As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.
Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.
According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.
“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”
They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”
Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”
The Frankfurt-based newspaper Handelsblatt Zeitung is reporting that three Canadian firms (actually two Canadians and a German start-up cofounded by another Canadian company) have now been selected as the first cannabis cultivation bid finalists, however insiders on the ground say that this is not necessarily a final decision.
A Berlin-based subsidiary of Wayland in Germany called Demecan, along with Aphria and Aurora have all been named as bid finalists pending a normal review period.
However, there are other complications still looming. This is far from over.
The first issuance of the bid in 2017 went down in court over a technical fault on the part of the issuing agency. The current iteration was posted last summer and saw its application moved several times because of further legal challenges.
As Peter Homburg, partner and head of the European Cannabis Group at Dentons said when contacted by Cannabis Industry Journal, “This is of course not an official announcement. I have a tendency to believe that others involved in the tender process historically may well challenge this decision.”
BfArM, the federal German agency in charge of the cannabis cultivation tender process, did not respond to a request for a comment as of press time.
The Decision Is Far From Over
Here are the basic challenges still ahead:
There is a lawsuit pending against the bid itself from applicants that has yet to be decided. The Klage (formal hearing in court) is due next week. If that does not derail the process, here are the next considerations.
While all three firms named in the bid have international reputations, there are some pending questions.
Wayland is far ahead of the other two firms in terms of production capability in the country. Their facility in eastern Germany has just been certified GMP standard – which means they are qualified to produce the quality of flower required for medical consumption. This news is also far from a surprise.
As Ben Ward, CEO of Wayland Group, commented when contacted by CIJ for a response via email: “At Wayland, we believe in meaningful partnerships, investing in Germany from day one, demonstrating a long-term commitment to the market,” says Ward. “Wayland GmbH is a German company, operated by Germans, existing in Dresden and Munich and is committed to this market. The companies awarded lots received the allocation based on a rigorous application process, not media sensation.”
Of all the Canadian firms, in fact, despite its lack of high-flying stock price, Wayland has made the most concerted effort to show its commitment to producing in Germany by a large investment of capital and expertise. Further, the firm has shown itself to be the most culturally sensitive to German culture, including hiring a female member to the board (a hot topic far from the cannabis industry). However, there are other issues looming. On the same day that Wayland issued a press release announcing its position in the bid, it also issued one announcing the merger talks with ICC had failed.
The second is that Aphria’s main cultivation center in Canada is not EU-GMP certified although they have applied for the same and now also own one of Germany’s largest distributors (with approximately a 6% market share).
Other firms not only kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in Germany, but have established GMP-compliant facilities both in Canada and across Europe, namely Canopy Growth, which was widely believed to have also applied to the second tender. However prevailing rumours about a Canadian “crop failure” in British Columbia (described by the company as a deliberate destruction of plants created by delays in the licensing process) last fall may have also played a role in the German decision.
Aurora is also in interesting waters. Having distinguished itself as Canopy’s closest rival across Europe, winning significant kudos in Denmark, Italy, Poland and Luxembourg last year, the company is also clearly not “just” a medical cannabis company and apparently was refused an opportunity to go public on the Deutsche Börse last fall. The selection of the firm by BfArm for the bid in a situation where the company is on a watch list created by the stock market regulatory agency in Frankfurt is also an intriguing one. Especially given the company’s announcement of its Polish success on the same day as the decision to import was announced, and the fact that so far it is the only Canadian cannabis company to successfully import to Luxembourg.
And The Import Game Is Just Getting Hot…
The unsurprising news that the bid appears to be moving forward is actually not the hottest news in Europe right now. The reality on the ground is already shifting. Several weeks ago, a Frankfurt-based distribution start-up announced that they had successfully imported cannabis into the country from Macedonian-based Nysk Holdings via Poland.
At the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) in Berlin last weekend, Australian producers (for one) were also reporting a German demand for their product that was greater than they could fill. And there were many Israelis present for what is expected to be an official opening of their import ability by the third quarter of this year.
Price Wars Are Looming
The bid itself is going to have a powerful impact on pricing in both the German and European market beyond that. It represents the first time in any country that a government has attempted to pre-negotiate prices for the drug as a narcotic beyond Israel and in this case, it will have at least regional implications.
