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What is a Cannabis Testing Lab? With Jini Curry

Published: Nov 12, 2021   

What is a cannabis testing laboratory? What kind of testing services do these labs provide? What equipment do they possess? All of these questions and more are addressed in this Teach Me in 10 episode hosted by Jini Curry, the laboratory director at Modern Canna Labs in Lakeland, Florida. 

Leo Bear-McGuinness: 

Hello, and welcome back to LabTube’s Teach Me in 10, the video series where we challenge scientists to present and summarize their work in ten minutes or less. My name is Leo Bear-McGuinness, and I’m a reporter and editor at Analytical Cannabis, the publication that reports on cannabis research and developments in the extraction and testing sectors within the growing legal cannabis industry. So here at AC we’re very familiar with how legal cannabis is tested and proven safe for consumers. But not everyone else is. Even some of the industry might be unaware of what marijuana is tested for, and how those tests are carried out. Luckily, I’m today joined by Jini Curry, who is more than qualified to give us all a very clear breakdown of just what goes on inside a cannabis lab. Jini is the laboratory director at Modern Canna Labs in Lakeland, Florida, which tests hemp and medical cannabis for a variety of contaminants and desirable traits. So, we’re very privileged to host her ten-minute presentation today. And with that allotted time in mind. I’ll hand over to Jini.

Jini Curry: 

Thank you so much for the introduction. In today’s presentation, I will be discussing cannabis testing labs, what, how and why. So, let’s dive right in. The first part of today’s presentation will cover the big question, what is a cannabis testing lab? For those of you who are not familiar with cannabis labs, this will be a great introduction into a discussion that could be talked about far more in depth.

Basically, cannabis testing labs are a third party who is responsible for testing product which contains cannabis, whether it is THC- or CBD-dominant. The laboratory works directly with the growers, the manufacturers, producers and retailers to ensure that the product meets the necessary regulatory standards. In addition, they are responsible for certifying that the label claim on the packaging is correct, and that consumers are in fact getting what they’re paying for. With that being said, this results in the laboratory being responsible for a variety of testing sample matrices using various instrumentation. So, what types of testing to cannabis labs provide? The first and probably most familiar testing services that cannabis labs provide are potency and terpene analysis. Potency testing involves using high performance liquid chromatography, otherwise known as HPLC, to quantify the concentration of cannabinoids present. Laboratories will test a variety of cannabinoids. However, the most common are THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, CBN, CBG and CBC. In addition to potency testing, another popular analytical test, which uses gas chromatography with mass spectrometry or GCMS, involves determining what terpenes are present in the sample and at what concentrations. Terpenes are what give cannabis its smell and its aroma. However, research shows that they also have additional benefits, such as being anti-oxidants, analgesics and having anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

The testing, however, is not and should not be focused only on the good. Cannabis laboratories are also responsible for performing contaminant testing. The main contaminants of interest include metals, most often the big four, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, which can be detected and quantified using ion coupled plasma with mass spectrometry, or ICPMS. Metals are of particular interest since cannabis is an accumulator plant, and anything that is added to the plant during its growth cycle will be absorbed and will accumulate over time. This results in potential metals contamination from soil, nutrients, and potentially even the water being used to grow the plants.

Next up is pesticides, which can include an endless number of compounds. However, most regulatory bodies have a list of pesticides of interest and require laboratories to test for those specific analytes. Some of the most common pesticides seen are compounds that are used regularly in the household to combat bugs and other pests. Pesticide analysis can be done using multiple types of instrumentation. The most common being liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry or LCMS-MS and gas chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry or GCMS-MS. It is imperative that laboratories use both types of instrumentation when looking for pesticides, due to some of the compounds being thermally liable, meaning, if you don’t keep them, you won’t see them, which is where the need for GCMS-MS technology comes into play.

In addition to pesticides, mycotoxins can also be seen and quantified using LCMS-MS technology. Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites of mold and fungus and are naturally produced. There are various types of mycotoxins, however, the most common that are tested for in cannabis are aflatoxins and ochratoxins. Then we come to the microbials, which are a little trickier as not all microbials are bad. However, the ones that are can be extremely dangerous. Currently, there’s quite a bit of debate regarding the best methodology for determining if microbes are present. However, after conducting a substantial amount of research, our laboratory has opted to use quantitative polymerase chain reaction or qPCR to amplify microbial DNA which has been isolated through an extraction process.

And finally, we come to the residual solvents which will be an analysis that is conducted only on derivative and edibles products. Residual solvents look at what byproducts may be left over after an extraction or distillation has been completed. It is important to note that residual solvents are ready to be a gas at fairly low temperatures. And because of this, the primary technique for characterizing and quantifying solvents is gas chromatography with mass spectrometry using a headspace auto sampler or GCMS-HS. The headspace autosampler uses a full evaporation technique or FET to heat and pressurize a vial containing the sample, thus turning any residual solvents that are present into a gas. Once the vial has been heated and pressurized, the autosampler will puncture the vial and the gas will make its way to the mass spec detector. One of the most common laboratory pitfalls surrounding residual solvents is laboratory contamination. Solvents are used daily in most areas of the laboratory, so special care needs to be taken to ensure that any samples with quantifiable amounts of solvents are in fact true hits and not carry over from other areas of the laboratory.

In addition to testing for the previously mentioned contaminants, laboratories may also be required to perform other pertinent testing, some of which include water activity, which measures the ability for product to grow microbials after being packaged, moisture testing, which determines the water content in a sample, and homogeneity testing for edibles to ensure that the cannabinoids are evenly distributed through the product. With that being said, laboratories can also provide other types of testing that are not required by any regulatory body. I won’t be going into these in depth today. However, I did want to mention them. They include but are not limited to nutrient testing, gender testing, flavonoid testing, stability testing, and leachability studies.

