Cannabis-testing laboratories have the challenge of removing a variety of unwanted matrix components from plant material prior to running extracts on their LC-MS/MS or GC-MS. The complexity of the cannabis plant presents additional analytical challenges that do not need to be accounted for in other agricultural products. Up to a third of the overall mass of cannabis seed, half of usable flower and nearly all extracts can be contributed to essential oils such as terpenes, flavonoids and actual cannabinoid content1. The biodiversity of this plant is exhibited in the over 2,000 unique strains that have been identified, each with their own pigmentation, cannabinoid profile and overall suggested medicinal use2. While novel methods have been developed for the removal of chlorophyll, few, if any, sample preparation methods have been devoted to removal of other colored pigments from cannabis.
Cannabis samples from four strains of plant (Purple Drink, Tahoe OG, Grand Daddy and Agent Orange) were hydrated using deionized water. Following the addition of 10 mL acetonitrile, samples were homogenized using a SPEX Geno/Grinder and stainless steel grinding balls. QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) non-buffered extraction salts were then added and samples were shaken. Following centrifugation, an aliquot of the supernatant was transferred to various blends of dispersive SPE (dSPE) salts packed into centrifugation tubes. All dSPE tubes were vortexed prior to being centrifuged. Resulting supernatant was transferred to clear auto sampler vials for visual analysis. Recoveries of 48 pesticides and four mycotoxins were determined for the two dSPE blends that provided the most pigmentation removal.
Seven dSPE blends were evaluated for their ability to remove both chlorophyll and purple pigmentation from cannabis plant material:
Based on the coloration of the resulting extracts, blends A, F and G were determined to be the most effective in removing both chlorophyll (all cannabis strains) and purple pigments (Purple Drink and Grand Daddy). Previous research regarding the ability of large quantities of GCB to retain planar pesticides allowed for the exclusion of blend G from further analyte quantitation3. The recoveries of the 48 selected pesticides and four mycotoxins for blends A and F were determined.
A blend of MgSO4, C18, PSA and Chlorofiltr® allowed for the most sample clean up, without loss of pesticides and mycotoxins, for all cannabis samples tested. Average recovery of the 47 pesticides and five mycotoxins using the selected dSPE blend was 75.6% were as the average recovery when including GCB instead of Chlorofiltr® was 67.6%. Regardless of the sample’s original pigmentation, this blend successfully removed both chlorophyll and purple hues from all strains tested. The other six dSPE blends evaluated were unable to provide the sample clean up needed or had previously demonstrated to be detrimental to the recovery of pesticides routinely analyzed in cannabis.
(1) Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2009)
(2) W. Ross, Newsweek, (2016)
(3) Koesukwiwat, Urairat, et al. “High Throughput Analysis of 150 Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables Using QuEChERS and Low-Pressure Gas Chromatography Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry.” Journal of Chromatography A, vol. 1217, no. 43, 2010, pp. 6692–6703., doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2010.05.012.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
EVIO Labs recently became the first cannabis laboratory in Florida to obtain ISO 17025 accreditation. Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), an organization that provides third-party assessments to ISO/IEC 17025, accredited EVIO Labs. The assessment process that lead to ISO 17025 accreditation for EVIO Labs included a thorough review of their quality management system, their capability to perform potency and contaminant testing for cannabis products.
Tracy Szerszen, president and operations manager at PJLA, encourages this international standard for laboratories to provide confidence to end-users that the test results they receive are reliable. She says laboratories that achieve this accreditation are showing they have the proper tools, equipment and staff to provide accurate testing. “It is a very critical component of the industry, and becoming accredited provides the assurance that laboratories are performing to the highest standard,” says Szerszen. “EVIO Labs has taken the right step in their commitment towards meeting this standard and providing clean and safe cannabis for the patients of Florida.”
EVIO Labs provides cannabis testing for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, microbiological and pesticides contamination, residual solvent, heavy metals, mycotoxins, water activity and moisture content. Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs Florida explains that the Florida Department of Health mandates that an independent third-party laboratory tests medical cannabis to ensure that these products are safe for human consumption. Martinez says their first priority is the safety of their patients, and ensuring that EVIO Labs provides clean and safe cannabis for Florida.
