Biros' Blog

Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol? Not So Fast

By Aaron G. Biros
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You’ve heard it in a lot of campaigns to legalize cannabis on a state level and even as the name of a bill in Congress for legalization on the federal level. The Marijuana Policy Project through their campaigns in several states, along with activists, politicians and lobbyists, have used the phrase “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” as a rallying cry to pass legislation reforming cannabis laws. This isn’t an attack on them; those campaign names serve the cause well, moreover it was the name of successful campaigns in Massachusetts, Maine, California, Alaska and Colorado among others. It is a relatable and fair comparison, helping to normalize the concept of adults using cannabis in a legal environment.

But that feeling of validation is short-lived after lawmakers write the actual regulations. In reality, I don’t think a single state can confidently say they actually regulate cannabis like alcohol. Most states do not allow public or social consumption of cannabis; many people that would like to enjoy cannabis in a social setting are restricted to the confines of their home.

420 Rally at Civic Center Park, Denver, CO.
Photo: Cannabis Destiny

Voters in Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012 with this language in the very beginning of the bill: “In the interest of the health and public safety of our citizenry, the people of the State of Colorado further find and declare that marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol.” If you look closely, you can see how important phrasing is when it comes to the specific regulations. The key words here are “a manner similar to alcohol,” not exactly like alcohol. That language is critical to understanding how regulators address the double standard.

The most obvious way lawmakers regulate cannabis like alcohol is through a tiered system of license holders: manufacturers, distributors or wholesalers and retailers. Many states might set a limit on potency, just like they do with alcohol, according to Pamela S. Erickson, former executive director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Both of the drugs are taxed and there are usually regulations for both governing the advertising of products, such as preventing targeting youth or encouraging high consumption. Regulators might limit the store hours or locations for both cannabis and alcohol. Beyond those similarities, there are a number of areas where cannabis is over-regulated and alcohol is seemingly under-regulated. It is very possible that much of this has to do with the power of the alcohol lobby. In 2016, the alcohol industry spent over $26 million on lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that tracks lobbying efforts. During election season, the alcohol industry spent more than $11 million on campaign contributions. There are several examples of the alcohol industry actively fighting legalization efforts, including paying for anti-cannabis ads in a Politico newsletter and even funding opposition campaigns. While this doesn’t exactly pertain to the regulation of cannabis versus alcohol, it gives you a glimpse of how deep their coffers go and the amount of influence they have on politics.

Last year, the city of Denver passed a ballot measure, Initiative 300, which will legalize the social consumption of cannabis in permitted venues. The Denver Social Consumption Advisory Committee met for the final time last week. That committee designed two styles of permits: one for events and one for established businesses, which would receive a designated consumption area permit (DCA). Those permitted venues must be 1,000 feet from schools, child-care centers or drug rehabilitation centers. They need a waste plan, compliance with the Indoor Air Quality Act and they cannot sell cannabis products. Rachel Gillette, attorney in the cannabis law group and shareholder at Greenspoon Marder, says the legal implications of the initiative are still up in the air. “This was a step in the right direction,” says Gillette. “You can’t pass a law to regulate marijuana like alcohol and then say people can only use it in their home. You are going to run into problems like people smoking on the street. This is why this initiative was introduced.”

Rachel K. Gillette, Esq., practicing at the cannabis law group in Greenspoon Marder

The general idea here is B.Y.O.P.- bring your own pot. They cannot have a liquor license, the location cannot be accessible to the general public, they have to submit a detailed security plan and patrons have to sign a waiver to get in, according to Westword. Signing a waiver to get into a bar should seem asinine to anyone, but I have been to some dive bars where a waiver could’ve definitely been useful. The point is that cannabis doesn’t lead to violence or destructive behavior, alcohol is the drug that does that. There is plenty of evidence to support that, including a comparative risk assessment of the drugs, which found alcohol’s danger to be strongly underestimated previously.

Senate Bill 63 in the Colorado State legislature would have been very similar, issuing licenses for “marijuana consumption clubs.” However that bill was voted down last Thursday, largely due to the uncertainty of federal policy, according to ABC News.

Amendment 64 also has specific language saying you cannot consume cannabis in a public space, but that is not exactly the case with liquor, even when you consider open container and public intoxication laws. “In my previous interactions with the state and particularly the liquor licensing authority, they consider liquor-licensed premises to be de facto public spaces but you can’t consume cannabis there, which is why hotels, bars and restaurants explicitly prohibit cannabis consumption, they have a liquor license,” says Gillette. “There is a bit of conflict in the law here.”

