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From The Lab

The Case for ISO/IEC 17025 Accreditation in Cannabis Testing Laboratories

By Amy Ankrum
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Government regulations keep millions of Americans safe every year by controlling what companies can put in their products and the standards those products must meet to be sold to consumers.

Enter the strange case of legal cannabis: In order for cannabis to be legally distributed by licensed medical professionals and businesses, it must be tested. But unlike other consumable goods, cannabis is not regulated by the FDA. Without an overarching federal policy requiring cannabis testing laboratory accreditation, the testing and laboratory requirements differ greatly across state lines.For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. 

To be federally regulated, cannabis would first have to be federally legalized. It turns out that states and businesses alike are not willing to wait for a federal mandate. Many states have begun to adopt standards for cannabis testing and some, such as Ohio, have even announced mandatory ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for all cannabis testing laboratories. As the industry evolves, increased compliance expectations are certain to evolve in tandem.

Some cannabis labs have even taken the initiative to seek ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of their own volition. Seth Wong, President of TEQ Analytics Laboratories, shared in a press release:

“By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, TEQ Analytical Labs believes that we can address the concerns throughout the cannabis industry regarding insufficient and unreliable scientific analysis by providing our clients with State required tests that are accredited by an international standard.”

Other laboratories, such as DB Labs in Las Vegas and EVIO Labs in Florida are also leading the accreditation charge in their respective states, ahead of any state mandates.

There are key reasons why accreditation in cannabis testing labs is important. First and foremost, cannabis is a consumable product. Like fruits and vegetables, cannabis is prone to pesticides, fungi and contaminants. The result of putting a potentially hazardous material on the market without proper and documented testing could lead to a public health crisis. An accredited testing lab, however, will ensure that the cannabis products they test are free from harmful contaminants.

By utilizing role-based trainings, labs can trust employees are receiving proper onboarding.

For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. Because many consumers of medical cannabis are immuno-compromised (such as in the case of chemotherapy patients), ensuring that products are free from any and all contaminants is critical. Further, in order to accurately determine both short- and long-term effects of prescribed cannabis consumption, accredited and compliant laboratories are necessary.

Accreditation standards like ISO/IEC 17025 also provide confidence that testing is performed properly and to an internationally accepted standard. Rather than returning a “pass/fail” rating on products, the Cannabis Safety Institute reports that an ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory is required to produce numerical accuracy percentages in testing for “at a minimum, cannabinoids, pesticides, microbiology, residual solvents, and water activity.” Reliable data sets that can be reviewed by both accreditors and the public foster trust between producers and consumers.

Finally, ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation demonstrates that a laboratory is properly staffed and trained. The Cannabis Safety Institute’s “Standards for Cannabis Testing Laboratories” explains that conducting proper analytical chemistry on cannabinoids (the chemical compounds extracted from cannabis that alter the brain’s neurotransmitter release) requires personnel who have met specific academic and training credentials. A system to monitor, manage and demonstrate proficiency is necessary to achieve and maintain accreditation. With electronic systems in place, this management and documentation minimizes risk and also minimizes administrative time tracking and maintaining training records.

Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming yearsFor cannabis testing labs, utilizing a comprehensive software solution to achieve and maintain compliance to standards such as ISO/IEC 17025 is key. Absent of a software solution, the necessary compliance requirements can become a significant burden to the organization. Paper tracking systems and complex spreadsheets open up organizations to the likelihood of errors and ultimately risk.

Because ISO/IEC 17025 has clearly defined expectations for training, a software solution also streamlines the training process while simultaneously documenting proficiency. By utilizing role-based trainings, organizations can be confident employees are receiving proper onboarding and in-service training. Additionally, the effectiveness of training can be proven with reports, which results in smoother audits and assessments.

Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming years- which means utilizing technology tools such as electronic workflows to ensure proper process controls. Beyond adding critical visibility, workflows also create efficiencies that can eliminate the need to increase staffing as companies expand and grow.

For an industry that is changing at a rapid pace, ensuring traceability, efficient processes and visibility across organizations is paramount. Using a system that enables automation, process control, document management and documented training procedures is a step in the right direction. With the proper software tools in place, cannabis testing labs can achieve compliance goals, demonstrate reliable and relevant results and most importantly ensure consumer safety.


Maintenance and Calibration: Your Customers Are Worth It!

