The Importance of Cannabis Testing

On , In Extraction Science

In the Science of Extraction, we explored how Valens is doing things differently to stay at the forefront of extraction technologies. By being the only facility to offer five unique types of cannabis extraction, each best-suited for specific end-products, we set ourselves apart from the competition. And that’s just on the extraction side of our business. 

We are also leading the industry through our in-house laboratory testing facility, Valens Labs. Valens is the first Canadian ISO 17025 accredited lab, keeping to the gold-standard of quality and excellence. Crowned as a “Center of Excellence in Plant-Based Science” for cannabis testing in Canada, our partnerships with giants like Thermo Fisher Scientific fuel our innovation.

At Valens Labs, we determine cannabinoid profiles and concentrations. We also test for potential contaminants such as residual solvents, mycotoxins, heavy metals, pesticides, and microbes. We test in all stages of production, from raw ingredients to secondary ingredients and packaging.

Cannabis testing is so important, especially as our industry expands to legally include concentrated, consumable products. Let’s dive into the why.

Why Does Cannabis Testing Matter?

There is a lot of uncertainty in the cannabis industry, but the answer to this one is clear. Cannabis testing is essential for quality assurance and consumer safety, and is currently required by law through Health Canada regulation. Every batch of cannabis or cannabis-derived product must be third-party tested prior to sale, and if contaminants are present above threshold levels, test results must be reported and production halted. Full-stop.

This requirement may seem extreme, but licensed testing ensures that all consumers have accurate information on the safety of their cannabis.

Lab technicians hand reaching into Thermo Scientific cannabis testing equipment to grab vial
Cannabis testing is essential for quality assurance and consumer safety. It is also required by law under Health Canada regulation. [Photo taken at Valens Labs facility]
Whether testing is used to determine potency or purity, regulations ensure that consumers are properly informed. This is especially necessary for the medical cannabis market, where consumers may have compromised immune systems and increased sensitivity to contaminants.

At Valens, our mission is to become the world’s most trusted partner for cannabis testing.

We believe in setting the highest standards and progressing the industry through science and innovation. The purpose of licensed testing is ultimately to establish trust with consumers, but with the current lack of global standardization, this trust is at risk of being broken for many.

(Lack of) Regulations in the US

The main culprit in the industry’s lack of testing regulations is inconsistent legalization, especially at the federal level in the United States. As cannabis has only been legalized in a select number of states, it is still considered illegal as a whole. This has major implications in research and development, especially in the case of testing methodologies and acceptable contaminant levels.    

One of the biggest challenges in cannabis testing is the lack of universal standards. With large variations in instrumentation and calibration, in addition to lack of proper training and experienced staff, test results can be inaccurate, delayed, or even falsified. Even simple variations in allowable limits for contaminants make it possible for contaminated products to leak into the market.   

Canadians Paving the Way

In Canada, Health Canada is the regulating body for protecting consumers and regulating cannabis testing. Labs are required to have a Dealers License under the Narcotic Control Regulations in order to conduct any activities with cannabis. Along with this license, testing facilities must also be federally licensed for processing and cultivation, to process medical and recreational cannabis. Valens holds both of these licenses, along with a Standard License to cultivate and produce oil under The Cannabis Act. 

In addition to being fully licensed by our country’s regulating bodies, we are working with industry experts to create proprietary extraction and testing technologies. By retrofitting machines to customize our offerings, we are raising the standard for excellence in science-based testing. As a research-driven company, we work with some of the biggest names in the testing industry.

All technologies are not created equal, and we pride ourselves on our cutting-edge scientific partnerships.

Partnering with Experts

White Thermo Scientific Cannabis Testing Equipment closeup with clear vials and digital touchpad
Valens Labs is an ISO 17025 licensed and accredited cannabis testing facility, partnered with Thermo Fisher as the only ‘Center of Excellence in Plant-Based Science’ in Canada. [Photo taken at Valens Labs facility]
Thermo Fisher Scientific specializes in innovative biotechnology product development. Their large selection of lab equipment continues to expand and evolve, meeting analytical challenges as they arise.

Thermo Fisher is invested in all scopes of science, from daily analysis to groundbreaking discoveries. With a mutual interest in elevating industry standards, this collaboration is a major factor in our expertise.

One immediate benefit of this partnership is the increase in lab productivity. We can quickly perform the comprehensive, third-party testing that is required by law, saving time and money for our clients. By having our extraction and testing facilities on-site, our tests can run in under 24 hours, which is a fraction of the standard 5 days.

17025 Accreditation

Valens is a 17025 Accredited lab, and was the first of its kind in Canadian cannabis. This accreditation is one of the highest stamps of approval in the industry, a globally-recognized designation for gold-standard testing. Coupled with our CALA and ILAC MRA designations, we have both international and Canada-specific support and validation.