Yet other rules, such as mandatory childproof containers for cannabis retailers, seem a bit draconian compared with buying a bottle of twist-off wine from the grocery store. “Childproof packaging isn’t required in liquor stores anywhere,” says Gillette. “Why cant responsible adults be trusted to keep it out of a child’s reach? Unfortunately there is a lot of trepidation to allow responsible adults to be responsible when it comes to cannabis.” In some ways, we are seeing states begin to regulate cannabis very closely to how they would alcohol, yet there is a long way to go. “There is still this nanny state mentality where we run the risk of regulating it to the point of absurdity,” says Gillette. For now at least, we need to be cognizant of the age-old stigma and work to normalize social cannabis use in a legal sense. Until that time comes, we will have to tolerate lawmakers regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol, not exactly like alcohol.

Chris English
The Practical Chemist

Accurate Detection of Residual Solvents in Cannabis Concentrates

By Chris English
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Chris English

Edibles and vape pens are rapidly becoming a sizable portion of the cannabis industry as various methods of consumption popularize beyond just smoking dried flower. These products are produced using cannabis concentrates, which come in the form of oils, waxes or shatter (figure 1). Once the cannabinoids and terpenes are removed from the plant material using solvents, the solvent is evaporated leaving behind the product. Extraction solvents are difficult to remove in the low percent range so the final product is tested to ensure leftover solvents are at safe levels. While carbon dioxide and butane are most commonly used, consumer concern over other more toxic residual solvents has led to regulation of acceptable limits. For instance, in Colorado the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) updated the state’s acceptable limits of residual solvents on January 1st, 2017.

Headspace Analysis

Figure 1: Shatter can be melted and dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent for headspace analysis (HS). Photo Courtesy of Cal-Green Solutions.

Since the most suitable solvents are volatile, these compounds are not amenable to HPLC methods and are best suited to gas chromatography (GC) using a thick stationary phase capable of adequate retention and resolution of butanes from other target compounds. Headspace (HS) is the most common analytical technique for efficiently removing the residual solvents from the complex cannabis extract matrix. Concentrates are weighed out into a headspace vial and are dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent such as dimethylformamide (DMF) or 1,3-dimethyl-3-imidazolidinone (DMI). The sealed headspace vial is heated until a stable equilibrium between the gas phase and the liquid phase occurs inside the vial. One milliliter of gas is transferred from the vial to the gas chromatograph for analysis. Another approach is full evaporation technique (FET), which involves a small amount of sample sealed in a headspace vial creating a single-phase gas system. More work is required to validate this technique as a quantitative method.

Gas Chromatographic Detectors

The flame ionization detector (FID) is selective because it only responds to materials that ionize in an air/hydrogen flame, however, this condition covers a broad range of compounds. When an organic compound enters the flame; the large increase in ions produced is measured as a positive signal. Since the response is proportional to the number of carbon atoms introduced into the flame, an FID is considered a quantitative counter of carbon atoms burned. There are a variety of advantages to using this detector such as, ease of use, stability, and the largest linear dynamic range of the commonly available GC detectors. The FID covers a calibration of nearly 5 orders of magnitude. FIDs are inexpensive to purchase and to operate. Maintenance is generally no more complex than changing jets and ensuring proper gas flows to the detector. Because of the stability of this detector internal standards are not required and sensitivity is adequate for meeting the acceptable reporting limits. However, FID is unable to confirm compounds and identification is only based on retention time. Early eluting analytes have a higher probability of interferences from matrix (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Resolution of early eluting compounds by headspace – flame ionization detection (HS-FID). Chromatogram Courtesy of Trace Analytics.

Mass Spectrometry (MS) provides unique spectral information for accurately identifying components eluting from the capillary column. As a compound exits the column it collides with high-energy electrons destabilizing the valence shell electrons of the analyte and it is broken into structurally significant charged fragments. These fragments are separated by their mass-to-charge ratios in the analyzer to produce a spectral pattern unique to the compound. To confirm the identity of the compound the spectral fingerprint is matched to a library of known spectra. Using the spectral patterns the appropriate masses for quantification can be chosen. Compounds with higher molecular weight fragments are easier to detect and identify for instance benzene (m/z 78), toluene (m/z 91) and the xylenes (m/z 106), whereas low mass fragments such as propane (m/z 29), methanol (m/z 31) and butane (m/z 43) are more difficult and may elute with matrix that matches these ions. Several disadvantages of mass spectrometers are the cost of equipment, cost to operate and complexity. In addition, these detectors are less stable and require an internal standard and have a limited dynamic range, which can lead to compound saturation.

