Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.
As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).
When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.
1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample
The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.
Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.
One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.
The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.
The Live Dead Problem
One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).
2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species
Toxic Aspergillus spp., which is responsible for at least one confirmed death of a cannabis patient, grows poorly in culture mediums and is severely underreported by current culture-based platforms. And even when Aspergillus does grow in culture, there is a certain non-pathogenic Aspergillus species that look remarkably similar to their pathogenic cousins, making it difficult to speciate using visual identification alone.
Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.
Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.
3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices
Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.
This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.
Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.
This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.
Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.
The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.
It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.
Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.
There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.
If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.
Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.
He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.
The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.
The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.
The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.
Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.
i. Holmes M, Vyas JM, Steinbach W, McPartland J. 2015. Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis. Cannabis Safety Institute. http://cannabissafetyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Microbiological-Safety-Testing-of-Cannabis.pdf
ii. Jill Ellsworth, June 2019, Eliminating Microbials in Marijuana, Willow Industries, https://willowindustries.com/eliminating-microbials-in-marijuana/#
iii. Ketch DeGabrielle, April 2018, Largest U.S. Cannabis Farm Shares Two Years of Mold Remediation Research, Analytical Cannabis, https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/largest-us-cannabis-farm-shares-two-years-of-mold-remediation-research-299842
On August 29, 2019, Health Canada finally published a guidance document on the official interpretation of Part 5 of the Cannabis Regulations concerning “Good Production Practices” that comes into force just seven weeks later on October 17, 2019. For those watching with the experience of the food industry, it is safe to say that few license holders fully appreciate the magnitude of the new requirements and fewer yet are prepared for what will be required in less than two weeks.
An Uncertain Road to Cannabis Compliance
Since Canada legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018, there has been considerable uncertainty about the road to compliance in this totally new legal market. Health Canada faced the daunting challenge of defining the requirements for a whole new industry, and so they were understandably silent on the issue of Part 5 until this guide was published in August.
Many larger companies eager to get their foot in the door of the multi-billion dollar industry tried to be proactive in anticipating impending government regulations by seeking Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certifications. This would likely have been fine under the previous regulations, which were myopically focused on ensuring that product wasn’t diverted from or to the black market. With the legalization of edibles only one year away, however, it was obvious to those in the food industry that GMP was just not going to be enough. Gentle prodding at various speaking engagements on our part wasn’t enough to convince these companies to seek higher levels of certification or at least to proactively develop the organizational culture required to support a higher-level program.
The Inevitable Necessity of Food Safety
It was clear to us that since edibles are essentially a food product, safety necessarily had to become a primary focus. This reality has, in fact, materialized in section 5 of the new guide, which outlines prescriptive requirements that are very well developed and require that companies develop a complete set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for sanitation, employee hygiene, testing, inventory, pest control and more. Furthermore, cannabis companies must be able to produce documentation that proves they are actually following these procedures.
There are many, many other requirements that also apply, but the really interesting ones are those related to hazard analysis (5.2.13) and preventive control plans (5.2.14): manufacturers who produce extracts or edibles must undertake hazard analyses on each input, processing step and traffic flow. The language will be familiar to those who have been exposed to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) methodology. HACCP is the standard in the food industry and goes far beyond simple GMP.
Very much like HACCP, license holders will be required to analyze each biological, chemical and physical hazard, determine controls, identify critical control point, along will all the validation, reassessment, verification and deviation protocols required. Interestingly, the fraud and bioterrorism hazard types that have recently been introduced for the food industry have been omitted, presumably an oversight that will be rectified in future versions.
How to Catch Up Fast with Tech
Satisfying these regulations using traditional manual methods takes months or even years in some cases. Today in Canada, license holders have only weeks to get their facilities to compliance, and the government is quick to crack down on any mistakes. The only way to possibly meet this deadline is to start yesterday and use the best tools you can find to expedite the process.
Those who have been busy implementing GMP programs are going to have to look far beyond their current objectives. Those just starting out should build with these requirements front of mind, both to satisfy inspectors and auditors and also to avoid the pain of the organizational change required to move to a higher level of quality and safety.
Ultimately, these changes will be of benefit to society and provide a competitive advantage to those who can move the fastest, especially when major retail chains become the dominant wholesale market. My advice is to start working on your HACCP-based compliance program immediately and, if you’re in Canada, seek a high-level certification like SQF as soon as possible.
It’s fair to say that the food industry’s recent experiences with more stringent regulations clearly foreshadow what will be required for the cannabis industry. Right now – when the margin of error is razor thin – is the time for companies to make the decisive move and focus on their success – and survival.