At the same time, it is also clear that producers like Nysk and beyond them, Israeli and Australian firms (in particular) are actively finding ways to have their product enter the country- and further at prices that are catching the Canadians on the hop. Indeed Aurora is reporting that it actually lowered its “usual” prices to win European contracts which have been reported as being 3.2 euros a gram in Italy and 2.5 euros a gram in Luxembourg.
To put this in perspective, this is a range of about CA$3-5 a gram of flower which is also well below what Canopy (for one) has reported selling its product even to recreational users in Canada and significantly below medical export prices as reported by recent company corporate reports.
Wayland in contrast, is reporting that its production price in Germany will be at least a euro-per-gram cheaper than this. Or in other words, more in line with prices expected to be generated from both the bid itself and the cannabis now entering the country from other sources.
And of course, this is only the first of what is expected to be a series of new tenders. The original amount, itself increased in the two years the issue has been pending, is clearly not enough to even begin to meet demand as proved by the levels of competitively priced imports now entering the country.
Beyond questions about whether this time the tender will actually stand, are those now pending about new ones potentially in the offing – and not just in Germany but across Europe as cannabis continues to see a very green spring.
When it comes to compliance for cannabis startups, the ISO 9000 family of standards reigns supreme. Providing the guidelines for the concepts that make up a quality management system (QMS), the ISO family is composed of five standards: ISO 9000, 9001, 9002, 9003 and 9004. Outside of ISO 9001, ISO 9000 is the most important because it creates the foundation that guides all of the other standards.
ISO 9000 is split into two sections: fundamentals and vocabulary. Fundamentals covers the basic principles of quality management and the vocabulary section is a dictionary of quality management terminology. ISO 9000 is crucial because it provides direction on proper QMS implementation that will lead to achieving an ISO 9001 certification.
While the entire ISO 9000 family is focused on quality management systems that aim to help organizations “ensure that their products and services consistently meet customer’s requirements and that quality is consistently improved,” ISO 9001 is the only standard that lists actual requirements and requires certification.Cloud-based quality management software provides the flexibility and scalability, that cannabis startups need to comply with ISO 9001
Quality Management Systems (QMS)
When conceptualizing “quality management,” it is best to think of it as an organization’s definition of how it will meet the quality requirements of customers and other stakeholders who are affected by its work. Implementing this requires an extensive alignment of company processes and procedural governance.
It’s easiest to think of a QMS as the facilitator of outlined processes that are required to fulfill ISO 9001 requirements. For example, if an organization has defined a change request process, it could use a cloud-based QMS to put that process in place. However, the benefits of a cloud-based QMS don’t have to end at ISO 9001. It can also help organizations comply with other regulations like GxP.
ISO 9001 Requirements
ISO 9001 requirements can sound very generic because they’re meant to be applied to any organization, big or small, in any industry. The key to ISO 9001 is the concept of continuous improvement, which is why specific requirements for what “quality” is are not defined. Rather, companies must create objectives and work toward improving processes to meet those objectives. That said, a certified QMS still must do the following:
Meet the requirements of other stakeholders, for example, customer requirements and regulatory standards
Ensure that employees receive training outlining the quality requirements
Determine and document the processes, their interactions and their results
Be able to produce records to prove that system requirements have been met
From creation to disposal, document protocols must be clear and properly followed.With that in mind, ISO 9001’s purpose is to evaluate whether or not a QMS does a good job of managing processes while also being able to help organizations identify areas that need improvement. In simple terms, ISO 9001 helps companies who were making an excellent product most of the time, make an excellent product every time.
How can cloud quality management software help you get your ISO 9001 certification? Once you create processes that adhere to ISO 9001 quality management standards, you have to put them into practice. Enter: quality management software. But, how exactly does it help?
Optimal Time to Value
First, cloud-based software is the most cost-efficient to implement. Secondly, since a QMS needs to be accessible to every employee regardless of whether they work at HQ or on-site, cloud QMS are built to be mobile-friendly and easily accessed from any location.
Automated Document Lifecycles & Version Control
From creation to disposal, document protocols must be clear and properly followed. As up-to-date documents are an important factor in maintaining high levels of quality, the most recent versions of approved documents should be readily available while previous editions should be hidden away.
