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What to Know About Cannabis Lab Testing – Its Usefulness and More

Updated September 13, 2022

Contents


  • What Is Cannabis Lab Testing?
  • Methods of Testing Cannabis
  • Analytical Chromatography (GC)
  • Mass Spectrometry (MS)
  • Microbial Testing
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR)
  • Residual Solvent Analysis
  • Standards
  • It Is Sometimes Legally Required
  • Why Cannabis Lab Testing Matters
  • Safety of Consumers
  • Controlling Quality
  • Meeting Future or Current Regulations
  • Improves the Opinion of the Industry
  • Maintaining Records
  • Gathering Data
  • Who Uses Cannabis Lab Testing?
  • Major Players in Cannabis Lab Testing
  • How to Start a Cannabis Lab Testing Facility
  • Check Legality
  • Finding Employees
  • Getting Equipment
  • A Business Plan
  • The Bottom Line

If you have consumed any cannabis products, then you will likely appreciate the presence of lab testing. This is considered a very important part of the marijuana industry and it will definitely not disappear anytime soon. After all, there is no indication that the federal government will be creating an agency or organization to take care of lab testing in the near future.

What Is Cannabis Lab Testing?

As the name implies, cannabis lab testing involves testing cannabis in a laboratory setting to look into its properties. This is a process that all cannabis intended for consumers should undergo. The laboratories are the result of concerns regarding potential contaminants in cannabis, especially given the lack of government oversight and regulation on cannabis.

Labs that test for cannabis will include those focused on analytical chemistry as well as microbiology. They look for levels of things such as water, cannabinoids, and terpenes, all of which are supposed to be present. This allows for confirmation of things such as the potency of a strain and its potential effects.

Additionally, cannabis lab testing looks for substances that are not supposed to be present, including mold, mycotoxins, solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals.

Methods of Testing Cannabis

Most cannabis testing labs will perform a range of tests to check for the full list of elements mentioned above. Each type of test will look for a certain set of results, then they are combined to get an overall image of the cannabis.

Analytical Chromatography (GC)

This type of testing helps determine the compounds in the sample. It involves technicians dissolving a sample then pouring it into an absorbent. Each compound in the cannabis will move at its own rate, resulting in distinct colors within the absorbent.

Mass Spectrometry (MS)

This type of testing measures chemicals and molecules. Technicians in a lab will use this type of test to place various compounds in a magnetic field. That field will then show the deflection rate as a spectrum.

Microbial Testing

There are several types of microbial testing that cannabis labs may use, including statistical sampling, sound assay designs and validations, and relevant microorganism testing.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR)

This type of testing allows for the study of cannabis without the use of solvents. It relies on a magnetic field to measure chemical compounds and molecules. Technicians send radio waves through a sample, with a radio receiver picking them up. They measure the variations in frequency for every magnetic field, which lets the technicians see a detailed structure of the interior of the sample.

Residual Solvent Analysis

With this type of testing, technicians extract active ingredients from the marijuana by using solvents like water, butane, carbon dioxide, or ethanol. After extraction, including of cannabis oil and other similar products, technicians can determine the amount of solvent that is left behind or residual, which is in parts per million.

Standards

Because of the gray legal area of cannabis, where it is legal in some states but not all and illegal at the federal level, there are still no explicit standards of the level that many advocates would appreciate. Specifically, many people have called for the creation of standards that line up with those from the International Standards Organization (ISO/IEC 17025) and/or the ASTM International (ASTM D37).

It Is Sometimes Legally Required

Not only is cannabis lab testing a good idea for safety reasons, but it is also legally required in some states. Colorado was the first state to introduce government standards, which the legislature proposed in 2015. This led to the requirement for mandatory testing on potency and microbial presences. In the following years, Colorado expanded the requirements, also requiring testing for pesticides and residual solvents.

Although Colorado was the first state to require cannabis lab testing, it is not the only one. California, Oregon, Nevada, and Massachusetts also all require it, and this list is likely to continue expanding.