With more cannabis staffing and recruiting challenges than ever before, building a healthy pipeline of top candidates can be an uphill battle. From a lack of qualified candidates and working capital to the haze of lingering stigma and industry volatility, cannabis hiring and retention challenges are more apparent than ever.
Understanding the pain points of cannabis staffing and how to flip them in your favor is critical for attracting the talent you need to grow your business.
Emerging Candidate Concerns
Low unemployment coupled with high demand for qualified talent has led to fierce competition among cannabis hiring managers and HR professionals. This means finding candidates with the right skills and industry experience can be exceptionally difficult.
Dispensary and budtender jobs are some of the most popular entry-level cannabis employment opportunities. But since these are customer-facing roles, the requirements to work in a dispensary span a range of skillsets.
Not only do candidates need excellent interpersonal skills, they should also have a deep understanding of the differences and synergies in strains, terpene profiles and cannabinoid contents. The starting hourly pay for these retail dispensary jobs is only about $12-16 per hour. Finding candidates with relevant dispensary experience at such a low rate is not an easy feat.
Then there are the extractors and directors of extraction. While these positions are higher-paying than dispensary jobs, they are more dangerous and require a more specific skillset. Engaging qualified candidates for this high-risk position can take a lot of time and effort. In addition, employers also have to assume liabilities and higher compensation demands.
Other cannabis employment types that staffing departments and agencies have to hire are highly specialized.
Not only do you need talented and knowledgeable salespeople, marketers and accountants, there are also laboratory workers, trimmers, cultivation laborers and supervisors, master growers, dispensary managers and delivery drivers to account for.
Lack of Working Capital
With market demand continuing to rise, having the manpower in place is vital to remain competitive. But hiring costs money. Recruiting, advertising and interviewing requires adequate cannabis funding and/or working capital. Unfortunately, obtaining and securing capital to grow and hire is difficult in the industry today.
Making the wrong hiring decision can be costly. If you break any laws during the recruiting process, you can get hit with a hefty lawsuit. The majority of industry players today are startups with limited financial resources. A lawsuit can mean shutting down shop and going out of business.
The Volatile Nature of the Industry
With shifting public sentiments, state-specific cannabis laws and licensing requirements, the industry is in a constant state of change. Even the requirements to work in the cannabis industry vary from state to state.
The ever-rising tide of volatility makes it difficult for companies to find enough stability to make responsible hiring decisions. One regulatory revision can require a company to pivot its branding, product line and entire marketing strategy from top to bottom. A shift in strategy can mean a shift in employee requirements and skillsets. This instability tends to be unappealing to candidates who are accustomed to a well-established workplace structure and culture.
With so much volatility and uncertainty, prioritizing employee relationship management seems like a wise decision. But in-house cannabis human resources is just not in the cards in many cases. Instead, cannabis staffing, recruiting and HR tend to be outsourced along with accounting and compliance.
Lack of Suitable Cannabis Recruiting Platforms
While perceptions are changing, misconceptions about the industry are still pervasive.
Lingering market stigma presents a grave challenge for cannabis staffing and hiring. In fact, many mainstream recruiting platforms are unwilling to partner with cannabis companies. Fortunately, there are some relatively new cannabis HR agencies and platforms to help solve some of the challenges of hiring in cannabis. Vangst GIGS, for example, is the first and only fully-compliant cannabis staffing platform. The CBD staffing agency has been up and running for just a few years now.
Future of Cannabis Staffing and Hiring Demands
While hemp-derived CBD has been legal since the signing of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, marijuana-derived CBD is still illegal. But this may change sooner rather than later.
There is growing bipartisan support for the legalization and regulation of cannabis. Beyond improving quality assurance and resolving the disconnect between state and federal laws, federal cannabis legalization will have a profound impact on the U.S. economy.
In fact, New Frontier Data projects federal legalization will create $128.8 billion in additional tax revenue and 1.63 million legal cannabis jobs in the U.S. by 2025.
Cannabis payroll deductions could also increase to $9.5 billion by 2025 because more legal entities, customers and employees would be participating in the market.
With federal legislation likely coming in the near future, knowing how to navigate and scale cannabis human resources, including hemp staffing, are more important than ever. You need the right people and processes to take advantage of the market opportunities legalization would create.
Companies that adapt to industry changes will be better at recruiting top talent and mitigating future staffing shortages. Forward-looking companies and fund managers are already obtaining cannabis business loans and ramping up HR preparations and organizational structuring to get a jumpstart on the pace of change.
