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Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 1

By Aaron G. Biros
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Laboratories throughout the world and in a variety of industries get accredited to demonstrate their competency. In the cannabis industry, some states are beginning to require it and many labs get accredited even if their state doesn’t require it. So what does accreditation mean and why is it so important?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a standard-setting organization that works to promote industrial and commercial standards. The standards set by ISO are designed to help prove a product’s safety and quality to a certain minimum level.

The ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard sets specific requirements to demonstrate the competence of a lab for carrying out tests. It essentially shows customers or regulators that a lab has the skills and scientific know-how to perform testing, certifying the lab is capable. Accreditation means certifying a lab to that standard and is synonymous with both quality and competence of an organization.

Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA

The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), founded in 1978, is a non-profit, internationally recognized accreditation body in the United States that offers laboratory and laboratory-related accreditation services and training. They have worked in the cannabis industry to accredit a number of cannabis laboratories to the ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard. In this series of articles, we sit down with experts from A2LA to learn more about cannabis lab accreditation, why it’s so important and some of the challenges labs face when seeking accreditation.

In the first part of this series, we sit down with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics. Michelle earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Towson State University and then attended Hood College, earning a master’s certificate in Regulatory Compliance in Biomedical Science. She has worked at A2LA for eight years, assisting in the accreditation of food testing, environmental testing and cannabis testing laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025, as well as performing quality system assessments. She also facilitates a number of accreditation programs including Field Sampling Measurement Organizations, STAC (Air Emissions) and Cannabis Testing. Bradac is also a member of the ASTM Cannabis Working Group and the ACIL Cannabis Working Group.

In the next part of this series, we will hear about specific requirements in states, some of the benefits of using ISO/IEC 17025 and the influx of start-up or novice testing laboratories.

CannabisIndustryJournal: What is Laboratory Accreditation? 

Michelle Bradac: Laboratory accreditation is a formal means of determining and recognizing the technical competence of laboratories to perform specific types of testing, via the use of an independent third party accreditation body. It provides laboratory users a mechanism to identify and select reliable testing organizations. Use of ISO/IEC 17025 as a basis for laboratory accreditation is internationally recognized as THE conformity assessment standard to which laboratories are accredited; it is used in the USA by both Public (State, local, federal (FDA, USDA, CDC, DoD and EPA) and private laboratories for testing of foods & feeds, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco, natural products and cannabis (among other materials and products).

CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the cannabis testing laboratory? 

Michelle: It provides a framework for continuous improvement and self-correction where the cannabis testing laboratory data management system is independently reviewed and blinded sample Proficiency Testing is encouraged.

CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the medical cannabis recommending physician?

Michelle: The physician gains a greater degree of assurance that the material provided by the dispensary is what the label says it is. This is especially important in working with patients that are immunocompromised where heavy metals, residual solvents and harmful pesticides could have negative health consequences.

CIJ: How does the testing of medical cannabis by an accredited laboratory benefit the patient?

Michelle: The patient gains increased confidence that the label accurately reflects the potency and chemical properties of the product.

CIJ: What specific challenges does A2LA face in accrediting cannabis testing laboratories?

Michelle: Much of the typical infrastructure is lacking or only now being developed. This ranges from proficiency testing programs, Reference Material Producers, method development and sampling procedures. There is also difficulty in ensuring that laboratories are appropriately validating methods in states where cannabis product is not yet available.

CIJ: Why is A2LA the optimal choice for ensuring the quality and reliability of the results produced by medical marijuana testing laboratories?

Michelle: A2LA has by far the most experience as an accreditor of laboratories that perform testing of natural plant products. We have been performing assessments of and granting accreditation to these types of laboratories for over twenty years. This results in our staff and our assessor corps who are then able to provide valuable insight and technical sophistication that other accreditation bodies do not have. Specific to the cannabis industry, A2LA is also represented in all the major standards development organizations, tradeshows and industry groups; which strengthens our understanding of the industry and ability to assist our customers towards meeting their goal of obtaining accreditation.

