Cannabis testing: The space between producer and consumer

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Long gone are the days of lighting up whatever bud you scored from a friend.

As Canada sloughs off its prohibition skin, cannabis consumers are adopting higher standards for products they’re ingesting. Things like mould and pesticides, which compromise product quality and health, are no longer going to be tolerated in a fully legal landscape, and testing demands for these contaminants is skyrocketing.

Prelegalization medical users and licensed producers (LPs) are already acclimated to Health Canada’s testing standards, but a large portion of the recreational community is only just starting to understand the process that pot undergoes before deemed fit for consumption.

“Cannabis is a complicated plant and it’s very difficult to set up tests that work properly,” says Jaclyn Thomson, director of research and development at Northern Vine Labs, a cannabis-testing facility based in Langley, B.C.

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The analytical and quality-control testing lab is certified and equipped with government-validated methods to examine a variety of cannabis products. The facility reviews samples ranging from flower, oil, and edibles to concentrates like distillate and shatter.

“We’re exclusively cannabis, so we do all of the tests required by Health Canada for the release of a licensed producer’s batch. That includes potency, pesticides, heavy metals, aflatoxin, microbiology, and residuals,” Thomson says by phone.

Although tests for microbial and chemical contaminants are federally mandated for LPs, these labs also act as a last line of defence for patients who cultivate their own cannabis or use designated growers.

“There are a lot of things that are nasty [in cannabis],” Thomson says. The two biggest issues she sees are high microbe levels and harmful pesticides.

“We find in plenty of LP samples, as well as in samples from MMAR [licensed medical] growers or patients…they tend to be riddled with pesticides.”

While some natural soaps and salts are permitted, the government recently expanded its list of prohibited pesticides, fungicides, and plant-growth regulators.

Skirting these regulations can be costly and time-consuming for an LP. Last year, Health Canada began randomized testing after two companies were found using unauthorized pest-control products, forcing them to recall the contaminated cannabis.

Risking your consumers ingesting or inhaling cannabis with residual chemicals, however, is the bigger concern, Thomson says.

“You don’t want to consume heavy metals or residual solvents. All of these things are toxic and harmful to humans,” she says. Moulds and fungi, common plagues amongst agricultural crops, can also be dangerous if consumed.

“They’re bad for people who don’t have immune-system issues, but for people that do have an immune issue, it could be particularly devastating.”

Despite there being almost 40 testing facilities with controlled-substance licences to test cannabis in Canada, Thomson calls the scientific landscape “highly competitive” and says the exchange of knowledge is a difficult process.

As the demand for cannabis increases, she says, scientists are climbing over one another to stay ahead of the curve. “There is not a lot of sharing of information between labs,” she says.

“You can’t speak with your scientific colleagues from other labs to exchange ideas, which is unfortunate because I think there are a lot of things we could learn from one another.”

Piper Courtenay

Matthew Noestheden, a PhD chemistry student at UBC Okanagan, says the air of competition comes from the race to develop revolutionary testing methods.

“Researchers smell blood in the water just like investors do, and there is money to be had here [in cannabis],” he says by phone to the Straight.

“If you get 10 chemists in a room, everyone thinks they have the next best thing.”

Noestheden—who said his studies were funded by Kelowna-based Supra Research and Development—recently published a new method of cannabinoid testing.

His method measures the potency of phytocannabinoids, the primary bioactive compounds in cannabis. Noestheden’s approach cuts the test down to record time and also allows researchers to test for a virtually limitless number of phytocannabinoid variants.

He calls his research, a response to the evolving industry knowledge of the plant, a form of “future-proofing”.

“Right now, Health Canada is concerned with CBD [cannabidiol] and THC [tetrahydrocannabinol], but as the recreational laws come in…we may find some of these other forms that we know have biological activity may become more relevant,” he says.

Noestheden adds that it was imperative to his team to develop a method that can be adopted in labs all over the world, rising above the competitive landscape to meet the demands of a growing consumer base.

“So long as labs have the relevant instrumentation, they should be able to implant the method fairly quickly,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that this was a widely available test so that people are not limited to looking for a couple of cannabinoids.”

Thomson says she believes that as more LPs receive their federal stamp of approval, the demand for testing services will put an immense amount of pressure on the scientific community. She says as LPs push to deliver more products to undercut the black market, researchers will have to brace for a dramatic spike in testing demands.

“We’ve got to get ready,” she says, laughing.

“It’s going to be busy!”

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