On Monday, August 28th, attendees of the Cannabis Science Conference descended on Portland, Oregon for a week of educational talks, networking and studying the science of cannabis. On Monday, Chalice Farms, an extracts and infused products company, hosted the full-day JCanna Boot Camp focused on a deep dive behind the scenes of a cannabis production facility. The Cannabis Science Conference, hosted by Josh Crossney, founder of JCanna, takes place August 28th to 30th.
Attendees were split into five groups where they listened to a variety of educational sessions and toured the facility. A track focused on cultivation, led by Autumn Karcey, president of Cultivo, Inc., detailed all things facility design for cannabis cultivation, including an in-depth look at sanitation and safety. For example, Karcey discussed HVAC cleanliness, floor-to-ceiling sanitation and the hazards associated with negative pressure. These principles, while applicable to most cultivating facilities, applies particularly to commercial-scale grows in a pharmaceutical setting.
During one session, Sandy Mangan, accounts manager at SPEX Sample Prep and Tristan DeBona, sales specialist at SPEX Sample Prep, demonstrated the basics of sample preparation for detecting pesticides in infused products, such as gummies. That required using their GenoGrinder and FreezerMill, which uses liquid nitrogen to make gummies brittle, then pulverizing them to a powder-like substance that is more conducive for a QuEChERS preparation.
Joe Konschnik, business development manager at Restek, Susan Steinike, product-marketing manager at Restek and Justin Steimling, an analytical chemist at Restek, gave a demonstration of a full QuEChERS extraction of a cannabis sample for pesticide analysis, with attendees participating to learn the basics of sample preparation for these types of tests.
Following those were some other notable talks, including a tour of the extraction instruments and equipment at Chalice Farms, a look inside their commercial kitchen and a discussion of edibles and product formulation. Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, founder of Uplifting Health and Wellness, a physician with over 30 years of experience in research and patient care, led a discussion of physician participation, patient education and drug delivery mechanisms.
Amanda Rigdon, chief technical officer of Emerald Scientific, offered a demonstration of easy and adaptable sample preparation techniques for potency testing of infused product matrices. Rigdon showed attendees of the boot camp how wildly diverse cannabis products are and how challenging it can be for labs to test them.
The JCanna Canna Boot Camp is a good example of an educational event catered to the cannabis industry that offers real, hands-on experience and actionable advice. Before the two-day conference this week, the boot camp provided a bird’s eye view for attendees of the science of cannabis.
Willamette Week, a Portland-based publication, is hosting the 2017 Cultivation Classic with Farma, Cascadia Labs, Phylos Bioscience and the Resource Innovation Institute on May 12th. The event is a benefit for the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainability, labor standards and education surrounding the integrity and ethics of growing cannabis. Cultivation Classic is a competition for pesticide-free cannabis grown in Oregon, according to a press release.
While the event’s focus is on the competition, it is just as much a celebration of the craft cannabis community in Oregon. This year’s competition incorporates scientific collaboration like genetic sequencing for the winners by Phylos Bioscience and carbon accounting for all competitors. Keynote speakers include Ethan Russo, medical director of PHYTECS and Dr. Adie Po, co-founder of Habu Health. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a prominent cannabis legalization advocate in Oregon, will also be speaking at the awards ceremony. You can check out the full schedule and speaker lineup here.
Raymond Bowser, breeder at Home Grown Natural Wonders, is a judge for this year’s Cultivation Classic. He speaks at cannabis conferences around the country and his business created a number of different strains, so he has experience with a myriad of growers and strains. “This time around everyone has really stepped up their game,” says Bowser. “The entries are noticeably better than last year.” When looking at the different samples sent to him, he sees a few key factors as most important in judging the quality. “What I am looking for is simple; a nice smell and a decent look, generally speaking,” says Bowser. “Aesthetics can tell you a lot about how it was grown, temperature changes and the overall care taken in cultivating and curing the flower.” For him, flavor, smell and aesthetics are the big variables to consider.