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.”
The cannabis industry is on the road to legitimacy, no matter the bumps, globally. No matter what, and no matter what happens next, that is a good thing. Issues like supply chain transparency, privacy, consumer and patient safety, and of course energy and water use have long been in the room just about everywhere.
Cleantech Is Cannatech
The modern cannabis industry was birthed and given significant shape in deserts (Israel, California, Nevada). In California, as of 2014, producers were warned, yet again, that they could not avail themselves of federally overseen aquifers of groundwater. The legitimizing industry trucked in what it needed.
On the medical discussion, in Europe, in particular, such issues are now in the room. All medical cannabis must be grown indoors. No exceptions.
That means low energy, high efficiency production is on the rise, not the wane.
What Does GMP Mean?
The overall regulations and operating procedures that surround this discussion are known as “Good Manufacturing Practices,” or GMPs for short. But like all the best acronyms, what the standards are, who sets them, and where they are equivalent is still a shifting picture.
Further, GMPs, and even more particularly EU-GMPs, are specifically referred to this way to distinguish the medically bound product from other consumer protection regulations that include novel food.
That said, “GMP practices” differ widely from industry to industry. The idea behind them, however is to prevent harm from occurring to the user, including that the end product is free from contamination, and the packaging as well as manufacture has been well documented. Additional requirements include that personnel are properly trained.
And while the practice, at the pointed end of enforcement can get nerdy, detail-oriented and specific, that is precisely the point. That is also why you might catch another variant of this acronym (cGMP – or current GMP guidelines), to denote a world that is changing fast.
Contamination of the supply chain if not the carbon impact of the same, for all food and plant-based pharmaceutical products is a 21st century problem that is exploding on the scene as fast as the planet warms and cannabis legalizes.
What Do GMP Guidelines Include?
These are guidelines, not steps. As a result, from a bird’s eye view, all international and sovereign national GMP standards include a few basic principles no matter how much they may differ in the weeds. Namely:
- That manufacturing processes are clean, controlled and processes are verifiable and repeatable. Changes to any and all must also be clearly documented.
- Record keeping, accurate accounting (of product and on the financial side) must be kept, including complete batch history through manufacture and distribution to the end user. Audits are a way of life.
- Recall procedures must be in effect.
- All complaints about products must be examined.
The World Health Organization (WHO) version of GMP is what’s used by pharmaceutical regulators worldwide. The European Union’s EU-GMP standards are seen as roughly equivalent, as are those now practiced in the U.S. by the FDA. That does not mean that confusion does not reign as standards are changing (across Europe, for example, between individual countries, there is still disagreement). However similar GMPs are used in countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. The UK, of course, is slightly different than anyone else but still has regulations that are roughly equivalent and referred to as “The Orange Guide” (in honor of the color of the book’s cover).
You Know It When You See It
Well, not quite. Beyond GMP, there are of course, other classifications for the kind of plant or product being made, manufactured and distributed. And here, along with international treaties about who can trade with whom, also impact this discussion.
It is not correct, however, for example, to claim that what are known as GACP guidelines (good agricultural and collection practices) are equivalent to GMP. Bio, or pesticide free production (in other words) is just one of many steps in meeting much higher standards now in the room for medically bound cannabis.
What Is GMP “Like”?
All industries have “best practices.” For example, the building industry has all sorts of codes and guidelines. However, in addition to this, about a decade ago, LEED (or green building) certification began to be implemented widely. In the U.S., in particular, there was much discussion about how honest such certifications actually were. The term “greenwashing” was frequently used to describe practices that were sold as energy efficient, but in the end cost more, environmentally and otherwise, than they should.
Like LEED, GMP is not a prescribed set of steps but rather best practice guidelines and regulations meant to guide industries on producing safe products – from seed to sale.
How Does This Differ From WHO Guidelines on GACP for Medicinal Plants?
The World Health Organization’s GACP guidelines are highly controversial in this context, especially when it comes to cannabis. Especially because they refer specifically to plants used as medicine that are “grown in the wild.” I.e. not greenhouse. How these guidelines are interpreted by different countries, however, within the context of the interpretation of “medical cannabis” not to mention pharmaceutical GMPs, are very different.
GACP guidelines, in other words, are sometimes the first step in qualification – but certification under the same (starting with outdoor grown crops produced without pesticides for example) is not likely to pass European medical standards any time soon.
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.
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.