Regardless of your method of detection, optimized HS and GC conditions are essential to properly resolve your target analytes and achieve the required detection limits. While MS may differentiate overlapping peaks the chances of interference of low molecular weight fragments necessitates resolution of target analytes chromatographically. FID requires excellent resolution for accurate identification and quantification.


Human Error? No Problem

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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If you are in the business of growing cannabis, you should be aware of the common reasons for production losses, how to address root causes and how to prevent future occurrences in a sustainable way. Human error is the number one root cause identified in investigations for defects in the cultivation business. Sadly, little is known about the nature of these errors, mainly because our quest for the truth ends where it should begin, once we know it was a human error or is “someone’s fault.”

Yes, human error usually explains the reason for the occurrence, but the reason for that error remains unexplained and consequently the corrective and preventive actions fail to address the underlying conditions for that failure. This, in turn, translates into ineffective action plans that result in creating non-value added activities, wasting resources and money as well as product.

Human error can occur when workers are in direct contact with the plant

So after investigating thousands of human error events and establishing systems to improve human reliability in manufacturing facilities, it became even clearer to me, the need to have good, human-engineered standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In the cannabis growing process, there are different types of mistakes that, when analyzed, all can be addressed in the same manner. For example, some common errors that we see are either overwatering or nutrient burn, which can occur when the plant is overfed. The same is true in the opposite scenario; underfeeding or under watering lead to problems as well. If your process is not automated, the reason for these failures was most likely human error. Now, why did the person make that mistake? Was there a procedure in place? Was the employee trained? Is there a specific process with steps, sub-steps, quantities and measures? Were tools available to be able to do the task correctly? There is so much that can be done about these questions if we had clear, well-written and simple, but specific instructions. The benefits greatly outweigh the effort required.

Also, besides providing step-by-step instructions to avoid commission errors (to perform incorrectly as opposed to omit some step), there are other types of errors that can be avoided with SOPs.

Decision making like detecting nutrient deficiencies can lead to human error.

Decision-making is another reason why we sometimes get different results than the ones expected. If during your process there are critical, knowledge-based decisions, workers need to be able to get all the information to detect as well as correct situations. Some decisions are, for example, when (detection) and how (steps) should I remove bud rot? Is there a critical step in the process (caution) to avoid other plants from becoming affected? Any information on the what, how, when, where and why reduces the likelihood of a decision error, later described as obvious.

When we face manufacturing challenges like nutrient deficiency in a particular stage, mold, fungus, gnats or even pollination of females, we want to do whatever we can to prevent it from happening again. So consider that from avoiding to detecting errors, procedures are a critical factor when improving human performance.

Here are some guidelines when writing procedures to prevent human error.

  1. Use them. Enforce the use of procedures at all times. As humans, we overestimate our abilities and tend to see procedures as an affront to our skills.
  2. Make sure it is a helpful procedure and users are involved in the process. People that participate in writing rules are more likely to follow them.
  3. Make sure they are available for their use.
  4. All critical activities should have a procedure.
  5. The procedure needs to be clear, have a good format, clear graphics, appropriate level of detail and specific presentation of limits.
  6. Make sure that facts, sequence and other requirements are correct and all possible conditions are considered e.g. “what if analysis”.

Human error won’t be eradicated unless we are able to really identify what is causing humans to err. If eliminating or “fixing” the actual individual eliminates or potentially reduces the probabilities of making that mistake again, then addressing the employee would be effective. But if there is a chance that the next in line will be able to make the same mistakes, consider evaluating human factors and not the human. Take a closer look and your process, system and ultimately your procedures.

From The Lab

QuEChERS 101

By Danielle Mackowsky
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Sample preparation experts and analytical chemists are quick to suggest QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) to cannabis laboratories that are analyzing both flower and edible material for pesticides, mycotoxins and cannabinoid content. Besides having a quirky name, just what makes QuEChERS a good extraction technique for the complicated matrices of cannabis products? By understanding the chemistry behind the extraction and the methodology’s history, cannabis laboratories can better implement the technology and educate their workforce.

QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes

In 2003, a time when only eight states had legalized the use of medical cannabis, a group of four researchers published an article in the Journal of AOAC International that made quite the impact in the residue monitoring industry. Titled Fast and Easy Multiresidue Method Employing Acetonitrile Extraction/Partitioning and “Dispersive Solid-Phase Extraction” for the Determination of Pesticide Residues in Produce, Drs. Michael Anastassiades, Steven Lehotay, Darinka Štajnbaher and Frank Schenck demonstrate how hundreds of pesticides could be extracted from a variety of produce samples through the use of two sequential steps: an initial phase partitioning followed by an additional matrix clean up. In the paper’s conclusion, the term QuEChERS was officially coined. In the fourteen years that have followed, this article has been cited over 2800 times. Subsequent research publications have demonstrated its use in matrices beyond food products such as biological fluids, soil and dietary supplements for a plethora of analytes including phthalates, pharmaceutical compounds and most recently cannabis.

QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes

The original QuEChERS extraction method utilized a salt blend of 4 g of magnesium sulfate and 1 g of sodium chloride. A starting sample volume of 10 g and 10 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) were combined with the above-mentioned salt blend in a centrifuge tube. The second step, dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) cleanup, included 150 mg of magnesium sulfate and 25 mg of primary secondary amine (PSA). Subsequent extraction techniques, now known as AOAC and European QuEChERS, suggested the use of buffered salts in order to protect any base sensitive analytes that may be critical to one’s analysis. Though the pH of the extraction solvent may differ, all three methods agree that ACN should be used as the starting organic phase. ACN is capable of extracting the broadest range of analytes and is compatible with both LC-MS/MS and GC-MS systems. While ethyl acetate has also been suggested as a starting solvent, it is incompatible with LC-MS/MS and extracts a larger amount of undesirable matrix components in the final aliquot.

All laboratories, including cannabis and food safety settings, are constantly looking for ways to decrease their overhead costs, batch out the most samples possible per day, and keep their employees trained and safe. It is not a stretch to say that QuEChERS revolutionized the analytical industry and made the above goals tangible achievements. In the original publication, Anastassiades et al. established that recoveries of over 85% for pesticides residues were possible at a cost as low as $1 per ten grams of sample. Within forty minutes, up to twelve samples were fully extracted and ready to be analyzed by GC-MS, without the purchase of any specialized equipment. Most importantly, no halogenated solvents were necessary, making this an environmentally conscious concept. Due to the nature of the cannabis industry, laboratories in this field are able to decrease overall solvent usage by a greater amount than what was demonstrated in 2003. The recommended starting sample for cannabis laboratories is only one gram of flower, or a tenth of the starting volume that is commonly utilized in the food safety industry. This reduction in sample volume then leads to a reduction in acetonitrile usage and thus QuEChERS is a very green extraction methodology.

The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used
The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used

As with any analytical method, QuEChERS is not perfect or ideal for every laboratory setting. Challenges remain in the cannabis industry where the polarity of individual pesticides monitored in some states precludes them from being amenable to the QuEChERS approach. For cannabis laboratories looking to improve their pesticide recoveries, decrease their solvent usage and not invest their resources into additional bench top equipment, QuEChERS is an excellent technique to adopt. The commercialization of salt blends specific for cannabis flowers and edibles takes the guesswork out of which products to use. The growth of cannabis technical groups within established analytical organizations has allowed for better communication among scientists when it comes to best practices for this complicated matrix. Overall, it is definitely worth implementing the QuEChERS technique in one’s cannabis laboratory in order to streamline productivity without sacrificing your results.

The Practical Chemist

Pesticide Analysis in Cannabis and Related Products: Part 3

By Julie Kowalski
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As mentioned in Part 1, pesticides residue analysis is very challenging especially considering the complexity of cannabis and the variety of flower, concentrates and infused products. In addition, pesticides are tested at low levels typically at parts-per-billion (ppb). For example, the food safety industry often uses 10 ppb as a benchmark limit of quantification. To put that in perspective, current pesticides limits in cannabis range from 10 ppb default (Massachusetts Regulatory Limit) to a more typical range of 100 ppb to 2 ppm in other states. Current testing is also complicated by evolving regulations.

Despite these challenges, adaptation of methods used by the food safety industry have proved successful for testing pesticides in cannabis. These methods typically rely on mass spectrometric detection paired with sample preparation methods to render the sample clean enough to yield quality data.