By Vince Sebald
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Ultimately, the goal of any good company is to take care of their customers by providing a quality product at a competitive price. You take the time to use good practices in sourcing raw materials, processing, testing and packaging to make sure you have a great final product. Yet in practice, sometimes the product can degrade over time, or you find yourself facing costly manufacturing stoppages and repairs due to downed equipment or instrumentation. This can harm your company’s reputation and result in real, negative effects on your bottom line.

One thing you can do to prevent this problem is to have a properly scaled calibration and maintenance program for your organization.

First, a short discussion of terms:

Balance Calibration
Figure 1– Periodic calibration of an electronic balance performed using traceable standard weights helps to ensure that the balance remains within acceptable operating ranges during use and helps identify problems.

Calibration, in the context of this article, refers to the comparison of the unit under test (your equipment) to a standard value that is known to be accurate. Equipment readings often drift over time due to various reasons and may also be affected by damage to the equipment. Periodic calibration allows the user to determine if the unit under test (UUT) is sufficiently accurate to continue using it. In some cases, the UUT may require adjustment or may not be adjustable and should no longer be used.

Maintenance, in the context of this article, refers to work performed to maximize the performance of equipment and support a long life span for the equipment. This may include lubrication, adjustments, replacement of worn parts, etc. This is intended to extend the usable life of the equipment and the consistency of the quality of the work performed by the equipment.

There are several elements to putting together such a program that can help you to direct your resources where they will have the greatest benefit. The following are some key ingredients for a solid program:

Keep it Simple: The key is to scale it to your operation. Focus on the most important items if resources are strained. A simple program that is followed and that you can defend is much better than a program where you can never catch up.

Written Program: Your calibration and maintenance programs should be written and they should be approved by quality assurance (QA). Any program should include the following: 

  • Equipment Assessment and Identification: Assess each piece of equipment or instrument to determine if it is important enough to be calibrated and/or requires maintenance. You will probably find much of your instrumentation is not used for a critical purpose and can be designated as non-calibrated. Each item should have an ID assigned to allow tracking of the maintenance and/or calibration status.
  • Scheduling System: There needs to be some way to schedule when equipment is due for calibration or maintenance. This way it is easy to stay on top of it. A good scheduling system will pay for itself over time and be easy to use and maintain. A web-based system is a good choice for small to mid-sized companies.
  • Calibration Tolerance Assignment: If you decide to calibrate an instrument, consider what kind of accuracy you actually need from the equipment/instrument. This is a separate discussion on its own, but common rule of thumb is that the instrument should be at least 4 times more accurate than your specification. For very important instruments, it may require spending the money to get a better device.
  • Calibration and Maintenance Interval Assignments: Consider what interval you are going to perform maintenance for each equipment item. Manufacturer recommendations are based on certain conditions. If you use the equipment more or less often than “normal” use, consider adjusting the interval between calibrations or maintenance. 
  • OOT Management: If you do get an Out of Tolerance (OOT) result during a calibration and you find that the instrument isn’t as accurate as you need. Congratulations! You just kept it from getting worse. Review the history and see if this may have had an effect since the last passing calibration, adjust or replace the instrument, take any other necessary corrective actions, and keep it up.

    Maintenance with Checklist
    Figure 2- Maintenance engineers help keep your systems running smoothly and within specification for a long, trouble-free life.
  • Training: Make sure personnel that use the equipment are trained on its use and not to use equipment that is not calibrated for critical measurements. Also, anyone performing calibration and/or maintenance should be qualified to do so. It is best to put a program in place as soon as you start acquiring significant equipment so that you can keep things running smoothly, avoid costly repairs and quality control problems. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming equipment will keep running just because it has run flawlessly for months or years. There are many bad results that can come of mismanaged calibration and/or maintenance including the following:
  • Unscheduled Downtime/Damage/Repairs: A critical piece of equipment goes down. Production stops, and you are forced to schedule repairs as soon as possible. You pay premium prices for parts and labor, because it is an urgent need. Some parts may have long lead times, or not be available. You may suffer reputational costs with customers waiting for delivery. Some calibration issues could potentially affect operator safety as well.
  • Out of Specification Product: Quality control may indicate that product is not maintaining its historically high quality. If you have no calibration and maintenance program in place, tracking down the problem is even more difficult because you don’t have confidence in the readings that may be indicating that there is a problem.
  • Root Cause Analysis: Suppose you find product that is out of specification and you are trying to determine the cause. If there is no calibration and maintenance program in place, it is far more difficult to pinpoint changes that may have affected your production system. This can cause a very significant impact on your ability to correct the problem and regain your historical quality standards of production.

