The Importance of Laboratory Testing for Cannabis Products
Oct 25, 2018 | Kat Austin
Table of Contents
- How Do Labs Measure Potency in Cannabis Products?
- Standards and Regulations for Cannabis Testing
- Why Do Cannabis Companies Use Third Party Laboratory Testing?
- How Does Lab Testing and Labeling Affect Users?
If you’ve ever purchased cannabis products or visited a dispensary, chances are you’ve seen the “Third Party Tested” label (or something similar) plastered across the majority of products. This label stands to show that the product has been tested according to legal guidelines. Before cannabis products can hit the shelves, they must undergo specialized lab testing. These tests exist to help better inform the consumer about the product, ensure the product meets safety standards, and protect the producer from liability.
Lab testing allows companies to properly label products. This helps consumers choose the best products based on potency, terpene content, and added ingredients. It also helps companies determine if any contaminants have entered the batch or if any solvents remain, which could alter the effects. Proper testing for cannabis products helps ensure the reliability and safety for the user.
One of the most important reasons for these tests is to ensure that the products are free of any chemicals that are harmful to the consumer. This could include any residual solvents leftover from the extraction process or dangerous pesticides used during the growing cycles. Tests also look for any accidental additives that may have come in contact with the product during the production cycle.
Testing for cannabis products varies by location and company. In most cases, the tests run by different labs are similar, but some are definitely more thorough than others. Depending on the lab, cannabis product testing may involve any of the following:
- Potency: Laws require producers to have their products tested for both THC and CBD potency, which are also often the two cannabinoids considered by consumers. Listing this potency on the bottle allows consumers to choose the best product for their needs. Many medicinal users will look for strains with high CBD:THC ratio, while many recreational users will opt for higher THC levels. These are not the only two cannabinoids that most labs test for. Other cannabinoids are considered as well, and the most common cannabinoids that labs test for include CBDa, THCa. CBG, CBN, and CBC. These cannabinoids interest medicinal users. Many products intended for medicinal use will display their potency on the product label.
- Pesticides: Like any crop, cannabis is subject to mites, rodents, and other infestations that are detrimental to the plant’s health. Because of this, many growers (especially on a commercial level) use pesticides, fungicides, and rodenticides during the grow cycle to protect the grow space from infestations. One popular pesticide, myclobutanil, has shown a negative impact on the reproductive cycle in animals. A variety of other FDA approved chemicals have shown negative effects after consumption. This is especially important for cannabis used to make concentrates. The extraction process will result in concentrated amounts of the pesticide as well. Lab testing seeks to identify any level of residual pesticides that could be harmful to the health of the consumer. Many cannabis producers prefer to grow their cannabis organically, which restricts the use of pesticides. To produce thorough lab results, most reports will still include information pesticide levels.
- Terpenes: Terpenes play several roles in cannabis products, like determining the color, flavor, and aroma. Terpenes also help create targeted effects in medicinal cannabis products. They are especially prominent in CBD products. Terpenes can have specific benefits like promoting sleep, increasing energy, or relieving headaches. Evaluating terpene levels helps producers maintain consistency throughout their products. This helps consumers choose the best products for their lifestyle or health conditions.
- Bacteria: Labs check cannabis products for any bacteria that could be unsafe or cause adverse reactions for the user. Bacteria can accumulate in a product that is improperly processed or contaminated. This testing process helps to ensure that nothing enters the cannabis product that shouldn’t. This also involves testing the moisture levels in the cannabis, since water is necessary for bacteria to grow. For fresh cannabis (which contains more water) these tests may look for E.coli, Clostridium botulinum, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
- Physical contamination: Things other than bacteria can contaminate cannabis products. This could include dust or other particles that accumulate due to improper handling or packaging. Generally, to test for physical contamination, a visual examination under a microscope is enough.
- Residual solvents: Depending on the extraction process used, a range of solvents could be added in order to extract cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Some methods (like a CO2 extraction) contain no solvents at all. However, many labs still test for any solvents that could have been left behind or found their way into the product, since consuming these solvents could be harmful to the user.
How Do Labs Measure Potency in Cannabis Products?
