cannabis testing service

The Art of the Test: Finding the High Ground in an Unregulated Industry

Mary Lou Smart www.medicalcannabisart.com

More and more dispensaries and wellness centers market lab-tested product.

Cannabis analysis is the practice of determining the potency and make up of a plant packed with beneficial molecules. 

Pinpointing cannabis components is often a starting point; many labs offer testing for molds and pesticides for additional cost.

As studies showing the therapeutic effect of cannabidiol (CBD) take hold, patients want it for neuropro-tectant and antioxidant properties, for pain relief, and for its role in buffering the psychoactive effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Problem is, the decades-long quest for high-THC product delivering a great buzz led to CBD being bred out of cannabis.

Those in search of therapeutic benefit are often happier with either a lower-THC strain or a higher ratio of CBD to counteract the high anxiety that can accompany a high-THC buzz. Growers race to develop strains with greater CBD counts, and CBD-rich product is all the rage.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, stated that after analyzing 2,000 strains, his business associates were able to find nine that did contain a higher ratio of CBD to THC.

“We got cuttings of those and sup-plied them to our most trusted grow-ers, and then those growers grew that medicine out,” he said. “Now, at

Harborside, we have every day at least one type of CBD-rich medicine, and often more than one. We go up to 14 percent CBD.”

Not everyone believes the stories of 14, 15, and even 17 percent CBD, however, and curiosity surrounding cannabis testing, an industry in its infancy, grows.

Bill, a chemical engineer who owns a dispensary in Denver and prefers to remain anonymous, is one of many who tend to be skeptical of high-CBD reports.

“If you look at the data that’s been collected from the labs over the last year, to find a strain that is in excess of one percent, the chances of that happening are maybe 20 percent; it’s not great,” he said. “It’s not as high as we would like it to be. It’s rare, is what I’m trying to say. To get above two percent is a lot more rare. To get over four or five percent is very, extremely rare. That’s like one in 100.”

Others report that samples from one plant dropped off at five cannabis labs will yield five different results.

“I think that the numbers are some-what suspect in that they’re not uni-form,” said Martin Lee, cofounder of Project CBD, an educational resource (www.projectcbd.org). “What we’re interested in is consis-tent data in terms of the ratio between CBD and THC. In that sense, we are finding fairly consistent patterns between the labs.”

Steep Hill Laboratories, also in Oakland, launched the analysis movement with the creation of its lab in early 2008. Dispensaries throughout the state send product to Steep Hill to be tested. The company also works closely with growers. Stories of start-up labs run by those setting up shop overnight after spending a few grand on a base model GC (gas chromatograph) machine online abound, but the sci-ence is tricky. For one thing, heating product, which GCs can do, alters the plant’s natural chemistry, destroying THC acids and other components with proven therapeutic value that also require analysis. More expensive equipment employing liquid chromatography that runs at room temperature is said to yield more consistent and accu-rate results. Analyzing the numbers also takes talent. Reliable labs employ technicians with advanced degrees in fields such as chemistry.

Many dispensaries, including Harborside Health Center, sell only lab-tested product. DeAngelo has reported that his dispensary spends up to $40,000 a month for lab tests at Steep Hill, where a potency analysis determines percentages of THC, CBD, and another active compo-nent, CBN. While many dispensaries market screening to determine contamination by pathogenic molds and pesticides, these tests cost more and are not automatic.

Because testing can be expensive, bulk discounts make the top clients the larger growers and manufacturers of edibles, tinctures, and topical preparations. Steep Hill promotes working directly with growers for on-site test-ing, labeling, and packaging. “Because of the cost to col-lectives, the turnaround time and the bottleneck caused by pulling samples from their incoming supply before product hits the floor, we work to get growers on board,” said Addison DeMoura, vice president. “Grocery stores do it that way for the same reason; it’s cost-effective and efficient.”

