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 NIST is an organization under the U.S. Department of Commerce that promotes innovation through standards, technology and advancing science. The NIST’s CannaQAP platform works with cannabis labs to help improve competence in analytical science and standardization.
The program requires participating labs to conduct exercises that help inform the NIST about current industry standards and capabilities for hemp and cannabis testing. One of the goals of the program is aiding in the design and characterization of cannabis reference materials.
Kaycha Labs took part in two exercises for the CannaQAP study. Exercise 1 included testing for potency with 17 cannabinoids in hemp oil and Exercise 2 included potency, heavy metals and moisture content testing in plant materials.
Chris Martinez, president of Kaycha Labs, says the program can benefit the entire industry when it comes to regulatory compliance testing. “As a leading cannabis lab company with a network of labs in multiple states, it is imperative we demonstrate that our labs apply compliant and consistent testing methodologies,” says Martinez. “Assuring all industry participants, including State and Federal government regulators, that precise and consistent testing data is the norm will benefit the entire industry.”
Kaycha Labs, while based in Fort Lauderdale, actually has cannabis testing labs in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee, making them an ideal candidate for CannaQAP.
Exercise 1 has been completed in its entirety and published here. Exercise 2 has completed the participation and data submission legs of the study and NIST is preparing it for publication. On their website, it says that announcements about their upcoming Exercise 3 are coming soon.
As the legalization of cannabis in the U.S. continues to grow, stringent regulatory requirements around the country are being adopted to ensure that only safe and high-quality cannabis is sold. The U.S. cannabis testing market is estimated to see tremendous growth over the coming years. Further, the FDA has made several resources available for addressing cannabis products like CBD to ensure that consumers and stakeholders are getting safe products.
Prominent players operating in the U.S. cannabis testing market such as CannaSafe, Anresco, Collective Wellness of California, EVIO Inc., Digipath Inc., PSI Labs, SC Labs, Inc., Steep Hill, Inc. etc. are focusing on developing enhanced cannabis testing solutions and accreditation for gaining strong market presence. For example, earlier this year SC Labs developed a comprehensive hemp testing panel that is purported to meet testing standards in every state with a hemp program.
Citing another instance, in 2019, a leading cannabis resource Leafly, introduced the Leafly Certified Labs Program, under which a network of labs is independently assessed by Leafly for quality and accuracy. This program has been designed to address inconsistency in cannabis testing by ensuring that lab data comes from labs that have been confirmed to provide accurate results.
Rising adoption of high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) technique
A lot of cannabis testing procedures are carried out using liquid chromatography. It is estimated to witness higher preference over the coming years. In 2020, the liquid chromatography segment recorded a valuation of USD 662.4 million. Further, liquid chromatography is a valuable alternative to gas chromatography when it comes to analysis of cannabinoids, pesticides and THC which is why this technology is often preferred for potency testing as it offers more precise analysis. Moreover, purification standards are highly controlled in liquid chromatography which helps in obtaining accurate results, which is complementing the segment growth.
Growing popularity of heavy metals testing for cannabis
Heavy metals are known to be one of the major contaminants found in cannabis and its products apart from residual solvents, microbial organisms and pesticides. In addition, heavy metals are highly toxic in nature and on exposure can lead to poisoning and other complications. As a result, heavy metal testing for cannabis and its products is increasingly becoming popular. Several government organizations have made heavy metal testing mandatory for cannabis products. Moreover, increasing legalization of cannabis across several countries for adult use and medical purposes is likely to instigate the demand for heavy metal testing of cannabis products, thereby fostering the growth of heavy metals testing segment over the coming years. For the record, in 2020, the segment had recorded a market revenue of USD 352.5 million.
Increasing support from government bodies in the Mountain West
With increasing legalization for medical and adult use, the cannabis testing market in the Mountain West zone of the U.S. is likely to observe a tremendous growth over time. Moreover, growing support from various government bodies is playing a key role in enhancing the business space. For example, Montana’s Department of Revenue helps labs get licensed along with the state’s environmental laboratory that oversees inspections and licensing. Further, presence of a large number of cultivators of cannabis and manufacturers of cannabis-based products are also positively influencing the regional market growth. Considering the significance of these growth factors, the U.S. cannabis testing market in the Mountain West is estimated to register a substantial CAGR of 9.6% through 2027.