Pesticide Analysis Methods: Sample preparation and Analytical Technique Strategy

Generally, methods can be divided into two parts; sample preparation and analytical testing where both are critical to the success of pesticide residue testing and are inextricably linked. Reliance on mass spectrometric techniques like tandem mass spectrometry and high resolution accurate mass (HRAM) mass spectrometry is attributed to the substantial sensitivity and selectivity provided. The sensitivity and selectivity achievable by the detector largely dictates the sample preparation that will be required. The more sensitive and selective the detector, the less rigorous and resource intensive sample preparation can be.

Analytical technique: Gas and Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry 

The workhorse approach for pesticide residue analysis involves using gas chromatography and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) in the ion transition mode. This ion transition mode, often referred to as multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) or selected reaction monitoring (SRM), adds the selectivity and sensitivity needed for trace level analysis. Essentially, a pesticide precursor ion is fragmented into product ions. The detector monitors the signal for a specified product ion known to have originated from the pesticide precursor ion. This allows the signal to be corrected, associated with the analyte and not with other matrix components in the sample. In addition, because only ions meeting the precursor/product ion requirements are passed to the detector with little noise, there is a benefit to the observed signal to noise ratio allowing better sensitivity than in other modes. Even though ion transitions are specific, there is the possibility a matrix interference that also demonstrates that same ion transition could result in a false positive. Multiple ion transitions for each analyte are monitored to determine an ion ratio. The ion ratio should remain consistent for a specific analyte and is used to add confidence to analyte identification.

The best choice for pesticide analysis between gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC) is often questioned. To perform comprehensive pesticide screening similar to the way the food safety market approaches this challenge requires both techniques. It is not uncommon for screening methods to test for several hundred pesticides that vary in physiochemical properties. It may be possible that with a smaller list of analytes, only one technique will be needed but often in order to reach the low limits for pesticide residues both GC and LC are required.

Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).
Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).

Analytical technique: Sample Preparation

Less extensive sample preparation is possible when combined with sensitive and selective detectors like MS/MS. One popular method is the QuEChERS approach. QuEChERS stands for Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe. It consists of a solvent extraction/salting out step followed by a cleanup using dispersive solid phase extraction. Originally designed for fruit and vegetable pesticide testing, QuEChERS has been modified and used for many other commodity types including cannabis. Although QuEChERS is a viable method, sometimes more cleanup is needed and this can be done with cartridge solid phase extraction. This cleanup functions differently and is more labor intensive, but results in a cleaner extract. A cleaner extract helps to secure quality data and is sometimes needed for difficult analyses.

Biros' Blog

2016 Year in Review: Why the Cannabis Industry Needs Resiliency

By Aaron G. Biros
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2016 was a tumultuous, but productive year for the cannabis industry. Larger companies began to take interest in the fledgling market, like Microsoft and Scotts Miracle-Gro. This year brought major innovations in technology like market data tools, advances in LED tech, efficient cultivation tech and patient education tools. The Supreme Court set an important precedent by shutting down a challenge to Colorado’s cannabis market.

Voters legalized cannabis in 8 states last month Photo: Nicole Klauss, Flickr
Voters legalized cannabis in 8 states on Election Day.
Photo: Nicole Klauss, Flickr

Election Day brought a renewed sense of vigor to the market with voters in eight states legalizing forms of cannabis. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts passed recreational cannabis measures, making legalization’s momentum seem exponential.

But November 8th also gave Donald Trump the presidency, and his cabinet appointments, namely Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, gave many a feeling of uncertainty for the future of federal legalization. Adding insult to injury, the DEA repeatedly stood by their antiquated and ludicrous judgment for cannabis to remain a Schedule 1 narcotic.

Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) for Attorney General Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

A lot of the fervor surrounding public safety could be described as overdramatic or somewhat unwarranted. 2016 was the year of misinformation. Fake news spread like wildfire with people sharing stories like this or this that turned out to be very misleading or just downright false.

States with legal cannabis came under heavy public scrutiny and addressed problems like consumer education, public safety and lab testing. Pesticides became a highly publicized and persistent issue in a number of areas, with some states regulating it heavily and addressing public health concerns. Plenty of new rules were formed surrounding labeling and testing, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington experiencing some regulatory growing pains.

Those growing pains shed light on the need for regulators to craft rules that allow for changes, adding rules where necessary and getting rid of cumbersome rules that might thwart market growth. Rules need to be able to adapt as the industry grows, much like businesses need to adapt to a changing market climate to stay afloat. This is all the more reason why cannabis businesses need to make their voices heard and work with regulators to move things forward.