A solid calibration and maintenance program can go a long way to keeping your production lines and quality testing “boring”, without any surprises or suspense, and can allow you to put more sophisticated quality control systems in place. Alternatively, an inappropriate system can bog you down with paperwork, delays, unpredictable performance, and a host of other problems. Take care of your equipment and relax, knowing your customers will be happy with the consistent quality that they have become accustomed to.


Turning the Oregon Outdoor Market into a Research Opportunity

By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, Dr. Kevin A. Schug
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Much has been made about the plummeting market value of cannabis grown outdoors in Oregon. This certainly isn’t a reflection of the product quality within the marketplace, but more closely attributable to the oversaturation of producers in this space. This phenomenon has similarities to that of ‘Tulip Mania’ within the Dutch Golden Age, whereby tulip bulbs were highly coveted assets one day, and almost worthless the next. During times like these, it is very easy for industry professionals to become disheartened; however, from a scientific perspective, this current era in Oregon represents a tremendous opportunity for discovery and fundamental research.

Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief technical officer at Inform Environmental.

As we have mentioned in previous presentations and commentaries, our research group is interested in exploring the breadth of chemical constituents expressed in cannabis to discover novel molecules, to ultimately develop targeted therapies for a wide range of illnesses. Intrinsically, this research has significant societal implications, in addition to the potential financial benefits that can result from scientific discovery and the development of intellectual property. While conducting our experiments out of Arlington, Texas, where the study of cannabis is highly restricted, we have resorted to the closet genetic relative of cannabis, hops (Humulus lupulus), as a surrogate model of many of our experiments (Leghissa et al., 2018a). In doing so, we have developed a number of unique methods for the characterization of various cannabinoids and their metabolites (Leghissa et al., 2018b; Leghissa et al., 2018c). These experiments have been interesting and insightful; however, they pale in comparison to the research that could be done if we had unimpeded access to diverse strains of cannabis, as are present in Oregon. For example, gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy (GC-VUV) is a relatively new tool that has recently been proven to be an analytical powerhouse for the differentiation of various classes of terpene molecules (Qiu et al., 2017). In Arlington, TX, we have three such GC-VUV instruments at our disposal, more than any other research institution in the world, but we do not have access to appropriate samples for application of this technology. Similarly, on-line supercritical fluid extraction – supercritical fluid chromatography – mass spectrometry (SFE-SFC-MS) is another capability currently almost unique to our research group. Such an instrument exhibits extreme sensitivity, supports in situ extraction and analysis, and has a wide application range for potential determination of terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides and other chemical compounds of interest on a single analytical platform. Efforts are needed to explore the power and use of this technology, but they are impeded based on current regulations.

Dr Kevin Schug
Dr. Kevin A. Schug, Professor and the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA)

Circling back, let’s consider the opportunities that lie within the abundance of available outdoor-grown cannabis in Oregon. Cannabis is extremely responsive to environmental conditions (i.e., lighting, water quality, nutrients, exposure to pest, etc.) with respect to cannabinoid and terpene expression. As such, outdoor-grown cannabis, despite the reduced market value, is incredibly unique from indoor-grown cannabis in terms of the spectrum of light to which it is exposed. Indoor lighting technologies have come a long way; full-spectrum LED systems can closely emulate the spectral distribution of photon usage in plants, also known as the McCree curve. Nonetheless, this is emulation and nothing is ever quite like the real thing (i.e., the Sun). This is to say that indoor lighting can certainly produce highly potent cannabis, which exhibits an incredibly robust cannabinoid/terpene profile; however, one also has to imagine that such lighting technologies are still missing numerous spectral wavelengths that, in a nascent field of study, could be triggering the expression of unknown molecules with unknown physiological functions in the human body. Herein lies the opportunity. If we can tap into the inherently collaborative nature of the cannabis industry, we can start analyzing unique plants, having been grown in unique environments, using unique instruments in a facilitative setting, to ultimately discover the medicine of the future. Who is with us?


Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Foss FW, Schug KA. Determination of cannabinoids from a surrogate hops matrix using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography with triple quadrupole mass spectrometry. J Sep Sci 2018a; 41: 459-468.

Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Determination of the metabolites of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography – triple quadrapole – mass spectrometry. Separation Science Plus 2018b; 1: 43-47.

Leghissa A, Smuts J, Changling Q, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Detection of cannabinoids and cannabinoid metabolites using gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. Separation Science Plus 2018c; 1: 37-42.

Qiu C, Smuts J, Schug KA. Analysis of terpenes and turpentines using gas chromatography with vacuum ultraviolet detection. J Sep Sci 2017; 40: 869-877.

