. Metals are of significant importance for more reasons than one. Metals can be toxic in nature, especially when inhaled or ingested. This is an issue considering that cannabis is what’s called an accumulator plant, meaning that it will absorb whatever is in its immediate environment during its growth cycle. Its immediate environment includes its soil, nutrients, and even water.

The next contaminant being tested for is pesticides. There is a regulatory list of common, household pesticide analytes that laboratories test for. Their presence is detected using two different instruments. The first instrument uses liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry, or LCMS-MS. The second instrument uses gas chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry, or GCMS-MS. Due to certain pesticide analytes being more or less sensitive to the implication of heat, both instruments are necessary for thorough and proper testing. 

Furthermore, toxic secondary metabolites from fungi species are tested for. These metabolites are commonly known as mycotoxins and are naturally produced by mold and fungus. Two of the most common mycotoxins found within cannabis are aflatoxins and ochratoxins. To briefly elaborate on the potential harm of these mycotoxins, aflatoxins have been studied and actually show mutagenic properties that warrant them to be classified as poisonous carcinogens. Mycotoxins are detected and quantified using LCMS-MS technology. Similar to mycotoxins in a sense are microbials, which are also tested for; but unlike mycotoxins, not all microbial species are harmful. Our laboratory uses quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, in order to identify harmful microbial species. This is achieved by amplifying microbial DNA, which is then isolated through an extraction process.

The last of the harmful  group of contaminants cannabis testing labs test for are residual solvents. Residual solvents are not present or tested in plant material such as (but is not limited to):

  • Flower
  • Pre-rolls 
  • Trim
  • Shake
  • Kief

Rather, cannabis derivative and edible products are tested for residual solvents. This includes (but is not limited to): 

  • Vapes
  • Wax
  • Tinctures
  • Lotion
  • Distillates
  • Gummies
  • Chocolate

Within these types of product matrices could be byproducts leftover after cannabis extraction or distillation. Since residual solvents can present themselves as a gas at considerably low temperatures, gas chromatography with mass spectrometry using a headspace autosampler, or GCMS-HS, is utilized as our lab’s primary technique. The headspace autosampler is responsible for using a full evaporation technique, or FET, to heat and pressurize the sample within its own vial, which is how any residual solvents present in a given sample is converted into a gas. After this, a hole is punctured in the vial and the created residual solvent gas will then proceed to travel to the mass spec detector.

In a laboratory setting, contamination of products regarding residual solvents is a hazard, since a myriad of solvents are used everyday in almost all areas and stations of the laboratory. Special care must be taken to ensure that quantifiable amounts of solvents present in samples are not due to cross-contamination via other areas of the laboratory.

Stepping aside from the contaminant sector of testing, there are a few other regulatory tests we perform. The first is water activity, which measures a product’s capability to grow microbes after its final packaging. Secondly, moisture testing checks the amount of water present in a sample. Lastly, homogeneity testing pertains solely to edibles and ensures that cannabinoids are evenly dispersed throughout the product and align with what the final packing lists. Additional non-regulatory testing can be provided and tested for as well. Without going in depth, this can include nutrient testing, gender testing, flavonoid testing, stability testing, and leachability testing.

Are there specific testing requirements and rules that must be followed?

Yes, and these rules and requirements vary state-by-state for cannabis programs. The guidelines we follow are based on Florida’s rules and regulations regarding certified medical marijuana testing laboratories. Disregarding location, most states require that product testing be completed before anything is sold by the retailer. The reason for this is to ensure that products are not compromised with any of the contaminants mentioned above. Depending on state requirements, there are different regulatory limits for contaminants and analytes of interest.

Additionally, the regulatory limits depend on how cannabis is being consumed and in what form. Certain analytes are dangerous to humans, but their effects are dependent on whether they’re ingested, inhaled, or topically applied.

Furthermore, Florida has made it a rule that all products in their final packaging must be tested. This was implemented to ensure that the packing itself wasn’t contaminating the products. There have been some instances where products are clean and contaminant-free prior to being packaged, but afterwards have shown to contain contaminants. This post-packaging contamination may be due to several different factors, including: microbials, heavy metals, and even residual solvents. Unfortunately, any of these have the possibility to be leached into products via the packaging. Hence why testing products in their final packaging form is both necessary and beneficial.

