The Importance of Cannabis Lab Testing |An Interview with CannaSafe
We wanted to learn more about what goes on in a Cannabis testing lab. What do they test for? How do they test it? What happens when a cannabis flower or product is tested and fails because it has too many pesticides? So we reached out to the first accredited Cannabis Lab in the world – CannaSafe – to learn more.
The below interview is with Antonio Frazier the VP of Operations at CannaSafe.
How Did You Get Into Cannabis Testing?
I played football in college with our owner and current president, CEO Aaron Riley. We met at Furman University in South Carolina. He became an early cannabis entrepreneur and started recruiting me back in 2016 or 15.
I told him no, I had a good job. At the time I was an aerospace engineer. I got my engineering degree and I was working in Baltimore and D.C. supplying jet engine parts for the military and a good bit of commercial as well.
I thought I’d keep putting him off – until he explained more about how cannabis regulations were coming into the industry.
Aaron’s our vision guy. I’m the Ops guy and our third hire is our technical specialist. We all took on different facets of CannaSafe and built it to what it is today. It started out small – we always had very good science – but now its blown up to a 13,000 square foot monster that’s doing a third of the market. It’s all about having a consistent process to analyze data and give people precise results.
For anybody that isn’t aware of what CannaSafe or any cannabis testing lab looks like, could you give us a little look inside?
Here at CannaSafe we are a profiling lab. We’re chasing the FDA standard of analyzing this medicine at a molecular level and all the things that the government’s asked us to profile for.
Any pot that you buy in a licensed dispensary has to go through an array of testing as prescribed by the Bureau of Cannabis Control (the BCC).
We’re probably the closest thing to a regulatory body that operates within the industry under the rules. Companies have to send Cannabis Products through a lab like ours in order to get them onto dispensary shelves and stamp them safe for consumer intake.
Right now the hot topic is vaping. Vaping isn’t necessarily new, but due to different changes in the industry, different restrictions, the illicit market unfortunately grew and found a new cut – THC cut with vitamin E oil.
Our goal is to figure out what is in all these new products: eyedrops, topical shampoo, suppositories, tampons, all these interesting things people are infusing. Although the THC is totally safe by itself, and MCT oil, and vitamin E – they could be safe in a tincture, but they’re not safe in a vape cart when it is inhaled.
We’re taking the lead in the industry to help people understand whats in their products. We’re partnering with researchers to give them our data. We found all these nasty pesticides, solvents, and vitamin E. What does that mean for someone’s lungs?
When we have that chemical analysis, people can make better decisions when purchasing cannabis products.
How do you Test Weed? What Does the Process Look Like?
First and foremost, it starts with compliance sampling. We go out to a licensed distributor to observe the entire batch of flower or cannabis products and then we sample randomly and bring it back into our lab. Compliance is done that way to ensure that we get access to the entire batch before we actually test it, to make sure that the one sample we run is representative of the entire batch.
So the first step is sample collection. The next step is the extraction. We take whatever the product is, whether it is flower, a suppository, a brownie, whatever it may be, and we extract out what we’re looking for. Whether it be THC, CBD, the cannabinoids, terpenes, pesticides, solvents, we have proprietary extraction methods for each different product to extract those chemicals out.
Once you have the extractions into a container, we take the different ratios and calculations. It’s very precise. Everything has to be carefully transferred to keep the volumes consistent.
Then we put it on a local instrument. That can be anything from an HPLC, which is high performance liquid chromatography. The majority of testing is chromatograph work.
There are other methodologies like LCMS, which is a HPLC with a mass spec on it, because certain things have to ionize to tell the differences. There’s also GC, which is the same thing, but in the gas phase.
So it’s very precise equipment, very expensive equipment, similar to pharmaceutical work. Think along the lines of blood labs or environmental labs – none of this stuff is actually made for cannabis. So you have to be very highly skilled to understand how to make the instrument read cannabis and read it properly.
What Are You Testing for Specifically?
I’ll run through all of the BCC requirements for assessing. There’s profile testing. Thats your cannabinoids and terpenes, THC or CBD content as well as the terpenes that go into the entourage effect, which is important for your experience. Profile testing tells you what is in it.
There’s a law in California that requires us to test all products for residual solvents analysis. So when someone takes flower and extracts it into oil, we make sure there’s no residual solvents there, like butane. There are limits set for that on the GCMS.
There’s also pesticide analysis. California has the strictest requirements in the entire world making California cannabis not only the best quality, but also the cleanest. It’s much cleaner than most things labeled organic or certified.
There are 66 pesticides that we test for. That has to be done on LCMS as well as a GCMS because certain things aren’t stable enough in the liquid form. So, if you ever hear of a lab that only tests these products on one type of instrumentation, which is probably the LC, either they have found some new methodology that no one has ever verified or heard of, or they are not actually are equipped to do what they’re supposed to be doing.
There’s also microbial testing, so testing for any kind of mold, bacteria, or Aspergillus. We’re not actually doing yeast and mold testing in California, but through foreign matter, we do examine for mold.
There’s moisture and water activity. Those are what we call more preventative tests. Moisture content definitely goes into your profile for how smooth something may be but also gives you an indication of if microbes are going to form, if they’re not already present.
The final safety test is the heavy metal analysis. We have to test for four things here in California. Cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury. California was the first state to require heavy metals testing, although everyone now is. California is very mineral rich. The gold rush was here for a reason and cannabis absorbs everything out of the ground (a bioaccumulator).
It’s used for phyto-remediation, which essentially pulls contaminants out of the ground. Cannabis was famously used in Chernobyl to help clean up some of the contaminated ground around the area. They pulled lithium and arsenic back out of the ground so the land could eventually be actually used for vegetation again.
