Tag Archives: safety

Implementing a HACCP Plan in Cannabis Processing

By Aaron G. Biros
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Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) is a robust management system that identifies and addresses any risk to safety throughout production. Originally designed for food safety through the entire supply chain, the risk assessment scheme can ensure extra steps are taken to prevent contamination.

The FDA as well as the Food Safety and Inspection Service currently require HACCP plans in a variety of food markets, including high-risk foods like poultry that are particularly susceptible to pathogenic contamination. As California and other states develop and implement regulations with rigorous safety requirements, cannabis cultivators, extractors and infused product manufacturers can look to HACCP for guidance on bolstering their quality controls. Wikipedia actually has a very helpful summary of the terms referenced and discussed here.

Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction

The HACCP system consists of six steps, the first of which being a hazard analysis. For Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction at Outco, a medical cannabis producer in Southern California, one of their hazard analyses takes place at the drying and curing stage. “When we get our flower from harvest, we have to think about the drying and curing process, where mold and bacteria can spoil our harvest,” says Dr. Roggen. “That is the hazard we have to deal with.” So for Dr. Roggen and his team, the hazard they identified is the potential for mold and bacteria growth during the drying and curing process.

The next step in the HACCP system is to identify a critical control point. “Correct drying of the flower will prevent any contamination from mold or bacteria, which is a control point identified,” says Dr. Roggen. “We also have to prevent contamination from the staff; it has to be the correct environment for the process.” That might include things like wearing gloves, protective clothing and hand washing. Once a control point is identified, the third step in the process is to develop a critical limit for those control points.

A critical limit for any given control point could be a maximum or minimum threshold before contamination is possible, reducing the hazard’s risk. “When we establish the critical limit, we know that water activity below 0.65 will prevent any mold growth so that is our critical limit, we have to reach that number,” says Dr. Roggen. The fourth step is monitoring critical control points. For food manufacturers and processors, they are required to identify how they monitor those control points in a written HACCP plan. For Dr. Roggen’s team, this means using a water activity meter. “If we establish the critical control point monitoring, water activity is taken throughout the drying process, as well as before and after the cure,” says Dr. Roggen. “As long as we get to that number quickly and stay below that number, we can control that point and prevent mold and bacteria growth.”

One of the cultivation facilities at Outco

When monitoring is established and if the critical limit is ever exceeded, there needs to be a corrective action, which is the fifth step in a HACCP plan. In Dr. Roggen’s case, that would mean they need a corrective action ready for when water activity goes above 0.65. “If we don’t have the right water activity, we just continue drying, so this example is pretty simple,” says Dr. Roggen. “Normal harvest is 7 days drying, if it is not dry enough, we take longer to prevent mold or bacteria growth.”

The sixth step is establishing procedures to ensure the whole system works. In food safety, this often means requiring process validation. “We have to double check that our procedure and protocols work,” says Dr. Roggen. “Checking for water activity is only a passive way of testing it, so we send our material to an outside testing lab to check for mold or bacteria so that if our protocols don’t work, we can catch those problems in the data and correct them.” They introduced weekly meetings where the extraction and cultivation teams get together to discuss the processes. Dr. Roggen says those meetings have been one of the most effective tools in the entire system.

Dr. Roggen’s team identified worker safety as a potential hazard

The final step in the process is to keep records. This can be as simple as keeping a written HACCP plan on hand, but should include keeping data logs and documenting procedures throughout production. For Dr. Roggen’s team, they log drying times, product weight and lab tests for every batch. Using all of those steps, Dr. Roggen and his team might continue to update their HACCP plans when they encounter a newly identified hazard. While this example is simplistic, the conceptual framework of a HACCP plan can help detect and solve much more complex problems. For another example, Dr. Roggen takes us into his extraction process.

Dr. Roggen’s team, on the extraction side of the business, uses a HACCP plan not just for preventing contamination, but for protecting worker safety as well. “We are always thinking about making the best product, but I have to look out for my team,” says Dr. Roggen. “The health risk to staff in extraction processes is absolutely a hazard.” They use carbon dioxide to extract oil, which carries a good deal of risks as well. “So when we look at our critical control points we need to regularly maintain and clean the extractor and we schedule for that,” says Dr. Roggen.

Gloves, protective clothing, eyewear and respirators are required for workers in the extraction process.

