Cannabis testing is undeniably a key element in legitimizing the cannabis industry and ensuring consumer safety. As legalization spreads and regulators step in and tighten up testing requirements, labs in the sector must constantly adapt to keep up. In the first part of our interview with Dr. Kaveh Kahen, Senior Director, and General Manager, Mass Spectrometry for PerkinElmer, we covered some of the technical challenges labs face and, how PerkinElmer is engaging with the industry.
In the second half of our interview, we discuss some of the biggest trends in cannabis testing for 2018 and the roles of different groups in helping to advance the industry.
Ash Board (AB): The cannabis industry is a very different world when compared to established markets like pharma and food. How do you cope with the unique challenges this brings as a business?
Kaveh Kahen (KK): We appreciate the challenge. It’s rare to see a market growing at this kind of rate, and at the same time, we view this as a very important public health issue. When and where cannabis is legalized and regulations require testing labs to run specific analyses, our role is to protect the public and help the labs meet regulatory standards. We care, whether it’s cannabis, orange juice, or rice, that the product that’s consumed at the end is safe and pesticide free, heavy metal free and so on.
The industry is in a unique situation because it’s coming out of this illegal world. As I'm sure you know, the kind of manufacturing practices that have been used traditionally do not necessarily conform to any kind of standards. Look at growing locations too. Often, you’re looking at old facilities with a lot of lead-based paint, potentially soil contaminated with arsenic, mercury and, cadmium. The problem is, these elements end up in the cannabis plant.
Then you have pesticides, because again, before legalization and state regulations, for years some growers were using nasty chemicals to make sure that they could get their product to market and maximize their profits. Finally, you have extraction -- we are all aware of the use of carcinogenic organic solvents like hexane and heptane used to produce oils and formulations for edibles.
All these hazardous compounds are being eliminated now as we are moving into legalization. PerkinElmer’s mission is to innovate for a healthier world and we are excited about helping this industry overcome these challenges.
AB: In the time that PerkinElmer have been involved in the world of cannabis what sort of changes have you seen?
KK: In general, I think the lab testing market has started to mature. When Colorado and Washington first legalized, it was more or less just about potency testing. The end consumers really wanted to know how strong the product was and the states wanted to regulate potency from a health perspective.
The next big step was when pesticide analysis gained attention and pesticide limits were introduced in Oregon. I think that changed the game. Next, we will see heavy metal analysis introduced in California, which will add another layer of consumer safety. Across the board, legislation is getting tighter and more challenging analyses are being required.
We have also noticed that major growers are starting to understand what legalization and regulation mean and how they can adapt to best serve their customers. Initially, I think there was a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the challenges the industry faces. I think that there is an awakening starting to happen. People are realizing that if they visited a pharma lab, just for a simple Advil or Aspirin tablet, they would see incredibly rigorous testing done on a single pill used to treat a headache. If you look at this as the gold standard, it gives you an idea of the kind of regulations and testing we need to be prepared for. We’re also seeing more state of the art labs that are well equipped and well prepared. Gradually these labs are looking more and more like analytical chemistry labs from well-established markets like pharma.
Another well-discussed issue is the fact that cannabis is federally illegal in the U.S. This presents a real challenge for labs as they need to raise a lot of capital to get started. For example, if you want to make sure that you’re compliant with the Californian regulations, we’re talking about a full suite of instrumentation and a team of experienced scientists. It’s a barrier, and we think it’s going to lead to a mismatch between the number of samples that need to be tested and the labs that can accept these samples and analyze them. Within the next few months, we think this gap will really start to widen. How that gap is going to get filled is an interesting question, we will have to wait and see. We believe that at least in Canada, this issue will be resolved after federal legalization.
AB: Do you have any thoughts on how that gap might be filled in the USA?
KK: I think governments assume that the free market is going to take care of it. They believe there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors to fill the gap. That’s partially true but it’s going to be challenging. When you talk to these labs, the biggest challenge they have is raising money to get the lab going. Another challenge is to find the right staff. You need certain advanced skills which are not readily available in all areas. I think we’re solving a lot of problems here by having the methods and the instruments, but there are also other challenges that need to be tackled at a higher level.
AB: Are there any labs that you’ve seen that you think are leading the way in the industry?
KK: Sure, I won’t name any names here. But, there are some labs in California and Oregon that are following every standard that a typical food or environmental lab would follow. Most of them are our customers.
The varying competency of labs is a big challenge here. When you ask the state regulators “What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing?” They’re concerned, rightly, about what they call ‘lab shopping’. This is when producers go to different labs to find out which one will give them the highest potency results and then choose to work only with that lab.
The problem is, in some cases, the analytical methods being used are not robust, or not even valid. I think this is going to be the next challenge for the regulators. They need to enforce what’s already enforced in the food, environmental, pharma space where there are audits, certificated analyses, and method validation and verification is very clear.
AB: You mention lab shopping and varying results between labs. Are you trying to help address this too?
KK: We try to eliminate this kind of variation with instrumentation that is robust and supports the use of reproducible and standardized methods. We make sure that no matter where these methods are being run, they follow the same, core protocol. We have introduced SOPs that guarantee results if you follow them correctly.
The biggest complaint we hear from the labs we work with is that they have to compete with other labs that aren’t following the same strict standards. So, even though they are doing better analyses following all the standards, using the right methods, rejecting samples if they see pesticides and telling the grower, they are being outcompeted. With increasing legalization, we expect state regulators to implement robust audit processes and crack down on these types of practices. I think it is just a matter of time.
You can read part 1 of the Interview here - Overcoming Technical Challenges in Cannabis Analysis
Dr. Kaveh Kahen was speaking to Ash Board, Director of Editorial for Technology Networks.