Swetha Kaul, PhD

Colorado vs. California: Two Different Approaches to Mold Testing in Cannabis

By Swetha Kaul, PhD
Swetha Kaul, PhD

Across the country, there is a patchwork of regulatory requirements that vary from state to state. Regulations focus on limiting microbial impurities (such as mold) present in cannabis in order for consumers to receive a safe product. When cultivators in Colorado and Nevada submit their cannabis product to laboratories for testing, they are striving to meet total yeast and mold count (TYMC) requirements.In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.

TYMC refers to the number of colony forming units present per gram (CFU/g) of cannabis material tested. CFU is a method of quantifying and reporting the amount of live yeast or mold present in the cannabis material being tested. This number is determined by plating the sample, which involves spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish, followed by an incubation period, which provides the ideal conditions for yeast and mold to grow and multiply. If the yeast and mold cells are efficiently distributed on a plate, it is assumed that each live cell will give rise to a single colony. Each colony produces a visible spot on the plate and this represents a single CFU. Counting the numbers of CFU gives an accurate estimate on the number of viable cells in the sample.

The plate count methodology for TYMC is standardized and widely accepted in a variety of industries including the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The FDA has published guidelines that specify limits on total yeast and mold counts ranging from 10 to 100,000 CFU/g. In cannabis testing, a TYMC count of 10,000 is commonly used. TYMC is also approved by the AOAC for testing a variety of products, such as food and cosmetics, for yeast and mold. It is a fairly easy technique to perform requiring minimal training, and the overall cost tends to be relatively low. It can be utilized to differentiate between dead and live cells, since only viable living cells produce colonies.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus
Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

There is a 24 to 48-hour incubation period associated with TYMC and this impedes speed of testing. Depending on the microbial levels in a sample, additional dilution of a cannabis sample being tested may be required in order to count the cells accurately. TYMC is not species-specific, allowing this method to cover a broad range of yeast and molds, including those that are not considered harmful. Studies conducted on cannabis products have identified several harmful species of yeast and mold, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus, Penicillium and Botrytis Cinerea. Non-pathogenic molds have also been shown to be a source of allergic hypersensitivity reactions. The ability of TYMC to detect only viable living cells from such a broad range of yeast and mold species may be considered an advantage in the newly emerging cannabis industry.

After California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, state regulatory agencies began exploring different cannabis testing methods to implement in order to ensure clean cannabis for the large influx of consumers.

Unlike Colorado, California is considering a different route and the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus). While Aspergillus can also be cultured and plated, it is difficult to differentiate morphological characteristics of each species on a plate and the risk of misidentification is high. Therefore, positive identification would require the use of DNA-based methods such as polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR. PCR is a molecular biology technique that can detect species-specific strains of mold that are considered harmful through the amplification and analysis of DNA sequences present in cannabis. The standard PCR testing method can be divided into four steps:

  1. The double stranded DNA in the cannabis sample is denatured by heat. This refers to splitting the double strand into single strands.
  2. Primers, which are short single-stranded DNA sequences, are added to align with the corresponding section of the DNA. These primers can be directly or indirectly labeled with fluorescence.
  3. DNA polymerase is introduced to extend the sequence, which results in two copies of the original double stranded DNA. DNA polymerases are enzymes that create DNA molecules by assembling nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.
  4. Once the double stranded DNA is created, the intensity of the resulting fluorescence signal can uncover the presence of specific species of harmful Aspergillus mold, such as fumigatus.

These steps can be repeated several times to amplify a very small amount of DNA in a sample. The primers will only bind to the corresponding sequence of DNA that matches that primer and this allows PCR to be very specific.

PCR testing is used in a wide variety of applications
PCR testing is used in a wide variety of applications
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

PCR is a very sensitive and selective method with many applications. However, the instrumentation utilized can be very expensive, which would increase the overall cost of a compliance test. The high sensitivity of the method for the target DNA means that there are possibilities for a false positive. This has implications in the cannabis industry where samples that test positive for yeast and mold may need to go through a remediation process to kill the microbial impurities. These remediated samples may still fail a PCR-based microbial test due to the presence of the DNA. Another issue with the high selectivity of this method is that other species of potentially harmful yeast and mold would not even be detected. PCR is a technique that requires skill and training to perform and this, in turn, adds to the high overall cost of the test.

Both TYMC and PCR have associated advantages and disadvantages and it is important to take into account the cost, speed, selectivity, and sensitivity of each method. The differences between the two methodologies would lead to a large disparity in testing standards amongst labs in different states. In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.


