According to the press release, the two organizations hope to promote “foundational standards for quality control testing and regulatory guidelines that promote product safety.” Both organizations will advocate for the adoption of industry standards they deem appropriate for recreational and medical cannabis as well as hemp testing in the United States.
Michael Bronstein, executive director of ATACH, says there is an urgent need for open-source consensus standards and standard test methods for cannabis testing. “In an industry that lacks standard test methods and where testing is such a crucial part of the regulatory landscape, the need for open-source consensus standards is especially significant,” says Bronstein. “The development and adoption of standard test methods for cannabis testing is essential in ensuring consistency between laboratories, encouraging uniformity in state testing regulation, and providing a safe and consistent product to consumers.”
The press release also states that A2LA and ATACH seek to “develop regulation and adopt industry standards with goals of advancing and professionalizing the industry.”
Can the laboratory accurately analyze sample products like my sample?
Can the laboratory reproduce the sample results for my type of sample?
Now let’s discuss the most important QC test that will protect your crop and business. That QC sample is the Matrix Sample. In the last article in this series, you were introduced to many QC samples. The Matrix Sample and Duplicate were some of them. Take a look back at Part 3 to familiarize yourself with the definitions.
The key factors of these QC sample types are:
Your sample is used to determine if the analysis used by the laboratory can extract the analyte that is being reported back to you. This is performed by the following steps:
Your sample is analyzed by the laboratory as received.
Then a sub-sample of your sample is spiked with a known concentration of the analyte you are looking for (e.g. pesticides, bacteria, organic chemicals, etc.).
The difference between the sample with and without a spike indicates whether the laboratory can even find the analyte of concern and whether the percent recovery is acceptable.
Examples of failures are from my experiences:
Laboratory 1 spiked a known amount of a pesticide into a wastewater matrix. (e.g. Silver into final treatment process water). The laboratory failed to recover any of the spiked silver. Therefore the laboratory results for these types of sample were not reporting any silver, but silver may be present. This is where laboratory results would be false negatives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly. .
Laboratory 2 ran an analysis for a toxic compound (e.g. Cyanide in final waste treatment discharge). A known amount of cyanide was spiked into a matrix sample and 4 times the actual concentration of that cyanide spike was recovered. This is where laboratory results would be called false positives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly.
Can the laboratory reproduce the results they reported to you?
The laboratory needs to repeat the matrix spike analysis to provide duplicate results. Then a comparison of the results from the first matrix spike with its duplicate results will show if the laboratory can duplicate their test on your sample.
If the original matrix spike result and the duplicate show good agreement (e.g. 20% relative percent difference or lower). Then you can be relatively sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is true.
But, if the original matrix spike result and the duplicate do not show good agreement (e.g. greater than 20% relative percent difference). Then you can be sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is not true and you should question the laboratory’s competence.
Now, the question is why a laboratory would not perform these matrix spike and duplicate QC samples? Well, the following may apply:
These matrix samples take too much time.
These matrix samples add a cost that the laboratory cannot recover.
These matrix samples are too difficult for the laboratory staff to perform.
Most importantly: Matrix samples show the laboratory cannot perform the analyses correctly on the matrix.
So, what types of cannabis matrices are out there? Some examples include bud, leaf, oils, extracts and edibles. Those are some of the matrices and each one has their own testing requirements. So, what should you require from your laboratory?
The laboratory must use your sample for both a matrix spike and a duplicate QC sample.
The percent recovery of both the matrix spike and the duplicate will be between 80% and 120%. If either of the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples reanalyzed.
If the relative percent difference between the matrix spike and the duplicate will be 20% or less. If the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples should be reanalyzed.
The impact of questionable laboratory results on your business with failing or absent matrix spike and the duplicate QC samples can be prevented. It is paramount that you hold the laboratory responsible to produce results that are representative of your sample matrix and that are true.
The next article will focus on how your business will develop a quality plan for your laboratory service provider with a specific focus on the California Code Of Regulations, Title 16, Division 42. Bureau Of Cannabis Control requirements.
CBC, a cannabinoid typically seen in hemp and CBD-rich plants, has been linked to some potentially impactful medical applications, much like the findings regarding the benefits of CBD. The module that tests for it, along with terpenes and degraded THC, can be added to the LightLab without any changes to hardware or sample preparation.