SC Labs, a cannabis testing company with roots in Santa Cruz, California, announced this week that they have developed a comprehensive hemp testing panel that covers a number of contaminants on a national regulatory level. In the press release, the company says they aim to fill the void of national hemp testing requirements.
The hemp testing panel they have developed purportedly meets testing standards in states that require contaminant levels below a certain action limit. The SC Labs hemp testing panel could theoretically be used for regulatory compliance testing across the country, reaching action limits and analyte levels that meet the strictest state requirements.
The panel tests for pesticides, heavy metals, microbiology, mycotoxins, residual solvents and water activity.
The panel is one sign of progress on the long road to nationally harmonized testing standards. “As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now,” says Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs. “The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act. As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now. The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act.”
SC Labs is headquartered in Santa Cruz, but has licenses in California, Oregon, Texas and Colorado (pending). Their California and Oregon locations are both ISO 17025-accredited and conducting THC-containing cannabis testing, as well as hemp testing.
Dr. Markus Roggen is a chemist, professor, cannabis researcher and founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV). Founder & CEO of Ascension Sciences (ASI), Tomas Skrinskas has been at the leading edge of transformative healthcare technologies, including computer assisted surgery, surgical robotics and genetic nanomedicines, for over 15 years.
Leading researchers from the cannabis industry – Dr. Markus Roggen (Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures) and Tomas Skrinskas (Ascension Sciences) – highlight the challenges facing the industry’s current compliance testing standards and the opportunities emerging from the latest developments in nanotechnology and advanced analytical testing. Here are the key insights from the discussion.
What are the current compliance testing requirements for cannabis products? Are they sufficient in ensuring safety and quality?
In the current landscape, Canada’s compliance testing requirements are clearly laid out in the form of guidance documents. Specifically, for pesticide testing, cannabinoid concentration content in products, heavy metals, etc. Compliance testing can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) establishing the concentrations of wanted compounds, and 2) ensuring that unwanted compounds do not exceed safety limits.
In the first category, cannabinoids and terpenes are quantified. Their presence or absence is not generally forbidden but must stay within limits. For example, for material to be classified as hemp, the THC concentration cannot exceed 0.3 %wt., or a serving of cannabis edible should contain below 5 mg of THC. The second category of compliance testing focuses on pesticides, mold and heavy metals. The regulators have provided a list of substances to test for and set limits on those.
Are those rules sufficient to ensure safety and quality? Safety can only be ensured if all dangerous compounds are known and tested for. Take for example Vitamin E acetate, the substance linked to lung damage in some THC vape consumers and the EVALI outbreak. Prior to the caseload in the Fall of 2019, there were no requirements to test for it. It’s not only additives that are of concern. THC distillates often show THC concentrations of 90% plus 5% other cannabinoids. What are the last 5% of this mixture? Currently, those substances have not been identified. Are they safe? There is no concrete way to determine that.
The aforementioned guidelines have the best intentions, but do not adequately address two key obstacles the industry is currently facing: 1) what happens in practice, and 2) what can easily be audited? Making sure people follow the requirements is the challenge, and it comes down to variability of the tests. Testing has to happen on the final form of the product as well as every “batch,” but there is little guidance on how that is defined. With so much growth happening in the industry, how are these records even tracked and scrutinized?
And finally, there’s the question of quality. How do you define quality? Before establishing quantifiable quality attributes, it can’t be tested.
If compliance testing is insufficient, then why aren’t more cannabis companies testing beyond Health Canada’s requirements?
Compliance testing has always been focused on the end product, THC and CBD levels, and consumer safety. As long as cannabis companies are testing to determine this, doing further testing means added costs to the producer. There is a rush to get cannabis products to the new market because many consumers are eager to buy adult use products such as extracts or edibles, and quality is not the biggest selling point at this very moment.
