Vital Considerations Remain for Standards in Cannabis Testing and Quality

By Calin Coman-Enescu, Director of Capital Markets, New Frontier Data

As medical cannabis becomes increasingly adopted as a treatment or palliative for various diagnosed conditions, so increases the need to ensure standards for quality control and testing procedures.

Like with pharmaceuticals, medical cannabis needs to undergo rigorous testing to ensure both its suitability for human consumption along with the appropriate potency and dosage to serve its intended application. To this point, testing has been sporadic, without any universally accepted standard methodology yet to emerge. In North America, there are few approved independent testing laboratories relative to the size of the market, and self-certification remains open to conflicts of interest. Cultivators, processors, and retailers need to wait for results (ranging from perhaps days in California, to a week in Colorado or Washington, or longer in less-established markets) while in-house testing remains prohibitively expensive for many.

Typically, regulators would require assessments of:

  • Cannabinoids
  • Terpenes
  • Pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and aspergillus
  • Heavy metals
  • Pesticides
  • Fungicides
  • Solvents
  • Moisture content
  • Foreign matter

In some ways, one could argue that cannabis products can be regulated like an ordinary food product (see: Novel Foods Regulation). A key issue presents itself when we look at medical cannabis, where the drug is made available to patients who may be fragile or have weakened immune systems. Some will be children suffering from epilepsy, some will be elderly patients in chronic pain. Cannabis is often consumed through inhalation, meaning that contaminants that would not be an issue in food may end up being far more harmful. To protect vulnerable patients, more rigorous safety standards may be needed than for food products.

Pesticide testing is another area of valid concern. In the U.S., states have generally prohibited pesticides in cannabis out of caution regarding undetermined effects when inhaled. Interestingly, the EPA does not set limits for pesticide residue on tobacco, perhaps a result of longstanding lobbying efforts, or already known negative health effects. Medical cannabis, conversely, is produced and used because of its presumed health benefits.

Besides testing for all these different potential contaminants, the sheer number of different products available present a huge challenge for testing laboratories. Not only are they tasked with testing a huge variety of different strains from an ever-growing number of cultivators, but as the market matures there is a growing need to test value-added products, too. These can range from gummy bears and chocolates, to isolates or dog treats and suppositories, many of which require individualized sample types, specialized preparation, or analysis – all of which require further investment in time and money for development.

Another increasingly important factor in testing is the profiling of cannabinoid and terpene in the product. Patients take such profiles into account when selecting strains for treating their conditions; soon they may be specifically prescribed by doctors. Cannabinoids and terpenes have overlapping properties, such as anti-inflammatory or antibacterial effects. The effects can work synergistically (so dubbed “the entourage effect”), and with over 500 biologically active compounds to account for, the pressure is on for testing labs to develop robust methodologies to fully capture relevant data.

Achieving versatility as well as reliability when dealing with such a diverse product as cannabis is a difficult challenge indeed. Testing is crucial, not just for patients and consumers, but for the health of the industry overall. As cannabis and cannabis products become increasingly commoditized, standardized testing will become a prerequisite for efficient pricing and transparency when trading cannabis products. All commodity markets rely on some standardized testing; whether it is the 96 polaristion scale for sugar or the percentage of free fatty acid (FFA) for palm oil, anyone buying or selling them needs to understand exactly what is being bought regardless of strain, origin, or growing conditions.

One day an internationally recognized testing standard will emerge for cannabis; when it does, the industry may very well mature at a faster rate than is currently imagined.

Want to learn more about the cannabis testing market in Europe?
Apply to the InterCannAlliance Europe Symposium to connect with executives, government officials and other early shapers in the region.