Martinez launched their laboratory with some help from Shimadzu last year. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez. According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
Every certificate of analysis is reviewed by a lab director with over 20 years of experience operating in FDA regulated labs. Martinez says that EVIO has some of the most advanced technology in the industry, which provides them the opportunity to quickly provide results, frequently as fast as a 24-hour period. Martinez and his team are currently building a 3,300 square-foot laboratory in Gainesville, which is expected to be running by March of this year.
For about a month now, California’s adult use market has been open for business and the market is booming. About thirty days into the world’s largest adult use market launch, we are beginning to see side effects of the growing pains that come with adjusting the massive industry.
Consumers are also feeling sticker shock as the new taxes add up to a 40% increase in price.While the regulatory and licensing roll out has been relatively smooth, some municipalities are slower than others in welcoming the adult use cannabis industry. It took Los Angeles weeks longer than other counties to begin licensing dispensaries. Meanwhile, retailers in San Diego say the first month brought a huge influx of customers, challenging their abilities to meet higher-than-expected demand.
Businesses are struggling to deal with large amounts of cash, but California State Treasurer John Chiang may have a solution in store. Yesterday, his department announced they are planning to create a taxpayer-backed bank for cannabis businesses.
In the regulatory realm, some are concerned that a loophole in the rules allows bigger cultivation operations to squeeze out the competition from smaller businesses. The California Growers Association filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture to try and close this loophole, hoping to give smaller cultivators a leg up before bigger companies can dominate the market.
The Bureau of Cannabis Control (known as just “The Bureau”) began holding meetings and workshops to help cannabis businesses get acquainted with the new rules. Public licensing workshops in Irvine and San Diego held last week were designed to focus on information required for licensing and resources for planning. The Bureau also held their first cannabis advisory committee meeting, as well as announcing new subcommittees and an input survey to help the Bureau better meet business needs.
On the lab-testing front, the state has phased in cannabinoids, moisture content, residual solvent, pesticide, microbial impurities and homogeneity testing. On July 1, the state will phase in additional residual solvent and pesticide testing in addition to foreign material testing. At the end of 2018, they plan on requiring terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals and water activity testing as well.
When Nevada legalized adult use sales this past summer, the market exploded and undoubtedly flooded licensed testing labs with samples to get products on shelves. In August, roughly a month after the start of adult use sales, a Las Vegas cannabis-testing lab, G3 Labs, had their license suspended for an unknown compliance issue.
“We can’t disclose the details of the suspension, including anything about penalties,” said Klapstein. “Under NRS 360.255, the information is confidential.”Then in late December, the Nevada Department of Taxation, one of the bodies tasked with regulating the state’s industry, announced in an email they suspended two more cannabis testing lab licenses. Certified Ag Lab in Sparks, Nevada and Cannex Nevada, LLC, in Las Vegas (also known as RSR Analytical Laboratories) both had their licenses suspended on December 22 and December 26 respectively.
Stephanie Klapstein, spokeswoman for the Department of Taxation, told the Reno Gazette Journal that both of those labs were not following proper protocols. “During separate, routine inspections, Department inspectors discovered that these two labs were not following proper lab procedures and good laboratory practices,” says Klapstein. “Their licenses were suspended until those deficiencies were corrected.”
According to the Reno Gazette Journal, both of those labs had their licenses reinstated and have since resumed normal business. During their license suspension, the labs were not allowed to operate and the department directed licensed cannabis businesses to submit samples to other labs. The department also directed the suspended labs in the email to coordinate with their clients who had samples in for testing; to either have their samples transferred to a different lab or a new sample taken for another lab to test. They did note that no product recalls were deemed necessary because of the suspension.
In that same email, the department directed licensed cannabis businesses to state-licensed labs in good standing, including 374 Labs, ACE Analytical Laboratory, DB Labs, Digipath Labs, MM Lab and NV CANN Lab. But on the department’s website, it says there are 11 licensed testing labs.
Back in September when we reported on the first lab license suspension, Klapstein told CIJ that under state law they couldn’t discuss any reasons behind why they suspended licenses. “We can’t disclose the details of the suspension, including anything about penalties,” said Klapstein. “Under NRS 360.255, the information is confidential.”