However, there are unrealized advantages to advanced analytical testing that go beyond Health Canada’s requirements and that offer greater benefits to cannabis producers and product developers. Producers often see testing as an added cost to their production that is forced upon them by the regulators and will only test once the product is near completion. For cannabinoid therapeutics and nutraceuticals, advanced analytical testing is critical for determining the chemical makeup and overall quality of the formulation. This is where contract researchers, such as Ascension Sciences, come in to offer tests for nanoparticle characterization, cannabinoid concentration, dissolution profiles and encapsulation efficiency.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from advanced analytical testing. However, testing that goes beyond lawful requirements is an opportunity to save money and resources in the long term. This is where companies, like Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV), offer in-process testing that provides a deep characterization and analysis of cannabis samples during every stage of product development. If tests are conducted during production, inefficiencies in the process are revealed and mistakes are spotted early on. For example, testing the spent cannabis plant material after extraction can verify if the extraction actually went through to completion. In another case, testing vape oil before it goes into the vape cartridges and packaging allows producers to detect an unacceptable THC concentration before they incur additional production costs.
Which methods are the most successful for cannabis testing?
The most effective method is the one that best determines the specific data needed to meet the desired product goal. For example, NMR Spectroscopy is paramount in assessing the quality of a cannabis sample and identifying its precise chemical composition.
HPLC (liquid/gas chromatography) is the most precise method for quantifying THC, CBD and other known cannabinoids. However, if a cannabis extractor wants to quickly verify that their oil has fully decarboxylated, then an HPLC test will likely take too long and be too expensive. In this case, IR (Infrared Spectroscopy) offers a faster and more cost-effective means of obtaining the needed data. Therefore, it ultimately depends on the needs of the producer and how well the testing instruments are maintained and operated.
What’s next in analytical testing technology? What are you working on or excited about?
In terms of compliance, regulations to standardize the testing is the hot topic at the moment. For nanotechnology and nanoparticles, the big question now is what is known as the “matrix” of the sample. In other words, what are the cannabinoids, and what else is in the sample that’s changing your results? The R&D team at Ascension Sciences is in the process of developing a standardized method for this to combat the issues mentioned earlier in the interview.
Ascension Sciences is also excited about characterizing nanoparticles over time to determine how cannabinoids are released and how that data can be transferred or made equivalent to consumer experiences. For example, if a formulation with quicker release, faster onset and better bioavailability is found in the lab, product development would be more efficient and effective when compared to other, more anecdotal methods.
At CBDV, the team is working on in-process analytical tools, such as decarboxylation monitoring via IR Spectroscopy and NMR Spectroscopy. CBDV is also looking at quantifying cannabis product quality. The first project currently in motion is to identify and quantify cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds present when vaping or smoking a joint using a smoke analyzer.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from testing beyond what’s required by Health Canada. Compliance testing is designed to ensure safety, and for good reason, but it is currently insufficient at determining the quality, consistency and process improvements. As the above factors are necessary for the advancement of cannabis products, this is where further methods, such as advanced analytical testing, should be considered.
I think that we need to start changing the terminology around the hazards associated with cannabis from food safety hazards to product safety hazards. These hazards have not only been associated with harmful effects for those that ingest cannabis infused products, but also for those that consume the cannabis products in other ways such as inhalation (vaping or smoking). So, when we refer to these hazards as food safety hazards, the immediate thought is edibles, which misleads cultivators, manufacturers and consumers to have a false sense of security around the safety of products that are consumed in other ways.
There are several product safety hazards that have been associated with cannabis. These hazards can become a public health problem if not controlled as they could harm the consumer, regardless of the method of consumption.
Let’s take a look at the different types of hazards associated cannabis:
Biological Hazards refer to those microorganisms that can cause illness to the consumer of a product that contain them. They are not visible to the naked eye and are very dangerous when their metabolic by-products (toxins) are ingested or their spores are inhaled. The symptoms for illnesses caused by these microorganisms will vary. Consumers may experience gastrointestinal discomfort (vomiting, diarrhea), headaches, fever and other symptoms. The ingestion of these pathogens, allergens or their by-products may lead to death, if the illness is not treated on time or if the consumer of the product is immunocompromised. In addition, the inhalation of mold spores when smoking cannabis products, can lead to lung disease and death. Some of the biological hazards associated with cannabis are: Salmonella sp., E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Aspergillus sp. and Penicillium sp.
