There are few industries which exhibit the same level of product innovation as the legalized cannabis industry. Throughout its short history, its creative approach to development has led to cutting-edge products across the medicinal and recreational markets. But as pivotal as it is to keep a brisk pace of innovation, it is also imperative to ensure a strong handle on quality and safety to meet both regulatory and consumer requirements.
Leveraging automated testing and analysis for cannabis quality and safety is a fundamental way for producers and labs to meet regulatory needs and demands, as well as continuing to stay ahead of the curve. This also delivers speed, accuracy, and ease-of-use for all stakeholders involved.
Resource, Volume, and Regulatory Challenges – All Roads Lead to Automation
A lack of in-house analytical expertise and defined testing conventions has traditionally been a major challenge for cannabis and hemp testing labs. In contrast, established industries such as food and personal care often have well-defined methods and approaches to help ensure supply chain and processing integrity. As consumers demand newer, safer cannabis products with increasing creativity and quality, analytical labs are faced with testing a higher volume of samples, while targeting increasingly complex attributes. These include tracking the stability of novel, water-based formulations to assessing the risk from heavy metals in packaging. Labs trying to navigate this increasingly difficult landscape are also being hit with a double punch of high turnover and a lack of analytical expertise in the market.
In addition to the staff squeeze, changing regulations and the lack of global standards and testing practices are presenting unique challenges of their own. The industry has seen many states and countries implement their own varied list of quality standards and regulatory limits. One example is in the recent legislations in Colorado which released an updated list of approved pesticides to be used in cannabis cultivation. This ever-changing regulatory landscape contributes to a complex and fluid operating environment for cannabis product manufacturers, both in-house and within contract testing labs.
Additionally, as the popularity of cannabis and hemp vape pens has grown, there have been increased calls to investigate the potential for heavy metals residues to leech into cannabis oil when using these products.  As a result, the safety and compliance regulations are continuing to evolve with this expanding market. In the future, it’s likely that chromium, copper, nickel, manganese, and tin will be added to the regulated list of heavy metals – currently known as the “big 4” – which includes arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead.
As such, it’s more important than ever to provide scientists and technicians with the necessary tools to generate high-quality results and deliver them faster. Better insights also empower cannabis scientists and technicians to make key decisions with confidence. Automated testing is one such powerful tool to aid this change.
Innovative testing technologies are now available to cannabis organizations, helping them to lighten their resource, regulatory, and operational loads. Automation offers a significant approach to ensure that important tasks are handled within the workflow both accurately and timely. For cannabis testing labs, automated workflows can assist tasks from intake to analysis with minimal human effort. As such, weighing, barcoding, logging, sample preparation, and executing the analytical tests can be handled by the equipment. Additionally, high-quality automation systems can also be integrated with cloud-based software that will store testing data and provide real-time reports of analytics.
By implementing automated processes into the workflow, the cannabis testing industry can enjoy several benefits such as the capacity to process a higher number of samples per hour. In addition to increasing productivity, there are also many other positive knock-on effects in other areas of the workflow; accuracy can be improved, as automation provides a standardized method for all sample preparation. Automation can also reduce the cost of processing each sample and free up time for staff to carry out more important tasks, such as results analysis. Automation platforms such as PerkinElmer’s JANUS® G3 420 workstation include vortex and centrifuge functions that can remove the timely process of moving a sample from one instrument to another. A further advantage of automated platforms is the ability to adapt and analyze various factors such as potency, pesticides, and mycotoxins.
The integration of automated processes doesn’t just have to be used for sample preparation either. Many cannabis labs can also benefit from processes such as the automatic logging of weighed samples, removing any uncertainty that may arise from inaccurate documentation of weights or errors when transferring them into the computer. The ability to integrate novel automated platforms into existing laboratory information management systems (LIMS) is also a key consideration for many labs, ensuring it isn’t necessary to completely change their entire workflow.