With cloud quality management software, workflows can automate the review and approval processes by automatically sharing documents with the right reviewers. Then, after the document has been approved, the changes will automatically be applied to the master document while the obsolete version is archived, helping to remove any chance of it being accidentally used after the update.
Easy Document Location & Metadata
According to ISO 9001, searching through an organization’s documents should be as easy as searching with Google. It’s an added bonus when the quality management software enables users to add custom metadata to documents. Metadata is just extra information that helps to define a document (like file size, type, date modified). With certain cloud-based QMS’, you can add custom metadata fields to make documents easier to find. For example, you can add an “expiration date” field that allows you to look up policies based on when they are set to expire.With the growing number of data breaches happening every year, it’s important to address the security components of a QMS.
In order to pass any ISO 9001 audit, there needs to be a complete audit trail for every document, including active documents and the earlier archived versions. While this might seem like a big ask, cloud quality management software helps make this simple. Every single change to a document, regardless of whether it’s the current or past version, is tracked. When combined with automated workflows, you’re able to produce a precise log of every change made by every user.
Advanced User Permissions & Central File Ownership
With the growing number of data breaches happening every year, it’s important to address the security components of a QMS. Many of these issues can be resolved with user permissions, which is generally related to managing users’ editing and sharing access. The proper view, edit, and approval rights go a long way to reducing the risk of human error.
Another feature that may seem like common sense is central file ownership. When the organization owns all of its documents, there’s no need to worry that important files will be lost or deleted. With one owner, the damage that can be inflicted by malicious third-parties is also limited.
Cloud-based quality management software provides the flexibility and scalability, that cannabis startups need to comply with ISO 9001. With the cloud as a foundation, these systems will continue to be assets for the cannabis industry as it gains momentum and expands more.
The 2ndAnnual Cannabis Labs Virtual Conference is set to take place on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, starting at 12:00 Noon and concluding at 4:00 PM EDT. This complimentary series of webinars will take a deep dive into a variety of subjects related to cannabis testing and the laboratory industry.
The virtual event will help attendees better understand some of the more technical aspects of starting and operating a laboratory. Topics discussed will include pesticide testing, cannabinoid and terpene testing, the new ISO 17025:2017 accreditation and a lesson in starting a laboratory in a new market.
Attendees registering for this complimentary series of webinars will get access to four veterans of the cannabis lab testing industry, who are available for Q&A after each presentation. In addition to getting the opportunity to chat with these subject matter experts on April 2, a recording of the presentations will be made available to all who register.
Here is a snapshot of the agenda:
Pesticide Testing: Methods, Strategies & Sampling Charles Deibel, President & CEO – Deibel Labs, Inc.
Pesticides represent the number one area for batch failures in the US cannabis market. These are concerns not only for consumers, but are a very big concern for cultivators and manufacturers of cannabis products. remediation of the pesticides, once they are in the product are not always feasible From the lab level, they are also the hardest test to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are very expensive and there are no standardized methods, meaning lab to lab variability has happened.
What are the pesticides in cannabis and are there any that are the “main concerns” or ones that stand out as particularly damaging?
What is a basic breakdown of the testing and methods used for pesticide testing?
What are the best strategies for the sampling of cannabis products?
Building a Lab in an Emerging Market Chris Martinez, Co-Founder & President, EVIO Labs FL
Will present a discussion of the genesis of EVIO Labs Florida, how to start a lab in a new market
Challenges in how we navigated changing regulations in a state with newly legalized cannabis
Expanding a lab to a second location – logistics, hiring, training, consistency.
Dr. Cindy Orser, Chief Science Officer, Digipath Labs
Appreciation of “measurement uncertainty” in cannabis testing
Standardization of testing methods is a high priority
Terpenes are the distinguishing chemicals in cannabis sensory perception and chemotaxonomy
Benefits of Accreditation to the ISO 17025:2017 Standard Jane Weitzel, Independent Consultant
The ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standard is now being used to accredit cannabis testing laboratories. From this presentation you will learn the key new aspects of the standard. This includes risk-based thinking. Many aspects of this risk approach require the use of measurement uncertainty. This means the measurement uncertainty must be adequately evaluated. You will be introduced to evaluating and using measurement uncertainty.