Emerald Conference Showcases Research, Innovation in Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, the 4th annual Emerald Conference brought attendees from around the world to San Diego for two days of education, networking and collaboration. Leading experts from across the industry shared some of the latest research in sessions and posters with over 600 attendees. The foremost companies in cannabis testing, research and extraction brought their teams to exhibit and share cutting edge technology solutions.

Ken Snoke, president of Emerald Scientific, delivers the opening remarks

The diversity in research topics was immense. Speakers touched on all of the latest research trends, including tissue culture as a micropropagation technique, phenotype hunting, pharmaceutical product formulation, chromatography methods and manufacturing standards, to name a few.

On the first day of the event, Ken Snoke, president of Emerald Scientific, gave his opening remarks, highlighting the importance of data-driven decisions in our industry, and how those decisions provide the framework and foundation for sound progress. “But data also fuels discovery,” says Snoke, discussing his remarks from the event. “I told a story of my own experience in San Diego almost 30 years ago while working in biotech, and how data analysis in a relatively mundane and routine screening program led to discovery. And how we (the folks at Emerald) believe that when we get our attendees together, that the networking and science/data that comes from this conference will not only support data-driven decisions for the foundation of the industry, but it will also lead to discovery. And that’s why we do this,” Snoke added.

Arun Apte, CEO of CloudLIMS, discusses his poster with an attendee

Snoke says the quality of the content at the poster session was phenomenal and engaging. “We had over 500 attendees so we continue to grow, but it’s not just about growth for us,” says Snoke. “It’s about the quality of the content, and providing a forum for networking around that content. I met a scientist that said this conference renewed his faith in our industry. So I firmly believe that the event has and will continue to have a profound and immensely positive impact on our industry.”

Introducing speakers as one of the chairs for first session focused on production, Dr. Markus Roggen says he found a number of speakers delivered fascinating talks. “This year’s lineup of presentations and posters really showcase how far the cannabis industry has come along,” says Dr. Roggen. “The presentations by Roger Little, PhD and Monica Vialpando, PhD, both showed how basic research and the transfer of knowledge from other industries can push cannabis science forward. Dr. Brian Rohrback’s presentation on the use of chemometrics in the production of pharmaceutical cannabis formulations was particular inspiring.”

Roger Little, Ph.D., owner of CTA, LLC, presents his research

Shortly after Snoke gave his opening remarks, Dr. Roggen introduced the first speaker, Roger Little, Ph.D., owner of CTA, LLC. He presented his research findings on phenotype hunting and breeding with the help of a cannabis-testing laboratory. He discussed his experience working with local breeders and growers in Northern California to identify high-potency plants early in their growth. “You can effectively screen juvenile plants to predict THC potency at harvest,” says Dr. Little. The other research he discussed included some interesting findings on the role of Methyl jasmonate as an immune-response trigger. “I was looking at terpenes in other plants and there is this chemical called methyl jasmonate,” says Dr. Little. “It is produced in large numbers of other plants and is an immune response stimulator. This is produced from anything trying to harm the plant such as a yeast infection or mites biting the stem.” Dr. Little says that the terpene has been used on strawberries to increase vitamin C content and on tobacco plants to increase nicotine content, among other uses. “It is a very potent and ubiquitous molecule,” says Dr. Little. “Cannabis plants’ immune-response is protecting the seeds with cannabinoid production. We can trick plants to think they are infected and thus produce more cannabinoids, stimulating them to produce their own jasmonate.”

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, spoke about tissue culture as an effective micropropagation technique, providing attendees with a basic understanding of the science behind it, and giving some estimates for how it could effectively replace cloning and the use of mother plants. You could overhear attendees discussing her talk throughout the remainder of the show.

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer at C4 Laboratories, discusses tissue culture during her talk

Dr. Jones has worked with CIJ on a series of articles to help explain cannabis tissue culture, which you can find here. “In this example, we started with one vessel with 4 explants,” says Dr. Jones. “Which when subcultured 4-6 weeks later, we now have 4 vessels with 16 plants.” She says this is instrumental in understanding how tissue culture micropropagation can help growers scale without the need for a ton of space and maintenance. From a single explant, you can potentially generate 70,000 plants after 48 weeks, according to Dr. Jones.

Those topics were just the first two of many presentations at Emerald Conference. You can take a look at some of the other presentation abstracts in the agenda here. The 5th Annual Emerald Conference in 2019 will be held February 28th through March 1st in San Diego next year.

