Not just for illegal or medicinal use anymore, the cannabis testing industry is poised for a breakthrough as it finds its foothold in analytical science. 

Amanda Rigdon, GC Columns, Restek Corp.Given recent law and attitude changes in the United States, the cannabis industry is on the rise — which means the cannabis testing industry is likewise growing. From analyzing potency and pesticides to testing for terpenes and residual solvents, chromatography is aptly suited to the analytical needs of the cannabis testing industry. Chromatography Techniques Editor-in-Chief Michelle Taylor recently spoke with Amanda Rigdon, GC Columns Product Manager at Restek Corp., for her input on the past, present and future of the cannabis testing market.

Q: You’ve been doing medical cannabis testing for years, but now that cannabis is legal in some states, how does that affect the future of your product development?

A: The fact that cannabis has been legalized in some states has really helped our product development efforts. The reason for this is that as additional states legalize cannabis, more labs spring up, bringing more customer views and needs to the table. For example, knowing that one lab is running a specific list of cannabinoids isn’t really helpful for developing standards, but once we see multiple labs running that same list, we know that there is a real market need for that list of cannabinoids. Additionally, as regulations begin to be put into place in different states like Colorado and Washington, we can get an even clearer picture of where the industry is heading in terms of methods and analytes.

However, there is another side to that coin. Right now, state regulations differ from state to state, and they’re somewhat in flux, meaning that methods and analyte lists are still changing. While this is a challenge in terms of product development, in my mind, it’s a fun place to be because right now we’re witnessing the birth of a new analytical industry.

Q: What impacts do you see cannabis legalization having on the overall scientific industry?

A: While cannabis legalization may give birth to an industry that rivals the size of the organic food industry, I’m not sure the cannabis industry will have an earth-shattering impact on the overall scientific industry. My prediction is that as the cannabis industry matures and continues to legitimize, the overall scientific industry will begin to view it as just another market segment, much like the food or nutraceutical industry. Granted, there may be a larger population of laid-back, long-haired scientists in the industry (which I think is great), but in reality, cannabis analysis methods are no different than analysis methods in any other industry segment today. We’re still just quantifying analytes in a matrix.

Don’t get me wrong — I think that this will be a good thing. Once the overall scientific industry begins to view the cannabis analytical industry as just another market segment, the legitimate cannabis labs out there should begin to receive the respect and support they deserve.

Q: Now that cannabis is legal in some states, do you expect an uptick in instrumentation and consumables specific for cannabis testing? Do you expect the extra attention to come with a wave of enhanced scientific methods/instruments?

A: I believe there will definitely be an uptick in specialized instruments and consumables for the cannabis analytical industry. In fact, we can already see this happening with the introduction of numerous “cannabis analyzers.” While some of these analyzers may work just fine, the quantitative accuracy of some of these “analyzers” is dubious at best. Right now, this specialized equipment is preying on the relative inexperience of much of the cannabis analytical industry, but as the industry matures, I can see other, more legitimate consumables, sample prep products and standards being introduced to address the analytical needs for cannabis-specific methods.

Additionally, as methods become more standardized, I can see some quantitative analyzers based on existing instrumentation being introduced for the more common methods, such as potency. This being said, I can’t see a whole lot of enhanced instrumentation being developed for this industry. As I said before, the methods used by this industry aren’t really very different than those used for food or nutraceuticals. As regulations for food and nutraceuticals evolve, instrumentation will evolve with them, and will most likely continue to be suitable for cannabis analyses.

Q: There have been arguments from some that don’t consider cannabis testing a legitimate subset of scientific testing. How do you respond to that?

A: Honestly, I’m not sure how that can be an argument. Cannabis testing involves quantification of analytes in a matrix. I’m not sure how this definition fails to fall under “legitimate scientific testing.” If the argument is that some cannabis testing labs aren’t interested in obtaining accurate results and instead only want to report potency numbers that will sell more product, then my answer to that would be yes, I’m sure there are labs like that out there. However, we have to remember that this is an infant market operating under heavy restrictions, considerable legal risk and a decades-old stigma. As the market matures, regulations will also mature, and the focus will solidify where it should be: consumer safety, product quality and product consistency.

Right now, I work with many laboratories that operate for this purpose and generate data that I, as an experienced analytical chemist, would trust. As time goes on, the labs operating for the purpose of moving product will either go away because of violations of regulations or will improve their practices to bring them in line with scientific standards. This is why cannabis testing needs to be recognized by both regulators and the scientific industry as a legitimate subset of scientific testing. If we continue to ignore the industry, these less-than-trustworthy labs will continue to operate, putting consumers at risk.

I would argue that if the food or nutraceutical industry was less regulated than it is currently, we would enjoy much less safety when consuming these products. Many of the improvements in regulation for food safety have come from collaboration between scientists and regulators — I see a great possibility here for cannabis safety as well.

Q: What are common methods currently used in the analytical side of the cannabis industry?

