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Federal Scientists Launch Hemp Program to Help Standardize Testing Methods

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jul 29, 2020   
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A federal science agency has unveiled a new program to help commercial and forensic labs agree on the techniques, technologies, and reference standards used to test hemp.

Beyond this initial goal, the scientists behind the new initiative at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) plan to help standardize the testing methods used for cannabis products, such as edibles, tinctures, and balms.

Levelling the testing

Hemp became legal to cultivate and sell across the US in December 2018, following the signing of the Farm Bill. Yet, at the federal level, cannabis remains illegal to this day. So, to prove their crop is legal, hemp farmers must have samples regularly tested to ensure the plants contain less than 0.3 percent THC.

However, without any official testing methodology, hemp labs can often differ in their testing techniques, and, in turn, their results. And it’s this kind of inconsistency that the scientists at NIST want to address.

“We've been hearing throughout the industry [that if] you send a sample to three or four labs or more, you might get different values from all of them,” Brent Wilson, a research chemist at NIST and member of its Cannabis Quality Assurance program (CannaQAP), told Analytical Cannabis.

“So, the goal is to improve the analytical measurements that are being done in cannabis laboratories and forensic laboratories, to where we're promoting good manufacturing practices and encouraging safe products.”

To achieve this goal, Wilson and his colleagues are looking to partner up with a range of hemp-testing labs. Once these facilities are on board by late August, they will be sent samples of hemp oil containing specific concentrations of THC, CBD, and 15 other cannabinoids. Each lab will then test the oils and relay its results and methods back to the NIST researchers.

“So, the sign up [period] will start on August 1 and will last the entire month of August,” said Wilson. “Our intention is to ship samples by mid-September, and then, by the end of October, have the labs submit their data from the measurements. In the end, we will provide a report of all the results of the study and provide conclusions. It will probably take six to eight months.”

This eventual report will be made freely available, but all participating labs will be kept anonymous.

“Anonymity means that labs don’t have to worry about how their performance will be viewed,” Melissa Phillips, a NIST research chemist and member of CannaQAP, said in a statement. “Our goal is to help labs improve, not to call them out.”

The hope is that, with the techniques and test results of each lab laid out in a report, the optimum methods will become apparent and the CannaQAP team can begin recommending labs adopt better-performing procedures.

“The main goal is to promote improvement in analytical measurements and collaboration throughout the community,” Wilson told Analytical Cannabis.

But the ambitions of the CannaQAP team don’t stop there. After ideal testing methods have been established, the program’s aim is to test for cannabis contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and mycotoxins. And before that, the NIST team hope to help develop some verified reference material for hemp, so every lab can test whether crops have breached the 0.3 percent THC limit to the same standard.

“The goal is to ultimately have a reference material available for the consumer or for the test testing labs to use routinely as they need to with their normal measurements,” Wilson added.

“There is [also] an interest in doing plant materials and oil materials, and even up to edibles, but we'll have to gradually work our way there.”

The search for standards

Of course, when the legality of countless hemp crops is at stake, it’s not surprising that NIST isn’t the only organization trying to standardize testing practices.

Last year, the Hemp Industry Association commissioned its own “hemp task force” to catalogue every standard and measuring technique used by US companies and agencies to measure hemp samples.

“We had the first kick-off in December,” Mark Privitera, head of the task force, told Analytical Cannabis back in February. “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.’”

“We're gathering that information and a group of ten of us look at it and go, ‘Okay, this looks very similar [to 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 independent lab standards organization AOAC International also launched its own cannabis testing standards program last year. Since then, the Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP) has outlined its own analytical method for detecting THC in hemp plants on a dry weight basis.

“This particular analysis and determination of THC on a dry weight basis in hemp materials has massive economic implications,” Dr Holly Johnson, chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association, told Analytical Cannabis this April. “It basically says, ‘Is this material hemp and can it enter the legal marketplace?’ Or must it be destroyed?’”

“That's why this determination is so critical,” she added. “There needed to be these additional steps as per the Agricultural Marketing Service at the USDA as per their interim final rule and the statutory language put out in 2018 by Congress – they both require this on a dry weight basis reporting.”


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