“My team needs respirators, protective clothing, eyewear and gloves to prevent contamination of material, but also to protect the worker from solvents, machine oil and CO2 in the room.” That health risk means they try and stay under legal limits set by the government, which is a critical limit of 3,000 ppm of carbon dioxide in the environment. “We monitor the CO2 levels with our instruments and that is particularly important whenever the extractor is opened.” Other than when it is being opened, Dr. Roggen, notes, the extractor stays locked, which is an important worker safety protocol.

The obvious corrective action for them is to have workers leave the room whenever carbon dioxide levels exceed that critical limit. “We just wait until the levels are back to normal and then continue operation,” says Dr. Roggen. “We updated our ventilation system, but if it still happens they leave the room.” They utilize a sort of double check here- the buddy system. “I took these rules from the chemistry lab; we always have two operators working on the machine on the same time, never anyone working alone.” That buddy check also requires they check each other for protective gear. “Just like in rock climbing or mountain biking, it is important to make sure your partner is safe.” He says they don’t keep records for employees wearing protective gear, but they do have an incident report system. “If any sort of incident takes place, we look at what happened, how could we have prevented it and what we could change,” says Dr. Roggen.

He says they have been utilizing some of these principles for a while; it just wasn’t until recently that they started thinking in terms of the HACCP conceptual framework. While some of those steps in the process seem obvious, and it is very likely that many cannabis processors already utilize them in their standard operating procedures and quality controls, utilizing the HACCP scheme can help provide structure and additional safeguards in production.

Regulatory Overreach: Are California’s Lab Rules Too Strict?

By Aaron G. Biros
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With California moving into a more regulated market, some are concerned the state may be overregulating the market with strict, unnecessary rules. The Bureau of Marijuana Control, California’s agency in charge of regulatory oversight for the cannabis industry, released a set of proposed draft regulations for lab testing recently.

Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, Chief Executive Officer of The Werc Shop

Those rules cover everything from sampling standard operating procedures to detection limits for pesticide analytes, which some say are absurdly strict as is. According to Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, a cannabis consulting firm located in Monrovia, CA, these rules will immediately raise prices. “The regulations are quite extensive and will undoubtedly drive the costs of patient medicine upward,” says Raber. “Regulations are not intended to be so detailed in these fashions, but are supposed to provide the floor and specific framework upon which operators can build best practices and differentiate themselves from others in a competitive market that drives prices downward.”

“Comparable guidance from other states operating today, and even federal regulations, are not nearly as specific in certain aspects,” says Raber. “While there are some very good parts to the current draft, and the bureau has certainly aimed to provide strong consumer protections, as they should, the idea of benzene even being mentioned or possibly permitted, or a completely cold transportation chain being required, and pesticide levels so low it pushes the limits of the most sophisticated and modern analytical equipment while going far past sensible EPA limits, strongly suggests there is work to be done to dial back the current position and make for far more workable and fully balanced regulations before they are fully finalized.”

Dave Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical

It is important to note that nothing is set in stone yet. The bureau will hold four public hearings throughout the month of June for the lab testing rules. In addition to that, concerned stakeholders can send written comments through June 20th.

Dave Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical, a cannabis-testing lab based in Oakland, is pleased they are finally regulating the market, but definitely plans on providing some feedback to change the rules a bit. “CW Analytical applauds the state’s efforts to regulate laboratories and the cannabis industry in general,” says Egerton. “…Many aspects of the proposed regulations for labs will make for a marked shift in the way our businesses operate, but the motivation behind them is well-intended.” His sentiment is consistent with many who operate cannabis laboratories and other stakeholders who see these proposed rules as overreach.

“Unfortunately, some of the regulations as written will create undo burden upon the industry and carry a strong probability of limiting supply to medical patients,” says Egerton. “During the current review period, CA laboratories will be providing feedback on some of the details within the law in order to streamline their quality assurance goals into a more tenable document that still protects patients.” That public comment period is a crucial part of the rulemaking process, as the rules will most likely change after cannabis laboratories’ voices are heard.

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Quality Controls and Medical Cannabis: What We Can Learn from Pharma

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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When we discuss growing and producing medical cannabis, we must think of it as a medicine. By definition, it is a substance intended to assist you with a medical condition, to help you feel better and not harm you. Drugs produced in the pharmaceutical industry go through extensive quality controls to ensure a level of safety for the consumer or patient. Yet when we talk process and quality controls in medical cannabis production, there is still a lot to learn.

