Increasing cannabis use across the US has come with increased scrutiny of its health effects. Regulators and healthcare providers are not just concerned about the direct effects of inhaling or consuming cannabinoids, however, but also about another health risk: microbial contamination in cannabis products. Like any other crop, cannabis is susceptible to contamination by harmful pathogens at several points throughout the supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting to distribution. Many state regulators have set limits for microbial populations in cannabis products. Consequently, testing labs must adopt efficient screening protocols to help companies remain compliant and keep their customers safe.
Some of the pathogens common to cannabis flower include Aspergillus fungus species such as A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger and A. terreus. Cannabis might also harbor harmful E. coli and Salmonella species, including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Regulations vary by state, but most have set specific thresholds for how many colony forming units (CFUs) of particular species can be present in a sellable product.
Growers and testing labs need to develop a streamlined approach to remain viable. Current methods, including running cultures on every sample, can be expensive and time-consuming, but by introducing a PCR-based screening step first, which identifies the presence of microbial DNA – and therefore the potential for contamination – laboratories can reduce the number of cultures they need to run, saving money and time.
If contamination grows out of control, the pathogen can damage the cannabis plant itself and lead to financial losses. Aspergillus can also cause serious illness in consumers, especially those that are immunocompromised. If an immunocompromised person inhales Aspergillus, they can develop aspergillosis, a lung condition with a poor prognosis.
A Two-Step Screening Process
The gold standard method for detecting microbes is running cultures. This technique takes weeks to deliver results and can yield inaccurate CFU counts, making it difficult for growers to satisfy regulators and create a safe product in a timely manner. The use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can greatly shorten the time to results and increase sensitivity by determining whether the sample has target DNA.
Using PCR can be expensive, particularly to screen for multiple species at the same time, but a qPCR-based Aspergillus detection assay could lead to significant cost savings. Since the average presumptive positive rate for Aspergillus contamination is low (between 5-10%), this assay can be used to negatively screen large volumes of cannabis samples. It serves as an optional tool to further speciate only those samples that screened positive to comply with state regulations.
Overall, screening protocols have become a necessary part of cannabis production, and to reduce costs, testing labs must optimize methods to become as efficient as possible. With tools such as PCR technology and a method that allows for initial mass screening followed by speciation only when necessary, laboratories can release more samples faster with fewer unnecessary analyses and more success for cannabis producers in the marketplace.
Clark first touted changes to their “Time off Task” policy, a way to measure employee’s time spent logged in to company software. The changes basically boil down to averaging over a longer period of time to better gauge how employees spend their time.
The second company policy change is why the blog post made headlines in the cannabis community. Clark says in the blog that Amazon will adjust its drug testing policy and no longer test for cannabis use in their drug screening program. “We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation, and will instead treat it the same as alcohol use,” says Clark.
The new drug testing policy change is big news for such a large and influential employer to make the shift in the United States, where surely other companies will follow. But even more influential is their backing of federal legalization. “And because we know that this issue is bigger than Amazon, our public policy team will be actively supporting The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act)—federal legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and invest in impacted communities,” says Clark. “We hope that other employers will join us, and that policymakers will act swiftly to pass this law.”
Given Amazon’s extremely large influence in American business and policy, the company backing federal legalization is sure to lead other large companies down a similar path. The show of support for the MORE Act represents the growing normalization of cannabis use and brings us another step closer to federal legalization.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
According to Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, that massive start hasn’t showed any signs of slowing. “I was in a dispensary yesterday and it was packed,” says Denkin. “There were 40 people in line and it was pouring rain outside.” He says the flow of customers to dispensaries hasn’t stopped since July 1st.
Because of that demand as well as the state’s testing requirements, Denkin is preparing to expand. “From a laboratory’s perspective, we expect a large increase in volume,” says Denkin. “Most of the medical cultivators we work with got their rec license as well so we’re working with a lot of the same clients and getting new clients on a regular basis.” Before the launch of recreational sales, DigiPath has been doing lab testing for medical cannabis for over two years.
Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, says they are on their way to receiving ISO 17025 accreditation via the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA). According to Orser, labs in Nevada must go out and do the sampling themselves, then bring the samples back to the lab for testing. The testing regulations overall seem relatively similar to what we’ve seen develop in other states with required pesticide testing and microbial screening. “We have a list of 24 pesticides, (two of them are plant growth regulators) that we monitor for,” says Orser. “We have specific allowable limits for that set of chemicals.” For microbial testing, Orser says they enumerate total aerobic count (TAC), total yeast and mold (TYM), pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella spp., enterobacteriaceae and bile-tolerant gram-negative, a subset of enterobacteria, as well as screening for mycotoxins. All of the testing in the state goes through just eleven laboratories, including DigiPath.
In preparing for expansion, they are looking at California in addition to other states. California released a set of draft regulations for lab testing in the spring, which many say is an example of regulatory overreach. “We still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in California,” says Orser. “The draft regulations that have come out are so restrictive.” As Digipath looks toward expanding more in Nevada, California and other states, all eyes are on regulators proposing requirements for laboratory testing. “The future looks promising,” says Denkin.
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