Steep Hill’s standard bulk pricing for potency analysis is $120. An additional $100 provides the microbiolog-ical — mold, fungal, and bacterial — analysis. Pesticide analysis is an additional charge. Because of the fixed cost of the tests, the overall expense to a dis-pensary submitting smaller samples for testing is much greater.

Without government regulation, the consumer is relying on the lab. In an effort to promote best practices in the fledgling industry, Steep Hill recently joined with other labs to form the Association of California Cannabis Laboratories. The trade group’s aim, in the face of almost no federal or state regulation, is standardization.

“Testing is the future,” said DeMoura. “It’s the standard that we apply to every other medicine that we consume. There’s no question that people are demanding cannabis to be scrutinized in the same way. Our mission, to screen cannabis from a safety standpoint, is very simple.”

Thanks to analysis, educated patients are now identify-ing as much with the cannabinoid profile as the strain when purchasing cannabis. DeMoura’s background is sales, and he admits that the seal of approval given by a cannabis test translates into dollars. “We are a market-ing tool for a lot of these collectives,” he said. “What has happened in this state is that we’ve created a stan-dard where if a potency analysis has not been done on the product, patients do not even want to consume it.”

Full Spectrum Laboratories opened in Denver, Colorado, in 2009, following six months of research and development. Its HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) method tests for seven cannabinoids. Instead of a focus on potency, the real push at Full Spectrum and throughout the industry is to seek ratios between cannabinoids to promote the therapeutic value of the entire plant. Whereas potency data vary significantly when looking at samples from top to bottom of the same plant, Buckie Minor, manager, reports that ratios between cannabinoids usually remain consistent.

Tests are run multiple times to com-pare results for errors and to be cer-tain that equipment is properly cali-brated.

“Our error range is less than one per-cent,” Minor said. “As long as our test results are falling within that error range, we’re happy.”

Full Spectrum, the largest laboratory in Colorado, is known for low pric-ing: $35 for cannabinoid profiles, dis-counted to $25 for bulk quantities.

Minor reports that Full Spectrum receives frequent calls from start-ups wanting to learn the trade.

“I get e-mails and phone calls all day long saying, “Hey, man, I’m trying to open up a lab and do cannabis testing and stuff. Can you help me?” he said.

“No, I’m sorry, I cannot help you. If you do not have a science base to start up your own lab, you do not have any business testing cannabis.”

As old medicine returns to the main-stream, testing for profiles will be essential, according to Mary Lynn Mathre, president, Patients Out of Time.

“Patients need to know what they’re getting,” Mathre said. “Analysis is going to be a big part of providing reliable, safe, and effective cannabis medicine.”

Entities supplying data for the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration operate under intense auditing situa-tions. Not so with cannabis medicine, which evolves against an entirely dif-ferent backdrop. No surprise, but the federal prohibition of the 3,000-year-old medicine thwarts attempts to protect patients. Because cannabis is a Schedule I drug classified as hav-ing no medical benefit under the Controlled Substances Act, attempts to apply professional standards in any of the 16 states with medical

cannabis programs have translated into continual federal harassment of the business community and a great boon to the legal profession. In 2010, for example, Full Spectrum’s applica-tion for analytical lab licensure through the DEA triggered a DEA raid. Like wellness centers and dis-pensaries, most lab employees are required to be patients to get around the possession issues; many techni-cians are also caregivers.

“Up to this point, regulation has been a loose concept,” said Noel Palmer, PhD, technician, Montana Botanical Analysis. “States do not seem to have the infrastructure or desire to audit labs or to serve as a controlling source, but that’s really what needs to happen right now. There’s too many labs doing too much closed-door work, and there needs to be some sort of oversight. I think that a state is eventually going to have to step in with the services of a forensics lab or state crime lab to essentially audit labs, because cannabis labs should be scrutinized just like anything else. If we’re going to be calling ourselves quality-control facilities, somebody needs to control our quality.”

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