The 2017 standard emphasizes conflict of interest and impartiality. Procedures and practices to achieve impartiality will be shown. This reduces the risk of potentially damaging leaks of information or the risk of people not working to the best interests of the laboratory and its clients.
The 2017 standard is a valuable and useful business tool that can save the laboratory resources, effort and money. Are you doing too much testing? Are you doing too little testing? When you evaluate the measurement uncertainty you can use it to learn the steps in your test method that need enhancement to reduce the risk of making mistakes. You can also use the measurement uncertainty to focus on the significant steps and stop wasting time on steps and activities that are insignificant.
These benefits of laboratory accreditation will be demonstrated with examples from the cannabis industry.
AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.
In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.
Where It All Began With Cannabis
As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.
According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”
Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs
Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”
According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.
Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles
The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.
Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.
While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing
Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.
“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”
When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.
Food Authenticity & Fraud
One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.
By Ravi Kanipayor, Christian Bax, Dr. George Anastasopoulos No Comments
As state cannabis regulatory frameworks across the country continue to evolve, accreditation is becoming increasingly important. Because it provides consistent, turnkey standards and third-party verification, accreditation is quickly emerging as an important tool for regulators. For cannabis testing laboratories, this trend has been especially pronounced with the increasing number of states that require accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025.
As of 2017 there were nearly 68,000 laboratories accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, making it the single most important benchmark for testing laboratories around the world. ISO/IEC 17025:2005 specifies the general requirements for the competence to carry out tests including sampling. It covers testing performed using standard methods, non-standard methods and laboratory-developed methods. It is applicable to all organizations performing tests including cannabis labs. The standard is applicable to all labs regardless of the number of personnel or the extent of the scope of testing activities. Developed to promote confidence in the operation of laboratories, the standard is now being used as a key prerequisite to operate as a cannabis lab in many states.
There are currently 26 states in the United States (also Canada) that require medical or adult-use cannabis to be tested as of February 2019. Of those states, 18 require cannabis testing laboratories to be accredited – with the vast majority requiring ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation. States that require testing laboratories to attain ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation represent some of the largest and most sophisticated cannabis regulatory structures in the country, including California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio. As a consequence, many cannabis testing laboratories are taking note of recent changes to ISO/IEC 17025 standards.
ISO/IEC 17025 was first issued in 1999 by the International Organization for Standardization. The standard was updated in 2005, and again in 2017. The most recent update keeps many of the legacy standards from 2005, but adds several components – specifically requirements for impartiality, risk assessment and assessing measurement uncertainty. The remainder of this article takes a deeper dive into these three areas of ISO/IEC 17025, and what that means for cannabis testing laboratories.Objectivity is the absence or resolution of conflicts of interest to prevent adverse influence on laboratory activities.
ISO/IEC 17025:2005 touched on an impartiality requirement, but only briefly. The previous standard required laboratories that belonged to organizations performing activities other than testing and/or calibration to identify potential conflicts of interest for personnel involved with testing or calibration. It further required that laboratories had policies and procedures to avoid impartiality, though that requirement was quite vague.
ISO/IEC17025:2017 emphasizes the importance of impartiality and establishes strict requirements. Under the new standard, labs are responsible for conducting laboratory activities impartially and must structure and manage all laboratory activities to prevent commercial, financial or other operational pressures from undermining impartiality. The definitions section of the standard defines impartiality as the “presence of objectivity.” Objectivity is the absence or resolution of conflicts of interest to prevent adverse influence on laboratory activities. For further elaboration, the standard provides similar terms that also convey the meaning of impartiality: lack of prejudice, neutrality, balance, fairness, open-mindedness, even-handedness, detachment, freedom from conflicts of interest and freedom from bias.
To comply with the new standard, all personnel that could influence laboratory activities must act impartially. ISO/IEC 17025:2017 also requires that laboratory management demonstrate a commitment to impartiality. However, the standard is silent on how labs must demonstrate such commitment. As a starting point, some cannabis laboratories have incorporated statements emphasizing impartiality into their employee handbooks and requiring management and employee training on identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Both the 2005 and 2017 versions contain management system requirements. A major update to this is the requirement in ISO/IEC 17025:2017 that laboratory management systems incorporate actions to address risks and opportunities. The new risk-based thinking in the 2017 version reduces prescriptive requirements and incorporates performance-based requirements.