A: The most common method by far right now is potency analysis. This method measures the level (usually reported in percent) of a variety of cannabinoids in various cannabis products. Many states where cannabis is legal require potency testing for all cannabis products sold in dispensaries. Most states usually only require reporting for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) and their associated acids, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid and cannabidiolic acid, but some labs choose to quantify other cannabinoids, such as cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabichromene (CBC). This testing can be performed via gas chromatography or liquid chromatography on matrices ranging from plant material to foods to topical creams.

The other two common methods used by the cannabis testing industry are residual solvent analysis and terpene analysis. Residual solvent analysis is the measurement of organic solvents present in cannabis concentrates, which are highly concentrated products extracted from cannabis plant material via solvent or supercritical fluid extraction. This test is performed only on cannabis concentrates via GC. Terpene analysis is the measurement of flavor and fragrance compounds that occur in the cannabis plant (terpenes). Terpenes contribute to the overall flavor profile of various cannabis strains and are suspected to enhance some of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Terpenes are usually measured in plant material or concentrates via GC or LC.

Q: What are some of the challenges with current methods?

A: Based on what I see in the market, the main challenge with current methods is sample preparation. The imagination of the production side of the cannabis industry seems unlimited, which results in a constant influx of new and challenging matrices. On any given day, a cannabis testing lab can encounter matrices ranging from plant material, to gummy bears, to topical creams and soaps. Sample preparation methods for all of these matrices will differ, and labs under a time crunch don’t have time to develop new sample preparation methods every day.

Another challenge is the regulations concerning pesticide analysis. While some states have released lists of allowed pesticides for cannabis producers, there seems to be little guidance on how testing should be performed. Are there allowable limits for these pesticides? Which pesticides should be monitored outside of the allowed list? And of course, sample preparation for analysis of ppb levels of pesticides can be more challenging than sample preparation for analysis of percent levels of cannabinoids.

Q: Every scientist wants faster results — more samples in less time for less money. How do you solve this equation in cannabis testing?

A: Restek Corp. is helping cannabis labs solve the equation for running more samples in less time for less money by combining efficient methods with workflow optimization. The Innovations Lab at Restek has over two centuries of combined chromatography experience across multiple industries. We’ve drawn on our experience in other industries to develop fast, easy, time-saving methods that can be combined on the fewest instrument platforms possible.

For example, we have developed fast headspace methods for residual solvents and terpenes that require little to no sample preparation on the same column and instrument platform to help cannabis labs make full use of the headspace instrument required for residual solvent analysis. On the LC side, we have developed an extremely fast potency method that can be performed on any conventional HPLC system without the need for more expensive UHPLC instrumentation.

Q: What is your advice to both startup and well-established cannabis testing laboratories?

A: If I could give one piece of advice to startup labs, it would be this: do a lot of research before starting up your lab. If you’re considering purchasing a refurbished instrument, check into the company you’re considering purchasing from, check to make sure you can still purchase parts for your refurbished instrument. How will the refurbished instrument be serviced? Are you sure that guy you know really knows how to service a two decade old instrument? Make sure to research the methods you’re planning to implement so you know you’re purchasing an appropriate instrument. If you don’t have much chromatography experience, take a day or two to read up on basic chromatography. There are a ton of free, useful resources available to help you learn the basics of chromatography.

My advice to well-established cannabis testing labs is to keep looking into streamlining and improving your methods. Never stop asking questions. Is there a faster way to run a specific analysis? Can multiple analyses be combined on one instrument? Can your sample preparation methods be improved to keep your instruments and consumables cleaner? If you’re encountering ion suppression for your pesticides analysis, is there an improved sample preparation method?

Q:  You recently took part in the first annual Emerald Conference, exploring the science of cannabis testing. Can you share some insights, analysis and/or trends that came out of that conference?

A: The Emerald Conference in January of this year was an amazing experience! It really validated my views that the cannabis testing industry has made great strides toward proper, legitimate science for the purpose of consumer safety. The atmosphere at the Emerald Conference was more professional than some other conferences I’ve attended for well-established industries. The conference wasn’t a congregation of potheads — it was a conference of scientific professionals gathered to share insights and network with their peers.

One trend I saw at the conference was an overall agreement that better, more accurate methods were required by the industry if it was to continue to grow.

A major insight for me was the realization that there is a disconnect between the production/sales side of the cannabis industry and the testing side. While producers and dispensaries want some testing to be performed on their product, some are unwilling to pay a fair price for high-quality, accurate testing. In my opinion, this contributes to some labs practicing less-than-optimal science in order to drive down costs or to give producers and/or dispensaries the answer they’re looking for. Until we mitigate this through education or regulation, labs dedicated to good science may suffer.

Q: Are there future conferences planned?

A: The last time I spoke to the conference organizers, they were in the midst of planning for the 2016 Emerald Conference, so yes, there are future conferences planned at this time. I know I will be attending, and based on what I heard from conference attendees in January, attendance will definitely grow.