Those are factors that his company holds to high standards in their work, so he judges the samples based on the same variables. “It is what we strive for in our gardens and so far the samples I have tried are fantastic in that regard,” says Bowser. In other competitions that Bowser has judged in the past, they sent him between 40 and 60 strains to judge in seven days. “That is not conducive to a fair evaluation,” says Bowser. “Here, we are getting fourteen or so different strains, so we can sample one strain a day which is how I personally like to do it.”
Bowser is supportive of Cultivation Classic because of their emphasis on the craft industry. “We talk about craft cannabis and breeding craft cultivars at conferences around the country,” says Bowser. “With the rec industry growing so much, we see so many people cutting corners to save money, that it is refreshing to see growers take pride in the craft.” He also stresses the need for good lab testing and sound science in the trade. “I am big on lab testing; it is very important to get all the right analytics when creating strains,” says Bowser. “Cascadia is a solid choice for the competition; they have been a very good, consistent lab.” Emphasizing the local, sustainability-oriented culture surrounding the craft market, Bowser is pleased that this competition supports that same message. “We need to stay true to our Oregon roots and continue to be a clean, green, granola-eating state.”
Cascadia Labs is conducting the pesticide and cannabinoid analytics for all submissions and Phylos Bioscience will perform testing for the winners. According to Julie Austin, operations manager at Cascadia Labs, pesticide testing for the Oregon list of analytes was of course a requirement. “Some of the samples submitted had previous tests from us or from other accredited labs, but if they didn’t have those results we did offer a comprehensive pesticide test,” says Austin. The competition’s fee for submission includes the potency and terpenes analysis.
Jeremy Sackett, director of operations at Cascadia Labs, says they test for 11 cannabinoids and 21 terpenes. The samples are divided into groups of THC-dominant samples, CBD-dominant samples and samples with a 1:1 ratio of the two. “The actual potency data will be withheld from judges and competitors until the day of the event,” says Sackett. “We are data driven scientists, but this time we want to have a little fun and bring the heart of this competition back to the good old days: when quality cannabis was gauged by an experience of the senses, not the highest potency number.” The event will take place on May 12th at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon. Click here to get tickets to the event.
The AOCS Annual Meeting is an international science and business forum on fats, oils, surfactants, lipids and related materials. The American Oil Chemist’s Society (AOCS) is holding their meeting in Orlando, Florida from April 30 to May 3, 2017. Last year’s meeting included discussions on best practices and the pros and cons of different extraction techniques, sample preparation, proficiency testing and method development, among other topic areas.
Posters on display for the duration of the Annual Meeting will discuss innovative solutions to test, preparing samples, discovering new compounds and provide novel information about the compounds found in cannabis. David Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical (a cannabis testing laboratory in Oakland, CA), is preparing a poster titled Endogenous Solvents in Cannabis Extracts. His abstract discusses testing regulations focusing on the detection of the presence of solvents, despite the fact that endogenous solvents, like acetone and lower alcohols, can be found in all plant material. His study will demonstrate the prevalence of those compounds in both the plant material and the concentrated oil without those compounds being used in production.
The conference features more than 650 oral and poster presentations within 12 interest areas. This year’s technical program includes two sessions specifically designed to address cannabinoid analytics:
Lab Proficiency Programs and Reference Samples
How do you run a lab proficiency program when you cannot send your samples across state lines? What constituents do you test for when state requirements are all different? Are all pesticides illegal to use on cannabis? What pesticides should be tested for when they are mostly illegal to use? How do you analyze proficiency results when there are no standard methods? Learn about these and other challenges facing the cannabis industry. This session encourages open and active discussion, as the cannabis experts want to hear from you and learn about your experiences.
The need for high-quality and safe products has spurred a new interest in cannabinoid analytics, including sample preparation, pesticide, and other constituent testing. In this session, a diverse group of scientists will discuss developing analytical methods to investigate cannabis. Learn the latest in finding and identifying terpenes, cannabinoids, matrix effects, and even the best practice for dissolving a gummy bear.
Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at AOCS, says they are making great progress in assembling analytical methods for the production of the book AOCS Collection of Cannabis Analytical Methods. “We are the leading organization supporting the development of analytical methods in the cannabis industry,” says Ludwig. “Many of the contributors in that collection will be presenting at the AOCS Annual Meeting, highlighting some of the latest advances in analyzing cannabis.” The organization hopes to foster more collaboration among those in the cannabis testing industry.
In addition to oral and poster sessions, the 2017 Annual Meeting will feature daily networking activities, more than 70 international exhibitors, two special sessions, and a Hot Topics Symposia which will address how current, critical issues impact the future of the fats and oils industry.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Marijuana Laboratory Inspection Program issued a bulletin on January 30th regarding updates required for licensed cannabis testing labs. The updated method for microbial contaminant testing includes a longer incubation period in yeast and mold testing.
“After careful consideration of emerging data regarding the use and effectiveness of 3M Total Yeast and Mold Rapid Petrifilms in marijuana, CDPHE has concluded that 48 hours is not a sufficient incubation period to obtain accurate results,” the letter states. “Based upon the review of this information, marijuana/marijuana products require 60-72 hours of incubation as per the manufacturer’s product instructions for human food products, animal feed and environmental products.” The letter says they determined it was necessary to increase the incubation period based on data submitted from several labs, along with a paper found in the Journal of Food Protection.
According to Alexandra Tudor, manager of the microbiology department at TEQ Analytical Labs (a cannabis testing lab in Aurora, CO), the update is absolutely necessary. “The incubation time extension requirement from CDPHE offers more reliable and robust data to clients by ruling out the possibility of a false yeast and mold result during analysis,” says Tudor.
“3M, the maker of Petrifilm, recommends an incubation time of 48-72 hours, but during TEQ’s method validation procedure, we learned that 48-hour incubation was not sufficient time to ensure accurate results. Although some laboratories in industry had been incubating for the minimum amount of time recommended by the manufacturer, the 48-hour incubation time does not provide a long enough window to ensure accurate detection of microbiological contaminants present in the sample.” Tudor says the update will help labs provide more confident results to clients, promoting public health sand safety.
As a result of the update in testing methodology, cultivators and infused product manufacturers in Colorado need to submit a batch test for yeast and mold. The point of requiring this batch test is to determine if the producer’s process validation is still effective, given the new yeast and mold testing method.
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)
Last week, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) published a bulletin, outlining new temporary testing requirements effective immediately until May 30th of next year. The changes to the rules come in the wake of product shortages, higher prices and even some claims of cultivators reverting back to the black market to stay afloat.
According to the bulletin, these temporary regulations are meant to still protect public health and safety, but are “aimed at lowering the testing burden for producers and processors based on concerns and input from the marijuana industry.” The temporary rules, applying to both medical and retail products, are a Band-Aid fix while the OHA works on a permanent solution to the testing backlog.
Here are some key takeaways from the rule changes:
THC and CBD amounts on the label must be the value calculated by a laboratory, plus or minus 5%.
A harvest lot can include more than one strain.
Cannabis harvested within a 48-hour period, using the same growing and curing processes can be included in one harvest lot.
Edibles processors can include up to 1000 units of product in a batch for testing.
The size of a process lot submitted for testing for concentrates, extracts or other non-edible products will be the maximum size for future sampling and testing.
Different batches of the same strain can be combined for testing potency.
Samples can be combined from a number of batches in a harvest lot for pesticide testing if the weight of all the batches doesn’t exceed ten pounds. This also means that if that combined sample fails a pesticide test, all of the batches fail the test and need to be disposed.
Butanol, Propanol and Ethanol are no longer on the solvent list.
The maximum concentration limit for THC and CBD testing can have up to a 5% variance.
Process validation is replaced by one control study.
After OHA has certified a control study, it is valid for a year unless there is an SOP or ingredient change.
