By Aaron Stancik
When Initiative 502 passed back in 2012 in Washington State, I immediately recognized the potential for cannabis science. Cannabis has been prohibited for 70 years and completely blacklisted from science. Cannabis is a natural product with vast agricultural, industrial and medicinal potential. How could it be forbidden from science?
The answer, of course, is the federal government. Prohibition has stopped any research into cannabis by academia and industry. This has prevented countless advancements in agriculture, industry, science and medicine. It has also contributed to a complete lack in quality control of a popular, widely-consumed intoxicant.
Cannabis testing labs are needed to test for potency, cannabinoids, residual solvents, heavy metals, pesticides and microbial contamination. Along with legalization came regulatory systems and quality control.
With I-502, Washington State voters created a new quality assurance industry that had never existed previously. Other states are following suit with mandated testing in both medical and recreational markets. This is providing new opportunities in private industry for scientists.
Before recreational cannabis emerged, testing labs were operating in self-regulated medical markets. They were doing business in a legal gray area, which incurred certain risks and challenges. Now, recreational cannabis markets are requiring that cannabis be tested. Cannabis science is now a bona fide industry. Labs are being licensed and certified to provide quality assurance.
This protects the consumer, and ensures cannabis products are of the highest quality. It has also helped legitimize cannabis testing and turn it into a reliable science. Cannabis testing was developed from the ground up without government oversight. Early on it was a free-for-all. Labs began popping up everywhere, including mobile testing labs operating out of the back of vans. Inaccuracies between labs led to negative media attention about testing.
Early on, CannaSafe recognized the lack of quality control in the testing industry and saw a need for standardization. At the time, there were no accrediting bodies working with cannabis testing labs. The EPA and FDA are federal agencies with no jurisdiction over cannabis. The DEA is tasked with criminalizing cannabis and is not a great partner for a testing lab.
To prove its technical competency, CannaSafe became the first cannabis lab in the nation to get accredited by the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO is similar to the EPA and FDA, except that it is an international agency. In the cannabis industry, ISO accreditation has became the industry standard. In Washington State, the Liquor Control Board adopted protocol from ISO/IEC 17025:2005 and implemented it into its regulations for labs.
Since there has been no action on the part of the federal government to regulate the quality of cannabis, there is no equivalent to the EPA or FDA in the United States to provide oversight on cannabis markets. It has been left up to labs to seek higher accreditations and prove they are performing at the highest scientific standard.
Washington and Colorado have provided a framework for how quality assurance can be implemented in recreational markets. One shortcoming still facing the testing industry is the need for a certified, third-party entity to conduct proficiency trials on labs. This would test each lab’s performance and reliability. The practice is routine in EPA and FDA labs and is absolutely needed to establish standardization in cannabis testing.
Currently, CannaSafe is part of an inter-lab working group in Washington State, organized by Kurt Johnson of TNW Labs. This lab alliance was formed to address testing methodologies, and improve quality assurance testing in the Washington market. The working group is providing input and direction to the Liquor Control Board and Center for Laboratory Science, which oversees lab certification.
Take a look at the current problem of inflated potencies numbers in the Washington market.
This has been a definite cause for concern. Producers are reporting cannabinoid totals as potency, when they should only be counting decarboxylated THC. It’s fine to report all cannabinoids to a consumer, but that’s not an accurate measure of potency.
There are numerous cannabinoids in cannabis, but only THC is considerably psychoactive. THC-A, the acidic form of THC, is non-psychoactive and must be decarboxylated by heating to become active. Simply adding THC-A and THC will not give you potency. You have to first convert THC-A into THC equivalents and then add that amount to the THC already present to calculate potency.
For example, a flower sample with 22% THC-A and 1% THC has a potency of 20.3% THC — not 23%. A conversion factor of 0.877 is used to convert THC-A into THC. This lowers the combined sum of both species. It is not enough to just add THC-A to THC; this approach will lead to a potency value that is around 3% higher in the above example.