According to Dylan Wilks, chief technology officer of Orange Photonics, this could be a particularly useful tool for distillate producers looking for extra quality controls. Cannabis distillates are some of the most prized cannabis products around, but the heat used to create them can also create undesirable compounds,” says Wilks. “Distillate producers can see potency drop more than 25% if their process isn’t optimized”. With this new Terpenes+ Module, a distillate producer could quantify degraded THC content and get an accurate reading for their QC/QA department.
We spoke with Stephanie McArdle, president of Orange Photonics, to learn more about their instruments designed for quality assurance for growers and extractors alike.
According to McArdle, this could help cultivators and processors understand and value their product when terpene-rich products are the end goal. “Rather than try to duplicate the laboratory analysis, which would require expensive equipment and difficult sample preparation, we took a different approach. We report all terpenes as a single total terpene number,” says McArdle. “The analyzer only looks for monoterpenes (some common monoterpenes are myrcene, limonene and alpha-pinene), and not sesquiterpenes (the other major group of cannabis terpenes, such as Beta- Caryophyllene and Humulene) so the analysis is semi-quantitative. What we do is measure the monoterpenes and make an assumption that the sesquiterpenes are similar to an average cannabis plant to calculate a total terpene content.” She says because roughly 80% of terpenes found in cannabis are monoterpenes, this should produce accurate results, though some exotic strains may not result in accurate terpene content using this method.
As growers look to make their product unique in a highly competitive market, many are looking at terpenes as a source of differentiation. There are a variety of areas where growers can target higher terpene production, McArdle says. “During production, a grower may want to select plants for growing based on terpene content, or adjust nutrient levels, lighting, etc. to maximize terpenes,” says McArdle. “During the curing process, adjusting the environmental conditions to maximize terpene content is highly desirable.” Terpenes are also beginning to get recognized for their potential medical and therapeutic values as well, notably as an essential piece in the Entourage Effect. “Ultimately, it comes down to economics – terpene rich products have a higher market value,” says McArdle. “If you’re the grower, you want to prove that your product is superior. If you’re the buyer, you want to ensure the product you buy is high quality before processing it into other products. In both cases, knowing the terpene content is critical to ensuring you’re maximizing profits.”
Orange Photonics’ LightLab operates very similarly to instruments you might find in a cannabis laboratory. Many cannabis testing labs use High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to analyze hemp or cannabis samples. “The primary difference between LightLab and an HPLC is that we operate at lower pressures and rely on spectroscopy more heavily than a typical HPLC analysis does,” says McArdle. “Like an HPLC, LightLab pushes an extracted cannabis sample through a column. The column separates the cannabinoids in the sample by slowing down cannabinoids by different amounts based on their affinity to the column.” McArdle says this is what allows each cannabinoid to exit the column at a different time. “For example, CBD may exit the column first, then D9THC and so on,” says McArdle. “Once the column separates the cannabinoids, they are quantified using optical spectroscopy- basically we are using light to do the final quantification.”
Imagine this: you are taking medication for cancer pain. One day, it works perfectly. The next, you feel no relief. On some days, you need to take three doses just to get the same effect as one. Your doctor can’t be completely positive how much active ingredient each dose contains, so you decide for yourself how much medication to take.
Doesn’t seem safe, right? It is crucial that doctors know exactly what they are prescribing to their patients. They must know that their patients are receiving the exact same dose of medication in their prescription each time they take it, and that their medication contains only the intended ingredients.
consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.In the cannabis industry, lack of certainty on these important factors is a major problem for drug manufacturers as they attempt to incorporate cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in cannabis that has no psychoactive effects but many medical benefits, into pharmaceutical drugs.
When using these compounds as medications, purity is essential. Cannabis contains a wide variety of compounds. Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known compound and its main psychoactive one1. Safety regulations dictate that consumers know exactly what they are getting when they take a medication. For example, their CBD-based medications should not contain traces of THC.
The cannabis industry greatly needs a tool to ensure the consistent extraction and isolation of compounds. In 2017, the cannabis industry was worth nearly $10 billion, and it is expected to grow $57 billion more in the next decade2. As legalization of medical cannabis expands, interest in CBD pharmaceuticals is likely to grow.
If compounds such as CBD are going to be used in pharmaceutical drugs, consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound that makes up 40 percent of cannabis extracts1. It is great for medical applications because it does not interfere with motor or psychological function. Researchers have found it particularly effective for managing cancer pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and specific forms of epilepsy3.
Other compounds derived from cannabis, such as cannabichromene (CBC) and cannabigerol (CBG), may also be beneficial compounds with medical applications. CBC is known to block pain and inflammation, and CBG is known for its use as a potential anti-cancer agent1.