Why Cannabis Lab Testing Matters

The main reason to test cannabis before sending it to the market is for safety, but there are more factors at play than this. The following are some of the most important reasons that cannabis lab testing is essential for the industry.

Safety of Consumers

As mentioned, the safety of those who consume cannabis is one of the most important concerns, and it is likely the reason that led to the rise of cannabis testing, to begin with. Without testing cannabis, there is no guarantee that the products that reach consumers do not have any harmful chemicals or other ingredients. There are numerous potential contamination sources throughout the growing process, with even more along the way as the product heads to the consumer.

For example, cannabis has natural moisture, which could encourage the growth of microbes or mold. Additionally, if there are heavy metals in the soil, the roots can absorb these, leading to concentrations in the cannabis plant. Growing processes can involve the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other harsh chemicals, which may have remnants left behind in the plant.

The only way to be completely certain that none of these harmful contaminants or others are present in cannabis is to put it through lab testing. That is particularly important as the various potential contaminants have the potential to cause life-threatening issues.

Controlling Quality

Cannabis lab testing also lets dispensaries, growers, and manufacturers of cannabis-based products control the quality of their products. With testing, they can confirm that their products are of a consistently high quality, which will encourage customers to have faith in the company.

Customers want predictability, in terms of potency as well as quality. By being able to show consumers that their products have that consistency, whether in the lack of contaminants or the THC levels, this encourages future trust in the product. That results in an increase in brand loyalty, which benefits cannabis growers and companies.

Meeting Future or Current Regulations

As mentioned, cannabis lab testing is currently required in some states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal, but not all. This will likely change in the future, with some sort of regulation or testing eventually being required. At the latest, that would likely occur when marijuana is legalized at the federal level.

Obviously, companies must meet any current regulations, including those for lab testing. If a cannabis company in California or another state that requires this testing does not comply, they may find their business shut down.

The possibility of future regulations is also important, however, as it minimizes the disruption to a cannabis company’s processing in the future. After all, their product timeline will already account for the time spent with lab testing, so there will be minimal changes in the time it takes to bring a product to market when new regulations arrive. Additionally, undergoing lab testing now confirms that the cannabis already meets high standards. Since those are the standards that will likely be required in the future, this eliminates the need for cannabis companies to make changes to the use of fertilizers, or other parts of the process in the future.

From the perspective of a cannabis company looking to remain competitive, this is particularly important since changes can be very expensive. Furthermore, it is likely that when regulations come into place, there will be a timeline of enforcement, which could lead to rushing the process. By already incorporating testing, businesses can avoid that rush and take the time to discover which processes work the best for them while delivering the quality cannabis consumers want.

Improves the Opinion of the Industry

There is also the fact that when cannabis companies bring their products through lab testing, this improves the overall opinion of the industry. Given the mixed public opinions regarding marijuana, this is a very important point.

Essentially, the lab testing shows the general public as well as consumers that cannabis is safe to consume as there are no contaminants or heavy metals. This can help minimize arguments regarding safety, which are unfortunately common against cannabis.

Even the lab testing regarding cannabinoid concentrations can help the public opinion of the industry. After all, it shows those who are skeptical that there are controls in place so consumers know the potency of their chosen products. This can reduce the risk of consuming too high of a dose and being overwhelmed by the cannabis, which could lead to personal negative opinions in the future. It is also the perfect counter to a common argument against cannabis, which is that it can be too potent. If the potency is clear before consumption, this argument disappears.

Maintaining Records

Cannabis lab testing is also useful from the perspective of maintaining records. In terms of records, cannabis companies can have records on hand that indicate their products do not contain harmful contaminants. This could be helpful in the future if a lawsuit ever arises or someone alleges that the company’s cannabis caused harm to someone. In these situations, the records showing that the product is free from heavy metals, contaminants, mold, and more can protect the company financially as well as protect its reputation.

Gathering Data

The lab testing can also be useful in terms of gathering data, both at the company level and at the industry level. Companies can use the data to track the consistency of potency of their strains. If a variation occurs, this may serve as an early warning that something is different. Companies can also gather data on their range of products, such as what types of strains or potencies they have the most of.

