Third-party tests are the gold standard for transparency, legitimacy, and trustworthiness in the cannabis industry, with the labs behind them acting as impartial judges or reporters, representatives of the truth. But just like the law and journalism can be full of gray areas and nuances, the same goes for testing something as complex as the chemical makeup of cannabis.
A sample may not always be representative of its entire source material, just like a single fact may not always be representative of the whole story. Sample preparation is like summarizing a story – nothing should be taken out of chemical context of the whole plant.
This is why cannabis producers often complain that they can send the same sample to seven different labs and get seven different results.
“Much of the confusion comes from customer expectations that a sample should test in perfect unison between labs,” Derek Averill, Ph. D., chief technology officer of Green Scientific Labs, says. “Sampling is extremely important and so is the moisture content. We need to be vigilant about every step in the process and have sampling technicians that decrease sampling bias to represent the larger batch.”
Homogenizing a sample is another challenge toward accurate, representative results, especially when it comes to complex botanical products like a full spectrum cannabidiol (CBD)-rich distillate which tends to crystallize.
Of course, technology constantly revolutionizes every aspect of our lives and turns challenges into mere trivialities. Same goes for cannabis testing.
Averill believes some of the major future innovations will be in mass spectrometry and our understanding of vape cartridges emissions rather than the contents alone.
“As the sensitivity of mass spectrometers increases, we will be able to reduce the complexity of sample preparation and decrease burden on instruments,” he says. “Also, I’m a firm believer that we need to be analyzing vape cartridge emissions rather than the oils alone.”
Science team counterpart, Andrew Hall, Ph. D., Green Scientific Labs’ chief scientific officer, envisions innovations in the biocompatibility niche in addition to developments in instrumentation.
“Biocompatibility testing will be key. This will provide a closer look at formulations, hardware, as well as specific routes of administration, and evaluate what harm might come,” Hall says. “You will see more formal upfront testing followed by validations that allow companies to reduce testing as they have formally evaluated the risk.”
Like testing, regulating is another hot topic in the cannabis industry that’s discussed predominantly through a critical lens from cannabis producers’ perspective, which doesn’t necessarily capture the difficulty of this job. Some people have complained about the ever-changing regulations, and while some laws can seem like bureaucratic whims, others could be attributed to the infancy and complexity of the industry and our evolving understanding of cannabis itself.
Hall believes regulators have not failed the cannabis industry but are simply in the process of learning about product types and their idiosyncrasies.
“It’s hard to find a one-size-fits-all category of testing when you see thousands of different product types,” Hall says. “Inhalers, for instance, containing cannabis extract need ethanol as a co-solvent for proper administration. Having limits on ethanol would fail a product. So, depending on the state, looking at framework for product-specific testing is key.”
Hall says the laws should allow a certain amount of flexibility, adaptability, and leeway for exceptions, supported by historical and scientific data, citing Florida as one state that exemplifies this regulatory attitude.
It seems as though testing and regulating cannabis are unrightfully perceived as straightforward, cold, and black-or-white, when they can often be anything but.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you can simply buy instrumentation and set up a lab. I often tell people that a lab is like an orchestra. We need instruments, musicians, composers, conductors, buildings, audience, and ticket booths,” Averill explains. “And let’s not forget licensing and validations.”
Ultimately, Averill and Hall believe that the best pathway forward is going to be through close communication between regulators, cannabis producers, and testing labs.
“Finding a lab partner can be a lot like finding a good tattoo artist. It’s a relationship,” says Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of Terpenes & Testing Magazine. There are certain steps cannabis producers can take to ensure they find themselves in the right relationship.
“Companies in search of a lab partner should hire an internal analytical chemist so that they can find a quality lab with good turnaround times and science,” says Averill.
“One should vet the lab by sending documents like vendor qualification surveys to see if the lab meets or exceeds expectations. But at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships and understanding,” Hall says.
And while a fruitful and thriving relationship can be a highly individualistic and unpredictable concept, certain things can go a long way in improving partners’ chances of success. Both Hall and Averill believe when it comes to cannabis testing, this is ethics.
“The most compelling standard a cannabis testing lab should adhere to is an internal code of ethics that goes beyond the regulating agencies’ requirements. Report the truth at all costs,” Averill says.
“Accreditation, licensing, and standards are only a small part of a lab,” Hall adds. “Doing the right thing with honesty and integrity is the standard that everyone lives by. Be kind. Be professional. Be consistent.”