Chemical Hazards refer to those chemicals that can be present in the plant or finished product due to human applications (pesticides), operational processes (extraction solvents and cleaning chemicals), soil properties (heavy metals), environmental contamination (radiological chemicals) or as a result of occurring naturally (mycotoxins and allergens). Consuming high concentrations of cleaning chemicals in a product can lead to a wide range of symptoms from mild rash, burning sensation in the oral-respiratory system, gastrointestinal discomfort or death. In addition, long term exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, radiological contaminants and mycotoxins may lead to the development of cancers.
Physical Hazards refer to those foreign materials that may be present in the plant or finished product. Foreign materials such as rocks, plastics or metals can cause harm to the consumer by chipping teeth or laceration of the mouth membranes (lips, inner cheeks, tong, esophagus, etc.) In the worst-case scenario, physical hazards may lead to choking, which can cause death due to asphyxiation.
These hazards can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level when foundational programs (Good Agricultural/Cultivation Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, Allergen Management Program, Pest Control, etc.) are combined with a Food [Product] Safety Plan. These lead to a Food [Product] Safety Management System that is designed to keep consumers safe, regardless of the method of consumption.
According to a press release emailed today, Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation Inc. (PJLA) announced the accreditation of PharmLabs LLC to ISO/IEC 17025. Based in San Diego, California, PharmLabs has four locations, with three in the Southern California region and one in Maui.
PharmLabs offers a very wide variety of services including: California Compliance testing, a specialized Hemp Testing Program, Hemp Biomass Verification testing, and THC-free testing for the state of California. In addition, they offer the testing of cannabinoids, pesticides, residual solvents, microbiological contaminants, mycotoxins, heavy metals, terpenes, water activity, moisture content, and filth/foreign material testing.
“Our experience with [Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation] has been incredible over the years. Since we have multiple locations, we have had many visits with PJLA and their knowledge and quick response time has helped us get where we need to be,” says Greg Magdoff, founder of PharmLabs.
According to the press release, PharmLabs has plans to expand throughout the state of California and the rest of the United States in both hemp and cannabis testing in legal states.
The Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the Farm Bill, was signed into law in December 2018. A major provision in the law legalizes hemp as an industrial crop. In August of 2016, USDA, DEA, and FDA published a Statement of Principles in the Federal Register (FR 53365) that defined industrial hemp as any part or derivative (including seeds) of the plant Cannabis sativa L. with a dry weight concentration of tetrahydrocannabinols not greater than 0.3% (wt/wt).
Globally, the hemp market was estimated at $3.9 billion in 2017 and the hemp seed segment is predicted to grow “at a CAGR of 17.1%” through 2025. Some of the markets affected by hemp production include nutraceuticals, food, textiles, construction materials, and personal care products. It is also anticipated that cannabidiol (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid extracted from hemp) production will grow to support the burgeoning recreational and medicinal cannabis markets in the U.S., Canada and other countries around the world.
In U.S. states and Canada where recreational or medicinal marijuana programs have been legalized, regulations have been defined to assure the safety and quality of the products sold to consumers. These regulations include analytical chemistry and biological assays to identify and quantify pesticides, mycotoxins, heavy metals, residual manufacturing solvents, terpenes, and microbial contaminates. With regards to hemp, the USDA recently released guidelines for testing of hemp. To date, the only required test from the Federal perspective is total ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content < 0.3% by weight. Total THC is essentially the sum of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and THC (Total THC = 0.877(THCA) + THC) but this may be eventually expanded to include all salts and isomers of cannabinols as noted above. Another complication: what constitutes “dry”? The CFR does not answer this.
Agilent Technologies has invested in the development and implementation of the analytical protocol, the services needed to support these assays, the required consumables, reagents, and supplies, and the training of sales and support personnel to comprehensively ensure compliance of hemp with USDA regulations.
Someone approached me the other day, wanting to know what was the real story about hemp and CBD.