Under ISO/IEC 17025:2017, laboratories must consider risks and opportunities associated with conducting laboratory activities. This analysis includes measures that ensure that:
The lab’s management system is successful;
The lab has policies to increase opportunities to achieve its goals and purpose;
The lab has taken steps to prevent or reduce undesired consequences and potential failures; and
The lab is achieving overall improvement.
Labs must be able to demonstrate how they prevent or mitigate any risks to impartiality that they identify.To comply with ISO/IEC 17025:2017, labs must plan and implement actions to address identified risks and opportunities into management systems. They must also measure the effectiveness of such actions. Importantly, the standard requires that the extent of risk assessments must be proportional to the impact a given risk may have on the validity of the laboratory’s test results.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 does not require that labs document a formal risk management process, though labs have discretion to develop more extensive methods and processes if desired. To meet the requirements of the standard, actions to address risks can include sharing the risk, retaining the risk by informed decision, eliminating the risk source, pinpointing and avoiding threats, taking risks in order to pursue an opportunity, and changing the likelihood or consequence of the risk.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 references “risks” generally throughout most of the standard. However, it specifically addresses risks to a laboratory’s impartiality in section 4.1. Note, the new standard requires that labs must not only conduct activities impartially, but also actively identify risks to their impartiality. This requirement is on-going, not annually or bi-annually. Risks to impartiality include risks arising from laboratory activities, from laboratory relationships, or from relationships of laboratory personnel. Relationships based on ownership, governance, shared resources, contracts, finances, marketing, management, personnel and payment of a sales commission or other inducements to perform under pressure can threaten a laboratory’s impartiality. Labs must be able to demonstrate how they prevent or mitigate any risks to impartiality that they identify.
Assessing Measurement Uncertainty With Decision Rules
ISO/IEC 17025:2005 required (only where necessary and relevant) test result reports to include a statement of compliance/non-compliance with specifications and to identify which clauses of the specification were met or not met. Such statements were required to take into account measurement uncertainty and if measurement results and uncertainties were omitted from the statement, the lab was required to record and maintain the results for future reference.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 requires similar statements of conformity with an added “decision rule” element. When statements of conformity to a specification or standard are provided, labs must record the decision rule it uses and consider the level of risk the decision rule will have on recording false positive or negative test results. Like the 2005 version, labs must include statements of conformity in test result reports (only if necessary and relevant- see 22.214.171.124 (b)). Now, test result reports on statements of conformity must include the decision rule that was employed.
Because many states require ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for licensing, cannabis testing labs across the country would be well advised to closely monitor the implications of changes in ISO/IEC 17025:2017 related to impartiality, risk assessment and measurement uncertainty. If you run a cannabis testing lab, the best way to ensure compliance is education, and the best place to learn more about the new requirements is from a globally recognized accreditation body, especially if it is a signatory to the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) for testing laboratories, calibration laboratories and inspection agencies.
At this point in the end of prohibition, not even the United Nations (UN) or the World Health Organization (WHO) are immune to the great green wave sweeping the planet. Yet, lest anyone get too optimistic about developments at the nose bleed level of international drug reform, the newest round of headlines regarding “WHO cannabis reform” is hardly cause for celebration.
Yet as reported at the end of January, such decisions appear to be headed for a tortoise speed approvals track. Yes, it appears that CBD will probably be descheduled, and from both the hemp and cannabis perspective. That should be good news to many who are caught in a raft of international standards that are confusing and all over the place on a country-by-country level. However, this will not be much of a boon to the industry in Europe, in particular, where the discussion is less over CBD but the source of it, and how distillates are used. From this perspective, the draft WHO documents will make no difference, except perhaps to speed the acceptance of CBD, and create clearer regulations around it.
On the THC front, the WHO appears to do nothing more than move cannabis squarely into international Schedule I territory. More interesting of course, is the intent of international regulators to keep cannabis very much in uncertain status while moving “pharmacized” versions of the same into Schedule III designation.
What Does The Opinion of The WHO Really Mean?