During the control study, sample increments are tested separately for homogeneity across batches, but when the control study is certified, sample increments can be combined.
Failing a test
Test reports must clearly show if a test fails or passes.
Producers can request a reanalysis after a failed test no later than a week after receiving failed test results and that reanalysis must happen within 30 days.
The office of Gov. Kate Brown along with the OHA, Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issued a letter in late November, serving as a reminder of the regulations regarding pesticide use and testing. It says in bold that it is illegal to use any pesticide not on the ODA’s cannabis and pesticide guide list. The letter states that failed pesticide tests are referred to ODA for investigation, which means producers that fail those tests could face punitive measures such as fines.
The letter also clarifies a major part of the pesticide rules involving the action level, or the measured amount of pesticides in a product that the OHA deems potentially dangerous. “Despite cannabis producers receiving test results below OHA pesticide action levels for cannabis (set in OHA rule), producers may still be in violation of the Oregon Pesticide Control Act if any levels of illegal pesticides are detected.” This is crucial information for producers who might have phased out use of pesticides in the past or might have began operations in a facility where pesticides were used previously. A laboratory detecting even a trace amount in the parts-per-billion range of banned pesticides, like Myclobutanil, would mean the producer is in violation of the Pesticide Control Act and could face thousands of dollars in fines. The approved pesticides on the list are generally intended for food products, exempt from a tolerance and are considered low risk.
As regulators work to accredit more laboratories and flesh out issues with the industry, Oregon’s cannabis market enters a period of marked uncertainty.
When a cannabis sample is submitted to a lab for testing there is a four-step process that occurs before it is tested in the instrumentation on site:
It is ground at a low temperature into a fine powder;
A solution is added to the ground powder;
An extraction is repeated 6 times to ensure all cannabinoids are transferred into a common solution to be used in testing instrumentation.
Once the cannabinoid solution is extracted from the plant matter, it is analyzed using High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC). HPLC is the key piece of instrumentation in cannabis potency testing procedures.
While there are many ways to test cannabis potency, HPLC is the most widely accepted and recognized testing instrumentation. Other instrument techniques include gas chromatography (GC) and thin layer chromatography (TLC). HPLC is preferred over GC because it does not apply heat in the testing process and cannabinoids can then be measured in their naturally occurring forms. Using a GC, heat is applied as part of the testing process and cannabinoids such as THCA or CBDA can change form, depending on the level of heat applied. CBDA and THCA have been observed to change form at as low as 40-50C. GC uses anywhere between 150-200C for its processes, and if using a GC, a change of compound form can occur. Using HPLC free of any high-heat environments, acidic (CBDA & THCA) and neutral cannabinoids (CBD, THC, CBG, CBN and others) can be differentiated in a sample for quantification purposes.
Near infrared (NIR) has been used with cannabis for rapid identification of active pharmaceutical ingredients by measuring how much light different substances reflect. Cannabis is typically composed of 5-30% cannabinoids (mainly THC and CBD) and 5-15% water. Cannabinoid content can vary by over 5% (e.g. 13-18%) on a single plant, and even more if grown indoors. Multiple NIR measurements can be cost effective for R&D purposes. NIR does not use solvents and has a speed advantage of at least 50 times over traditional methods.
The main downfall of NIR techniques is that they are generally less accurate than HPLC or GC for potency analyses. NIR can be programmed to detect different compounds. To obtain accuracy in its detection methods, samples must be tested by HPLC on ongoing basis. 100 samples or more will provide enough information to improve an NIR software’s accuracy if it is programmed by the manufacturer or user using chemometrics. Chemometrics sorts through the often complex and broad overlapping NIR absorption.
Bands from the chemical, physical, and structural properties of all species present in a sample that influences the measured spectra. Any variation however of a strain tested or water quantity observed can affect the received results. Consistency is the key to obtaining precision with NIR equipment programming. The downfall of the NIR technique is that it must constantly be compared to HPLC data to ensure accuracy.