What types of matrices of cannabis are tested?

There are a plethora of matrices that laboratories are responsible for testing. The three categories these matrices fall under are flower/plant material, edibles, or chemical/extracts. Under flower/plant material there are (but not limited to):

  • Pre-rolls
  • Ground flower
  • Popcorn or little buds
  • Kief
  • Dhake
  • Trim
  • Sift

Under edibles there are (but not limited to):

  • Brownies
  • Chocolates
  • Cookies
  • Gummies
  • Lozenges
  • Mints

Lastly, and with the greatest amount of matrices, is chemical/extracts. Chemical matrices include (but are not limited to):

  • Budder
  • Hash
  • Crumble
  • Distillate
  • FSO
  • Rosin
  • Resin
  • RSO
  • Shatter
  • Wax
  • Vape products

Chemical/extracts also includes (but not limited to) topical and directly ingestible matrices, such as:

  • Balms 
  • Lotions
  • Patches
  • Capsules
  • Tinctures
  • Inhalers

Having such a wide variety of matrices come through the lab also means that the lab must be prepared. Handling different matrices and products requires different sample prep methods and data evaluation.

Why is quality control both necessary and important?

Quality control is both necessary and beneficial for more reasons than one. Most importantly, it is to ensure that the laboratory data produced and reported is accurate, reproducible, and legally defensible. Additionally, quality control is important to verify that instruments are working properly and that the prep process does not alter the analytical results it produces. To ensure this, quality control is a part of all analytical batches that enter our laboratory. However, one of the biggest issues in the cannabis industry surrounding quality control is that it is not required in every state, therefore it is not being run altogether in some labs, or worse, it is not being run properly.

Why are cannabis testing labs important?

Cannabis testing labs like Modern Canna are responsible for ensuring that the product being sold is safe for human consumption. Since cannabis is now regarded as a medicine, laboratories are liable for providing accurate data in regards to the potency of products. It is important to note that cannabis is not just used by adults, but also by children. Hence why proper potency data is imperative in order to ensure a safe dosage, for both children and adults.

How will the future of the cannabis industry be de-stigmatized?

There has long since been a stigma against the use of marijuana. Now that times are finally changing and marijuana is recognized as a medicine, this stigma is being combated every day. Laboratories are conscientious of this and will be the entities to offer better insight towards the understanding of cannabis and its chemistry. Having said this, the cannabis industry’s future is reliant upon the standardization of many practices. This includes methodology, prep methods, instrumentation used, and data evaluation processes.

Currently, laboratories are all going about their prep methods, instrumentation, and data evaluation differently. This creates a drastic difference between how results are obtained and the innate integrity of these results. In order to battle this disparity, standard methods must be developed and applied to laboratory practices. Laboratories need to be required to use methodology that is validated. Additionally, mandated quality control procedures need to be requirements in the industry. For example, batches can undergo quality control by implementing method blanks, laboratory spiked samples, and matrix spiked samples. This ensures that both the analytical process is not affected by certain analytes, as well as verifies that the instruments are calibrated and working properly. 

In conjunction with method and quality assurance standardization, the industry will need to create proficiency testing programs. This involves a laboratory receiving a blind sample with an unknown amount of a certain analyte present.The AOAC’s cannabis analytical science program is currently working to create a program that accurately gauges a laboratory’s ability to perform accurate testing and receive reliable results. Furthermore, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is also working to run a cannabis quality assurance program. Finally, ensuring that cannabis education continues and expands will keep the industry moving forward. An array of conferences and symposiums, and even college certificate classes, are all ways to both legitimize and learn more about the industry.

Technology Networks’ Teach Me In 10 episode hosted by Modern Canna’s laboratory director, Jini Curry, can be accessed via Analytical Cannabis or LabTube. Additionally, the video has been posted to Modern Canna’s YouTube channel and is posted below for your convenience.

References:

Bear-McGuinness, L., & Curry, J. (2021, November 12). What is a cannabis testing lab? with Jini Curry. Analytical Cannabis. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/videos/what-is-a-cannabis-testing-lab-with-jini-curry-313487. 

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