The data from lab testing can help companies sort products by highest THC concentration or highest CBD concentration, allowing them to better target consumers. Consumers can also use this information to help them find a product more quickly, or even to choose which brand to buy from based on offerings.

On a larger scale, the data from cannabis lab testing can be combined, with the permission of marijuana companies, to view relevant trends. Examples would be which areas of the country tend to have the most potent strains or the strains that feature a certain terpene in the highest prominence.

Who Uses Cannabis Lab Testing?

Cannabis lab testing comes into play at several key stages of the cycle, so those who use cannabis lab testing may have several different roles.

Growers will use the facilities to test crops and ensure that they are healthy and of good quality. Distributors will use the testing to protect them against false claims and to verify classification. Regulators will use the facilities to ensure that all legal requirements and regulations are being met.

Major Players in Cannabis Lab Testing

Depending on where in the world you live, there will be different cannabis lab testing companies that appear. Some are larger than others, but there are very few compilations or comparisons of these labs. As such, the following are just a handful of the bigger cannabis testing labs that you may hear of.

Keep in mind that many of these lab testing facilities make it easy to send and receive samples, so you do not have to be near them to make use of their services.

How to Start a Cannabis Lab Testing Facility

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, many entrepreneurs wonder how they can take advantage of the growth of marijuana, including its spreading legalization. One of the potential ways to do this is by opening your own cannabis laboratory for testing. Keep in mind that getting the necessary equipment and permits will be a sizable investment, but it is a reasonable option. There is also the fact that most cannabis lab testing facilities could easily be converted into another type of testing facility or lab if the marijuana testing did not work out.

If you are interested in opening a cannabis lab testing facility, take some time to see what you would need to do before you decide whether it makes sense for you.

Check Legality

Before you can even consider opening a cannabis testing lab, you need to consider the local laws. Look at your state’s regulations as they vary by jurisdiction. You may need an ISO/IEC accreditation that outlines the calibration and testing requirements. You may need specific state cannabis license, to have quality control and quality assurance programs in place, to have Standard Operating Procedures outlined, and/or to adhere to fire codes and standards.

Remember that these requirements are still evolving, so always ensure you look at the most recent relevant information.

Finding Employees

You will also need to find employees for your cannabis testing, just like you would with any other business. You are unlikely to find many candidates with experience testing cannabis, but you can look for recruits that have experience with other types of analysis and testing. Focus on those with experience completing the type of tests you plan on using.

You may need to be prepared to offer higher compensation than in some other industries since there are still fewer people looking for jobs in the cannabis industry than roles to fill. At the same time, you are unlikely to have a large budget. Even so, you will need to do some research so you can create a compensation package that will attract the relevant talent.

Getting Equipment

You will also need to have a range of equipment for your cannabis lab. The most common pieces of equipment that you will need include gas chromatography (GC), liquid chromatography (HPLC), and mass spectrometry (MS). You may also want additional equipment, depending on the type of testing you plan to complete.

Of course, you will also need other lab-related items, such as work areas, fume hoods, lab tables, lab carts, casework cabinets, marijuana cabinets, eyewash stations, flammable gas alarm systems, and emergency showers. Then there is the matter of other furniture, such as desks to complete paperwork and basic office supplies.

A Business Plan

You should also have a solid business plan for your cannabis lab. Use it to outline the general description of your company, your products and services, your marketing plan, your operational plan, your financial plan, and more.

The Bottom Line

Cannabis lab testing is the process of testing cannabis before it reaches the consumer. This testing allows for confirmation of things such as terpenes and cannabinoid content or potency. It also allows growers, distributors, and consumers to confirm that there are no potentially harmful compounds present, from chemicals to contaminants. Lab testing is primarily a matter of safety, but it can also help companies ensure the quality of their products and contribute to the overall reputation of the cannabis industry. For now, cannabis lab testing is performed mainly by independent companies as there is no oversight body across the country.