At Eurofins Experchem , our company works with bothHPLC and NIR equipment simultaneously for different cannabis testing purposes. Running both equipment simultaneously means we are able to continually monitor the accuracy of our NIR equipment as compared to our HPLC. If a company is using NIR alone however, it can be more difficult to maintain the equipment’s accuracy without on-going monitoring.
What about Terpenes?
Terpenes are the primary aromatic constituents of cannabis resin and essential oils. Terpene compounds vary in type and concentration among different genetic lineages of cannabis and have been shown to modulate and modify the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of cannabinoids. Terpenes can be analyzed using different methods including separation by GC or HPLC and identification by Mass Spectrometry. The high-heat environment for GC analysis can again cause problems in accuracy and interpretation of results for terpenes; high-heat environments can degrade terpenes and make them difficult to find in accurate form. We find HPLC is the best instrument to test for terpenes and can now test for six of the key terpene profiles including a-Pinene, Caryophyllene, Limonene, Myrcene, B-Pinene and Terpineol.
Quality systems between different labs are never one and the same. Some labs are testing cannabis under good manufacturing practices (GMP), others follow ISO accreditation and some labs have no accreditation at all.
From a quality systems’ perspective some labs have zero or only one quality system employee(s). In a GMP lab, to meet the requirements of Health Canada and the FDA, our operations are staffed in a 1:4 quality assurance to analyst ratio. GMP labs have stringent quality standards that set them apart from other labs testing cannabis. Quality standards we work with include, but are not limited to: monthly internal blind audits, extensive GMP training, yearly exams and ongoing tests demonstrating competencies.
Maintaining and adhering to strict quality standards necessary for a Drug Establishment License for pharmaceutical testing ensures accuracy of results in cannabis testing otherwise difficult to find in the testing marketplace.
Important things to know about testing
HPLC is the most recommended instrument used for product release in a regulated environment.
NIR is the best instrument to use for monitoring growth and curing processes for R&D purposes, only if validated with an HPLC on an ongoing basis.
Quality Systems between labs are different. Regardless of instrumentation used, if quality systems are not in place and maintained, integrity of results may be compromised.
GMPs comprise 25% of our labour costs to our quality department. Quality systems necessary for a GMP environment include internal audits, out of specification investigations, qualification and maintenance of instruments, systems controls and stringent data integrity standards.
Everyone likes to have a safety net, and scientists are no different. This month I will be discussing internal standards and how we can use them not only to improve the quality of our data, but also give us some ‘wiggle room’ when it comes to variation in sample preparation. Internal standards are widely used in every type of chromatographic analysis, so it is not surprising that their use also applies to common cannabis analyses. In my last article, I wrapped up our discussion of calibration and why it is absolutely necessary for generating valid data. If our calibration is not valid, then the label information that the cannabis consumer sees will not be valid either. These consumers are making decisions based on that data, and for the medical cannabis patient, valid data is absolutely critical. Internal standards work with calibration curves to further improve data quality, and luckily it is very easy to use them.
So what are internal standards? In a nutshell, they are non-analyte compounds used to compensate for method variations. An internal standard can be added either at the very beginning of our process to compensate for variations in sample prep and instrument variation, or at the very end to compensate only for instrument variation. Internal standards are also called ‘surrogates’, in some cases, however, for the purposes of this article, I will simply use the term ‘internal standard.’
Now that we know what internal standards are, lets look at how to use them. We use an internal standard by adding it to all samples, blanks, and calibrators at the same known concentration. By doing this, we now have a single reference concentration for all response values produced by our instrument. We can use this reference concentration to normalize variations in sample preparation and instrument response. This becomes very important for cannabis pesticide analyses that involve lots of sample prep and MS detectors. Figure 1 shows a calibration curve plotted as we saw in the last article (blue diamonds), as well as the response for an internal standard added to each calibrator at a level of 200ppm (green circles). Additionally, we have three sample results (red triangles) plotted against the calibration curve with their own internal standard responses (green Xs).