Because of that confidentiality, there are a number of questions left unanswered: With three lab licenses suspended in the first six months of the Nevada’s adult use market being open, how are testing labs keeping up with the market’s pace? What did those suspended labs do wrong? Do the regulations adequately protect public health and safety?
The cannabis industry is probably more informed about patients and consumers of their products than the general food industry. In addition to routine illness and stress in the population, cannabis consumers are fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS and other immune disorders. Consumers who are already ill are immunocompromised. Transplant recipients purposely have their immune system suppressed in the process of a successful transplant. These consumers have pre-existing conditions where the immune system is weakened. If the immunocompromised consumer is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens through cannabis products, the consumer is more likely to suffer from a viral infection or foodborne illness as a secondary illness to the primary illness. In the case of consumers with weakened immune systems, it could literally kill them.Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments.
The cannabis industry shoulders great responsibility in both the medical and adult use markets. In addition to avoiding chemical hazards and determining the potency of the product, the cannabis industry must manufacture products safe for consumption. There are three ways to control pathogens and ensure a safe product: prevent them from entering, kill them and control their growth.
Prevent microorganisms from getting in
Think about everything that is outdoors that will physically come in a door to your facility. Control the quality of ingredients, packaging, equipment lubricants, cleaning agents and sanitizers. Monitor employee hygiene. Next, you control everything within your walls: employees, materials, supplies, equipment and the environment. You control receiving, employee entrance, storage, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. At every step in the process, your job is to prevent the transfer of pathogens into the product from these sources.
The combination of raw materials to manufacture your product is likely to include naturally occurring pathogens. Traditional heat methods like roasting and baking will kill most pathogens. Remember, sterility is not the goal. The concern is that a manufacturer uses heat to achieve organoleptic qualities like color and texture, but the combination of time and temperature may not achieve safety. It is only with a validated process that safety is confirmed. If we model safety after what is required of food manufacturers by the Food and Drug Administration, validation of processes that control pathogens is required. In addition to traditional heat methods, non-thermal methods for control of pathogens includes irradiation and high pressure processing and are appropriate for highly priced goods, e.g. juice. Killing is achieved in the manufacturing environment and on processing equipment surfaces after cleaning and by sanitizing.
If you have done everything reasonable to stop microorganisms from getting in the product and you have a validated step to kill pathogens, you may still have spoilage microorganisms in the product. It is important that all pathogens have been eliminated. Examples of pathogens include Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. These three common pathogens are easily destroyed by proper heat methods. Despite steps taken to kill pathogens, it is theoretically possible a pathogen is reintroduced after the kill step and before packaging is sealed at very low numbers in the product. Doctors do not know how many cells are required for a consumer to get ill, and the immunocompromised consumer is more susceptible to illness. Lab methods for the three pathogens mentioned are designed to detect very low cell numbers. Packaging and control of growth factors will stop pathogens from growing in the product, if present.
Control the growth of microorganisms
These growth factors will control the growth of pathogens, and you can use the factors to control spoilage microbes as well. To grow, microbes need the same things we do: a comfortable temperature, water, nutrients (food), oxygen, and a comfortable level of acid. In the lab, we want to find the pathogen, so we optimize these factors for growth. When you control growth in your product, one hurdle may be enough to stop growth; sometimes multiple hurdles are needed in combination. Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments. They are at the bottom of the ocean under pressure. They are in hot springs at the temperature of boiling water. The diversity is immense. Luckily, we can focus on the growth factors for human pathogens, like Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Temperature. Human pathogens prefer to grow at the temperature of the human body. In manufacture, keep the time a product is in the range of 40oF to 140oF as short as possible. You control pathogens when your product is at very hot or very cold temperatures. Once the product cools after a kill step in manufacturing, it is critical to not reintroduce a pathogen from the environment or personnel. Clean equipment and packaging play key roles in preventing re-contamination of the product.
Water. At high temperatures as in baking or roasting, there is killing, but there is also the removal of water. In the drying process that is not at high temperature, water is removed to stop the growth of mold. This one hurdle is all that is needed. Even before mold is controlled, bacterial and yeast growth will stop. Many cannabis candies are safe, because water is not available for pathogen growth. Packaging is key to keep moisture out of the product.
Nutrients. In general, nutrients are going to be available for pathogen growth and cannot be controlled. In most products nutrients cannot be removed, however, recipes can be adjusted. Recipes for processed food add preservatives to control growth. In cannabis as in many plants, there may be natural compounds which act as preservatives.