What does this mean for consumers and licensed producers? The highest level of quality assurance and confidence.

With extremely thorough results, we are able to detect a variety of impurities in both plant material and oils. We also outline terpene and cannabinoid profiles, identifying their presence and their concentrations within the product. Quality testing presents vital information to the cannabis market, which can have major implications in consumer safety and experience.

Cannabinoid Presence & Potency

There are currently over a hundred different cannabinoids that we know of in cannabis. Concentrations of these cannabinoids can vary across plants, as well as in different stages of plant growth. As varying concentrations can have different effects on user experience, quantification of cannabinoids is extremely important.  

Currently, Health Canada requires that only the THC and CBD content be displayed on legal cannabis packaging. These concentrations must exist as a percentage of the total weight of the dried flower, with strict regulations on how they can be displayed. With recent research suggesting the importance of the other cannabinoids present in the plant material, the request for presenting a complete cannabis profile is also increasing.

Valens Labs Black Lab Equipment Thermo Scientific UltiMate HPLC System for cannabinoid analysis
We use the Thermo Scientific™ uHPLC Systems to detect the concentrations and presence of cannabinoids.

At Valens Labs, we use the Thermo Scientific uHPLC Systems for cannabinoid analysis. This biocompatible system uses industrial chromatography for separation, followed by UV detection to create the final profile. 

This system is powerful, with a high flow rate and pressure, while still protecting the compounds through a simultaneous cooling process. With high sensitivity, an automated workflow, and gold-standard software, it is unparalleled for cannabinoid testing.

Why Cannabinoid Testing is Critical

Inaccuracy for cannabinoid labelling is an area of concern within the industry, especially outside of the Canadian market. With the lack of standardization, producers are able to ‘shop around’ for labs that can present them with the highest concentrations of cannabinoids in their products. This skewed information can then be used for labelling, and increase profits in retail.

Thankfully, we are starting to see trends changing in what consumers are looking for. Much like alcohol, users are starting to search for quality and other distinguishing characteristics like smell and terpene profile, rather than just high concentrations of psychoactive ingredients.

Consumer choice is only possible through the presentation of accurate information, again highlighting the need for standardized potency testing. Cannabis users need to know what is in their product and how much.

Another important factor is what is not present in cannabis products, as the purity of a product can be the difference between sickness and health. This becomes especially important as concentrates become legal in the Canadian market, as small contaminants can become big problems when concentrated.

Heavy Metals

Laboratory Equipment for detecting heavy metal contamination in cannabis
We use the Thermo Scientific™ ICP-MS systems to detect heavy metal contamination.

One of the biggest threats to consumer safety in cannabis is the presence of heavy metals. Heavy metal contamination happens in the growth stage of the plant, as cannabis is extremely efficient at drawing up toxins from the soil. As a hyperaccumulator, cannabis plants have actually been used to remediate contaminated soil in areas such as the infamous Chernobyl nuclear accident zone.

Cannabis plants are extremely efficient at bioremediation. By taking up heavy metals and storing them in select tissues, they are able to continue growing without experiencing the negative side effects of contamination. Unfortunately for us, just as the earth suffers from heavy metal contamination, so do our bodies.

Heavy metals can cause severe adverse effects on our health, especially in individuals with compromised immune systems. If a plant is growing in contaminated soil, or near a mine or sewage source, it’s possible for the plant to uptake metals from its environment. This makes the testing for heavy metal contamination absolutely essential in cannabis testing.

At Valens Labs, we use mass spectrometry equipment to detect for the presence of heavy metals, specifically the Thermo Scientific ICP-MS systems. This trace-elemental analysis is used as a standard across a variety of industries testing for heavy metals. With reliable data generation, a streamlined workflow, and user-friendly operation, these instruments deliver the most accurate results.  

Microbes

Bio-Rad qPCR machine for Microbial Analysis in Valens Labs
We use qPCR in testing for microbial contamination, including instruments by Bio-Rad and Thermo Fisher.

Microbial contamination is another threat to cannabis consumers, with testing also required by law. Just like our bodies host a variety of microorganisms, both beneficial and infectious, cannabis plants also have their own unique microbiome.

When cannabis plants are attacked by pathogens prior to harvesting, it is possible for these microbes to remain in the plant, and become a risk to consumers. Much like the food industry, where food poisoning can pose a severe threat to the market and the consumer, contaminated cannabis also carries a large risk.

In our labs, we use the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) method to detect microbial contamination. This is a gold-standard in the food industry, and also adopts well into cannabis testing.

As this space in testing is still relatively new, there are only a few options available for industry validated equipment. One of these options is the Bio-Rad qPCR Systems, which are one of our go-to’s at Valens Labs. 