Pesticide Use was a major issue of 2016 Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Pesticide use was a major issue in 2016
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of legal cannabis in America, the word of the year for 2017 should be resiliency. In a social-ecological context, resiliency is “the capacity of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”

A warning label for cannabis in Oregon after the October 1st compliance deadline

Self-organization, learning and adaptation are three very important attributes of a resilient system. Without knowing what will happen when Trump’s cabinet takes the reigns of federal agencies, it is important to prepare for the unexpected. Adhering to standards like FOCUS allows cannabis businesses to prepare for unexpected events like recalls or product safety failures.

Those standards could also become the law down the road, as government officials often look to an industry’s voluntary consensus-based standards when deciding how to regulate it. In 2017, a number of state governments will embark on the heavy undertaking of writing the regulatory framework for legal cannabis.

2017 will bring opportunities and challenges to the cannabis industry. The industry’s rapid growth juxtaposed with political, economic and regulatory uncertainties create a climate that requires resilience to be built into the system at all levels. It is critical, now more than ever, that cannabis businesses build strong relationships with industry groups, advocacy groups and regulators to craft the institutional capacity and mutual trust needed to weather the uncertainty ahead.

The Practical Chemist

Potency Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 2

By Rebecca Stevens

As mentioned in Part 1, the physiological effects of cannabis are mediated by a group of structurally related organic compounds known as cannabinoids. The cannabinoids are biosynthetically produced by a growing cannabis plant and Figure 1 details the biosynthetic pathways leading to some of the most important cannabinoids in plant material.

Potency figure 1
Figure 1: The biosynthetic pathway of phytocannabinoid production in cannabis has been deeply studied through isotopic labeling experiments

The analytical measurement of cannabinoids is important to ensure the safety and quality of cannabis as well as its extracts and edible formulations. Total cannabinoid levels can vary significantly between different cultivars and batches, from about 5% up to 20% or more by dry weight. Information on cannabinoid profiles can be used to tailor cultivars for specific effects and allows end users to select an appropriate dose.

Routine Analysis vs. Cannabinomics 

Several structurally analogous groups of cannabinoids exist. In total, structures have been assigned for more than 70 unique phytocannabinoids as of 2005 and the burgeoning field of cannabinomics seeks to comprehensively measure these compounds.¹

Considering practical potency analysis, the vast majority of cannabinoid content is accounted for by 10-12 compounds. These include Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), Δ9-tetrahydrocannabivarian (THCV), cannabidivarin (CBDV) and their respective carboxylic acid forms. The cannabinoids occur primarily as carboxylic acids in plant material. Decarboxylation occurs when heat is applied through smoking, vaporization or cooking thereby producing neutral cannabinoids which are more physiologically active.

Potency Analysis by HPLC and GC

Currently, HPLC and GC are the two most commonly used techniques for potency analysis. In the case of GC, the heat used to vaporize the injected sample causes decarboxylation of the native cannabinoid acids. Derivatization of the acids may help reduce decarboxylation but overall this adds another layer of complexity to the analysis² ³. HPLC is the method of choice for direct analysis of cannabinoid profiles and this technique will be discussed further.

A sample preparation method consisting of grinding/homogenization and alcohol extraction is commonly used for cannabis flower and extracts. It has been shown to provide good recovery and precision² ³. An aliquot of the resulting extract can then be diluted with an HPLC compatible solvent such as 25% water / 75% acetonitrile with 0.1% formic acid. The cannabinoids are not particularly water soluble and can precipitate if the aqueous percentage is too high.

To avoid peak distortion and shifting retention times the diluent and initial mobile phase composition should be reasonably well matched. Another approach is to make a smaller injection (1-2 µL) of a more dissimilar solvent. The addition of formic acid or ammonium formate buffer acidifies the mobile phase and keeps the cannabinoid acids protonated.

The protonated acids are neutral and thus well retained on a C18 type column, even at higher (~50% or greater) concentrations of organic solvent² ³.

Detection is most often done using UV absorbance. Two main types of UV detectors are available for HPLC, single wavelength and diode array. A diode array detector (DAD) measures absorbance across a range of wavelengths producing a spectrum at each point in a chromatogram while single wavelength detectors only monitor absorbance at a single user selected wavelength. The DAD is more expensive, but very useful for detecting coelutions and interferences.