Oxygen. With the great diversity of bacteria, there are bacteria that require the same oxygen we breathe, and mold only grows in oxygen. There are bacteria that only grow in the absence of oxygen, e.g. the bacteria responsible for botulism. And then there are the bacteria and yeast in between, growing with or without oxygen. Unfortunately, most human pathogens will grow with or without oxygen, but slowly without oxygen. The latter describes the growth of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While a package seals out air, the growth is very slow. Once a package is opened and the product is exposed to air, growth accelerates.
Acid. Fermented or acidified products have a higher level of acid than non-acid products; the acid acts as a natural preservative. The more acid, the more growth is inhibited. Generally, acid is a hurdle to growth, however and because of diversity, some bacteria prefer acid, like probiotics which are non-pathogenic. Some pathogens, like E. coli, have been found to grow in low acid foods, e.g. juice, even though the preference is for non-acidic environments.
Last week, the Bureau of Cannabis Control issued the first licenses for California’s new market. The first license went to Moxie, a cannabis distribution company out of Lynwood.
As of the publication of this article, the Bureau, the state authority tasked with leading the regulation of the industry, has issued 43 temporary licenses. So far, four laboratories have received licenses, along with a number of retailers, distributors, microbusinesses in both medical and adult-use markets.
The labs to receive their temporary licenses so far are pH Solutions, Steep Hill Labs, Pure Analytics and ORCA Cannalytics. Judging by the number of temporary medical and adult-use licenses awarded so far, it appears the Bureau is trying to issue a similar amount for each sector, distributing the number of licenses between the two equitably.
You can find the list of licensees here, and search between the dates of 12/15/17 to 1/2/18 to get the most up-to-date list of licenses awarded. “Last week, we officially launched our online licensing system, and today we’re pleased to issue the first group of temporary licenses to cannabis businesses that fall under the Bureau’s jurisdiction,” says Lori Ajax, Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief. “We plan to issue many more before January 1.”
According to the press release, temporary licenses are only issued to applicants with prior local authorization in the form of a license or permit from the jurisdiction where the business is. Those licenses will become effective on January 1, 2018. The temporary licenses will work for 120 days, or May 1, 2018, after which businesses will need to have a permanent license to continue operating.
More than 1,900 users have registered with the Bureau’s online system, and more than 200 applications have been submitted, according to the press release.
The various regulatory bodies in California have worked diligently for months now to roll out proposed emergency regulations, setting strict requirements for manufacturers, growers, retailers and testing labs. Manufacturing regulations, including specific labeling, packaging and processing requirements, give a good snapshot of how regulators plan to move forward. Testing requirements could also be significantly firmer, with rules for documentation, sample sizes, sampling procedures, storage and transportation.
Yet when the adult-use sales become fully legal on January 1, 2018, those regulations will not be fully implemented.
Donald Land, a UC Davis chemistry professor and chief scientific consultant at Steep Hill Labs Inc., told The Associated Press, “Buyer beware.” There will be a six-month range where existing inventory will be allowed on the shelves, products that might not meet the standards of the new rules. So dispensaries will get half a year of sales before all products have to meet the new, stricter testing requirements.
In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry. In the third part, we heard from Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., discussing method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited.
In the fourth and final part of this series, we sit down with Susan Audino, Ph.D., an A2LA lead assessor and instructor, laboratory consultant and board member for the Center for Research on Environmental Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Audino will share some insights into method validation and the most technical aspects of laboratory accreditation.
Susan Audino obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an analytical chemistry major, physical and biochemistry minor areas. She currently owns and operates a consulting firm to service chemical and biological laboratories. Susan has been studying the chemistry and applications of cannabinoids and provides scientific and technical guidance to cannabis dispensaries, testing laboratories and medical personnel. Dr. Audino’s interest most directly involves cannabis consumer safety and protection, and promotes active research towards the development of official test methods specifically for the cannabis industry, and to advocate appropriate clinical research. In addition to serving on Expert Review Panels, she is also chairing the first Cannabis Advisory Panel and working group with AOAC International, is a member of the Executive Committee of the ASTM Cannabis Section and has consulted to numerous cannabis laboratories and state regulatory bodies.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What are the some of the most significant technical issues facing an accreditation body when assessing a cannabis-testing laboratory?