Along with these compounds that provide medical benefits, there are psychoactive compounds that are used recreationally, such as THC.
“It will definitely be an advantage to have cannabis-based medications with clearly defined and constant contents of cannabinoids,” says Kirsten Müller-Vahl, a neurologist and psychiatrist at Hannover Medical School in Germany.
Creating a Standard Through Centrifugal Partition Chromatography
To obtain purified compounds from cannabis, researchers need to use technology that will extract the compounds from the plant.
Many manufacturers use some sort of chromatography technique to isolate compounds. Two popular methods are high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and flash chromatography. These methods have their places in the field, but they cannot be effectively and cost-efficiently scaled to isolate compounds. Instead, HPLC and flash chromatography may be better suited as analytical tools for studying the characteristics of the plant or extract. As cannabis has more than 400 chemical entities4, compound isolation is an important application.
This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery.Although molecules such as CBD can be synthesized in the lab, many companies would rather extract the compounds directly from the plant. Synthesized molecules do not result in a completely pure compound. The result, “is still a mixture of whatever cannabinoids are coming from a particular marijuana strain, which is highly variable,” says Brian Reid, chief scientific officer of ebbu, a company in Colorado that specializes in cannabis purification.
Currently, there is only one method available to researchers that completely allows them to isolate individual compounds: centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC).
The principle of CPC is similar to other liquid chromatography methods. It separates the chemical substances as the compounds in the mobile phase flow through and differentially interact with the stationary phase.
Where CPC and standard liquid chromatography differs is the nature of the stationary phase. In traditional chromatography methods, the stationary phase is made of silica or other solid particles, and the mobile phase is made of liquid. During CPC, the stationary phase is a liquid that is spun around or centrifuged to stay in place while the other liquid (mobile phase) moves through the disc. The two liquid phases, like oil and water, don’t mix. This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery. Chemists can isolate chemical components at 99 percent or higher purity with a 95 percent recovery rate5.
“CPC is ideal for ripping a single active ingredient out of a pretty complex mixture,” says Reid. “It’s the only chromatographic technique that does that well.”
The Need for Pure Compounds
High levels of purity and isolation are necessary for cannabis to be of true value in the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine relying on a medication to decrease your seizures, and it has a different effect every time. Sometimes there may be traces of psychoactive compounds. Sometimes there are too much or too little of the compound that halts your seizures. This is not a safe practice for consumers who rely on medications.“It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
Researchers working with cannabis desperately need a technology that can extract compounds with high purity rates. It is hard to run a study without knowing the precise amounts of compounds used. Reid uses a Gilson CPC 1000 system at ebbu for his cannabinoid research. With this technology, he can purify cannabinoids for his research and create reliable formulations. “Now that we have this methodology dialed in we can make various formulations —whether they’re water-soluble, sublingual, inhaled, you name it —with very precise ratios of cannabinoids and precise amounts of cannabinoids at the milligram level,” says Reid.
Kyle Geary, an internist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is currently running a placebo-controlled trial of CBD capsules for Crohn’s disease. This consistent isolation is helpful for his research, as well. “Ideally, the perfect study would use something that is 100 percent CBD,” says Geary. “It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
The State of the Industry
While CBD is not considered a safe drug compound under federal law in the United States6, 17 states have recently passed laws that allow people to consume CBD for medical reasons7. Half of medicinal CBD users solely use the substance for treatment, a recent survey found8. As the industry quickly grows, it is crucial that consumer safety protocol keeps pace.
In June, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug that contains a purified drug substance from cannabis, Epidiolex9. Made from CBD, it is designed to treat Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two rare forms of epilepsy. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the news release that although the FDA will work to support the development of high-quality cannabis-based products moving forward, “We are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
The industry should be prepared to implement protocols to ensure the quality of their CBD-based products. The FDA has issued warnings in recent years that some cannabinoid products it has tested do not contain the CBD levels their makers claim, and consumers should be wary of such products10. It’s hard to know when or if the FDA will begin regulating CBD-based pharmaceuticals. However, for pharma companies serious about their reputation, there is only one isolation method that creates reliable product quality: CPC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015, June 24). The Biology and Potential Therapeutic Effects of Cannabidiol. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/biology-potential-therapeutic-effects-cannabidiol
Atakan, Z. (2012). Cannabis, a complex plant: Different compounds and different effects on individuals. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology,2(6), 241-254. doi:10.1177/2045125312457586
Gilson. (n.d.). Centrifugal Partition Chromatography (CPC) Systems. Retrieved from http://www.gilson.com/en/AI/Products/80.320#.WzVB2lMvyMI
Mead, A. (2017). The legal status of cannabis (marijuana) and cannabidiol (CBD) under US law. Epilepsy & Behavior, 70, 288-291.
