There is often a thunderous resonance in the media when a cannabis testing lab fails. The panic and lack of trust that can ensue is an unwarranted disgrace upon the industry. Cannabis is, after all, medicine, and for many suffering people, the plant and its phytomolecules offer restoration, healing, and the sensation of what it’s like to truly feel human again.
But we shouldn’t fall prey to what seems to be the standard, reactionary, “the sky is falling” mentality so pervasive in today’s world, nor should we endorse broad, sweeping statements about the lack of quality within the cannabis industry. Lumping in passionate laboratory professionals with a few bad seeds is analogous to the collective punishment doled out in Full Metal Jacket from drill instructor Hartman after finding the donut in Private Pyle’s foot locker.
When looking for exemplary models within the analytical testing industry, CannaSafe (CS) stands tall. The lab was founded in 2011, and in 2012, the owners had the foresight to seek out ISO accreditation. When the accreditation agency learned that the interested party was a cannabis lab, they wouldn’t comply, seemingly thinking that this request was a joke. Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. ended up taking on this type of accreditation, helping to make CS the first cannabis testing lab in the world to achieve ISO17025 accreditation.
“We’ve maintained that accreditation to this day, “added Aaron Riley, current President of CS. “California doesn’t require the full accreditation during the first year. We were the first lab to get Phase 3 certification about a year ago.”
Certification is about quality control. Often, you’ll hear people complain about the discrepancies between labs, voicing something like “I sent the same samples to three different labs, and got three different answers.” This can certainly be attributed to sample heterogeneity in cannabis flower, or differences in analytical methods, since there haven’t been many standardized methods for labs to adopt. Some labs, however, haven’t properly validated their methods, or developed a robust quality system. To become accredited, a lab must generate a validation package that demonstrates the defensibility of their methods.
“Labs that haven’t gone through the accreditation process may not have the same data integrity,” Aaron added. “Why let your livelihood get ruined by a lab that’s not accredited to perform the analyses, or one that does not have proper quality control in place?”
CS currently evaluates just under one-third of the samples submitted to California cannabis testing labs. Or as Aaron put it: “We’re the busiest cannabis lab in the world right now.” And even though their Van Nuys, CA location is booming, CS is expanding into Northern California.
Much has been reported on sample’s failing the new California regulations. “The regulations in California are very stringent. You can have a ± 20% relative standard deviation for two analyses to be considered statistically the same. There are very tight permissible thresholds, and if your laboratory control samples don’t conform, you may need to re-run an entire batch of samples.”
CS is obviously up to the challenges ordained by the state, as they are witnessing double-digit growth percentages every month. And while getting everyone to follow the nascent regulations might be tricky, Aaron commented on the diminishing number of samples failing for contamination of one type or another. “In 2017, something like 70% of samples were failing. We’ve progressively seen that number go down, and currently, our lab fails about 5-7% of samples for contaminants. The state average is around 8%.”
California has recently shut down several labs for printing the results their clients wanted, an unethical practice that ruins the diligence and meticulousness labs like CSA strive to demonstrate. Dry-labbing trashes the unspoken trust consumers place in the acumen of the analytical lab and the craft of the product manufacturers. (And at the end of the day, how many industry professionals are also consumers?)
“Our integrity is not for sale,” Aaron expounded.
Many states first pass of regulations often are befuddling to those attempting to follow them. Tweaks, therefore, will be necessary. One of the major questions most people have, or should have, regards batch sizes. Is the sample truly representative of the products a manufacturer is vending? “Fifty-pound batch sizes are too big to say if a random sample will be in compliance,” Aaron explained. “A manufacturing batch size of 150,000 units is currently allowed, but the biggest I’ve seen was 44,000 units. I’ve seen a client produce $300,000 worth of product only to see it fail because the batch size they adopted was just too big. Most companies will use 2,000 to 5,000 units as their batch.”
The future is something most people think about. Back in 2012, when CSA chose to usurp the status quo, and become the first ISO certified cannabis lab, they were correctly forecasting what would be needed today. So, what’s next for CSA? “In addition to our expansion into Northern California, we’ll be opening a lab specifically for hemp and CBD [cannabidiol] testing,” Aaron replied. “CBD is really the next big growth wave, since it’s a global product. Currently, the feds aren’t properly regulating it, the quality control is terrible, and yet, the market is growing as fast as cannabis.”
The story of CSA and other skilled laboratories within the cannabis industry is one that needs to be often discussed. It’s not all doomsday scenarios. Despite there being no federal oversight of cannabis, entities like CSA have helped erect the foundation that allows this industry to proliferate. They knew they needed to act as stewards of defensible cannabis analytics when no regulatory agency required accreditation of any kind, and they have never looked back.