Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced a plan to introduce new testing rules for the state’s growing hemp industry. Under the new regulations, hemp products must be tested for residual solvents, heavy metals and pesticides, in addition to making sure they contain less than 0.3% THC.
The CDPHE are planning on a gradual rollout to prevent any supply chain issues or a lab testing bottleneck, similar to what we’ve seen in other states launching new testing requirements in years past, such as Arizona or California. Well, the Colorado rollout appears to be hitting similar snags and because of supply chain issues related to instruments and consumables in laboratories, the implementation of those testing rules is somewhat delayed. What was originally supposed to be implemented over the summer was pushed back to an October 1 deadline, and that deadline has now been pushed back to 2022.
As a result of supply chain shortages and the learning curve to test for such a wide range of pesticides, Colorado is opening hemp testing to out-of-state labs in an effort to stay on schedule with the rollout. Dillon Burns, lab manager at InfiniteCAL, a cannabis testing company with locations in California and Michigan, just completed an audit with the CDPHE in their work to get certified and start conducting hemp testing for businesses in Colorado.
Burns says they’re well-acquainted with the list of pesticides because of how similar the list is to California’s requirements. “For the pesticide testing rules that were supposed to go into effect on August 1st, it’s basically the same list as California just with slightly different action levels,” says Burns. “I would say these action limits are generally stricter – they have much lower LOQs [limits of quantification].”
Come January 1, 2022, they are expecting an additional 40 pesticides to be required under the new rules. “But currently, it’s still unclear when these regulations will actually go into effect,” says Burns. The full pesticide testing list is currently slated to be implemented on April 1, 2022.
The supply chain issues referenced above have a lot to do with what the state is asking labs to test for. Previously, most of the pesticides tested for under Colorado’s adult use and medical cannabis programs could be analyzed with an LC/MS. A handful of pesticides on the new list do require GC/MS, says Burns. It’s entirely possible that a lot of labs in Colorado just don’t have a GC/MS or are in the process of training staff and developing methods for using the new instrument. “Cleanliness of these instruments is such a priority that it takes time to acquire the right skill set for it,” says Burns.
The new testing rollout isn’t just another compliance hurdle for the cannabis industry; these rules are about protecting public health. Dillon Burns said he’s seen hiccups in California with the amount of new hemp farmers getting into the space. “The hemp products we’ve tested in California often fail for pesticides,” says Burns. It’s a lot easier in most states to get a license for growing hemp than it would be for growing adult use cannabis. “You’ll see a lot more novice growers getting into hemp farming without a background in it. They’ll fail for things they just haven’t considered, like environmental drift. We see a lot of fails in CA. Hemp is bioaccumulating so it presents a lot of problems. If they’re not required to look for it, they weren’t monitoring it.”
When asked how the market might react to the new rules, Burns was confident that Colorado knows what they’re doing. “I don’t anticipate that [a testing bottleneck] happening here. The regulators are reasonable, supportive of the industry and opening it up to out-of-state labs should help in preventing that.”
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Yesterday, Shimadzu announced the formation of a partnership with Cure Pharmaceutical Group and CK Sciences to research and develop pharmaceutical cannabis-based products, according to a press release. The three organizations entered a collaborative agreement with the goal of researching and developing products, then moving them through clinical trials using FDA guidelines.
According to the press release, the partnership’s primary goal will be researching and profiling the synergistic effects of the cannabinoids and terpenes, called the “Entourage Effect.”
Shimadzu, a well-know analytical instrument manufacturer, has been making a name for itself in the scientific cannabis space with a number of exciting new ventures. They have worked extensively with cannabis laboratories throughout the country in refining methods and improving analytical chemistry in the space. For example, Shimadzu powers EVIO Labs Florida with over $1.2 million in the latest testing instrumentation.