Are we waiting for the wake-up call? Well, ring! Recently Health Canada, the regulatory body overseeing Canada’s medical cannabis market, decided that “It will begin random testing of medical marijuana products to check for the presence of banned pesticides after product recalls affecting nearly 25,000 customers led to reports of illnesses and the possibility of a class action lawsuit.”

Proper quality controls help protect businesses from unforeseen issues like those massive recalls in Canada. These can assure that the product is safe (won’t harm you), has integrity (free of contamination), and that the product is what it says it is (identity). To achieve this important goal, we must have robust systems that will guarantee product quality. Why is this important? Quality controls can ensure a safer and more consistent product, helping build patient and consumer trust and brand loyalty, preventing a public relations nightmare like a recall due to pesticide contamination.

Food processing and sanitation
Product recalls due to manufacturing errors in sanitation cause mistrust among consumers.

The FDA, among other regulatory bodies, has established excellent guidelines to implement these controls. So there is a lot we can learn from the pharmaceutical industry and that FDA guidance regarding quality controls and assurance. After all, we are all interested in the same thing: a safe and effective product.

So, let’s take a look at some of the controls included in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulation), Part 211 , which include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for finished products, and how you can implement them in the growing business of growing cannabis.

  1. Personnel selection and training: The GMPs establish that “Each person engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall have education, training… to enable that person to perform the assigned functions.” These include the creation of specific curricula per position and the establishment of requirements for specialized tasks. We all want to be successful so training, in this case, is what we call the vaccine for mistakes.
  2. Facilities: “Any building or buildings used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of suitable size, construction, and location to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and proper operations.” This requirement includes segregation of spaces to avoid cross-contamination, housekeeping, the cleaning process and detergent types, material storage conditions, humidity levels, temperature, water, and even ventilation requirements to prevent contamination with microorganisms. All with the intention of protecting the product.
  3. Pest control: “There shall be written procedures for the use of suitable rodenticides, insecticides, fungicides, fumigating agents, and cleaning and sanitizing agents. Such written procedures shall be designed to prevent the contamination of equipment, components, drug product containers, closures, packaging, labeling materials, or drug products and shall be followed.” There have been many issues pertaining this requirement. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson received many complaints claiming that the product had a musty, moldy odor. Later, the firm identified the cause of the odor to be a chemical, called 2, 4, 6-Tribromoanisole or TBA; a pesticide used to treat wooden pallets. One of the specific requirements of this section is to avoid the use of wooden pallets, but if you decide to use them, the method of sterilization by heat treatment seems like the only safe option for sterilizing wooden pallets and wood cases.
  4. Equipment/Instrumentation: “Equipment used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of appropriate design, adequate size, and suitably located to facilitate operations for its intended use and its cleaning and maintenance.” The intention is to not alter the safety, identity, strength, quality, or purity of the drug product beyond the official or other established requirements. What would happen if lubricants/coolants or any other substance, not intended to be part of the product, comes in contact with the product?
  5. Procedures and documentation: “There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess. Such procedures shall include all requirements of this subpart. These written procedures, including any changes, shall be drafted, reviewed, and approved. When we have followable, well written, clear, and specific procedures, we avoid possible errors that can get us in trouble.
  6. Defects Investigation: “Written production and process control procedures shall be followed in the execution of the various production and process control functions and shall be documented at the time of performance. Any deviation from the written procedures shall be recorded and justified.” We want to be successful, for that we need to learn from failures, understanding the root causes, correcting and preventing re-occurrence is what will keep you competitive. As you can see this requirement is essential for, quality, business and to evidence that such deviations did not adulterate the product.
  7. Process controls: Besides written procedures and deviations management, operation controls are pivotal in guaranteeing the quality as well as complete documentation of your process. These controls will vary depending on your technology and your product. If you do alcohol (ethanol) extraction, for example,  you want to keep an eye on the temperature, dissolution time, and even have color standards to be able to quickly and correctly identify possible abnormalities, while you can still correct the mistake. In-process product testing will allow you to monitor “performance of those manufacturing processes that may be responsible for causing variability in the characteristics of in-process material and the final product.”

Regardless of federal regulatory guidance, quality controls can be that one factor which can make or break your business. Why re-invent the wheel?