Steep Hill Hawaii Launches, Receives ISO 17025 Accreditation

By Aaron G. Biros
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Spectra Analytical LLC, doing business as Steep Hill Hawaii, was the first cannabis-testing laboratory to be licensed by the State of Hawaii and opened for business on August 1st. Today the lab announced they received ISO 17025:2005 certifications in biological and chemical testing from Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc., according to a press release.

Dana Ciccone, chief executive officer of Steep Hill Hawaii, has been a patient advocate and leader in cannabis education in Hawaii, as well as a member of the Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force, an organization formed by the University of Hawaii College of Social Sciences Public Policy Center to develop regulations for the state. “We are proud not only to be the first cannabis lab to be licensed in the State of Hawaii, but also now the first lab to achieve ISO certification as well,” says Ciccone. “Industry businesses, medical professionals, state regulators, and patients can be confident that our lab and its testing standards will operate to the highest international standards.”

According to the press release, the laboratory will offer services for testing cannabinoid profiles (potency), terpenes, pesticides, heavy metals, biological screening, and residual solvents, testing for 17 Cannabinoids and 43 terpenes. The release states they are locally owned and operated, providing testing services for not just industry businesses, but in-state card-holding patients as well.

“This is a turning point for the industry – we have moved very quickly to raise the industry standards in Hawaii to internationally recognized certification,” says Ciccone. “I am very proud our scientific team for the professionalism and hard work they put in to achieve this certification.”

New York Adds Chronic Pain to List of Qualifying Conditions

By Aaron G. Biros
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The New York State Health Department announced last week a series of changes in their medical cannabis program that is expected to increase patient access in more rural parts of the state. The news comes after reports earlier this month highlighting the lackluster state of the market.

The press release announces that the state’s Health Department will add chronic pain as a qualifying condition, effective March 22nd. That rule change came after the Health Department’s two-year report, which recommended conducting a review of evidence for using medical cannabis to treat patients suffering from chronic pain.

In addition to that, physician assistants may now register with the Health Department to certify patients for medical cannabis, given the supervising physician is registered as well. In November of last year, the Health Department announced they would allow nurse practitioners to certify patients. By increasing the number of eligible practitioners, the state hopes to improve patient access across the state, and particularly in rural areas where there are fewer physicians. “Improving patient access to medical marijuana continues to be one of our top priorities, as it has been since the launch of the program,” says Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker. “These key enhancements further that goal. Medical marijuana is already making a difference for patients across New York State, and we are constantly evaluating the program to see how we can make it better.”

Photo: Peter McConnochie, Flickr

Speaking with The Buffalo News earlier this month, Ari Hoffnung, president of Vireo Health of New York told reporters that companies are having a hard time getting by in New York’s cannabis industry. “Our company is not close to break-even yet,” says Hoffnung. “And based on my understanding, no one has made a dime here in New York.’’ It is possible that the recent move by the Health Department could increase the size of the market, according to Matt Karnes, founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, based in New York City. “Expanding the list of qualifying conditions to include chronic pain and to allow for nurse practitioners to make a recommendation will serve to jumpstart the fledgling medical marijuana market in New York State,” says Karnes. “Assuming similar chronic pain conditions apply to New York as is the case in other states, we could expect a large increase in the total number of patients.”

At this time, it is unclear exactly how the new regulations will affect the market size, but they can undoubtedly benefit patients seeking medical treatment. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist from Pearl River, New York, is optimistic this will help more patients get the treatment they need. “Having chronic pain added as a diagnosis is tremendously helpful,” says Dr. Gottlieb. “There are a lot of patients that don’t meet the current criteria for a qualifying condition and this will be very beneficial for them.” From his own experience, Dr. Gottlieb says he has found cannabis to be helpful in treating neuropathy (nerve-related pain.) “As a pain management physician we have a large population of patients with recent spinal cord surgery that do require continuous medications,” says Dr. Gottlieb. “It will be nice to have another option as a feasible medical treatment.”