He said he had “a guy” who gave him a CBD salve as part of a study, supposedly “the good stuff,” to help his knee. He couldn’t understand why he was the only one out of 20 people in the group that felt no relief. He happened to have this CBD salve with him, along with a second brand that he hadn’t yet tried. The “good stuff” had slick, colorful packaging, a beautiful logo and powerful marketing messages about the phytocannabinoids and essential oils in the jar. The other CBD product was in a dull grey tin, an ugly duckling, and not nearly so impressive on the outside- I’ll call it “Homer’s Brew.” My friend dismissed Homer’s Brew outright, as not even worth trying. I told him that not all CBD products are created equal, that you can’t always believe the claims on the package, including the cannabinoid potency displayed on the label.
I told him to search for the Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each of the two products, specifically, lab test results validating the CBD dosage per serving, and also the breakdown of pesticides, heavy metals and microbials. He had to do a little digging and emailing, as it wasn’t readily available for either company, but the next day, results were in. The “good stuff” with the slick packaging and bold claims had mere trace amounts of CBD, with some hemp and essential oils- no tests for pesticides or contaminants of any kind. Hmmm, no wonder he was disappointed. Homer’s Brew’s COA came in with flying colors – a reputable lab had confirmed safe levels of pesticides, pathogens and heavy metals, and the CBD level was substantial, with a detailed cannabinoid breakdown in the lab report.
In spite of the varying legality of hemp-derived CBD products from one state to the next, consumers are gobbling up costly CBD salves, tinctures and edibles in markets, gyms and online. Like moths to a flame, they are pulled in by the CBD name and lofty promises, not always understanding what they are getting for their money. They trust that these products are safe, licensed, inspected and regulated by some agency, otherwise, “they wouldn’t be on the shelves, would they?”
In spite of the 2018 Farm Bill, FDA still has not recognized the legality of products containing hemp-derived CBD, but some states have gone ahead and given them a green light anyway- check with your own jurisdiction to be sure. In the meantime, hemp-derived CBD products are slipping through the regulatory cracks, depending on the state. It is confusing, for sure, and buyer beware.
Separate yourself from the pack of snake-oil salesmen. Test your products for safety and accurate cannabinoid potency, and make a Certificate of Analysis readily available to your customers. Boldly portray your transparency and belief in the quality of your products through this COA.
Providing this information to consumers is the best path to success- safe, satisfied customers who will refer to their friends and family, and most likely come back for more of your “good stuff.”
Encore Labs is a full-service cannabis testing lab in Pasadena, California, providing all testing needs required by California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC). The BCC requires that cannabis products being sold in licensed dispensaries be tested for cannabinoid potency, heavy metals, microbial impurities, moisture content and water activity, mycotoxins, residual pesticides, residual solvents and processing chemicals, foreign materials and terpenes. It is Encore Labs’ goal to guarantee the quality and potency of all cannabis products while ensuring regulatory guidelines are met in the state of California.
Encore Labs provides quick turnaround times on a consistent basis. They take pride in offering excellent customer service without diminishing the quality of the work that they do. Their team of laboratory analysts/technicians are passionate about the industry and will never compromise their integrity just to make an extra buck.
Co-Founder, Spencer Wong, mentions their personal connection with clients. “Our customers don’t just see us as their testing laboratory, they see Encore Labs as their laboratory partner,” says Wong. “Besides performing analytical testing, we have worked with many customers to help formulate new products and do root cause analysis to pinpoint inefficiencies in their manufacturing operations and cultivation farms.”
ISO/IEC 17025 Accreditation has been extremely valuable to Encore Labs, especially regarding the new cannabis testing industry. “Our experience with Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. has been great and has allowed for a very smooth and straightforward initial accreditation process. Their staff has been knowledgeable and responsive every step of the way,” says Wong.
Accreditation establishes that steps are being taken regarding quality and that laboratories are meeting and exceeding the highest testing standards. It also provides further assurance and confidence in data results as well as validated methods, staff training procedures, equipment calibration and successful participation in proficiency testing/interlaboratory comparisons.
Starting out with 1500 square feet of laboratory space, within the last year Encore Labs has doubled its work area. In order to meet the growing demand of the cannabis testing industry, they have added plans to once again double in size by the end of 2019, as well as open a second laboratory by the end of 2020.
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