The Evolution of Cannabis Testing
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The symposium features a lineup of expert speakers with backgrounds in academia, cannabis testing, and cannabis business management, providing a platform for scientists to share their research and interesting developments in their fields.
Dr Jeffrey Raber, CEO & CVO of the cannabis product innovation company The Werc Shop and the Executive Director of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs, is one of the speakers contributing to The Science of Cannabis 2018 through his talk on “The Cannabis Testing Evolution”.
Dr Raber’s talk draws on his extensive experience in the American cannabis industry to help describe the shift in cannabis testing regulations and technology over the past decade. Dr. Raber’s talk also offers several projections for the trajectory of the cannabis testing industry and the state of cannabis regulation over the next five to ten years.
Past Trends in Cannabis Testing
Before the emergence of the regulated medicinal and/or recreational cannabis markets that are now present in a majority of US states, cannabis analysis and testing was most commonly carried out by forensic crime labs to discriminate between legal hemp plants and then-illicit cannabis material that was seized by law enforcement.
Upon the legalization of medicinal cannabis in selected states came a need for dedicated cannabis testing facilities. These early facilities looked to the forensic crime labs for guidance on testing techniques, and so initially gas chromatography became the industry standard.
As the cannabis testing industry developed, the more expensive and technical methods of liquid chromatography - high-performance liquid chromatography, and ultra-performance liquid chromatography - have usurped gas chromatography as the industry standard. This is largely due to their ability to detect neutral and acidic forms of cannabinoids without lengthy work-up reactions, as well as detecting the presence of secondary cannabinoids and terpenes that may be of interest to cannabis producers.
Arguably the most significant shift in the cannabis testing landscape over the past few years has been its progression from a voluntary process to a legal requirement. Though this evolution in regulation is ongoing, the process uncovered many important questions and in doing so shaped the development of the cannabis testing industry.
Challenges for Testers and Regulators
With the introduction of mandatory testing, it became essential to identify the most effective and practical analysis techniques for the job.
It was clear that liquid chromatography methods had advantages over gas chromatography for measuring cannabinoid potency. However, cannabis testing is about more than simply testing for cannabinoids- it must also function as a way to test for more unwelcome chemical compounds, such as harmful pesticides or microbiological contaminants.
The presence of cultivating agents, such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, on consumable products would usually be a matter for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but due to cannabis federally remaining a Schedule 1 drug, the EPA cannot be responsible for determining safe levels for these compounds in cannabis products. This means that the safe limits and best practices for preventing cannabis contamination were left entirely up to state-level legislators. Similarly, decisions regarding the testing for microbiological and heavy metal contaminants, as well as full cannabinoid and terpene profile analysis reports, have been left to individual states.
This has created a troubling amount of variation as to what standards cannabis testers are held to across the country. Massachusetts currently lies at the center of a fierce debate over the benefits of novel DNA-based analysis versus the more traditional culture plating methods for microbiological contaminant detection. Colorado has enforced mandatory pesticide testing for cannabis flower and trim but has no similar regulations for cannabis concentrate. Oregon recently overhauled the cannabis testing system in the state to introduce mandatory potency tests for all cannabis products, as well as testing cannabis plants and concentrates for pesticides, water activity/moisture, and residual solvent.
This lack of homogeneity in cannabis testing regulation is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as states continue to act in the interest of their cannabis-using population's safety in the face of complicated analytical and environmental challenges.
What the Future May Hold
In the short term, all eyes are on California as the state rolls out a new suite of cannabis testing regulations. The regulations come into force in three phases, with the first having been implemented in January and the second on July 1st. The third and final phase is due to come into effect on New Years Eve 2018.
Depending on the form of cannabis product, the strict new regulations will require cannabis products to undergo up to 12 different mandatory quality control and contamination analysis tests. The testing laboratories carrying out these tests are also required to obtain ISO Accreditation from the state and are barred from operating in any capacity as cannabis retail outlets.
Cannabis distributors in California will also be affected with respect to maintaining a stricter chain of custody in the packaging, storage, and delivery of cannabis products to ensure that the entire process from cultivation to sale is as free from contamination dangers as possible.
As the evolution of the cannabis testing industry continues, California will be a key case study on how these new regulations affect regional cannabis cultivators, testers, and distributors. The resulting impact will help inform the cannabis industry in the United States and enable all states to move towards the ultimate goal of a safe, technologically advanced, and well-regulated cannabis industry.
REGISTER NOW for Analytical Cannabis’ The Science of Cannabis 2018 Symposium, hosted online, September 27, 2018. Full speaker list and timetable is available here.