In July, we sat down with the folks at Digipath, Inc. when they received their testing license in Nevada for the adult use market. In that conversation, they mentioned they were looking to expand into California.
According to a press release published September 25th, DigiPath, Inc. has entered a joint venture to establish their first cannabis-testing lab in California. They will be working with Don Ashley, an experienced real estate developer and cannabis entrepreneur, to launch Humboldt Botanical, LLC, conducting business under the name “Digipath Botanical Testing”.
Ashley says they expect to be fully operational by Q1 of 2018. “We expect to break ground on this project in the next few weeks and hope to be operational in early Q1 2018 just after the state-wide adult-use market is expected to launch, as we have already obtained approval from the local planning authorities for the entire complex,” says Ashley.
Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, is optimistic for California’s market and the coming regulations. “The state of California is estimated to be the single largest cannabis market in the U.S. Adult-use cannabis legislation was approved by California residents last November, and we expect these new regulations to be implemented in 2018,” says Denkin. “The good news for the industry is that the requirements for cannabis testing will be significant, and we are excited to partner with Don and his team to pursue this opportunity in Humboldt County.”
Ashley is contributing roughly $2 million to build and equip the lab with instrumentation, while Digipath Labs will manage and supervise operations at the lab. According to the press release, Digipath will provide a non-exclusive license to use its intellectual property for the operation of the lab. Digipath Labs will retain rights over all the scientific data generated in the lab.
According to Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, that data will be put to good use. “Digipath Labs has developed an algorithm for use in strain authentication based largely on terpene profiling from our testing lab in Nevada and we are eager to further test our hypothesis with an expanded dataset from cannabis grown in Northern California,” says Orser.
While testing labs are primarily seen as safeguards for public health and safety, using data to correctly identify strains is a relatively new concept. “Digipath Labs is all about public health and safety through testing for adulterants,” says Orser. “Another component to quality is having confidence in product authenticity at the dispensary level. Not only is the consumer buying quality assured products but truth in advertising when it comes to strain nomenclature.”
Denkin says they were proactive in working toward getting the license early on. “Our partners have been dealing with the local regulators while we have been providing the proper SOP’s for the local government in order to receive the proper licensure in the area,” says Denkin. Taking their experience from Nevada to California, Orser says they have been asked to present to the California Toxicology Association on their experience with cannabis testing in the highly regulated marketplace of Nevada.
The laboratory in Humboldt is going to be part of a “cannabis industrial park,” alongside an R&D facility, oils/concentrate manufacturing center, health and wellness center, distribution and processing facility, tissue culture nursery, hemp clothing outlet, and coffee bistro, according to the press release.
Looking forward to growing their business, Denkin says they hope to launch a lab in Southern California. “We do expect to have a larger footprint in California because of the size of the market and are looking for locations in Southern California as well,” says Denkin. When asked about any new plans to expand elsewhere, Denkin says they’ll let us know. “We are continuing with our business plan and actively seeking the right mergers and acquisitions. Stay tuned.”
Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.
The Big Challenge
Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.
Responding to the Challenge
One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.
Less isn’t always more…
In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.
In reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.
A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.
How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?
The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.
*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)
Oregon cannabis regulators began enforcing new rules over the weekend when the October 1st compliance deadline passed. Compared to the relatively cut-and-dried new Colorado regulations, the Oregon cannabis market faces more complex and changing regulatory compliance issues.
The new rules in Oregon address changes to testing, packaging and labeling regulations along with concentration and serving size limits, according to a bulletin published by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) earlier this week. Most of the new rules are meant to add safeguards for public health and consumer safety, while putting an emphasis on keeping cannabis away from children.
Around the same time, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) published a bulletin with a new temporary rule that is meant to prevent marketing to children. The OLCC’s temporary rule clarifies “restrictions on product wording commonly associated with products marketed by or to children.” The OLCC reviewed around 500 strain names and found roughly 20 of them that could appeal to children. The OLCC will not approve labels that include strain names like Girl Scout Cookies, Candyland and Charlotte’s Web, among others. This means that breeders and growers have to change strain names on labels like Death Star, Skywalker and Jedi Kush because they contain a reference to the Star Wars franchise, which is marketed to children.
The new testing regulations establish requirements for testing cannabis products for THC and CBD concentrations, water activity, moisture content, pesticides and solvents in concentrates. They also stipulate that ORELAP-accredited laboratories must perform the testing. In the time leading up to the compliance deadline, many lacked confidence that ORELAP would accredit enough laboratories to meet the demand for testing. “We have heard from existing accredited labs that they can meet demand for cannabis product testing,” says Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the OHA. “We don’t yet know how much product requires testing, so we can’t speculate on whether labs will indeed be able to meet demand.” It is still unclear at this time if there are enough laboratories to perform all of the testing for cannabis products in the state.
At this time, 16 laboratories have been accredited for some form of testing, but only four labs have been accredited for pesticide testing. A list of the labs that ORELAP has accredited can be found here. Notably, only one lab is accredited for testing microbiological contaminants, such as E. coli. Testing for microbiological contaminants is not required for all cannabis products sold, rather it is only required upon written request by the OHA or OLCC.
The new labeling and packaging requirements concern testing, consumer education, childproofing and preventing marketing to minors. All cannabis products must contain a label that has been pre-approved by the OLCC. “Cannabis products have to be clearly labeled, showing that is has been tested, or if it has not been tested then it must display ‘does not meet new testing requirements’,” says Modie. “It [the label] must be clear, legible and readable, so they [the consumer] know exactly what it contains, including what cannabis product is inside the package, how much of it, how much THC, and where the product came from.”
According to Modie, it is particularly important that the packaging is not attractive to minors. Cartoons, designs and names that resemble non-cannabis products intended for, or marketed to children, should not be on the packaging or label. “Part of our education to the public and recreational cannabis users focuses on keeping these products out of reach of children in the first place, like storing cannabis in a locked area or an area where a child cannot reach or see,” says Modie. “Our goal is always to protect public health.”