Preventing Yeast and Mold with Two-Way Humidity Control

By Aaron G. Biros
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When a grower harvests their cannabis plants, they process it by drying, curing and trimming the plant material. Dried cannabis ready for the consumer can often sit on retail shelves for months before it is purchased. According to the Cannabis Safety Institute, trimming is the processing stage with the highest level of human handling, and thus presents the most significant opportunities for microbiological contamination.

The Cannabis Safety Institute recommends workers handling dry cannabis wash their hands periodically, generally conform to food safety rules and wear gloves at all times. In addition to these tips, looking at relative humidity is a good tool to mitigate contamination concerns like the growth of yeast and mold spores. Mold spores can grow quickly when there is enough moisture, but if the cannabis is dry enough, mold spores cannot develop.

Growers controlling the relative humidity of their finished product in the past often placed an orange peel or a wet cotton ball in a jar with dried cannabis to retain the weight from water and keep it from over-drying. Those tactics have since been improved upon using modern technology.

Water activity is a measure of the relative humidity immediately adjacent to the product, according to Bob Esse, vice president of research at Boveda. “Cannabis’ relative humidity will reach equilibrium with the surrounding environment over time, which is why it is so critical to manage this adjacent atmosphere,” says Esse. “Moisture content is the total water present in the product and is a variable that changes in its relationship to water activity from one strain or type of product to the next.”

Back in 1997, Boveda first patented two-way humidity control. For the last 20 years, that company has made humidity control products for packaging in a variety of industries, like wooden musical instruments, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, electronics, tobacco, photos and documents and perhaps most notably for keeping cigars at the right humidity level in a humidor. According to Charles Rutherford, business development director at Boveda, he saw people buying their products meant for cigars, but using them with cannabis. About six years ago, they started developing a product specifically for the cannabis market.

The science behind it is relatively simple, says Rutherford. “Certain salts saturated in water can naturally regulate humidity- we just developed a cannabis-specific humidity level and patented the packaging around it that purifies the water and can come in direct contact with cannabis,” says Rutherford. “Using water activity meters and a moisture isotherm test, we determined the most appropriate range of humidity levels that cannabis will remain stable.” That range turned out to be between 59% and 63% humidity level for the properties in dried cannabis to stay the same.

According to Rutherford, it is a little more complex than just a range to stay in. “There are different humidity levels that certain strains prefer, but there are personal preferences, regions and other factors to consider when determining the levels of humidity ideal for cannabis,” says Rutherford. “We wanted to understand what people consider to be perfect.” In their research they found that depending on the region of the country, that humidity level varies considerably. “Using a water activity meter we could tell exactly what people prefer,” says Rutherford. Colorado, for example, prefers significantly drier cannabis than the Pacific Northwest, according to their findings.

Right now, Boveda has two-way humidity controllers set at 62%, 58% and soon they will have an under 50% option (appealing to the Colorado market). Using a device to accurately control the humidity level in cannabis can help growers and retailers prevent contamination from the biggest source of concern: water. “There is a ton of talk about pesticide contamination, but the reality is even if the flower is grown organically, you can still encounter safety problems when the moisture level is off,” says Rutherford. From a medical perspective, keeping dried cannabis at an ideal humidity level helps stabilize the properties of it, maintaining the medical efficacy. “If this is something people use for a medicine, it should be at an ideal condition,” says Rutherford. “Quantifying and understanding what humidity level is right is what we are helping accomplish.” For patients with compromised immune systems that need safe, consumable cannabis, a humidity control device can help prevent contamination and ensure a certain degree of safety in their medicine.

On a retail level, the packaging insert can extend the shelf life of products and maintain the quality. “The world has known for decades that 70% humidity level for cigars is ideal,” says Rutherford. “The cannabis world hasn’t had a moisture standard or understanding of what is proper until very recently.” That 62% humidity level determined after commissioned testing is a good standard to reference when determining your own ideal humidity level.

Growers also recognize the value in keeping their cannabis at the right humidity level beyond the obvious safety concerns. “As cannabis dries out and loses its humidity, the overall weight is reduced,” says Rutherford. “Precision humidity control gives a uniform humidity throughout the flower, leaving out the mystery for growers and maintaining weight, meeting the nexus between quality and weight.” According to Rutherford, growers have an incentive to package their cannabis a little on the wet side. “Because it weighs the most when wet, it is sold by weight and it will lose moisture over time, the incentive to deliver product that will dry out over time- that can create a lot of problems by having high moisture content.” For the first time ever, people can dramatically extend the shelf life of dried cannabis, instead of letting products naturally deteriorate and go bad over time. “For the first time ever, it allows you to extend the shelf life of dried cannabis for aging cannabis like wine and cigars,” says Rutherford.