Working with an established provider who has a longstanding history in the cannabis testing industry allows customers to take the stress out of setting up a new cannabis lab. Service providers can deal with the majority of the “heavy lifting” and the lower training requirements associated with automation means that new labs can get up and running quicker and maintain consistency.
Reducing Reagent Error
For all types of testing, errors in the early stages of the analytical workflow can be compounded further down the line. As discussed, automated tools can provide labs with a rapid solution for early-stage sample prep. This can help to greatly improve throughput and remove human error in the labelling and weighing stages.
However, for both automated and traditional testing methods, reagents and consumables are also a source of early-stage challenges. To ensure more confidence from the get-go, cannabis labs must leverage both approved reagents and consumables during sample preparation.
Consumables are an example of the impact that early-stage considerations can have on cannabis testing and analysis. For many cost-conscious labs, consumables, such as vials and sample tubes, may seem to present an ideal opportunity to utilize cheaper alternatives. However, some of these consumables open labs up to the potential danger of extractable and leachable residues; an extractable is a compound which can leach into a cannabis sample via a solvent from the consumable material (usually plastic). This causes contamination during preparation and has the potential to interfere with analysis as well as pose a potential threat to consumers if they are carried through to the final product.
Access to standardized reagents is also vital. Inaccuracies when making up reagents and samples can drastically reduce confidence in the validity of results. In some labs, reagents are often made up in-house or frequently changed – either by the purchase supplier or throughout the workflow. This may negatively impact the reliability of analytical results, leading to greater variation and reducing the validity of repeat tests. Additionally, in an industry with a surplus of less technically trained staff and a high staff turnover, the importance of standardized reagents may not be as well understood. In addition to the implementation of standardized reagents, it could be beneficial to provide training on their importance.
Increase Confidence and Data-Driven Decision Making
Implementing standardization across the workflow is important when helping cannabis labs generate better quality results and improve data-driven decision making. Because most errors arise when carrying out repetitive tasks and sample preparation, leveraging automated workflows and regulating reagents means that both results generation and recording can provide higher quality analytics.
By giving cannabis scientists higher confidence in their resulting data, they can be empowered to make more meaningful and data-driven decisions at all stages. During production, lab staff can be confident that their products have been labeled accurately. Labs can also be confident they’ve taken the steps needed to mitigate the chance of product contamination and safeguard consumers from ingesting products containing harmful toxins. Ultimately, these both lead to the production of high-quality products that place both cannabis testing labs and the product creators as trusted and reliable stakeholders in the industry.
One example to meet these industry demands was the introduction of the QS-Works 420. This was one of the first connected suites of technology and reagents developed solely for supporting cannabis and hemp testing markets. Not only do complete solutions such as these provide cannabis labs with access to best-in-class technologies, but also with the necessary support to ensure they can thrive in this competitive industry.
Automating the Future
In this rapidly evolving and exciting industry, automation and standardized processes provide cannabis scientists with the tools to carry out robust quality and safety analysis. At the start of the workflow, consistency with the solvents used and ensuring the quality of consumables provides confidence in repeatability and mitigates the risk of extractable/leachable compounds contaminating samples. Automated instruments and integrated platforms ensure that every stage of the workflow is dependable and works holistically and consistently. This provides many benefits including higher throughput, more consistent data, and reduces the need for menial tasks which can take up precious time and money. Although these platforms may come with increased investment, the long-term benefits provide cannabis labs with more security and ensure consumers are safeguarded from toxic residues.
Trends in the industry are always evolving and with that, the needs of cannabis labs will also change. Looking to the future, sophisticated yet intuitive cannabis data management systems could be the next step for standardization, addressing the fact that many independent labs are still following their own methods. Throughout the cannabis industry, technological advances will continue to strengthen labs’ accuracy and confidence in their results, providing safer, higher quality products.
Reference McDaniel C, Mallampati SR, Wise A. Metals in cannabis vaporizer aerosols: Sources, possible mechanisms, and exposure profiles. Chem Res Toxicol. 2021;34(11):2331-2342. [journal impact factor = 3.739; times cited = 0]