Tracy Ryan, chief executive officer and founder of CK Sciences, says outfitting their lab for pharmaceutical research was a big priority for starting their venture. “When we met with Shimadzu, and we saw their passion for our mission, we knew we were in incredible hands! When analyzing cannabis everything has to be so precise,” says Ryan. “With Shimadzu’s platforms and team of brilliant scientists supporting our efforts, we have already set ourselves up for success.”
Back in March, Shimadzu launched their Cannabis Analyzer for Potency, a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) designed specifically for quantitative determination of cannabinoid content. The organizations in the partnership will be using that instrument, in addition to a headspace Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) for terpene profiling. Both Cure and CK will use the instruments to generate data, with the goal to validate cannabis as a viable pharmaceutical treatment, according to the press release.
Bob Clifford, Ph.D., general manager of marketing for Shimadzu, says they are excited to work with the organizations. “The emerging pharmaceutical cannabis market requires dedicated, thoughtful leaders eager to showcase the pharmaceutical benefits of cannabis on a scientific level,” says Clifford. “The Cure/CK Sciences group has continuously demonstrated such a leadership commitment, and we’re excited about the opportunities this agreement provides.”
Steve Stadlmann has an extensive background as an analytical chemist working in laboratories since the early 90’s. He is now a sales specialist at PerkinElmer, an analytical instrument manufacturer that provides instruments for cannabis testing labs, in addition to a host of other industries. With over two decades of experience working in environmental testing labs, food and beverage labs and agricultural testing labs, Stadlmann is extremely familiar with the instruments used in cannabis labs.
In 2014, he started working in the cannabis space with TriQ, Inc., a technology solutions provider for cannabis growers, where he worked in product development on a line of nutrients. In April of 2016, he started working at Juniper Analytics, a cannabis-testing laboratory in Bend, Oregon. As laboratory director there, he created their quality manual, quality assurance plan, SOP’s and all the technical documentation for ORELAP accreditation. He developed new methodologies for cannabis testing industry for residual solvents, terpene profiles and potency analysis. He worked with PerkinElmer on pesticide methodology for the QSight™ Triple Quadrupole LC/MS/MS system and implemented operational procedures and methods for LC-UV, GCMS and LC-MS/MS, including sample prep for cannabis products.
He left Juniper Analytics about two months ago to work with PerkinElmer as a sales specialist. With extensive experience in helping get Juniper’s lab accredited, he is a wealth of knowledge on all things cannabis laboratory accreditation. PerkinElmer will be hosting a free webinar on September 12th that takes a deep dive into all things cannabis lab accreditation. Ahead of the upcoming webinar, Getting Accreditation in the Cannabis Industry, we sit down with Stadlmann to hear his observations on what instruments he recommends for accreditation, and processes and procedures to support that. Take a look at our conversation below to get a glimpse into what this webinar will discuss.
CannabisIndustryJournal: How can cannabis labs prepare for accreditation with selecting instrumentation?
Steve: Finding the appropriate instrumentation for the regulations is crucial. Ensuring the instrumentation not only has the capabilities of analyzing all the required compounds, but also able to achieve appropriate detection limit requirements. In addition, having an instrument manufacturer as a partner, that is willing and able to assist in method development, implementation and continued changes to the testing requirements at the state level (and potentially national level) is key.
Another consideration is robustness of the equipment. The instrumentation must be capable of high throughput for fast turnaround times of results. Unlike the environmental industry, the cannabis industry has consumer products with expiration dates. Clients demand quick turnaround of results to get product to market as quickly as possible and avoid sitting on inventory for any length of time.
To add to the robustness need, sample matrices in the cannabis industry can be quite challenging in relation to analytical instrumentation. Equipment that is able to handle these matrices with minimal downtime for routine service is becoming a requirement to maintain throughput needs of the industry.
CIJ: What are the most crucial procedures and practices for achieving ISO 17025 accreditation?
Steve: Development and documentation of processes and procedures following Good Laboratory Practices and procedures is essential to a successful accreditation process. Great attention must be paid to the quality objectives of the laboratory as well as associated documentation, including tracking of any errors, deviations, updates, complaints, etc.