What this means is also still unclear except that those who want to sell to regulated medical and nonmedical markets have to get their products (whatever those are) registered as medicine or a legitimate consumer product in every jurisdiction and eventually at a regional level (see Europe). That is clearly underway right now by both the big Canadian and emerging Israeli entities in the market as well as savvy European players in both verticals. That said, it is also a game that is about to create a very interesting market for those who are able to produce cheap, but high-grade oils in particular.
What Does This Mean For The Future Of Flower?
On the medical front, Germany became the third country in the world to consider reimbursing flower via national healthcare. Of the three who have tried it to date so far (and it is unclear what Poland will do at this point longer term), Israel is inching away and Holland nixed the entire cannabis covered by insurance conversation at the same time Germany took it on. Where that plays out across Europe will be interesting, especially as the cost of production and end retail cost continues to drop. And doctor education includes information about “whole plant” vs. pre-prescribed “dosing” where the patient has no control. The reality in the room in Europe right now is that this drug is being used to treat people with drug resistant conditions. Dosing dramas in other words, will be in the room here for some time to come as they have in no other jurisdiction.
Beyond dosing and control issues that have as much to do with doctors as overall reform, flower is still controversial for other reasons. One, it is currently still being imported into Europe from highly remote and expensive import destinations. That will probably change this year because of both the cultivation bid and Israel’s aggressive move into the middle of the fray as well as widely expected ex-im changes that will allow imports from countries throughout Europe. However, in the meantime, this is one of the reasons that flower is so unpopular right now at the policy and insurance level. The other is that pharmacists in Germany are allowed to treat the flower as a drug that must be processed. In this case, that means that they are adding a significant surcharge, per gram, to flower because they grind it before they give it to patients.
How long this loophole will exist is unclear. However, what is also very clear is that oils in particular, will play a larger and larger role in most medical markets. Read, in other words, “pharmaceutical products.”
For this reason, the WHO recommendations, for one, are actually responding to unfolding realities on the ground, not leading or setting them.
Setting A Longer-Term Date For Widespread Recreational Reform
This conservative stance from the WHO also means, however, that in the longer run, individual country “recreational reform” particularly in places like Europe, will be on a slower than so far expected track. There are no countries in the EU who are willing to step too far ahead of the UN in general. That includes Luxembourg, which so far has made the boldest predictions about its intentions on the recreational front of any EU member. However, what this also may signal is that the UN will follow the lead set by Luxembourg. Even so, this legitimately puts a marker in the ground that at least Europe’s recreational picture is at least five years off.
In the meantime, the WHO recommendations begin to set international precedent and potentially the beginnings of guidelines around a global trade that has already challenged the UN to change its own regulations. In turn, expect these regulations to guide and help set national policy outside a few outliers (see Canada, Uruguay and potentially New Zealand) globally.
Bottom line, in other words? The latest news from the UN is not “bad” but clearly seems to say that cannabis reform is a battle that is still years in the making. That said, from the glass is half full perspective, it appears, finally, there might be the beginning of a light at the end of the international tunnel of prohibition.
Phenova, Inc., a proficiency testing products and reference materials provider based in Golden, Colorado, works with labs and regulatory bodies to develop proficiency testing (PT) programs. According to a press release sent out by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), Phenova is A2LA’s first ISO/IEC 17043 accredited PT provider for the cannabis marketplace.
According to Ty Garber, director of new business development for the cannabis and food and beverage markets at Phenova, they have been working with A2LA for over a decade in other industries, but the cannabis testing industry is a huge new market for them. “Our Cannabis Proficiency Testing products and services are experiencing high demand across North America and we are fortunate to offer our expertise in proficiency testing to client laboratories and regulatory agencies in their joint efforts to ensure cannabis product quality and safety,” says Garber. “By working with the laboratories and stakeholder agencies, we have been able to develop and operate Proficiency Testing Programs based on real marijuana matrices, especially where the matrix creates specific analytical challenges. This approach has proven to be very beneficial for everyone involved, and we are working diligently to expand these efforts.”