ProCon.org. (2018, May 8). 17 States with Laws Specifically about Legal Cannabidiol (CBD) – Medical Marijuana – ProCon.org. Retrieved from https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006473
Borchardt, D. (2017, August 03). Survey: Nearly Half Of People Who Use Cannabidiol Products Stop Taking Traditional Medicines. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/debraborchardt/2017/08/02/people-who-use-cannabis-cbd-products-stop-taking-traditional-medicines/#43889c942817
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2017). Public Health Focus – Warning Letters and Test Results for Cannabidiol-Related Products. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm484109.htm
The projected growth of the legal cannabis market is astounding. According to a report from BDS Analytics, the industry is expected to grow from $9.2B to $47.3B in 2027 in North America, with medical cannabis contributing 33% of that overall growth. While this number is impressive for an industry still in its infancy, I have reason to believe it can be much higher.
In the pharmaceutical industry, treatment of pain and insomnia represent an annual revenue exceeding $140B; concurrently, studies have shown cannabis to be an effective treatment for both conditions. If medical cannabis can capture 10% of that revenue over the next ten years, it essentially doubles the current estimates mentioned above.
So, what stands in our way? Education.
To gain acceptance from the medical community, physicians need to better understand the plant and its therapeutic benefits. To do so, they need more substantial data to prove cannabis’ efficacy before prescribing it to their patients. However, federal illegalities have prevented government-mandated clinical studies, but I believe there’s another way.
By adopting a collaborative health care model, patients and caregivers can work together to track the effectiveness of their cannabis treatments and share their learnings with the larger medical community. With the right tools in place, we can fast-track the research process and provide physicians and politicians with the information they need to make this medicine more approachable and accessible to those who could benefit from it.
By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.The Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT)was a five-year study consisting of approximately 2500 patients with back and spine conditions. Participants entered qualitative data into an online portal, including post-surgical results and patient outcomes, to provide a comprehensive insight into treatment methods and their efficacy. Today, others suffering with those same conditions can enter their personal information into an online calculator and receive a prospective treatment plan. Together, patients and their doctors can view results and build a customized plan using more informed decisions about the available treatment options.
Another example comes from OpenNotes– an exploratory study that provides patients with full access to their medical files and the opportunity to input comments about their doctor visits and prognosis and make corrections related to the care they received. Results showed that this process helped patients retain a better understanding of their condition which improved their decision making and resulted in increased adherence to treatment plan protocols because they had greater trust with their doctors.Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.
I believe the cannabis industry can take a leadership role in empowering patients to become active participants in their own treatment, while also sharing knowledge with the larger patient and physician communities. In fact, this core belief was the reason I founded Resolve Digital Health. Data-empowered patients not only make better decisions but also enjoy a greater feeling of control over their treatment. The power of collaborative healthcare grows exponentially when the data is shared to educate a broader group. By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.
Businesses within the cannabis industry can also leverage this data to create new products and services. For example, insights as to what products work best for certain conditions can help LP’s improve their product offerings and guide recommendations from dispensaries. Through product innovation, companies can make cannabis more accessible to a larger group of patients, who may be currently taking pharmaceuticals. Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.
Ultimately, knowledge is power. When patients are empowered to make educated decisions about their health care and doctors are more tuned into the patient-tested cannabis treatment options, it’s a win-win for everyone.
With the cannabis industry growing rapidly, laboratories are adapting to the new market demand for medical cannabis testing in accordance to ISO/IEC 17025. Third-party accreditation bodies, such as Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), conduct these assessments to determine that laboratories are following relevant medical cannabis testing standard protocols in order to detect potency and contaminant levels in cannabis. Additionally, laboratories are required to implement and maintain a quality management system throughout their facility. Obtaining accreditation is a challenge for laboratories initially going through the process. There are many requirements outlined in the standard that laboratories must adhere to in order to obtain a final certificate of accreditation. Laboratories should evaluate the ISO 17025 standard thoroughly, receive adequate training, implement the standard within their facility and conduct an internal audit in order to prepare for a third-party assessment. Being prepared will ultimately reduce the number of findings detected during the on-site assessment. Listed below is research and evidence gathered by PJLA to determine the top ten findings by clause specifically in relation to cannabis testing laboratories.
4.2: Management System
Defined roles and responsibilities of management system and its quality policies, including a structured outline of supporting procedures, requirements of the policy statement and establishment of objectives.