The data from that Cannabis Safety Institute report, collected by AquaLab and CannaSafe Analytics using a vapor sorption analyzer, shows a cutoff of 65% relative humidity. These findings give the industry a lot of guidance in working to reduce the amount of yeast and mold contamination, says Bob Esse. “If your dried cannabis is above 65% relative humidity and you are a retailer, you should send that product back to the grower because it wasn’t dried properly, is vulnerable to mold and yeast spores and thus not safe for the consumer,” says Esse.

Pointing to the report, Esse says foods with high moisture content are able to support robust microbial population growth, which can lead to bacterial and fungal infections. “Water activity is what impacts whether microorganisms can grow or not.” By using two-way humidity control technology, growers and retailers can mitigate risks of contamination, improve quality and extend the shelf life of their products.

Cannabis-Specific Certified Reference Materials

By Aaron G. Biros, Don Shelly
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A certified reference material (CRM) is generally recognized as providing the highest level of traceability and accuracy to a measurement. A CRM designed specifically for cannabis testing and tailored to state-specific testing regulations could help laboratories better ensure the safety of their products.

The fact that a certificate accompanies a reference material does not qualify it as a CRM. The reference material must be produced in accordance with ISO Guide 34 specifications by an accredited manufacturer. Adam Ross, key account manager and organic specialist at LGC Standards, says accreditation is a big part of bringing legitimacy to cannabis testing. “For a laboratory to receive an ISO 17025 accreditation, they must purchase their RMs from an ISO 17025 manufacturer. The best option is to purchase an ISO Guide 34 manufactured CRM,” says Ross. “It is particularly important for testing requirements, such as potency, pesticides, etc., where quantitation is expected, to use properly certified quantitative reference materials.” LGC Standards, a 175-year-old company, is one of those manufacturers that invested the time and money to achieve ISO Guide 34 accreditation and offers a spectrum of CRMs for cannabis testing.

Adam Ross, LGC Standards
Adam Ross, LGC Standards

The major advantage to using a proper CRM is an increased level of credibility. Auditors recognize the value of using a CRM which can add to the integrity of the results produced. The regular use of certified reference standards along with proper training, methodology and instrumentation, will facilitate a result that has the least amount of uncertainty and is more defendable. “The regular use of certified reference standards will help ensure products that go to market are safe to consume,” says Ross.

With regard to potency analyses, Ross has some key insights to help a laboratory better utilize CRMs. “My advice? Don’t mix the cannabinoids; labs analyzing by GC/FID have discovered that some of the cannabinoids will co-elute. Also, they have a short shelf life when mixed together,” says Ross. “Cannabinoid analysts should use GC/MS or LC/MS for their analysis or analyze the cannabinoids individually,” says Ross.

rsz_cannabis_product_photo_lgc-1So what happens if a cannabis lab uses non-certified reference materials? Labs might save money in the short term. CRMs are slightly more expensive than a non-certified reference material, but will increase the defensibility of a lab’s data. Using a reference material created in-house or from a non-accredited vendor can lead to less-than-accurate results. A non-certified reference material has a greater chance of being made incorrectly. The publication of incorrect data damages the credibility of the testing lab and could lead to legal action against the lab from damaged parties.

One of the major challenges for the cannabis testing industry is the variation in state-to-state regulations. Ross says that Oregon’s regulations are pretty comprehensive and that other states should look to the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) for guidance. According to Ross, ORELAP would like to see higher quality standards with legitimate traceability. Utilizing CRMs the correct way will help laboratories achieve greater accuracy.

Here are some tips for using CRMs appropriately:

  • Always bring your standards to room temperature before making a dilution.
  • Matrix matched calibration standards provide more accurate quantitation. Prepare standards in the solvent from extracted blank matrices.
  • Always bracket your analytical runs with continuing calibration verification standards. Proving that your instrument remained calibrated during the run gives your data more credibility.

Analytical chemists purchase CRMs for three primary uses in the testing lab:

  • To calibrate the instrument that will be used to perform the testing
  • To confirm the instruments continuing calibration throughout the analytical process
  • For analytical quality control or “spikes”

Typically, labs will spike known concentrations of the analytes of interest into a control sample and regular samples with the intent of testing analytical efficiency. Recoveries of analytes from the spiked control sample tell the chemist how well the analytical method is working. The spiked samples (matrix spikes) demonstrate to what extent the sample matrix (the consumable being tested) is influencing the results of the analytical procedure.