  1. Chemical Constituents of Marijuana: The Complex Mixture of Natural Cannabinoids. Life Sciences, 78, (2005), pp. 539
  2. Development and Validation of a Reliable and Robust Method for the Analysis of Cannabinoids and Terpenes in Cannabis. Journal of AOAC International, 98, (2015), pp. 1503
  3. Innovative Development and Validation of an HPLC/DAD Method for the Qualitative and Quantitative Determination of Major Cannabinoids in Cannabis Plant Material. Journal of Chromatography B, 877, (2009), pp. 4115

Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)

The Nerd Perspective

Pesticide Detection in Cannabis: Lab Challenges and Why Less Isn’t Always More

By Amanda Rigdon

Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

The Big Challenge

Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.

Responding to the Challenge

One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.

Less isn’t always more…

Spiral Galaxy Milky Way
The Milky Way

In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.

FDAIn reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.

green apple with slice isolated on the white background.

A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.

How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?

The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.

*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)

The Practical Chemist

Appropriate Instrumentation for the Chemical Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 1

By Rebecca Stevens
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Election Day 2016 resulted in historic gains for state level cannabis prohibition reform. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada chose to legalize adult use of Cannabis sp. and its extracts while even traditionally conservative states like Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota enacted policy allowing for medical use. More than half of the United States now allows for some form of legal cannabis use, highlighting the rapidly growing need for high quality analytical testing.

For the uninitiated, analytical instrumentation can be a confusing mix of abbreviations and hyphenation that provides little obvious information about an instrument’s capability, advantages and disadvantages. In this series of articles, my colleagues and I at Restek will break down and explain in practical terms what instruments are appropriate for a particular analysis and what to consider when choosing an instrumental technique.

Potency Analysis

Potency analysis refers to the quantitation of the major cannabinoids present in Cannabis sp. These compounds are known to provide the physiological effects of cannabis and their levels can vary dramatically based on cultivation practices, product storage conditions and extraction practices.

The primary technique is high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to ultraviolet absorbance (UV) detection. Gas chromatography (GC) coupled to a flame ionization detector (FID) or mass spectrometry (MS) can provide potency information but suffers from issues that preclude its use for comprehensive analysis.

Pesticide Residue Analysis

Pesticide residue analysis is, by a wide margin, the most technically challenging testing that we will discuss here. Trace levels of pesticides incurred during cultivation can be transferred to the consumer both on dried plant material and in extracts prepared from the contaminated material. These compounds can be acutely toxic and are generally regulated at part per billion parts-per-billion levels (PPB).

Depending on the desired target pesticides and detection limits, HPLC and/or GC coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) or high resolution accurate mass spectrometry (HRAM) is strongly recommended. Tandem and HRAM mass spectrometry instrumentation is expensive, but in this case it is crucial and will save untold frustration during method development.

Residual Solvents Analysis

When extracts are produced from plant material using organic solvents such as butane, alcohols or supercritical carbon dioxide there is a potential for the solvent and any other contaminants present in it to become trapped in the extract. The goal of residual solvent analysis is to detect and quantify solvents that may remain in the finished extract.

Residual solvent analysis is best accomplished using GC coupled to a headspace sample introduction system (HS-GC) along with FID or MS detection. Solid phase microextraction (SPME) of the sample headspace with direct introduction to the GC is another option.

Terpene Profile Analysis

While terpene profiles are not a safety issue, they provide much of the smell and taste experience of cannabis and are postulated to synergize with the physiologically active components. Breeders of Cannabis sp. are often interested in producing strains with specific terpene profiles through selective breeding techniques.

Both GC and HPLC can be employed successfully for terpenes analysis. Mass spectrometry is suitable for detection as well as GC-FID and HPLC-UV.

Heavy Metals Analysis

Metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury can be present in cannabis plant material due to uptake from the soil, fertilizers or hydroponic media by a growing plant. Rapidly growing plants like Cannabis sp. are particularly efficient at extracting and accumulating metals from their environment.

Several different types of instrumentation can be used for metals analysis, but the dominant technology is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Other approaches can also be used including ICP coupled with optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES).

Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)

An inductively coupled plasma torch used in MS reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
An inductively coupled plasma torch used in Optical Emission Spectroscopy (OES) reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
Quality From Canada

Near Infrared, GC and HPLC Applications in Cannabis Testing

By Tegan Adams, Michael Bertone

When a cannabis sample is submitted to a lab for testing there is a four-step process that occurs before it is tested in the instrumentation on site:

  1. It is ground at a low temperature into a fine powder;
  2. A solution is added to the ground powder;
  3. An extraction is repeated 6 times to ensure all cannabinoids are transferred into a common solution to be used in testing instrumentation.
  4. Once the cannabinoid solution is extracted from the plant matter, it is analyzed using High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC). HPLC is the key piece of instrumentation in cannabis potency testing procedures.