With advanced PCR equipment, we are able to maintain complete control in how we run our analyses. This allows for optimal accuracy and efficiency, with a quality that meets and exceeds industry requirements. 

Mycotoxins

Mycotoxins are toxic metabolites of fungi, most commonly produced by mold growth on cannabis plants during storage. Fungal infection can occur at any point in the growing and harvesting process, and often results in severe health consequences. With hundreds of possible fungal metabolic products, a hyper-sensitive detection system is required for this analysis.

The determination of mycotoxins is challenging as the compounds are typically present at low concentrations in complex cannabis matrices. The combination of the Thermo Scientific UHPLC and mass spectrometry systems enables the possibility of a fast, sensitive and highly selective LC-MS/MS method for screening and confirmation of mycotoxins in cannabis samples.

Lab Equipment from Thermo Scientific for detecting mycotoxins and pesticides
For detecting the presence of mycotoxins and pesticides, we use the Thermo Scientific™  Mass Spectrometry and Liquid Chromatography Systems.

Pesticides

The use of pesticides in cannabis in the international market is hugely varied, leaving room for potential contamination. There are still many states that only recommend pesticide guidelines, and others that offer no guidance at all. As pesticide residues can enter the bloodstream directly from the lungs through inhalation, their presence poses a dire threat to public health.

Health Canada requires mandatory testing for pesticide use in our country, with allowable limits that must be adhered to by law. Cannabis plants can be susceptible to a large variety of pests, meaning that pesticides may be necessary for growth. It is not the presence of pesticides that is the issue, but the chemical makeup of the pesticide and its accumulation within the plant.

For the detection and quantification of pesticides, we use the mass spectrometry systems with liquid chromatography (LC/MS/MS), also used for detecting mycotoxins. With its great sensitivity, we are able to detect the presence of even small quantities of pesticides, ensuring that results are accurate and comprehensive.

Complete profiles become even more important as the market grows into certified organic cannabis oils, as there will be a greater ask for natural pesticides and limited concentrations. Stricter regulations for consumer safety are sure to follow, and we aim to be leading that charge as the first extraction facility in Canada with an organic certification.

“Valens is now in a position to work with cultivators to bring certified organic cannabis oil-based products to market, an achievement which demonstrates our commitment to supporting our current and future clients’ needs.” – Tyler Robson, CEO of Valens GroWorks

Residual Solvents

Cannabis testing lab equipment for detecting residual solvents
We use the Thermo Scientific GC-MS/MS Systems to detect residual solvents and terpenes.

Another important area of potential contamination is extraction, where solvents can be left over after processing. Other than solventless extraction, all other methods use solvents to enter into the plant trichomes and carry the oils out into solution. If done properly, these solvents are then separated out, leaving only pure extracts remaining.

However, if the processing is incomplete or unregulated, residual solvents may contaminate the final product. These can negatively impact the potency and quality of cannabis oils, by interacting with or diluting the active ingredients, which can be toxic to consumers if ingested.  

To detect the presence of residual solvents, which are usually undetectable to the naked eye, we rely on chemical analysis. Using the Thermo Scientific GC-MS/MS Systems, we couple gas chromatography and mass spectrometry for high sensitivity and optimal productivity.

Optional Testing for Terpenes

Using the same GC-MS/MS system, we also test for terpenes. These are the aromatic oils responsible for much of cannabis’ flavour, aroma, and synergistic effects. Terpene testing is not required by Health Canada and is an optional addition to our full-suite testing packages.

As consumers become more informed on cannabis and its numerous compounds, we can expect an increase in demand for terpene profiles. With a complete offering of testing services, we present detailed and accurate profiles for full product transparency.   

Valens Lab Technician with gloved hands holding micropipette in test tube green liquid
Our goal at Valens is to create a universal standard – to empower consumers with the correct information, allowing them to make safe, informed choices. [Photo taken at Valens Labs facility]

What Makes Valens Testing Unique?

Cannabis is an amazing plant, one which we are just scratching the surface of understanding. With so many cannabinoids and secondary compounds present, who wouldn’t want to know exactly what’s in their products?

In addition to full-suite testing, Valens will also soon be offering tests for antibiotics, illegal dyes, multi-vitamins, and hormones. Having complete, accurate information is so important, especially as edibles become legal in the Canadian market. 

Our goal at Valens is to create a universal standard. We want to empower consumers, allowing them to make informed choices with the correct information. We also want to empower producers, so they can be rewarded for clean growing practices, and naturally stand out from their competition. In an industry that can often be vague and contradictory, our mission is to bring structure and clarity.

References:

References sourced May 31st, 2019

Looking for more information on cannabis testing? Connect with us to learn more.