Data integrity is a key component to any accrediting body and includes implementation and/or development of appropriate methods with support data proving acceptable results. In addition, documentation of all procedures and processes along with tracking of all steps in the process during routine laboratory work should be a priority. The ability to show a complete, documented trail of all procedures done to any sample is important in ensuring the results can be reproduced and ensuring no deviations occurred, in turn potentially causing questionable results.
Last but not least: training. Laboratory staff should be well versed in any procedures they are involved in to ensure high data quality and integrity. If any laboratory staff does not receive appropriate training in any operating procedures, the data quality becomes suspect.
CIJ: What are some of the biggest obstacles or pitfalls cannabis labs face when trying to get accredited?
Steve: Not fully preparing to meet any agency and testing regulations and requirements will cause delays in the accreditation process and potentially more work for the laboratory. From documentation to daily operations, if any aspect becomes a major finding for an auditor, additional data is usually required to prove the error has been fixed satisfactorily.
Taking the time early on to ensure all documentation, processes and procedures are adhering to any regulatory agency requirements is important for a smooth accreditation process. It is easy to overlook small details when building out the operating procedures that might be essential in the process. Again, going back to data quality, the laboratory must ensure all steps are outlined and documented to ensure high quality (reproducible) data and integrity.
A new employee should be able to come in and read a quality manual and standard operating procedure and produce equivalent data to any laboratory analyst doing the same job. With difficult or challenging operating procedures it becomes even more important that training and documentation are adhered to.
PerkinElmer’s free webinar will dive into these points and others in more detail. To learn more and sign up, click here.
A certified reference material (CRM) is generally recognized as providing the highest level of traceability and accuracy to a measurement. A CRM designed specifically for cannabis testing and tailored to state-specific testing regulations could help laboratories better ensure the safety of their products.
The fact that a certificate accompanies a reference material does not qualify it as a CRM. The reference material must be produced in accordance with ISO Guide 34 specifications by an accredited manufacturer. Adam Ross, key account manager and organic specialist at LGC Standards, says accreditation is a big part of bringing legitimacy to cannabis testing. “For a laboratory to receive an ISO 17025 accreditation, they must purchase their RMs from an ISO 17025 manufacturer. The best option is to purchase an ISO Guide 34 manufactured CRM,” says Ross. “It is particularly important for testing requirements, such as potency, pesticides, etc., where quantitation is expected, to use properly certified quantitative reference materials.” LGC Standards, a 175-year-old company, is one of those manufacturers that invested the time and money to achieve ISO Guide 34 accreditation and offers a spectrum of CRMs for cannabis testing.
The major advantage to using a proper CRM is an increased level of credibility. Auditors recognize the value of using a CRM which can add to the integrity of the results produced. The regular use of certified reference standards along with proper training, methodology and instrumentation, will facilitate a result that has the least amount of uncertainty and is more defendable. “The regular use of certified reference standards will help ensure products that go to market are safe to consume,” says Ross.
With regard to potency analyses, Ross has some key insights to help a laboratory better utilize CRMs. “My advice? Don’t mix the cannabinoids; labs analyzing by GC/FID have discovered that some of the cannabinoids will co-elute. Also, they have a short shelf life when mixed together,” says Ross. “Cannabinoid analysts should use GC/MS or LC/MS for their analysis or analyze the cannabinoids individually,” says Ross.
So what happens if a cannabis lab uses non-certified reference materials? Labs might save money in the short term. CRMs are slightly more expensive than a non-certified reference material, but will increase the defensibility of a lab’s data. Using a reference material created in-house or from a non-accredited vendor can lead to less-than-accurate results. A non-certified reference material has a greater chance of being made incorrectly. The publication of incorrect data damages the credibility of the testing lab and could lead to legal action against the lab from damaged parties.
One of the major challenges for the cannabis testing industry is the variation in state-to-state regulations. Ross says that Oregon’s regulations are pretty comprehensive and that other states should look to the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) for guidance. According to Ross, ORELAP would like to see higher quality standards with legitimate traceability. Utilizing CRMs the correct way will help laboratories achieve greater accuracy.