In this case, our calibration curve is beautiful and passes all of the criteria we discussed in the previous article. Lets assume that the results we calculate for our samples are valid – 41ppm, 303ppm, and 14ppm. Additionally, we can see that the responses for our internal standards make a flat line across the calibration range because they are present at the same concentration in each sample and calibrator. This illustrates what to expect when all of our calibrators and samples were prepared correctly and the instrument performed as expected. But lets assume we’re having one of those days where everything goes wrong, such as:
We unknowingly added only half the volume required for cleanup for one of the samples
The autosampler on the instrument was having problems and injected the incorrect amount for the other two samples
Figure 2 shows what our data would look like on our bad day.
We experienced no problems with our calibration curve (which is common when using solvent standard curves), therefore based on what we’ve learned so far, we would simply move on and calculate our sample results. The sample results this time are quite different: 26ppm, 120ppm, and 19ppm. What if these results are for a pesticide with a regulatory cutoff of 200ppm? When measured accurately, the concentration of sample 2 is 303ppm. In this example, we may have unknowingly passed a contaminated product on to consumers.
In the first two examples, we haven’t been using our internal standard – we’ve only been plotting its response. In order to use the internal standard, we need to change our calibration method. Instead of plotting the response of our analyte of interest versus its concentration, we plot our response ratio (analyte response/internal standard response) versus our concentration ratio (analyte concentration/internal standard concentration). Table 1 shows the analyte and internal standard response values for our calibrators and samples from Figure 2.
The values highlighted in green are what we will use to build our calibration curve, and the values in blue are what we will use to calculate our sample concentration. Figure 3 shows what the resulting calibration curve and sample points will look like using an internal standard.
We can see that our axes have changed for our calibration curve, so the results that we calculate from the curve will be in terms of concentration ratio. We calculate these results the same way we did in the previous article, but instead of concentrations, we end up with concentration ratios. To calculate the sample concentration, simply multiply by the internal standard amount (200ppm). Figure 4 shows an example calculation for our lowest concentration sample.
Using the calculation shown in Figure 4, our sample results come out to be 41ppm, 302ppm, and 14ppm, which are accurate based on the example in Figure 1. Our internal standards have corrected the variation in our method because they are subjected to that same variation.
As always, there’s a lot more I can talk about on this topic, but I hope this was a good introduction to the use of internal standards. I’ve listed couple of resources below with some good information on the use of internal standards. If you have any questions on this topic, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
In states where cannabis is legalized, some analytical laboratories are tasked with identifying and quantifying pesticide content in plant material. This is a relatively new concept in the study of cannabis as most forensic laboratories that work with seized plant material are only concerned with positively identifying the sample as cannabis. Laboratories of this nature, often associated with police departments, the office of the chief medical examiner or the local department of public health are not required to identify the amount of THC and other cannabinoids in the plant. While data is abundant that compares the average THC content in today’s recreational cannabis to that commonly consumed in the 1960s and 1970s, limited scientific studies can be found that discuss the pesticide content in street-grade cannabis.
Using the QuEChERS approach, which is the industry gold-standard in food analysis for pesticides, a comparison study was carried out to analyze the pesticide and cannabinoid content in street-grade cannabis versus medicinal cannabis. For all samples, one gram of plant material was ground into a fine powder prior to hydration with methanol. The sample was then ready to be placed into an extraction tube, along with 10 mL of acetonitrile and one pouch of QuEChERS salts. After a quick vortex, all samples were then shaken for 1 minute using a SPEX Geno/Grinder prior to centrifugation.
For pesticide analysis, a one mL aliquot of the top organic layer was then subjected to additional dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) clean-up. The blend of dSPE salts was selected to optimize the removal of chlorophyll and other interfering compounds from the plant material without compromising the recovery of any planar pesticides. Shaken and centrifuged under the same conditions as described above, an aliquot of the organic layer was then transferred to an auto-sampler vial and diluted with deionized water. Cannabinoid analysis required serial dilutions between 200 to 2000 times, depending on the individual sample. Both pesticide and cannabinoid separation was carried out on a UCT Selectra® Aqueous C18 HPLC column and guard column coupled to a Thermo Scientific Dionex UltiMate 3000 LC System/ TSQ VantageTM tandem MS.