Providing evidence of establishing the development, implementation and maintenance of the management system appropriate to the scope of activities and the continuous improvement of its effectiveness.
Ensuring the integrity of the management system during planned and implemented changes.
Communication from management of the importance of meeting customer, statutory and regulatory requirements
4.3: Document Control
Establishing and maintaining procedures to control all documents that form the management system.
The review of document approvals, issuance and changes.
4.6: Purchasing Services and Supplies
Policies and procedures for the selection and purchasing of services and supplies, inspection and verification of services and supplies
Review and approval of purchasing documents containing data describing the services and supplies ordered
Maintaining records for the evaluation of suppliers of critical consumables, supplies and services, which affect the quality of laboratory outputs.
4.13: Control of Records
Establishing and maintaining procedures for identification, collection, indexing, access, filing, storage and disposal of quality and technical records.
Providing procedures to protect and back-up records stored electronically and to prevent unauthorized access.
4.14: Internal Audits
Having a predetermined schedule and procedure for conducting internal audits of its activities and that addresses all elements that verify its compliance of its established management system and ISO/IEC 17025
Completing and recording corrective actions arising from internal audits in a timely manner, follow-up activities of implementation and verification of effectiveness of corrective actions taken.
Laboratory management not ensuring the competence and qualifications of all personnel who operate specific equipment, perform tests, evaluate test results and sign test reports. Lack of personnel undergoing training and providing appropriate supervision
Providing a training program policies and procedures for an effective training program that is appropriate; identification and review of training needs and the program’s effectiveness to demonstrate competence.
Lack of maintaining records of training actions taken, current job descriptions for managerial, technical and key support personnel involved in testing
5.4: Test and Calibration Methods and Method Validation
Utilization of appropriate laboratory methods and procedures for all testing within the labs scope; including sampling, handling, transport, storage and preparation of items being tested, and where appropriate, a procedure for an estimation of the measurement of uncertainty and statistical techniques for analysis
Up-to-date instructions on the use and operation of all relevant equipment, and on the handling and preparation of items for testing
Introduction laboratory-developed and non-standard methods and developing procedures prior to implementation.
Validating non-standard methods in accordance with the standard
Not completing appropriate checks in a systematic manner for calculations and data transfers
5.6: Measurement Traceability
Ensuring that equipment used has the associated measurement uncertainty needed for traceability of measurements to SI units or certified reference materials and completing intermediate checks needed according to a defined procedure and schedules.
Not having procedures for safe handling, transport, storage and use of reference standards and materials that prevent contamination or deterioration of its integrity.
5.10: Reporting the Results
Test reports not meeting the standard requirements, statements of compliance with accounting for uncertainty, not providing evidence for measurement traceability, inaccurately amending reports.
SOP-3: Use of the Logo
Inappropriate use of PJLA’s logo on the laboratories test reports and/or website.
Using the incorrect logo for the testing laboratory or using the logo without prior approval from PJLA.
Across the country, there is a patchwork of regulatory requirements that vary from state to state. Regulations focus on limiting microbial impurities (such as mold) present in cannabis in order for consumers to receive a safe product. When cultivators in Colorado and Nevada submit their cannabis product to laboratories for testing, they are striving to meet total yeast and mold count (TYMC) requirements.In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.
TYMC refers to the number of colony forming units present per gram (CFU/g) of cannabis material tested. CFU is a method of quantifying and reporting the amount of live yeast or mold present in the cannabis material being tested. This number is determined by plating the sample, which involves spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish, followed by an incubation period, which provides the ideal conditions for yeast and mold to grow and multiply. If the yeast and mold cells are efficiently distributed on a plate, it is assumed that each live cell will give rise to a single colony. Each colony produces a visible spot on the plate and this represents a single CFU. Counting the numbers of CFU gives an accurate estimate on the number of viable cells in the sample.
The plate count methodology for TYMC is standardized and widely accepted in a variety of industries including the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The FDA has published guidelines that specify limits on total yeast and mold counts ranging from 10 to 100,000 CFU/g. In cannabis testing, a TYMC count of 10,000 is commonly used. TYMC is also approved by the AOAC for testing a variety of products, such as food and cosmetics, for yeast and mold. It is a fairly easy technique to perform requiring minimal training, and the overall cost tends to be relatively low. It can be utilized to differentiate between dead and live cells, since only viable living cells produce colonies.