CRMs could be described as the nexus between cannabis testing results, the human element and the instrumentation used in an analysis. By using a cannabis-specific CRM, the cannabis testing community can demonstrate tangible improvements in accuracy and legitimacy.

Implementing Real Science in Cultivation and Extraction

By Aaron G. Biros
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Formed in 2015, Outco is a vertically integrated, licensed producer of medical cannabis in Southern California. Outco manages Outliers Collective, the first licensed dispensary continually operating in San Diego County. They operate the first licensed cultivation on Native American land in Southern California, the first cultivation building permit in Southern California and the first licensed extraction facility in San Diego County. Outco is on track to be the largest licensed producer of medical cannabis in Southern California.

Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco
Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco

The company prides themselves on attention to detail; the well versed team implements real science in their cultivation and extraction processes. Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco, has more than 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur. Before entering the cannabis industry, Linc started and sold companies in the healthcare technology and nutraceutical spaces.

With construction underway at new facilities, Outco is anticipating an expanding market and higher demand.
With construction underway at new facilities, Outco is anticipating an expanding market and higher demand.

Fish’s experience with FDA regulations in nutraceuticals prepared him for running a business in such a tumultuous, highly regulated environment like cannabis. “One thing I took from the nutraceutical industry is how to present products to consumers and letting them know it is safe, effective and consistent,” says Fish. He says he noticed a serious lack of consistency in products. They tested 25 different vape cartridges, with their own oil, to find a consistent product they can use and know that consumers will safely and consistently get the same results. “There is a lot of room for more professionals and a lot of room for more science,” says Fish. “We try to position ourselves in a way that is consistent with where we think policy will go so we are very careful with recommendations from a scientific standpoint, patient information and product safety.”

Starting at a seed or cutting, plants are grown with the protection of biological control agents
Starting at a seed or cutting, plants are grown with the protection of biological control agents

According to Fish, they currently distribute cannabis products to about 75 licensed dispensaries in Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles. With construction underway at their cultivation facility on Native American land, Fish says they plan to generate roughly 2600 pounds of cannabis each month. Gearing up for that in addition to the expanding recreational market requires some planning in advance, says Fish. Part of that plan is making sure quality controls are in place to keep consistency in the product quality and dosage. They are also actively seeking to open their distribution channels further.

One of the cultivation facilities at Outco
One of the cultivation facilities at Outco

“We are building out a full lab of our own in addition to third party testing to perform internal quality controls,” says Fish. Equipped with their own laboratory instrumentation like HPLC and GC, they hope to establish proper in-house quality controls as well as provide that resource to younger startup companies. As one of the founding partners of Canopy San Diego, an ancillary startup accelerator, Fish sees great potential in working with younger companies to get them off the ground. Fish met Outco’s vice president of extraction, Dr. Markus Roggen, at a Canopy San Diego event. It was there that they had the idea to build a startup accelerator for companies that actually touch the plant- extractors, cultivators and infused-product manufacturers, as opposed to a startup accelerator that would only help ancillary businesses.

Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction
Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction

Dr. Roggen, who is an organic chemist by training, heads up Outco’s supercritical CO2 extraction operation. “I came to the ‘art’ of cannabis extraction with an open, yet scientifically focused mind,” says Dr. Roggen. “My approach was to look past the myths and stories about extraction methods and focus on finding data, as there really wasn’t much available. I therefore, from the beginning, started to study the capabilities of our extraction equipment by chemometric methods.” Chemometrics is the science of relating measurements made on a chemical system or process to the state of the system via applications of mathematical methods. “Already the first sets of experiments showed that long-held beliefs in the cannabis community were inaccurate,” says Dr. Roggen. “For example the particle size of extracted material matters. Or that it is possible to preserve and even isolate terpenes by CO2 extraction methods.” With plans to have a full plant and analytical chemistry laboratory on site, they hope to perform more research that focuses on optimizing extraction processes.