While there are many ways to test cannabis potency, HPLC is the most widely accepted and recognized testing instrumentation. Other instrument techniques include gas chromatography (GC) and thin layer chromatography (TLC). HPLC is preferred over GC because it does not apply heat in the testing process and cannabinoids can then be measured in their naturally occurring forms. Using a GC, heat is applied as part of the testing process and cannabinoids such as THCA or CBDA can change form, depending on the level of heat applied. CBDA and THCA have been observed to change form at as low as 40-50C. GC uses anywhere between 150-200C for its processes, and if using a GC, a change of compound form can occur. Using HPLC free of any high-heat environments, acidic (CBDA & THCA) and neutral cannabinoids (CBD, THC, CBG, CBN and others) can be differentiated in a sample for quantification purposes.

Near Infrared

Near infrared (NIR) has been used with cannabis for rapid identification of active pharmaceutical ingredients by measuring how much light different substances reflect. Cannabis is typically composed of 5-30% cannabinoids (mainly THC and CBD) and 5-15% water. Cannabinoid content can vary by over 5% (e.g. 13-18%) on a single plant, and even more if grown indoors. Multiple NIR measurements can be cost effective for R&D purposes. NIR does not use solvents and has a speed advantage of at least 50 times over traditional methods.

The main downfall of NIR techniques is that they are generally less accurate than HPLC or GC for potency analyses. NIR can be programmed to detect different compounds. To obtain accuracy in its detection methods, samples must be tested by HPLC on ongoing basis. 100 samples or more will provide enough information to improve an NIR software’s accuracy if it is programmed by the manufacturer or user using chemometrics. Chemometrics sorts through the often complex and broad overlapping NIR absorption.

Bands from the chemical, physical, and structural properties of all species present in a sample that influences the measured spectra. Any variation however of a strain tested or water quantity observed can affect the received results. Consistency is the key to obtaining precision with NIR equipment programming. The downfall of the NIR technique is that it must constantly be compared to HPLC data to ensure accuracy.

At Eurofins Experchem , our company works with bothHPLC and NIR equipment simultaneously for different cannabis testing purposes. Running both equipment simultaneously means we are able to continually monitor the accuracy of our NIR equipment as compared to our HPLC. If a company is using NIR alone however, it can be more difficult to maintain the equipment’s accuracy without on-going monitoring.

What about Terpenes?

Terpenes are the primary aromatic constituents of cannabis resin and essential oils. Terpene compounds vary in type and concentration among different genetic lineages of cannabis and have been shown to modulate and modify the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of cannabinoids. Terpenes can be analyzed using different methods including separation by GC or HPLC and identification by Mass Spectrometry. The high-heat environment for GC analysis can again cause problems in accuracy and interpretation of results for terpenes; high-heat environments can degrade terpenes and make them difficult to find in accurate form. We find HPLC is the best instrument to test for terpenes and can now test for six of the key terpene profiles including a-Pinene, Caryophyllene, Limonene, Myrcene, B-Pinene and Terpineol.

Quality Systems

Quality systems between different labs are never one and the same. Some labs are testing cannabis under good manufacturing practices (GMP), others follow ISO accreditation and some labs have no accreditation at all.

From a quality systems’ perspective some labs have zero or only one quality system employee(s). In a GMP lab, to meet the requirements of Health Canada and the FDA, our operations are staffed in a 1:4 quality assurance to analyst ratio. GMP labs have stringent quality standards that set them apart from other labs testing cannabis. Quality standards we work with include, but are not limited to: monthly internal blind audits, extensive GMP training, yearly exams and ongoing tests demonstrating competencies.

Maintaining and adhering to strict quality standards necessary for a Drug Establishment License for pharmaceutical testing ensures accuracy of results in cannabis testing otherwise difficult to find in the testing marketplace.

Important things to know about testing

  1. HPLC is the most recommended instrument used for product release in a regulated environment.
  2. NIR is the best instrument to use for monitoring growth and curing processes for R&D purposes, only if validated with an HPLC on an ongoing basis.
  3. Quality Systems between labs are different. Regardless of instrumentation used, if quality systems are not in place and maintained, integrity of results may be compromised.
  4. GMPs comprise 25% of our labour costs to our quality department. Quality systems necessary for a GMP environment include internal audits, out of specification investigations, qualification and maintenance of instruments, systems controls and stringent data integrity standards.