There is a 24 to 48-hour incubation period associated with TYMC and this impedes speed of testing. Depending on the microbial levels in a sample, additional dilution of a cannabis sample being tested may be required in order to count the cells accurately. TYMC is not species-specific, allowing this method to cover a broad range of yeast and molds, including those that are not considered harmful. Studies conducted on cannabis products have identified several harmful species of yeast and mold, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus, Penicillium and Botrytis Cinerea. Non-pathogenic molds have also been shown to be a source of allergic hypersensitivity reactions.The ability of TYMC to detect only viable living cells from such a broad range of yeast and mold species may be considered an advantage in the newly emerging cannabis industry.
After California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, state regulatory agencies began exploring different cannabis testing methods to implement in order to ensure clean cannabis for the large influx of consumers.
Unlike Colorado, California is considering a different route and the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus). While Aspergillus can also be cultured and plated, it is difficult to differentiate morphological characteristics of each species on a plate and the risk of misidentification is high. Therefore, positive identification would require the use of DNA-based methods such as polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR. PCR is a molecular biology technique that can detect species-specific strains of mold that are considered harmful through the amplification and analysis of DNA sequences present in cannabis. The standard PCR testing method can be divided into four steps:
The double stranded DNA in the cannabis sample is denatured by heat. This refers to splitting the double strand into single strands.
Primers, which are short single-stranded DNA sequences, are added to align with the corresponding section of the DNA. These primers can be directly or indirectly labeled with fluorescence.
DNA polymerase is introduced to extend the sequence, which results in two copies of the original double stranded DNA. DNA polymerases are enzymes that create DNA molecules by assembling nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.
Once the double stranded DNA is created, the intensity of the resulting fluorescence signal can uncover the presence of specific species of harmful Aspergillus mold, such as fumigatus.
These steps can be repeated several times to amplify a very small amount of DNA in a sample. The primers will only bind to the corresponding sequence of DNA that matches that primer and this allows PCR to be very specific.
PCR is a very sensitive and selective method with many applications. However, the instrumentation utilized can be very expensive, which would increase the overall cost of a compliance test. The high sensitivity of the method for the target DNA means that there are possibilities for a false positive. This has implications in the cannabis industry where samples that test positive for yeast and mold may need to go through a remediation process to kill the microbial impurities. These remediated samples may still fail a PCR-based microbial test due to the presence of the DNA. Another issue with the high selectivity of this method is that other species of potentially harmful yeast and mold would not even be detected. PCR is a technique that requires skill and training to perform and this, in turn, adds to the high overall cost of the test.
Both TYMC and PCR have associated advantages and disadvantages and it is important to take into account the cost, speed, selectivity, and sensitivity of each method. The differences between the two methodologies would lead to a large disparity in testing standards amongst labs in different states. In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.
As the operations manager at Los Sueños Farms, the largest outdoor cannabis farm in the country, I was tasked with the challenge of finding a yeast and mold remediation treatment method that would ensure safe and healthy cannabis for all of our customers while complying with stringent regulations.
While outdoor cannabis is not inherently moldy, outdoor farms are vulnerable to changing weather conditions. Wind transports spores, which can cause mold. Each spore is a colony forming unit if plated at a lab, even if not germinated in the final product. In other words, perfectly good cannabis can easily fail microbial testing with the presence of benign spores.
If all of those landed on cannabis it would be enough to cause over 450 pounds of cannabis to fail testing, even if those spores remained ungerminated.
It should also be known that almost every food item purchased in a store goes through some type of remediation method to be considered safe for sale. Cannabis is finally becoming a legitimized industry and we will see regulations that make cannabis production look more like food production each year.
Regulations in Colorado (as well as Nevada and Canada) require cannabis to have a total yeast and mold count (TYMC) of ≤ 10,000 colony forming units per gram. We needed a TYMC treatment method that was safe, reliable, efficient and suitable for a large-scale operation. Our main problem was the presence of fungal spores, not living, growing mold.
Below is a short list of the pros and cons of each treatment method I compiled after two years of research:
Autoclave: This is the same technology used to sterilize tattoo needles and medical equipment. Autoclave uses heat and pressure to kill living things. While extremely effective, readily available and fiscally reasonable, this method is time-consuming and cannot treat large batches. It also utilizes moisture, which increases mold risk. The final product may experience decarboxylation and a change in color, taste and smell.
Dry Heat: Placing cannabis in dry heat is a very inexpensive method that is effective at reducing mold and yeast. However, it totally ruins product unless you plan to extract it.