Swetha Kaul, PhD

An Insider’s View: How Labs Conduct Cannabis Mold Testing

By Swetha Kaul, PhD
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Swetha Kaul, PhD

As both recreational and medical cannabis legalization continues to progress across the country, each state is tasked with developing regulatory requirements to ensure that customers and patients receive clean cannabis for consumption. This requires cannabis to undergo laboratory testing that analyzes the presence of microbial impurities including yeast and mold.

Some states, such as Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts use total yeast and mold count testing (TYMC) and set a maximum yeast and mold count threshold that cultivators must fall below. Other states, such as California, require the detection of species-specific strains of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which requires analyzing the DNA of a cannabis sample through polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR.

Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing.Before diving in further, it is important to understand the scientific approach. Laboratory testing requirements for cannabis can be separated into two categories: analytical chemistry methods and microbiological methods.

Analytical chemistry is the science of qualitatively and quantitatively determining the chemical components of a substance, and usually consists of some kind of separation followed by detection. Analytical methods are used to uncover the potency of cannabis, analyze the terpene profile and to detect the presence of pesticides, chemical residues, residuals solvents, heavy metals and mycotoxins. Analytical testing methods are performed first before proceeding to microbiological methods.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus
Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate certain foods and cause aspergillosis, an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

Microbiological methods dive deeper into cannabis at a cellular level to uncover microbial impurities such as yeast, mold and bacteria. The techniques utilized in microbiological methods are very different from traditional analytical chemistry methods in both the way they are performed and target of the analysis. Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing. There are a variety of cell and molecular biology techniques that can be used for detecting microbial impurities, but most can be separated into two categories:

  1. Methods to determine total microbial cell numbers, which typically utilizes cell culture, which involves growing cells in favorable conditions and plating, spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish. The total yeast and mold count (TYMC) test follows this method.
  2. Molecular methods intended to detect specific species of mold, such as harmful aspergillus mold strains, which typically involves testing for the presence of unique DNA sequences such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

Among states that have legalized some form of cannabis use and put forth regulations, there appears to be a broad consensus that the laboratories should test for potency (cannabinoids concentration), pesticides (or chemical residues) and residual solvents at a minimum. On the other hand, microbial testing requirements, particularly for mold, appear to vary greatly from state to state. Oregon requires random testing for mold and mildew without any details on test type. In Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts, regulations explicitly state the use of TYMC for the detection of mold. In California, the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of
Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which are difficult to differentiate on a plate and would require a DNA-based approach. Since there are differences in costs associated and data produced by these methods, this issue will impact product costs for cultivators, which will affect cannabis prices for consumers.


dSPE cleanups

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener: Removal of Purple Pigmentation from Cannabis

By Danielle Mackowsky
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dSPE cleanups
Cannabis strains used (clockwise from top left): Agent Orange, Tahoe OG, Blue Skunk, Grand Daddy and Grape Drink

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 following QuEChERS extraction

Sample Preparation

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:

  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg PSA, 7.5 mg GCB
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg GCB

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.

dSPE cleanups
Grand Daddy following various dSPE cleanups


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.

Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services

Managing Cannabis Testing Lab Workflows using LIMS

By Dr. Susan Audino
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Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services

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
  • Terpene profiling
  • 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:

  1. Cannabis samples are received.
  2. The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
  3. A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
  4. The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
  5. The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
  6. The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
  7. The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
  8. 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.

    Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services
    CloudLIMS Cannabis Testing LIMS: Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services
  • 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.

cloudlims screenshot
Real Time Test Status in CloudLIMS

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]:

Key Functionality Benefit
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
Custodian management Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests

Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)

Test management 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

Report management 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
Workflow management Promotes better data management and resource allocation
High-configurability 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

Global accessibility Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Real-time collaboration 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.

For more information on this, check out a webinar here: Webinar: How to Meet Cannabis Testing Standards and Regulatory Requirements with LIMS by Stephen Goldman, laboratory director at the State of Colorado certified Cannabis testing facility, PhytaTech.


EVIO Labs: The First Accredited Cannabis Lab in Florida

By Lauren Masko
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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.”

PJLAEVIO 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.

Chris Martinez
Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs 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.

Growing Pains a Month Into California’s Market Launch

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

Reports of possible supply shortages are irking some businesses, fearing that the state hasn’t licensed enough growers and distributors to handle the high demand. Consumers are also feeling sticker shock as the new taxes add up to a 40% increase in price.

CA cannabis testing chart
California’s plan for phasing in testing requirements.

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.