Here are some tips for using CRMs appropriately:
Always bring your standards to room temperature before making a dilution.
Matrix matched calibration standards provide more accurate quantitation. Prepare standards in the solvent from extracted blank matrices.
Always bracket your analytical runs with continuing calibration verification standards. Proving that your instrument remained calibrated during the run gives your data more credibility.
Analytical chemists purchase CRMs for three primary uses in the testing lab:
To calibrate the instrument that will be used to perform the testing
To confirm the instruments continuing calibration throughout the analytical process
For analytical quality control or “spikes”
Typically, labs will spike known concentrations of the analytes of interest into a control sample and regular samples with the intent of testing analytical efficiency. Recoveries of analytes from the spiked control sample tell the chemist how well the analytical method is working. The spiked samples (matrix spikes) demonstrate to what extent the sample matrix (the consumable being tested) is influencing the results of the analytical procedure.
CRMs could be described as the nexus between cannabis testing results, the human element and the instrumentation used in an analysis. By using a cannabis-specific CRM, the cannabis testing community can demonstrate tangible improvements in accuracy and legitimacy.
I have been working with the chemical analysis side of the cannabis industry for about six years, and I have seen tremendous scientific growth on the part of cannabis labs over that time. Based on conversations with labs and the presentations and forums held at cannabis analytical conferences, I have seen the cannabis analytical industry move from asking, “how do we do this analysis?” to asking “how do we do this analysis right?” This change of focus represents a milestone in the cannabis industry; it means the industry is growing up. Growing up is not always easy, and that is being reflected now in a new focus on understanding and addressing key issues such as pesticides in cannabis products, and asking important questions about how regulation of cannabis labs will occur.
While sometimes painful, growth is always good. To support this evolution, we are now focusing on the contribution that laboratories make to the safety of the cannabis consumer through the generation of quality data. Much of this focus has been on ensuring scientifically sound data through regulation. But Restek is neither a regulatory nor an accrediting body. Restek is dedicated to helping analytical chemists in all industries and regulatory environments produce scientifically sound data through education, technical support and expert advice regarding instrumentation and supplies. I have the privilege of supporting the cannabis analytical testing industry with this goal in mind, which is why I decided to write a regular column detailing simple ways analytical laboratories can improve the quality of their chromatographic data right now, in ways that are easy to implement and are cost effective.
Anyone with an instrument can perform chromatographic analysis and generate data. Even though results are generated, these results may not be valid. At the cannabis industry’s current state, no burden of proof is placed on the analytical laboratory regarding the validity of its results, and there are few gatekeepers between those results and the consumer who is making decisions based on them. Even though some chromatographic instruments are super fancy and expensive, the fact is that every chromatographic instrument – regardless of whether it costs ten thousand or a million dollars – is designed to spit out a number. It is up to the chemist to ensure that number is valid.
In the first couple of paragraphs of this article, I used terms to describe ‘good’ data like ‘scientifically-sound’ or ‘quality’, but at the end of the day, the definition of ‘good’ data is valid data. If you take the literal meaning, valid data is justifiable, logically correct data. Many of the laboratories I have had the pleasure of working with over the years are genuinely dedicated to the production of valid results, but they also need to minimize costs in order to remain competitive. The good news is that laboratories can generate valid scientific results without breaking the bank.
In each of my future articles, I will focus on one aspect of valid data generation, such as calibration and internal standards, explore it in practical detail and go over how that aspect can be applied to common cannabis analyses. The techniques I will be writing about are applied in many other industries, both regulated and non-regulated, so regardless of where the regulations in your state end up, you can already have a head start on the analytical portion of compliance. That means you have more time to focus on the inevitable paperwork portion of regulatory compliance – lucky you! Stay tuned for my next column on instrument calibration, which is the foundation for producing quality data. I think it will be the start of a really good series and I am looking forward to writing it.
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