Gamma Ray Radiation: By applying gamma ray radiation, microbial growth is reduced in plants without affecting potency. This is a very effective, fast and scalable method that doesn’t cause terpene loss or decarboxylation. However, it uses ionizing radiation that can create new chemical compounds not present before, some of which can be cancer-causing. The Department of Homeland Security will never allow U.S. cannabis farmers to use this method, as it relies on a radioactive isotope to create the gamma rays.
Gas Treatment: (Ozone, Propylene Oxide, Ethylene Oxide, Sulfur Dioxide) Treatment with gas is inexpensive, readily available and treats the entire product. Gas treatment is time consuming and must be handled carefully, as all of these gases are toxic to humans. Ozone is challenging to scale while PPO, EO and SO2 are very scalable. Gases require special facilities to apply and it’s important to note that gases such as PPO and EO are carcinogenic. These methods introduce chemicals to cannabis and can affect the end product by reducing terpenes, aroma and flavor.
Hydrogen Peroxide: Spraying cannabis plants with a hydrogen peroxide mixture can reduce yeast and mold. However, moisture is increased, which can cause otherwise benign spores to germinate. This method only treats the surface level of the plant and is not an effective remediation treatment. It also causes extreme oxidation, burning the cannabis and removing terpenes.
Microwave: This method is readily available for small-scale use and is non-chemical based and non-ionizing. However, it causes uneven heating, burning product, which is damaging to terpenes and greatly reduces quality. This method can also result in a loss of moisture. Microwave treatment is difficult to scale and is not optimal for large cultivators.
Radio Frequency: This method is organic, non-toxic, non-ionizing and non-chemical based. It is also scalable and effective; treatment time is very fast and it treats the entire product at once. There is no decarboxylation or potency loss with radio frequency treatment. Minimal moisture loss and terpene loss may result. This method has been proven by a decade of use in the food industry and will probably become the standard in large-scale treatment facilities.
Steam Treatment: Water vapor treatment is effective in other industries, scalable, organic and readily available. This method wets cannabis, introducing further mold risk, and only treats the product surface. It also uses heat, which can cause decarboxylation, and takes a long time to implement. This is not an effective method to reduce TYMC in cannabis, even though it works very well for other agricultural products
Extraction: Using supercritical gas such as butane, heptane, carbon dioxide or hexane in the cannabis extraction process is the only method of remediation approved by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and is guaranteed to kill almost everything. It’s also readily available and easy to access. However, this time-consuming method will change your final product into a concentrate instead of flower and usually constitutes a high profit loss.
UV Light: This is an inexpensive and readily available method that is limited in efficacy. UV light is only effective on certain organisms and does not work well for killing mold spores. It also only kills what the light is touching, unless ozone is captured from photolysis of oxygen near the UV lamp. It is time consuming and very difficult to scale.
After exhaustively testing and researching all treatment methods, we settled on radio frequency treatment as the best option. APEX, a radio frequency treatment machine created by Ziel, allowed us to treat 100 pounds of cannabis in an hour – a critical factor when harvesting 36,000 plants during the October harvest.
In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry. In the third part, we heard from Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., discussing method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited.
In the fourth and final part of this series, we sit down with Susan Audino, Ph.D., an A2LA lead assessor and instructor, laboratory consultant and board member for the Center for Research on Environmental Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Audino will share some insights into method validation and the most technical aspects of laboratory accreditation.
Susan Audino obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an analytical chemistry major, physical and biochemistry minor areas. She currently owns and operates a consulting firm to service chemical and biological laboratories. Susan has been studying the chemistry and applications of cannabinoids and provides scientific and technical guidance to cannabis dispensaries, testing laboratories and medical personnel. Dr. Audino’s interest most directly involves cannabis consumer safety and protection, and promotes active research towards the development of official test methods specifically for the cannabis industry, and to advocate appropriate clinical research. In addition to serving on Expert Review Panels, she is also chairing the first Cannabis Advisory Panel and working group with AOAC International, is a member of the Executive Committee of the ASTM Cannabis Section and has consulted to numerous cannabis laboratories and state regulatory bodies.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What are the some of the most significant technical issues facing an accreditation body when assessing a cannabis-testing laboratory?
Susan: From the AB perspective, there needs to be a high level of expertise to evaluate the merits and scientific soundness of laboratory-developed analytical test methods. Because there are presently no standard or consensus test methods available, laboratories are required to develop their own methods, which need to be valid. Validating methods require a rigorous series of tests and statistical analyses to ensure the correctness and reliability of the laboratory’s product, which is– the test report.
CIJ: When is method validation required and how does this differ from system suitability?