There are a lot of different things we’re looking for and the equipment that we have to use is very expensive. That’s why it’s such an expertise and why you’ve seen so many labs fail or be shut down by the BCC because they’re not doing it the right way. It’s very complicated. It’s not cheap.
If a Product is Deemed Unsafe or Noncompliant is There a Way to Fix it or Does it Need to be Destroyed?
It depends on what it is. Certain things can be diluted to bring the levels down to acceptable levels. So some remediation is possible. There are theories about getting rid of aspergillus and other microbial issues, but certain things can’t go away. Certain things can’t be removed or are at levels that are too high.
There is a process. You have to have a remediation plan approved by the CDPH (The California department of public health). Once they approve of your plan, you can then try it to see if it will go to market. The good thing about buying legal is that when this stuff does pop hot or fail in the lab, there’s a process for product to be destroyed or remediated.
What’s scary about markets like CBD and Hemp is there’s no requirements right now. People don’t realize that these products that are available at Whole Foods or in CVS, they’re from the same plant of cannabis but have no testing requirements. When those products fail, there’s no one to follow up to make sure that they don’t make it to a shelf.
That’s why regulation is so important and why people need to realize it is one plant. We certainly want to destigmatize the entire plant and not just CBD and THC.
There is no way to regulate the illicit market, which is why prohibition is so bad for the plant. Prohibition doesn’t work. Just like liquor, it’s not gonna work in cannabis. So with this vape thing, you can’t ban it because it’s a $5 billion market. The illicit market is not going to stop because the government says so.
We were able to determine the majority of these bad products are from the illicit market. More people are only going to die If you don’t get people legal access to safe cannabis.
There’s a reason why that cart is $60 in the store and you’re only 20 online or on Weedmaps. We’re trying to bring people’s attention to that so that they understand the risks.
If you were to compare cannabis flower sold on the black market to something grown in a clean green certified or organic farm what kind of difference would you see?
Generally I can see a difference in test results for terpene profiles, consistencies, and just in quality of product. Also during the experience of the high you’re going to see it as well. People think, Oh, I’ve got a headache cause I got bad weed. But more likely it is because you have cannabis full of pesticides. Pesticides, mold, and fungus can make you feel bad.
We’re slowly but surely trying to move towards high level conversations about how to spot counterfeits, bad carts and how to deal with these things. It is dangerous. People are dying.
Would you Say Education Should be a Top Priority in the Industry?
Yes. That’s why I was so excited when your team reached out, because it has to happen through grassroots media sources – through spreading the gospel. Word of mouth. Testimonials. I’ve seen kids go from 20 seizures a day to one or two every few months.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that cannabis isn’t a medicine. Not only is it slowing down diseases and deficiencies, but it also gives people a better quality of life. Better pain management.
We’ve seen all these elderly people and sick people go from these opiate regimens to simply tinctures or vaporizers. It’s so much cheaper and they feel a higher quality of life, they’re up doing stuff again, they’re active. Parents break down crying saying, cannabis gave me my kid back, I met my kid again.
There are so many great stories. But now we need data. We need research.
How can you know for sure that a product’s been tested, that it’s been tested well and that the results are good? What should people be looking for?
That is a multilayer question that can get really technical. Number one, legally everything on a licensed dispensary self should be tested and you can always ask your budtender. You can always ask for the COA (test results). If it’s tested by CanaSafe, we can always do batch verification here for you.
We also have some customers who include a QR code on the packaging and we provide that to them. So you can scan it with your smartphone and the COA will come up there.
We’re trying to educate more budtenders and patient advocates about this stuff so that when people do ask these questions the answers are there.
We’re hoping through customer demand, quite frankly, when people start asking more, this stuff will become more available. Everyone may one day be required to have a QR code on their labeling.
What are Your one, five, and Ten year industry predictions?
One year is that you’ll start seeing people asking more questions and demanding certain types of products. People will start understanding dosing better or testing better. They’ll start trying to, trying to curate their own experiences.
I’m excited about the five year plan. I think by that time there will be some kind of federal action. Hopefully we’ve done it intelligently and California and the rest of the West coast will be supplying the rest of the state.
There’s no need for some of these human Southern States to be growing cannabis. Hemp, sure. But the amount of resources like energy and air and light for them to grow their own state by state would be a waste I think.
Why are you going to make people in Georgia figure out how to grow high-grade medical cannabis? We’ve already seen the Mississippi federal labs struggle with the quality of the products. Why are we going to put that burden on that part of our country when we could supply it from California?
10 years. I think it’s in hospitals. I think it will be a dialed in medical treatment.The clinical trials will be done. I think we will be giving it to children as medicine. I think we will be using cannabis to change pain management.
Is there anything that I wouldn’t have known enough to ask that people should know?
I would point out some of the organizations that are tackling things like legislation. I think that’s important. Americans For Safe Access and Norml have done a good job historically. Things like the Compassionate Use Act are the reason why the industry is even where it is. It’s due to the Gay community rising up and demanding access.
People need to be involved with the rule making because they’re making the rules now. We need to continue to make sure that the rules are smart.
Right now if you’re a patient you can’t consume in public housing so you can lose your housing if you find cannabis to be a good treatment. Where are the centers where people can actually smoke cannabis and not get arrested or lose their house or lose their job?
There are a lot of different things that we can do as a population to participate. Give feedback, talk to the governors, sit in assembly members offices – when it comes from their constituents it means a whole lot more than when it comes from a business.
We’re trying to let people know that if you’re active in the community, come talk to us. We will supply you with the tools. We will supply you with the information. We would love for you to speak on our behalf and to activate on our behalf.
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