Susan: From the AB perspective, there needs to be a high level of expertise to evaluate the merits and scientific soundness of laboratory-developed analytical test methods. Because there are presently no standard or consensus test methods available, laboratories are required to develop their own methods, which need to be valid. Validating methods require a rigorous series of tests and statistical analyses to ensure the correctness and reliability of the laboratory’s product, which is– the test report.
CIJ: When is method validation required and how does this differ from system suitability?
Susan: Method validation is required whenever the laboratory modifies a currently accepted consensus or standard test method, or when the laboratory develops its own method. Method validation is characterized by a series of analytical performance criteria including determinations of accuracy, precision, linearity, specification, limit of detection, and limit of quantitation. The determination of system suitability requires a series of deliberate variations of parameters to ensure the complete system, that is all instrument(s) as well as the analytical method, is maintained throughout the entire analytical process. Traditionally, method validation has been referred to as “ruggedness” and system suitability as “robustness.”
CIJ: What are the most important aspects of method validation that must be taken into account?
Susan: In keeping with the FDA guidelines and other accepted criteria, I tend to recommend the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH), particularly Q 2A, which is a widely recognized program that discusses the pertinent characteristics of method validation. This include: method specification, linearity, range, accuracy, and precision (e.g., repeatability, intermediate precision, reproducibility). As mentioned earlier, system suitability is also a critical element and although related to method validation, does require its own protocol.
CIJ: What three areas do you see the laboratory having the hardest time with in preparing for accreditation?
Susan: My responses to this question assume the laboratory employs appropriate instruments to perform the necessary analyses, and that the laboratory employs personnel with experience and knowledge appropriate to develop test methods and interpret test results.
By and large, method validation that is not appropriate to the scope of their intended work. Driving this is an overall lack of information about method validation. Oftentimes there is an assumption that multiple recoveries of CRMs constitute “validation”. While it may be one element, this only demonstrates the instrument’s suitability. My recommendation is to utilize any one of a number of good single laboratory validation protocols. Options include, but are not limited to AOAC International, American Chemical Society, ASTM, and ICH protocols.
Second is the lack of statistically sound sampling protocols for those laboratories that are mandated by their governing states to go to the field to sample the product from required batches. Sampling protocols needs to address the heterogeneity of the plant, defining the batch, and determining/collecting a sample of sufficient quantity that will be both large enough and representative of the population, and to provide the laboratory an adequate amount from which to sub-sample.
Third, sample preparation. This is somewhat intertwined with my previous point. Once an appropriate sample has been collected, preparation must be relevant to the appropriate technology and assay. It is unlikely that a laboratory can perform a single preparation that is amenable to comprehensive testing.
Last week, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control released their proposed emergency regulations for the industry. The Bureau, the government agency tasked with regulating California’s cannabis industry, announced the proposed emergency regulations ahead of the highly anticipated January 2018 start date.
Temporary licenses will allow businesses to operate for 120 days while their annual license application is being processed. Not surprisingly, local jurisdictions have considerable autonomy. Getting a license seems to be contingent on first getting local approval to operate. According to Josh Drayton, communications and outreach director at the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), working with local governments will be crucial to making progress. “Now that the Brown Administration has created the framework for medical and adult use cannabis, the main challenge we face as an industry is getting local municipalities to move forward with regulations,” says Drayton. “California has a dual licensing process which means that cannabis operators must receive a local permit/license/authorization before being able to apply for a state license. A majority of California cities and counties have yet to finalize their regulations which will delay state licensing.”
The initial reactions to these proposed regulations seem positive, given that this is a culmination of efforts over several years. “The California Cannabis Industry Association welcomes the release of the emergency regulations,” says Drayton. “These regulations represent years of hard work and collaboration between the administration, the regulating departments, and the cannabis industry.”
A-type licenses are for businesses in the adult-use market, while M-type licenses are for the medical market. Laboratory licenses don’t have this distinction, as they can test both medical and adult-use products.
The record keeping and security requirements seem relatively straightforward, requiring normal surveillance measures like 24-hour video, commercial-grade locks and alarm systems. The rules also lay out guidelines for disposing of waste, including securing it on the premises and not selling it.