Trace McInturff, senior director of accreditation services at A2LA, says this could help fill a serious need for conformity assessments in accredited cannabis labs. “A2LA is excited to announce the expansion of Phenova’s existing ISO/IEC 17043 Proficiency Testing Provider scope of accreditation to become the first A2LA accredited Proficiency Testing Provider for cannabis,” says McInturff. “This milestone adds to the positive historical relationship between Phenova and A2LA that dates back to 2005 when A2LA implemented a new TNI SSAS program for Proficiency Testing Providers and A2LA performed one of the first assessments of its kind at Phenova.” McInturff also says that A2LA has been instrumental in establishing the initial ILAC Proficiency Testing Provider accreditation requirements which ultimately became the basis for ISO/IEC 17043.
In addition to the “real marijuana matrix PT programs” that Phenova offers in certain states and countries where legal, they also offer alternative PT standards for labs that have obtained or are working on obtaining ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation.
Anyone with a search engine can piece together how much THC certain strains produce and what their characteristics are. Oh wait- there’s an app for that… or dozens, I lose count these days.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our communityLet’s take one of my favorites, Dutch Treat; relaxing, piney and sweet with a standard production of 18-25% THC, according to three different reviews online. So, did I raise an eyebrow when I saw Dutch Treat on Oregon shelves labeled at 30% THC? Did I take it in to an independent, accredited lab and have it tested for accuracy? You bet your inflated potency results I did! The results? Disappointing.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our community; it is hurting every participant in our industry affected by the trade, commerce and consumption of recreational cannabis.
“I have had labs ask me what I want my potency numbers to look like and make an offer,” says David Todd, owner and operations manager of Glasco Farms, a craft cannabis producer in central Oregon. “It’s insane- I want to stand behind my product and show through scientific fact that I produce a superior flower.”
But without enforcement of lab practice standards, producers are being pressured to play dirty. In her third year cultivating at a two-tier recreational cannabis farm, a producer who wished to remain anonymous sent me an email about the pressures she is up against to produce high THC strains:
“The only sure way to get my product on the shelf at a profitable price is with THC 25% or above. Not a lot of strains have that potential, but the market has plenty with 28% to 32% floating around so I have to go with the same labs as the rest of the independent farmers to get the best numbers I can. The lab I use … return(s) good numbers.”
Those “good numbers,” aka high THC %, are the driving force of sales. A strain tests at 20% THC and it sells for $1,000/lb. Then it tests at 25% THC, and sells for $1300/lb. You produce cannabis for sale- this is your business. And labs are telling you that they can manipulate samples and reports to make you more money. Everyone else is doing it. If you don’t, your product isn’t “good enough” to sell. What do you do?Labs should operate ethically.
It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by lies, lack of enforcement resources, coercion and undereducation. We are all responsible. Yet, ask who the source of the problem is and everyone points fingers across the circle.
The consumers are uneducated about cannabis and only focus on THC. The dispensaries and budtenders should be educating them. Producers should take a stand and use an honest lab. Labs should operate ethically.
I repeat: Oregon, we have a problem.
It’s time to stop living in a land where Dutch Treat is hitting 30% THC. It’s time for everyone to demand auditing and ethics.
Laws have been set forth on how to sample, prep, test and report analyses for cannabis to ensure fair commerce, consumer health and public safety. But there’s a clear need to blind test the different labs, and for unbiased, third-party research and development.
As federal eyes turn to the Oregon to investigate black market activity, regulatory bodies are tightening their grip on licensees to maintain legal validity and avoid shut down.
The time to demand change and integrity is now.The crack-down began on August 23, 2018, when the OLCC investigated several prominent producers’ practices. Black market distribution incurred the harshest penalty; the OLCC revoked their wholesale license due to multiple violations.
“We want good compliant, law-abiding partners as OLCC marijuana licensees,” says Paul Rosenbaum, OLCC Commission Chair. “We know the cannabis industry is watching what we’re doing, and believe me, we’ve taken notice. We’re going to find a way to strengthen our action against rule breakers, using what we already have on the books, and if need be working with the legislature to tighten things up further.”
Trends in METRC data lay the foundation for truth, and it’s time to put it to use. “The Cannabis Tracking System worked as it should enabling us to uncover this suspicious activity,” says Steven Marks, OLCC Executive Director. “When we detect possible illegal activity, we need to take immediate steps …”
Potency fraud might not be at the top of the list for investigation, but labs and producers are breaking the law, and there will be consequences. ORELAP and OLCC have the right to investigate and revoke licenses of labs that are falsifying data and consumers can file claims with the Department of Justice.