Now that we have discussed what a cannabis lab is, and what they do, let’s talk a little bit about how cannabis testing labs work. Laboratories will have specific testing requirements and rules that they must follow. When discussing this, it is important to note that the requirements and guidelines will vary depending on the cannabis program. The examples I will be using today are based on the state of Florida’s rules and regulations regarding certified marijuana testing laboratories. Regardless of their location, most states require that product testing be done prior to something being sold at a retailer. This is done to ensure that the product does not contain contaminants above the regulatory limit. Different states have set different limits for analytes of interest, and any product tested must be free of those contaminants above the regulatory limit. These limits have been determined based on current knowledge and understanding of the analytes of interest. And they’re dangerous to humans, if they were to be ingested, inhaled, were applied to the body. Because of the differences in the pharmacology of how cannabis is being used, the regulatory limits may vary sometimes based on the product and whether it’s being inhaled or ingested. Additionally, some laboratories are required to test product in its final packaging. This is a rule that was implemented in Florida, and we have seen firsthand the dangers of not testing final product in its final packaging. The fact of the matter is that though a product may be contaminant-free prior to packaging, this may not be the case after. We have seen instances where packaging processes have added microbials and even instances where the packaging is leaching out other contaminants, such as metals or residual solvents. 

As I mentioned previously, laboratories are responsible for testing a large variety of sample matrices. The laboratory will see flour edibles and or derivative products depending on what the cannabis policy is in their corresponding state. Currently, our laboratory is processing everything from whole flower to pre-rolls, to popcorn or little buds, kief brownies, gummies, cookies, chocolate bars, vapes, lotions, capsules, tinctures, patches, shatters, butters, waxes, RSO, distillate, and many more. With such a large variety of matrices, it's extremely important that the laboratory be prepared to handle the different products and to conduct research and development studies regarding the differences in prep and data evaluation that may be seen from matrix to matrix. When it comes to accounting for the matrix and ensuring that the processes in the laboratory are working, quality control is essential. Without it, the laboratory is not able to ensure that their analytical process is working properly and cannot guarantee that the data being produced is accurate, reproducible, and defensible. Quality control involves the verification that the instrumentation is working as it should be, and that the preparation process does not impact the analytical results being obtained. In order to do this, the laboratory should include quality control as a part of all analytical batches.

Additionally, the laboratory should be forthcoming with the quality control data if a client were to request the results. One of the biggest caveats in the industry is that currently quality control is not required in every state and therefore some laboratories are not running it or running it properly. This brings us to our final point of the presentation, which is why are cannabis testing labs important? Plain and simple, cannabis laboratories are the ones who are responsible for ensuring that the product being sold is safe for human consumption. More and more people are recognizing cannabis as a medicine, and in order to combat the current stigma associated with marijuana, laboratories are the ones who determine that the product makes it to market. If laboratories do not take their responsibility seriously, the industry could be negatively impacted in a massive way. Additionally, testing is necessary for both recreational and medicinal market. As mentioned above, there is still a negative stigma associated with cannabis. And in order to combat that the industry must take testing and product safety seriously. In regard to the medicinal market, the laboratories are the ones who are providing accurate information regarding the potency of products which are being used. It's important to remember that cannabis is not only being used by adults, but by children as well and proper dosing is crucial to ensuring their safety. Finally, the laboratories are the individuals who are going to be able to offer insight into better understanding cannabis. The plant is extremely complex and in order to utilize it to its full potential more needs to be understood about its chemical makeup and what concerns may be associated with its use.

With that being said the future of the cannabis industry is dependent on standardization. As someone who has been working in the industry for several years, this is something I'm extremely passionate about. I'm a firm believer in the need for standardization and the impacts that it will have on the industry. To provide standardization, there are several things that need to occur within the industry. First, specific methodology that is standardized must be created and used by all testing laboratories. Currently, there is a high possibility that the results being obtained from lab to lab will be drastically different due to prep methods, instrumentation used and the data evaluation process.

To combat this, standard methods need to be developed and laboratories need to be required to use validated methodology. Additionally, there is a need to have mandated quality control requirements in the industry. Some examples include batch QC [quality control], such as method blanks, laboratory spiked samples and matrix spiked samples, which will ensure that the analytical process is not affected by the recovery of analytes of interest once they have been taken through the entire process and also instrument QC, which be used to verify that the instrument and its calibration are working properly. Along with method standardization and mandated QC requirements, the industry needs to develop robust proficiency testing programs that will allow laboratories and regulatory bodies to see if the results obtained are accurate. Proficiency testing involves receiving a blind sample with an unknown amount of the analytes of interest present. Currently, the AOAC's cannabis analytical science program is working to develop a program that will be able to accurately gauge a laboratory’s ability to perform testing and obtain reliable results. Additionally, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is also running a cannabis quality assurance program that allows laboratories to participate in a round robin for analytical testing as it relates directly to cannabis.

Finally, continuing education opportunities are going to be essential for ensuring that the industry continues to move in the right direction. Opportunities to attend symposiums or conferences and to obtain certifications in analytical testing for cannabis will only help legitimize the industry that is combating years of negative stigmas. I hope that today’s presentation was both insightful and educational for all. Thank you.

Leo Bear-McGuinness:

Well, that was fantastic, Jini. I really appreciated the breakdown of everything that a cannabis lab does, as well as the focus on standardization and the organizations that are really putting in the effort there. And if you’d like to understand more about what Jini does, you can have a look at the Modern Canna Labs’ website. Or if you’re interested in anything cannabis testing, we certainly have plenty of resources and news articles at Analytical Cannabis.com. So, I think it’s just enough time to thank Jini for her fantastic presentation. Thank you very much.

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