Distributor licenses appear to have a number of compliance documentation requirements, such as arranging for all product testing, quality assurance and packaging and label accuracy. “Cannabis and cannabis products must pass through a distributor prior to being sold to customers at a retail establishment,” reads the overview the Bureau published. There is also a transport-only distributor license option. Those regulations appear to be more comprehensive than others, with a number of regulations pertaining to appropriate transportation and security measures.
Everything has to be packaged before it gets to retail; Retailers are not allowed to package or label cannabis products on premises. Microbusiness licenses will be available, which should be an exciting new development to follow as the market matures.
The state will require ISO 17025 accreditation for testing labs. A provisional license is required for a lab to operate in the short term, expiring after 12 months. Laboratory personnel are required to go in the field and do the sampling. Documentation requirements, sample sizes, sampling procedures and storage and transportation rules are also laid out.
Testing labs are required to test for cannabinoids, foreign material, heavy metals, microbial impurities, mycotoxins, moisture content and water activity, residual pesticides, residual solvents and processing chemicals and terpenoids (terpenes). Infused and edible products are required to be tested for homogeneity in THC and CBD concentrations as well. Drayton and the CCIA welcome these new testing regulations, hoping it might improve overall public safety. “We believe that these regulations will address public health issues by mandating the testing of all cannabis products,” says Drayton. “The evolution of the cannabis industry will continue, and we will continue to advocate for good policy that creates solutions for the problems that arise. I believe that we will be visiting and revisiting cannabis regulations for many years to come.”
Certificates of analysis (COA) will be required, showing whether a batch passes or fails testing requirements. Harvest batches that fail testing can be processed for remediation. “Testing laboratories are required to develop and implement a quality assurance program that is sufficient to ensure the reliability and validity of the analytical data produced by the laboratory,” reads the statement on QA and QC.
The Bureau, at the end of their regulatory overview document, lays out some possible enforcement actions, disciplinary actions and citations that could come from noncompliance. “These emergency regulations create a framework for both medical and adult use consumers,” says Drayton. “January 1, 2018 will be the first date that adults 21 years and older will be able to purchase cannabis without a medical card.”
In the coming weeks, we’ll be breaking down and analyzing the other proposed emergency regulations that the state released. Stay tuned for a breakdown of the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) regulations on cannabis cultivation, as well as The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) cannabis manufacturing regulations.
Last week, Steep Hill announced they are expanding into Oregon with a laboratory in Portland. According to the press release, the company has licensed its testing technology to Dr. Carl Balog, a renowned pain and addiction physician.
Steep Hill has expanded significantly over the past year, including new laboratories in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Hawaii, among other states. The Berkeley-based company works in lab testing, research and development, licensing, genetics and remote testing. In 2008, Steep Hill opened the first-ever commercial cannabis-testing laboratory in the country.
Jmîchaeĺe Keller, president and chief executive officer of Steep Hill, says this is a development that will help them better understand cannabis chemistry and its medical applications. “We are pleased to announce our expansion into Oregon and especially pleased to partner with Dr. Balog, a physician who brings years of pain and addiction experience to the Steep Hill body of expertise,” says Keller. “In addition, Dr. Balog plans to use his specialized knowledge to aid Steep Hill’s research and development efforts to broaden our understanding of cannabis chemistry and to explore its wider medical applications. In partnering with Dr. Balog, we hope that Steep Hill will be able to help physicians around the United States to curb the opioid epidemic by offering Steep Hill Verified™ medicinal cannabis as an alternative to a crisis that plagues this country.”
Dr. Balog, now owner and medical director of Steep Hill Oregon, says medical cannabis could be an excellent harm reduction tool, and hints at it being a possible tool in the opioid crisis. “I deal with the consequences of the opioid epidemic on a daily basis as a pain and addiction specialist,” says Dr. Balog. “The growing trend of using cannabis products as an alternative to opioids highlights the need for regulated testing. Because of the variability of marijuana preparations, testing ensures that scientific rigor is applied in a standardized way. I am dedicated to ensuring that patients have access to safe, tested cannabis, free from contaminants and to verified labels that can be trusted for their content.”
They expect Steep Hill Oregon to be open for business in the second quarter of 2018.