Tamar Wise: Widespread Testing of Medical Cannabis Key to MMJ Industry’s Long-Term Success

The world of medical cannabis testing has changed dramatically since its emergence a few years ago.

When this new field first cropped up, it had a very similar feel to the Wild, Wild West…or even the Dark Ages. With no real oversight over cannabis testing, facilities sprouted up everywhere, making unsubstantiated claims about their capabilities and charging exorbitant prices for their services. In one well-known case, California NORML and Project CBD sent several identical samples of both flower material and edibles to multiple testing labs for THC/CBD profiles in an attempt to assess the accuracy of analytical laboratories. The findings were disconcerting: There was a huge gap in the methodologies and standards these labs used, leading to vastly different results.

This worrisome inconsistency – coupled with high costs and other hurdles – created a hefty amount of skepticism, and many medical cannabis centers and infused-products companies decided to forgo testing their products as a result.

Fast forward to 2012, and the landscape looks a bit different.

The medical cannabis testing realm still faces the same issues it did a few years ago, and oversight is still lacking. However, we are seeing gradual and promising change. Testing has become more accurate and scientific with the arrival of testing companies using third-party standards that are verifiable. Labs are validating their methods and procedures with a focus on calibrating and running their machinery properly. And prices have dropped as the industry has grown and the technology has matured, making it more affordable to medical cannabis centers and infused-product companies.

Testing is important to the industry as a whole so we can continue to establish the legitimacy of cannabis as medicine and protect the interests of the patients we serve. Today, potency testing is of the utmost importance to edibles companies, as they are the ones making milligram dosing claims for THC or CBD. A mislabeled dose can mean a patient does not get the medicine they pay for and need. Proper testing can ensure that patients know exactly what dose they are getting and what is actually in the medicine they’re taking.

The other important testing service for edibles companies is the microbial screening of contaminants by both dispensaries and infusion companies. It is easier and more accurate to test for the presence of pesticides in raw flowers than to test for the same contaminants in the finished extract. Even though these microbiological and chemical contaminants are concentrated along with the cannabinoids (making them much more dangerous in edibles), they can also be degraded and more difficult to detect in the finished oil. Screening the beginning trim can ensure only clean plant material makes it into edibles.

The real question, then, isn’t whether or not to test – it’s how much testing is necessary for each cannabis business to conform to a good manufacturing practice and overall quality control. This will vary depending on the business. Companies must first determine what type of testing is right for them – gas chromatography (GC) or liquid chromatography (LC) – and then thoroughly examine the credentials of each potential testing facility.

At Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, we prefer high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) testing to ensure our sample is not altered during testing and that we get the most accurate results. We test each product batch three times, covering the raw plant material, the resulting extract and then the final product. This testing is used to ensure that every step of our procedure as well as our dose is accurate. We use testing to develop all new formulations and validate existing ones. Any research done is double-checked with testing as well. We hope these methods will become best practices in an industry that sorely needs them.

So what does the future hold for testing? Medical cannabis testing has been loosely regulated to date, but more regulation and oversight will be needed if we are to continue. Colorado is hoping to take a lead in this area. The state’s MMED Lab Rules and Regulation Board is working on drafting legislature to alleviate some of the issues faced by the medical cannabis testing community. This includes requiring proper labeling and potency claims on any medicine, whether it be a flower or an infused product.

The forward momentum of this industry will eventually lead to the utilization of more accurate and relevant testing. It is the only way to create a more legitimate and safe industry. In fact, no other medicine is sold without dosing guidelines. Even alcohol has its own potency claims and is regulated. With general marijuana legalization on the ballot in several states this fall, it is apparent that medical cannabis is becoming more acceptable as an option for medicine and recreation. Given these trends, we collectively as an industry need to be prepared for what these new developments will bring.

Tamar Wise is the science director at Dixie Elixirs and Edibles and a member of the MMED Lab Rules and Regulations Committee.