Despite adjustments made by companies prior to legalization, the state of cannabis lab testing in Canada remains unreliable, as different labs fail to produce consistent results for consumers and regulators alike.
Products that are used in human consumption have their fair share of regulations to ensure quality standards are met. In this regard, the cannabis sector is no different. With the Canadian market still so young and consumers still familiarizing themselves with the various products on offer, regulators and end users alike benefit from consistent safety and transparency standards.
Unfortunately, it is hard to keep these safety measures in place when current testing methods can’t produce consistent results. Currently, different laboratories using the same technology get wildly differing results in terms of THC and CBD concentrations despite testing on the same batch of product. The fact that companies can’t get consistent results among themselves only serves to discredit the current state of cannabis testing, which bears drastic safety, quality and cost efficiency consequences that could benefit others in the market.
The truth behind modern cannabis testing
As the cannabis industry continues to explode, there is an increasing demand for testing labs to perform potency, safety and quality tests on ever-increasing quantities of product. This is crucial for medical cannabis patients, for example, who need certain dosages for relief from their symptoms. Even consumers of recreational cannabis need to know THC and CBD levels, because both can influence the strength of the product.
This information is just as important for regulators, who are employed to ensure safe and consistent products. For example, cannabis companies like Bonify have suffered from recalls due to products that were distributed with false information. THC and CBD percentages are frequently used to dictate cannabis price points, which can create inconsistencies at different levels of the supply chain when testing and labeling are not closely regulated. As such, cannabis testing has become a big issue in the industry.
“There are a tremendous number of questions around the reliability of the data that’s being generated by cannabis laboratories,” said Jeremy Applen, head of Cannabis Systems. “If you don’t have robust standards around cultivation, manufacturing, or distribution, you don’t really know what chain of events occurred prior to that product being identified as potentially adulterated.”
Cannabis testing standards
There are a variety of ways that laboratories can measure CBD and THC concentrations. The most commonly used technique is High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), which is the current “gold standard” in the industry. HPLC can separate and evaluate a mixture of chemicals in a liquid solution, often extracted from a cannabis flower mixed with a solvent and put against a detector column that tracks how quickly the cannabis compounds move.
HPLC detectors usually measure UV light absorbance, which is correlated with specific molecules. When these molecules reach the detector, their abundance is measured. Since THC and CBD travel at different speeds, they can be detected at different times and can be measured separately in the testing process.
While HPLC tests are theoretically sound on paper, conventional HPLC tests come with their own drawbacks besides the inexplicable variance reported by these labs. Instead, the cannabis industry is seeing a push for more “in-house” analysis systems, where farmers and growers can cut out regulatory middlemen, establishing accurate testing information upstream.
Many cannabis businesses are using portable analyzers at all stages of production. At cultivation facilities, growers are able to perform quality analysis directly onsite and see immediate feedback regarding the crop without having to send a sample over to a lab. It’s not uncommon to wait for five to 15 days before results came back. Instead, gold standard HPLC equivalent solutions can take two to four hours on the long side, with many more convenient alternatives taking as little as 30 minutes.
This opens up a plethora of options for taking a more data-centric approach. Growers can test the same plant at various stages of growth, using consistent technology that isolates certain periods in which particular compounds are more prevalent and potent. At the same time, even the slightest change in dozens of variables can impact the quality of cannabinoid expression. Portable analyzers can let growers specifically test each variable without the concern of cross-lab variability, getting immediate feedback to track and tweak for future experiments to maximize production.
While this is great for growers, producers and manufacturers along the cannabis supply chain can also expect to see benefits from these portable analyzers. For one, portable analyzers can help ensure the consistent quality of raw materials sourced from growers. Normally, producers buy trim and then test it afterwards, but with portable analyzers producers can test the strains and validate the quality of the product onsite before they make the final purchase.
The use of portable analyzers can also help in maximizing cannabinoid extraction. Occasionally after processing, additional cannabinoid content can remain in waste material. While these amounts are often relatively small, the aggregate volume can be recovered once extraction processes are optimized by in-house analysis tools.
Real market examples
A number of private companies have developed testing technologies ranging from liquid chromatography with spectroscopy to infrared technology combined with image analysis. Publicly traded FluroTech (TSX:TEST,OTCQB:FLURF) offers a highly accurate remote analysis platform that employs fluorescence spectroscopy. The company’s two part testing solution uses an instrument called the CompleTest™ along with consumable test kits, which combine to make a portable, fast, accurate and cost-effective method for cannabis and hemp testing that is currently available for purchase.
The importance of reliable cannabis testing
Without a consistent, reliable source of testing, the cannabis industry may have to deal with a level of uncertainty that affects all participants along the supply chain. From end consumers and manufacturers to cultivators and regulators themselves, participants throughout the cannabis industry could benefit from improved testing protocols. When coupled with future innovations in portable analyzers, consistent and quick cannabis testing could prove to be a game changer for all companies involved.
This article was written according to INN editorial standards to educate investors.