Plant irrigation and fertigation procedures are determined via experimentation
Plant irrigation and fertigation procedures are determined via experimentation

Dr. Allison Justice leads their cultivation team with a background in greenhouse management and commercial horticulture. Dr. Justice says plants are grown, starting at a young age (seed or vegetative cutting), with the protection of biological control agents. “Biological control is a management strategy that entails the release of beneficial insects or fungi, such as parasitoids and predators, in order to suppress or regulate insect populations in greenhouses and grow rooms,” says Dr. Justice.

Dr. Allison Justice, vice president of cultivation
Dr. Allison Justice, vice president of cultivation

When implemented properly, this eliminates the need to use synthetic pesticides. “Biological control agents are not put in place to eradicate pest populations yet are applied as preventives to minimize plant damage and maintain their own populations.” They are constantly evaluating light types, spectrum and intensity to determine optimal ranges, according to Dr. Justice. They don’t use any pre-mixed “cannabis” nutrient supplements for their plants, instead they design an experiment to determine the desired levels and ratios of essential plant nutrients. “We have found it crucial to determine what ratios of nutrients the plant actually needs and by knowing this, we know how to manipulate the recipe determined by the plant’s given nutritional symptoms,” says Dr. Justice. Every type of adjustment in cultivation and extraction is based on results from experimentation rooted in legitimate science. Instead of guessing when it might be time to harvest, they use a water activity meter, logging and recording all the data to determine the appropriate time to trim and cure plants. Performing analytical testing at every step is key, says Fish.

Looking toward the recreational market, Fish sees an obvious opportunity to expand their wholesale operations substantially, with several larger new cultivation projects planned. “The key though is to produce flower and concentrate offerings with the same standards we employ for medical cannabis,” says Fish.

Green Man Cannabis Recalls Due to Pesticide Residue Detection

By Aaron G. Biros
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Denver-based Green Man Cannabis last week voluntarily recalled batches of cannabis sold to both medical patients and recreational consumers. The recall comes after the discovery of off-label pesticides during inspections in both dry-flower cannabis and infused products.

Photo: Sheila Sund, Flickr
Photo: Sheila Sund, Flickr

According to the Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH), the products have labels that list an OPC License number of 403-00738, 403-00361, or 403R-00201. The cannabis in question is not a specific batch, rather, “All plant material and derived products originating from these cultivation facilities are subject to the recall.” The DEH’s statement includes contact information for the company (email: recall@greenmancannabis.com) and the DEH Public Health Inspections Division (email: phicomments@denvergov.org or 720-913-1311).

The DEH statement does not mention which pesticides were detected or the levels at which they were detected. Christian Hagaseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis, says the chemical detected was Myclobutanil. “We had used Eagle 20 in the past, [the pesticide that contains Myclobutanil] but we stopped using it as soon as it was banned,” says Hagaseth. “The DEH found the residues in the growing environment so we immediately performed a voluntary recall.” Green Man has three cultivation facilities, one of which they suspect is contaminated from pesticides sprayed a few years ago.

Christian Hageseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis
Christian Hageseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis

As far as corrective actions being taken, Hagaseth says they are doing a thorough cleaning and sanitation in two of their grows and a complete remediation plan in the suspected contaminated grow. “This was a good learning experience- the key takeaway for us is we need to clean these environments more consistently,” says Hagaseth. “I am grateful that the system is working; public health and environmental safety are being looked after here.” Hagaseth says the facility in question was operating almost without interruption since 2009, but they adjusted and learned to implement preventative actions following the recall.

The DEH says there have been zero reports of illness related to the recall. “The possible health impact of consuming marijuana products with unapproved pesticide residues is unknown,” the statement reads. “Short and long-term health impacts may exist depending on the specific product, duration, frequency, level of exposure and route of exposure.” The DEH advises consumers that may be concerned to reach out to their physician.

The DEH performs routine inspections of cannabis infused product manufacturers and retail locations in Denver, as well as investigating complaints. “I am sorry that it happened to us, but I am happy the system is working and we are more than happy to comply,” says Hagaseth.

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2016 Year in Review: Why the Cannabis Industry Needs Resiliency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practical Chemist

Potency Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 2

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

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

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

Routine Analysis vs. Cannabinomics 

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

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

Potency Analysis by HPLC and GC

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

amandarigdon
The Nerd Perspective

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

By Amanda Rigdon
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amandarigdon

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

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

The Big Challenge

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

Responding to the Challenge

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

Less isn’t always more…

Spiral Galaxy Milky Way
The Milky Way

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

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

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

green apple with slice isolated on the white background.

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

How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?

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

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