Why Cannabis Extractors Are Bringing Testing In-house
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Earlier this year, Californian cannabis became a lot less heavy metal. That is, it became illegal for cannabis labs not to test for heavy metals among other toxins. In fact, since the drug became recreationally legal in January 2018, certified cannabis labs have had to test for a whole host of impurities, potencies, and abnormalities in the name of Californian safety.
But while a benefit to the health-conscious consumer, the increased scrutiny has been problematic for cannabis extractors – those that actually extract the coveted cannabinoids from plant materials. For these professionals, more tests can mean more time wasted waiting for results. And if a sample fails, the whole extraction process starts again.
It’s far from an ideal situation, which is why some extractors are taking action. As testing technologies become more affordable, several cannabis extraction labs have been buying up and bringing the hold-ups in-house.
Cannabis testing closer to home
“In-house analytics allows us to immediately have an analysis of the cannabinoid and terpene fractions of a sample,” says Taylor Trah, a formulation manager at Outlier’s Collective (OutCo), a licensed dispensary and extractor in San Diego, California.
Trah and his colleagues at OutCo recently acquired some in-house testing technology to help accelerate their extraction process. Speaking to Analytical Cannabis, he explained the impact it has already made.
“Before in-house analytics, Blake [Grauerholz, OutCo’s director of extraction] would load whole-grain cannabis starting materials into the extractor, which we had some idea of the cannabinoid concentration of, given that our in-house material is typically within 5 percent points of THC,” he explains.
“But we didn’t know how much THC was in the flowers that were going into the extractor.”
“Now, instead of putting in untested cannabis materials, that cannabis starting material gets analyzed using HPLC [high performance liquid chromatography] and we have an exact concentration of THC present in our starting material. So, we can further refine our parameters to specifically target the material that we’re extracting more precisely than just with a general potency idea.”
Even if state laws didn’t require cannabinoid levels to be tested, this ability to do so is still a major boon to processors and extractors looking to corner the bespoke THC:CBD market. By keeping a step-ahead of third-party lab results, companies like OutCo can ensure its products match the labelled ratio even before they’re extracted – and make a saving while doing so.
“Cost-wise, there are some big savings. Your consumables are going to cost you far less than sending your samples out to a lab. But the time is really where you see the greatest savings,” says Trah.
“You know, it’s forty dollars per test or so, which isn’t going to make or break most processes, but three days waiting for a large batch to go out is potentially huge amounts of sales that are being compromised when you need to send out for analytics externally.”
Analyzers are now becoming so necessary for extractors, that going without one is fast becoming a non-option. When off the shelf commercial technologies can analyze ten cannabinoids in less than eight minutes, it pays to invest in-house.
“I was just on the phone with our instrumentation provider because we are trying to refine our method and get the clean numbers within one percentage point out of our methods as we get from the licensed testing laboratory,” says Trah.
“Now we’re getting useful data out – a real idea of THC and CBD concentrations.”
The cannabis industry grows up
No longer the province of accredited cannabis labs, cannabinoid levels can now be gauged by even cheaper devices. Tools are also available that can screen cannabis plants for genetic traits and pathogens while they’re still in the seedling tray, all for the price of a restaurant meal for two.
Of course, these products don’t have the accuracy of industrial standards. But the growing popularity of every level of analytical technologies is a positive sign that the cannabis industry is starting to self-regulate and mature.
“I definitely think this a sign of the sector maturing, yes,” says Trah.
“At its base, you’re talking about needing to bring in people with true chemical analytics training to your laboratory to be able to run these systems. And I think that elevates the level of formulations and extraction going on typically.”
“And then I think it shows a desire from the makers in the industry as a whole to refine their product and create more advanced formulations and extractions and get more control over those processes in-house.”
But when looking to upgrade a lab’s capabilities in such a rapidly expanding industry, it can be hard to know where to begin. Luckily, those-in-the-know know their stuff.
“For us, the PerkinElmer Spectrum Two FT-IR Spectrometer has proven a good introduction to in-house analytics for a few reasons,” says Trah.
“Cost always being a factor in optimizing production, the substantially lower unit price of a spectrometer when compared with a HPLC is certainly a primary selling point. From there, sample preparation and analysis is also less costly from all perspectives in using IR.”
“HPLC testing requires substantial technical expertise, a number of consumable elements, and time to prepare and run samples. In contrast, IR samples are easily loaded undiluted and spectra are captured very rapidly at the click of a button, so you can get real-time analytics on processes that you’re running; while the IR directly samples the oil from your beaker, you’re ready to go.”
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Trends in Cannabis Extraction ebook in March 2019.