Susan: Method validation is required whenever the laboratory modifies a currently accepted consensus or standard test method, or when the laboratory develops its own method. Method validation is characterized by a series of analytical performance criteria including determinations of accuracy, precision, linearity, specification, limit of detection, and limit of quantitation. The determination of system suitability requires a series of deliberate variations of parameters to ensure the complete system, that is all instrument(s) as well as the analytical method, is maintained throughout the entire analytical process. Traditionally, method validation has been referred to as “ruggedness” and system suitability as “robustness.”
CIJ: What are the most important aspects of method validation that must be taken into account?
Susan: In keeping with the FDA guidelines and other accepted criteria, I tend to recommend the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH), particularly Q 2A, which is a widely recognized program that discusses the pertinent characteristics of method validation. This include: method specification, linearity, range, accuracy, and precision (e.g., repeatability, intermediate precision, reproducibility). As mentioned earlier, system suitability is also a critical element and although related to method validation, does require its own protocol.
CIJ: What three areas do you see the laboratory having the hardest time with in preparing for accreditation?
Susan: My responses to this question assume the laboratory employs appropriate instruments to perform the necessary analyses, and that the laboratory employs personnel with experience and knowledge appropriate to develop test methods and interpret test results.
By and large, method validation that is not appropriate to the scope of their intended work. Driving this is an overall lack of information about method validation. Oftentimes there is an assumption that multiple recoveries of CRMs constitute “validation”. While it may be one element, this only demonstrates the instrument’s suitability. My recommendation is to utilize any one of a number of good single laboratory validation protocols. Options include, but are not limited to AOAC International, American Chemical Society, ASTM, and ICH protocols.
Second is the lack of statistically sound sampling protocols for those laboratories that are mandated by their governing states to go to the field to sample the product from required batches. Sampling protocols needs to address the heterogeneity of the plant, defining the batch, and determining/collecting a sample of sufficient quantity that will be both large enough and representative of the population, and to provide the laboratory an adequate amount from which to sub-sample.
Third, sample preparation. This is somewhat intertwined with my previous point. Once an appropriate sample has been collected, preparation must be relevant to the appropriate technology and assay. It is unlikely that a laboratory can perform a single preparation that is amenable to comprehensive testing.
A number of cannabis businesses have pursued federal intellectual property protection for their cannabis-related innovations, such as U.S. patents that protect novel cannabis plant varieties, growing methods, extraction methods, etc. Enforcement of such federal IP rights requires that the IP owner file suit in federal court asserting those rights against another cannabis company. However, given that cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the industry is uncertain about whether a federal court will actually enforce cannabis-related IP rights. This question might be answered soon.
The potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involved Orochem Technologies, Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois on September 27, 2017, seeking to assert and enforce trade secret rights against Whole Hemp Company, LLC. According to the complaint, Orochem is a biotechnology company that uses proprietary separation methods to extract and purify cannabidiol (CBD) from industrial hemp in a way that produces a solvent-free and THC-free CBD product in commercially viable quantities.
The complaint goes on to say that Whole Hemp Company, which does business as Folium Biosciences, is a producer of CBD from industrial hemp and that Folium engaged Orochem to produce a THC-free CBD product for it. According to the allegations in the complaint, Folium used that engagement to gain access to and discover the details of Orochem’s trade secret method of extracting CBD so that it could take the process and use it at their facility.
The complaint provides a detailed story of the events that allegedly transpired, which eventually led to an Orochem employee with knowledge of the Orochem process leaving and secretly starting to work for Folium, where he allegedly helped Folium establish a CBD production line that uses Orochem’s trade secret process. When Orochem learned of these alleged transgressions, it filed the lawsuit, claiming that Folium (and the specific employee) had misappropriated its trade secret processes for extracting and purifying CBD.
While the particular facts of this case are both interesting and instructive for companies operating in the cannabis industry, the potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involved.
If it moves forward, this case will likely provide a first glimpse into the willingness of federal courts to enforce IP rights that relate to cannabis. Orochem is asserting a violation of federal IP rights established under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and is asserting those rights in federal district court. As a result, the federal district court judge will first need to decide whether a federal court can enforce federal IP rights when the underlying intellectual property relates to cannabis.
If the court ultimately enforces these federal trade secret rights, it could be a strong indication that other federal IP rights, such as patent rights, would also be enforceable in federal court. Since the outcome of this case will likely have a far reaching and long lasting impact on how the cannabis industry approaches and deals with intellectual property, it’s a case worth watching.