This mathematical nuance has led to over-reporting of potency in Washington and an unrealistic amount of flower being considered greater than 30% THC. Producers intent on selling surplus bud are using this adding error to better market their product to less-informed consumers. Some are purposefully maximizing the perceived potency to mislead customers and move product.
Another factor that affects potency reporting is how moisture is factored into the equation. Potency can be reported on fresh bud “as-received” or on a “dry weight basis.” Moisture content makes up around 10% of cured flower weight. If potency is reported on a dry weight basis, the value will be around 10% higher. For example, fresh flower with a potency of 20% THC would be 22% THC on a dry weight basis.
There is an argument for reporting potency on a dry weight basis. It allows the potency of any strain to be compared directly without considering moisture. Potency values are compared on a normalized scale. This allows for a more meaningful comparison. These are the types of questions our inter-lab working group is tackling.
The Werc Shop, a reputable testing lab with a great science team, is participating in the working group. I met these guys at a Liquor Control Board lab meeting in Seattle and got to sit next to them for a few hours and talk shop. They know their cannabis chemistry and have academic credentials to match. Both the lab director, Dr. Brad Douglass, and the president are Ph.D. chemists. They are the type of qualified academics this industry needs.
CannaSafe Analytics is collaborating with The Werc Shop to optimize testing methodologies and for inter-lab validation. These type of collaborations help ensure good laboratory practices are observed and that we operate at the highest scientific standard.
We are working with labs in multiple states forming an “accuracy” alliance. The intent is to foster industry-wide accountability in cannabis testing and rapidly advance the science. We are collaborating with labs in various state medical and recreational markets. These labs operate in very different regulatory environments.
One of our collaborating labs is Eastern Oregon Analytical in La Grande, Oregon. EOA Labs has been serving the medical market and is now branching into recreational cannabis testing. The lab director of EOA Labs is Dr. Jeremy Riggle, a Ph.D. analytical chemist and professor at Eastern Oregon University.
In Colorado, we are associated with Phytatech, a state-certified cannabis testing lab. The director of Phytatech is Dr. Noel Palmer, a Ph.D. analytical chemist that used to manage Montana Botanical Analysis, another well-established cannabis testing lab.
Dr. Palmer was recently named the medical cannabis researcher of the year by Americans for Safe Access. Phytatech counts Dr. Arno Hazekamp, a world-renowned cannabis scientist, on its advisory board.
Another pioneering project CannaSafe is working on is mapping the genealogy of modern and historic cannabis strains. The project is being conducted by Phylos Bioscience and the Museum of Natural History. The goal is to produce a cannabis family tree of all known genetics. We are collecting samples for the Phylos Project and providing DNA from more than a hundred strains for the project.
A joint project CannaSafe and Phylos are working on has evaluated the use of water activity measurements in cannabis testing. Water activity is a useful quality assurance parameter commonly used in the Canadian cannabis market. Water activity is a measure of free water that is available for microbial growth. It is a more meaningful measure for potential microbial contamination than moisture content.
Agricultural, botanical and pharmaceutical products are susceptible to microbial contamination. Water activity measurements are used to control and eliminate the proliferation of microorganisms. With a handheld water activity meter from Decagon Devices, a cannabis producer can monitor water activity during the curing process.
This allows a producer to control optimal curing and prevent microbial growth. The perfect cure can be attained without over-drying. Curing too long reduces yields and incurs a loss on the producer. It also changes the quality and aesthetics. Flavor, appearance and smell can all be affected by over-curing. Loss of terpenes negatively affects the perceived quality and customer appeal. Water activity measurements are a great barometer for gauging quality. Look for labs like CannaSafe that offer both water activity and terpene analysis.
Aaron Stancik finished his doctorate degree in chemistry at the University of Idaho in 2012. His post-graduate work has been in academia and private industry and he has a passion for medicinal chemistry. He is currently the scientific director of CannaSafe Analytics in Pullman, Washington.