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Why This ‘Hemp Task Force’ Is Out To Standardize Sampling Methods

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Feb 04, 2020   
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There are always plenty of exciting ‘news’ when a nascent industry gets going. And the US hemp industry has been no different. There have been new businesses. New careers. New markets, and hundreds of new opportunities. But in these heady days of celebration, a crucial aspect of any new sector can easily be forgotten about: the new rules.

And, one year on from its formal legalization, it turns out US hemp production is still badly in need of some rules.

Hemp rules

“Everybody has worked together to get the policy in the United States such that it's on a semi-firm foundation. But it's not 100 percent there yet,” says Mark Privitera, CEO of PreProcess, a San Francisco-based process development and engineering firm. “The policy has still got issues.”

Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, everyone involved in hemp can now agree on its legal status as an agricultural crop. But what part of the plant should be sampled for testing? How much should be taken? What equipment settings should be used to test it? These are the more practical issues that have got activists scrambling for a consensus.

“Everybody seems to have a different way of prepping the sample,” Privitera tells Analytical Cannabis. “Do I take a chocolate bar that has a claim of 10 milligrams per square, or do I grind the whole bar? Do I take one square? What we found is, Kentucky would specify one way, New York would specify another.”

As both a hemp farmer and CEO of a process development firm, Privitera sits in a unique position between cannabis agriculture and the engineering industries. It’s one of the reasons why the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) commissioned him to head up a new task force, one with the aim of cataloguing every standard and measuring technique US companies and agencies use to measure hemp samples.

“We went to the HIA, and we said, ‘Let's take a look at what everybody's doing,’” Privitera says. “So what we decided to do is put together this task force and gather from everywhere.”

With the blessing of the HIA, Privitera assembled a top team of analytical scientists, university researchers, and hemp experts at the end of 2019. And now that the new year is here, they’re ready to get cataloguing.

“We had the first kick-off in December. Now the working group has been feeding in and saying, ‘Hey, here's a method a company’s using in Texas. Here’s a method that X lab is using in Colorado,’” says Privitera. “We're gathering that information and a group of ten of us look at it and go, ‘Okay, this looks very similar [this] method. We have five people using that method. But those five people have five different sample prep [methods].’ So there's a difference.”

The trouble with inconsistency

While it might just sound like an excessive amount of interviewing and paperwork, the task force’s project could be incredibly beneficial for an industry struggling to organize itself. Only a few years ago, many in cannabis lab sector were still trying to agree on which THC/CBD referencing standards to use.

“In the past, there would be larger variance in reported results, depending on whose calibration standards we used to generate our calibration curves,” Christopher Hudalla, chief scientific officer at ProVerde Labs, told Analytical Cannabis in 2017. “But now that we have identified the most reliable sources and do our own internal quality control on incoming batches of samples, we do not have the problems we had in the past.”

These are the kinds of technical problems Privitera knows all too well – and he’s not all that confident they’re an issue of the past.

“What we're seeing a lot of is, ‘Okay, I measured my stuff and it's at ten percent cannabinoid, whether it's CBD or THC,” he says. “And, of course, a processor might do their own test and say, ‘Oh, no, I get eight percent.’”

“Both parties are confident in the number that they're basing on,” he adds. “Right now, it’s like, ‘Well, I say eight, you say, ten. Let's make it nine.’ It’s not the way you want an industry to be.”

Even as recently as August last year, reports of mass discrepancies in sample tests were still blemishing the US cannabis industry. Upon discovering that components in chocolate were interfering with cannabis potency tests, researchers in California claimed that thousands of cannabis-chocolate products across the country could be inaccurately labelled.

But by November this year, Privitera and his colleagues are hoping that their studious project will be ready to provide some much-needed guidance to cannabis samplers and analysts.

“So by November, [we’ll] have our report out,” he says. “To get there, the first quarter of this year, up until April, is our gather mode… then, [we’ll] have that [data] crafted in the third quarter into a presentation that says, ‘Okay, here's some things we need to think about.’ And we're hoping then, at that point, people will get together to say, ‘Okay, this is what the industry really should do.’”

Outgrowing the competition

Of course, with the cannabis industry’s reputation at stake, the HIA’s hemp task force isn’t the only organization to try to standardize testing practices. Over in the UK, the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis is currently reviewing the analytical testing methods employed in the UK CBD industry. While back in the US, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) set out to establish its own hemp sampling protocols in April of last year.

So what makes the HIA’s task force so special?

“A lot of these other organisations exist and what they're starting to do is go, ‘Oh, cannabis is a new sector. We have to apply our existing stuff over to cannabis,’” says Privitera. “What we're doing [that’s] uniquely different is looking at the whole picture and… trying to identify who has what and looking at those methods and what the differences might be in them.”

“So, if AOAC [the Association of Analytical Communities] comes up with a method for doing pesticides in cannabis, but then ACS [the American Chemical Society] comes up with [another] method and they're sort of similar but different, we're trying to identify that,” he continues.

But before any comparisons can be made, the task force first needs the data, which is why Privitera is keen to stress the project's collective nature.

“The one thing I want to make sure everybody is aware of is this is open and collaborative,” he says. “We're looking to reach out to everybody in all corners of the industry… This is not a competition. So if you've got info you want to share, please reach out, because we really want folks to get their information out there.”

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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