There are several methods utilized to test the potency of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids in cannabis products. The most widespread method is High-performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). This method requires special equipment but is usually regarded as the most efficient and accurate method.
During HPLC testing, the product is mixed with a solvent to separate the individual cannabinoids and terpenes. Then, a chemist pumps the mixture through a column filled with an absorbent material. This material reacts differently to each cannabinoid or terpene. Because each reaction is unique, the material separates them while passing through the column.
For instance, a CBD molecule may be more attracted to the material, causing them to move through the column slower than others. CBN may not be as attracted to the material, meaning it will pass through the column before CBD. The mixture is passed through the column completely, and the quantity of each molecule is measured as it passes through. These quantities are presented in parts per million (ppm). They are used to determine the specific potency of each cannabinoid and terpene in question.
Standards and Regulations for Cannabis Testing
There are no strict regulations in place regarding the lab tests for cannabis products. Producers are required to test the THC and CBD levels in all cannabis products, but other legal requirements are vague or non-existent. This impacts the reliability of cannabis testing.
Each state has its own set of regulations regarding these lab tests. Each state has varying requirements, though, which still makes it difficult to use any testing process as a standard across the board. Checking your state laws can help you learn what is and is not required regarding cannabis lab testing in your state. You should also verify that your cannabis products are tested at an accredited lab. Lab accreditation increases the chance that they tests were thorough and correct.
Many cannabis producers and consumers are pushing for more regulations on the lab tests. Producers push for more regulations because the lack of testing regulations leave them at risk. It has proven difficult to put these regulations in place.
This is especially true in the United States. Many states have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Others have even legalized recreational use. Yet, cannabis is still illegal under the federal government. This means there are no strict federal guidelines for cannabis testing.
That means that even if testing standards existed, it would be difficult to regulate each lab. The lack of federal involvement would make it difficult to ensure that they met the standards for every test. Many medical consumers are especially interested in implementing some type of testing standards. Reliability is an important feature for people who use cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Why Do Cannabis Companies Use Third Party Testing?
Cannabis companies are required to test certain areas (like THC and CBD potency) and opt to test others in order to provide consumers with the most information possible. However, many cannabis producers do not test their products in-house. Instead, these tests are outsourced to a third-party laboratory.
The equipment necessary to run the purity and quality tests is expensive. A mass spectrometer, which is especially necessary for testing pesticide and chemical levels, can cost up to $10,000. Special knowledge and training are necessary to properly operate the equipment, as well as to ensure that the tests are properly processed.
The tests must also be run in a qualified space, which is sanitized with adequate space for the equipment. Cannabis producers would have to buy the expensive testing equipment, as well as create a new space for the lab. Then, they would need to hire qualified employees to run the test.
It is often more efficient and convenient for the company to outsource the testing to a third party. This lab will already have qualified employees and expensive equipment. Cannabis producers are willing to pay large sums each month to test each batch. This fee is necessary to ensure safety and provide accurate information to the consumer.
Companies who provide more information about the product are usually more popular. Medicinal consumers are especially concerned about the quality of the products they buy.
How Does Lab Testing and Labeling Affect Users?
Lab testing allows cannabis users to determine exactly what is in the products they buy. This helps them choose the best product either for recreation or medicinal use. Regulations vary, but testing performed by an accredited lab generally ensures the quality of the products. Without lab testing, consumers would be choosing their cannabis product at random.
Lab testing on cannabis products helps ensure that what you see is what you get. This lowers the chance of adverse health effects that could be the result of any chemical or contaminant that slips through the grates.
The security does not come without cost. Cannabis producers pay out thousands of dollars every month for the testing necessary to provide a safe product with a proper label. This cost trickles down to the consumer and adds a few dollars to the cost of your cannabis products. However, it’s a small price to pay for the quality control and security provided.
The best way to know what is in your cannabis products is to look for transparent labeling. Companies with nothing to hide will often strive to make labeling as transparent as possible. This often means listing the ingredients, potency, and packaging date. These products will usually feature a label verifying that the product was quality tested. Labels also often identify the lab where testing took place.
If you want to take it a step further, research the individual lab that tested your product. From there you should be able to see exactly what tests were used to qualify your product. In some cases, labels even feature batch numbers which will help you find test results unique to the product you purchased.
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