Due to inconsistent regulations among states that have legalized medicinal or recreational cannabis, a wide panel of commonly encountered pesticides was selected for this application. DEET, recognized by the EPA as not evoking health concerns to the general public when applied topically, was found on all medical cannabis samples tested. An average of 28 ng/g of DEET was found on medicinal samples analyzed. Limited research as to possible side effects, if any, of having this pesticide present within volatilized medical-grade product is available. Street-grade cannabis was found to have a variety of pesticides at concentrations higher than what was observed in the medical-grade product.
Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A (THCA-A) is the non-psychoactive precursor to THC. Within fresh plant material, up to 90% of available THC is found in this form. Under intense heating such as when cannabis is smoked, THCA-A is progressively decarboxylated to the psychoactive THC form. Due to possible therapeutic qualities of this compound, medical cannabis samples specifically were tested for this analyte in addition to other cannabinoids. On average, 17% of the total weight in each medical cannabis sample came from the presence of THCA-A. In both medical and recreational samples, the percentage of THC contribution ranged from 0.9-1.7.
A fast and effective method was developed for the determination of pesticide residues and cannabis potency in recreational and medical cannabis samples. Pesticide residues and cannabinoids were extracted using the UCT QuEChERS approach, followed by either additional cleanup using a blend of dSPE sorbents for pesticide analysis, or serial dilutions for cannabinoid potency testing.
We have two key software platforms at our laboratory that help us stay compliant with our standard operating procedures. Saif Al-Dujaili, quality manager at Eurofins-Experchem, oversees quality assurance in our laboratory. As we like to say, you are safe with Saif.
A Customized Sample Tracking System
Sample-tracking software consists of four main modules:
Tracking samples in our facility: When a sample is booked by our tracking system, a unique identification number is generated by the system and printed on a sticker, which is placed on the sample. When a sample is booked, department heads then have the ability to assign work orders to the analysts through the tracking system.
When testing is complete, results are entered by the analyst into the tracking system and reviewed by the quality assurance (QA) department. QA reviewers are responsible for approving results entered in the system before they are sent to the client. A certificate of analysis is then generated and e-mailed to the client for their review.
Controlling stability studies conducted in our facility: Stability studies are scheduled and controlled on different samples pulled for analysis. Within our facility’s sample-tracking system we have different chamber names with different conditions where products can be placed. Which chamber we place samples in depends on protocols and requests from our client. The software used also generates a unique study number for each stability study that occurs. The stability schedule that includes each study is reviewed every week by the stability coordinator to schedule what samples need to be pulled for testing.
Controlling methods used for tests: Methods are entered into the tracking system after department heads have reviewed them and it is approved by QA. The tracking system generates a unique ID number for each method as well as each sample. The method can now be tracked in our laboratory’s system. Within the software you can enter the name of the method, client name and effective date and any revisions applied to the method.
Controlling inventory of columns and electrodes: Sample tracking also helps us with our purchasing patterns to make sure we have supplies for our client’s testing needs. Every time that columns and electrodes are received, they are entered into our tracking system for inventory purposes.
REES Environmental Monitoring Software
REES is used to monitor the environmental conditions of our testing facility. Key inputs measured include temperature, humidity, differential pressure and elimination or intensity of light. REES is linked to the QA department’s computers. An audible alarm is sounded as well as e-mails sent to QA personnel to notify them if anything is out of specification. REES also phones related personnel’s cell phones to notify them of any alarms. No alarms are missed, even if they occur after working hours. Having a 24-hour environmental monitoring system in place helps Eurofins-Experchem ensure integrity in operations of stability, microbiological and other environmental conditions essential for accuracy in testing results.