At this year’s Food Safety Consortium a couple weeks ago, the newly launched Cannabis Quality Track featured a number of panels and presentations that highlighted the many intersections between food safety and cannabis. One particular topic of interest was measuring the quality and safety of cannabis products through laboratory testing. At the event this year, representatives from the leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country sat together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.
Chris Gunning, life sciences accreditation manager with A2LA
The new ISO 17025:2017 standard was a topic addressed pretty early in the panel. Tracy Szerszen introduced the topic with a recap of the 2005 standard. “With 17025, for those that are familiar with the older version, 2005, there are really two sections of the standard for that one,” says Szerszen. “The newer standard is a little bit different, but there is a quality management system review that we do and we look at the laboratory to ensure that they are testing appropriately based on what they applied for. So, for cannabis labs, they typically have the same scope in types of methods with respect to microbiology and chemistry, and we are making sure they are following the standard from a technical standpoint, meaning they have the right equipment, the appropriate personnel and also have a quality management system.”
Chris Gunning followed that up with a closer look at the changes coming to the new 2017 standard. “If you are familiar with the 2005 version, you know that a lot of the clauses started out with a ‘you shall have a policy and procedure for doing X,’” says Gunning. “One of the major changes to the 2017 version is it gives laboratories more latitude on whether they need to have a policy/procedure to do certain things.” Gunning says the 2017 version is much more of an outcome-based standard. “As far as assessing to it, it becomes a little harder from our side because we can’t say you have to have this quality manual or you have to have this procedure that were going to assess you to. We are more open to looking at the outcomes.”
The most interesting change to the ISO standard comes with addressing the idea of risk. “One of the newest concepts in this standard is risk and how you assess your risk to your organization how you assess risk of impartiality, how you assess your measurement uncertainty when you are creating decision rules,” says Gunning. “Those are the big concepts that have changed in the 2017 standard in that it is more outcome-based and introducing the concept of risk more.”
After discussing some of the broader changes coming to the 2017 version, the panelists began delving into some common pitfalls and issues labs face when trying to get accredited. “From our experience, in Michigan, the new standard was written into the regulations, but a lot of labs were already accredited to 2005,” says Szerszen. “So, we actually contacted the state and explained to them that they have three years to transition. And some states will say ‘too bad, we want the 2017 ISO,’ so some of the cannabis labs are asking us to quickly come back so they can get appropriate licensing in the state and do a transition audit quickly.” She says most states seem to be comfortable with the current transition period everyone has, but it certainly requires some discussion and explanation to get on the same page with state regulators. “November 29, 2020 is the deadline for moving to the new 2017 standard.”
In addition to state requirements like traceability and security on top of an ISO 17025 accreditation, labs can run into issues not typically encountered in other testing markets, as Gunning mentioned during the panel. “One of the hardest parts of getting accredited is the need for properly validated methods, for all the different matrices in samples,” says Gunning. “Some of the biggest hurdles for new labs getting assessed are validation and the availability of reference materials and proficiency testing samples that meet their state requirements.” Those are just a handful of hurdles that labs aren’t usually anticipating when getting accredited.
Another big topic that generated a lot of dialogue during the panel was the need for a national accreditation standard for cannabis testing labs, one that Natalia Larrimer is advocating for. “Many laboratories are operating facilities in more than one state and what they are facing is a different set of criteria for laboratory recognition in each state, says Larrimer. “One initiative that we would love to see more support for, is a set of uniform requirements nationally. ACIL is currently working on developing these type of requirements which would be in addition to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard and specific for cannabis industry…” Larrimer says she’d like to see these requirements recognized nationally to get labs on the same page across multiple states. “This includes requirements for things like security, traceability, proficiency testing, sampling and personnel competence. The industry would greatly benefit from a uniform cannabis testing program across the US, so that testing facilities in Oregon are operating to the same criteria as facilities in California or Colorado, etc.”
The panelists went into greater detail on issues facing the cannabis lab testing industry, but also delved into certifications for food safety and quality, an important new development as the infused products market grows tremendously. Stay tuned for more highlights from this panel and other talks from the Food Safety Consortium. We will be following up this article with another that’ll shed some light on food safety certifications. Stay tuned for more!
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