Cannabis Testing in North America

May 1, 2018
Glenn Cudiamat
LCGC North America
Volume 36, Issue 5

Cannabis products are frequently tested for potency, pesticides and fungicides, solvent residues, heavy metals, microbes, foreign organic matter, and moisture. The most common techniques used for these tests are high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), gas chromatography (GC), LC or GC with mass spectrometry detection, and inductively coupled plasma–MS.

Cannabis products are frequently tested for potency, pesticides and fungicides, solvent residues, heavy metals, microbes, foreign organic matter, and moisture. The most common techniques used for these tests are high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), gas chromatography (GC), LC or GC with mass spectrometry detection, and inductively coupled plasma–MS.

Because cannabis is federally classified as a Schedule I drug, no nationwide quality standards are in place. This means that each state with a medical- or adult-use cannabis program must come up with its own testing standards. One of the most commonly consulted guidelines is the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia monograph on cannabis. The analytical practices set forth in the monograph use thin-layer chromatography, HPLC, and GC with flame ionization detection, as well as nonchromatographic techniques, and include limit tests on foreign organic matter, total ash, acid-insoluble ash, loss on drying, pesticides, microbes and fungi, heavy metals, and solvent residues. In general, states are following the practices outlined in this monograph; the main differences are the specific limits for the various substances. California, however, has had no statewide standards, allowing individualcities to establish their own.

In practice, however, contamination of legal cannabis products is a serious concern. In 2017, a cancer patient in California who was using medical cannabis to treat nausea and appetite issues died from a fungal infection, raising concerns about possible product contamination. Oregon, which has some of the most rigorous standards for pesticides, acknowledges that contaminated concentrate products such as cannabis oil and shatter are still reaching consumers, sometimes with alarmingly high levels of pesticides present. In May 2017, cannabis from a nationally licensed producer in Canada was found to contain a banned pesticide. Testing from one laboratory to the next is also proving inconsistent, causing frustration for consumers, regulators, and producers alike.

These cases show the importance of cannabis analysis in the development of this new industry. Testing will help improve enforcement, and, in the long run, setting strong standards will help establish the industry’s legitimacy.

In North America, legal cannabis consumption is expected to increase 27% over the next five years, according to Arcview Analytic Research. As a result, demand for analytical testing of cannabis products should increase significantly.

Market size and growth estimates were adopted from Top-Down Analytics’ market report, “Cannabis 2018: Plenty of Green to Go Around.” For more information, contact Glenn Cudiamat at (888) 953-5655 or glenn.cudiamat@tdaresearch.com.