This post was originally published at Heady Vermont by Jessilyn Dolan
The cannabis and CBD industry is growing exponentially in what’s often called a “green rush.” Yet with limited regulatory oversight, folks can easily end up getting snake oil.
As a nurse and patient advocate, I believe consumers don’t have enough information on all the available cannabis products, and don’t know what questions to ask to ensure they are choosing safe or clean cannabis products.
In Vermont, the medical cannabis program allows for in house-testing and only mandates testing for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels. In-house lab testing is susceptible to mistakes, and prone to biases.
ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, is the gold standard for laboratory testing certifications. ISO is an independent, non-governmental international organization where 164 different countries bring together experts from all over the world to develop international standards.
As stated on their website, the value of an ISO certification is that it “enables laboratories to demonstrate that they operate competently and generate valid results, both nationally and around the world. This type of conformity assessment involves a set of processes that shows products, services or systems meets the requirements of an ISO standard.”
Many companies advertise independent third party lab testing with ISO-accredited labs. However, as we dive deeper, and look at the reality of what is being tested, and the available test results, we see how consumers are being misled to believe products are safe, when in reality, only the CBD or THC has been tested and confirmed. To ensure product quality and consumer safety, a full panel lab analysis is necessary.
Generally, a full panel analysis consists of a minimum of 6 different categorical tests, though this may vary between smokable flower and a processed finished product. These six tests include:
This is often the first and often only test completed. Testing for potency is analyzing the active chemical or cannabinoid profile. It confirms the percentage of the cannabinoid compounds in the product such as CBD, THC, delta-9 THC, and CBN.
Full panel lab testing analyzes both potency and more importantly, purity. Purity refers to the cleanliness of the product as it relates to harmful contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals. Purity testing ensures consumer safety and product transparency.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants, and the standard heavy metal lab test tests for four metals, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
Heavy metals come from human activities like auto emissions, household water runoff, previous agricultural production, and geological action like volcanos.
Heavy metals contaminate the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals and sediments used to make fertilizers. Fertilizers, growing media, even the air, water and clones or plants themselves can contain heavy metals.
This is a significant issue because cannabis has a propensity to bioremediate (pull out) and hyperaccumulate metals from contaminated soils. Those metals get into the plant and flowers, then into your medicine.
Contamination from heavy metals can also occur from machinery used in the production or extraction process of cannabis derived products. Heavy metals can be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact.
Prudent cannabis testing for these elements should be mandatory to ensure consumer health and avoid heavy metals poisoning from our medicine.
Heavy metal contamination is of concern for human ingestion because these elements are not broken down metabolically, but accumulate in the body, and can cause a variety of health problems, including neurological disorders.
The FDA monitors food for metals contamination and issues numerous methodologies for metals analysis. Prudent cannabis testing for these elements should be mandatory to ensure consumer health and avoid heavy metals poisoning from our medicine.
Pesticides are defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.”
The EPA is responsible for the registration of pesticides for use on certain crops, and all crops are required to have an EPA-established pesticide tolerance level — which means the maximum amount of pesticide residue that is allowed to remain on the crop while still being safe for consumption.
In the fall of 2019, the EPA approved the use of 10 products – nine biopesticides and one conventional pesticide – to control pests and diseases on hemp crops. This was a huge moment for the entire cannabis industry, as it signaled the first time the federal government designated any chemical as safe for the use on cannabis.
Unfortunately, because the EPA is a federal institution, and THC cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, they cannot allow any pesticides to be registered for use on THC cannabis plants. This means that there is no federally recognized established pesticide tolerance known for cannabis.
As a high value crop, cannabis prompts some growers to use any and all means to maximize their yields, regardless of posed risks or burdens on workers, consumers and the environment.
Many pesticides can and do pose risks to humans at varying toxicity levels and exposure durations. For example, organophosphates and carbamates affect the nervous system, while others are known to damage the endocrine system, and some are known to be carcinogenic.
During the extraction process, any pesticide residues on the plant material will be concentrated in potentially toxic levels, increasing the consumer’s risk of pesticide injury. Testing for pesticides will help determine if the product is safe for consumers to consume.
With thousands of registered pesticides on the market, pesticide tests often test only for a limited amount of the more commonly used pesticides, while some test extensively for many pesticides.
Individual labs may vary, but the general idea is the more testing that is done the more transparent, cleaner and safer medicine will be available to the consumer. Mandating full panel testing is the way to ensure consumer safety and ethical agriculture.
The perfect environment for the proliferation of molds and fungi can – and usually does – occur within the cannabis microbiome and the cultivation environment. These molds and fungi can create their own chemicals identified as mycotoxins.
According to the National Institutes of Health mycotoxins are defined as “secondary metabolites produced by microfungi that are capable of causing disease and death in humans and other animals.”
“Exposure to high levels of mycotoxins can be extremely dangerous, especially if the exposure is long-term,” said Amanda Horodyski, microbiology lab manager at Atlantic Test Labs.
Two of the primary types of mycotoxins that are associated with cannabis are aflatoxins and ochratoxins. Aflatoxins are chemical mycotoxins produced by a fungal species that not only are extremely difficult to break down, but can suppress the immune system, mutate DNA, cause kidney and or liver damage, liver cancer, and can cross the placenta and have harmful effects on a fetus.
In general, aflatoxins are classified as Level 1 carcinogens, or compounds that are known to be carcinogenic in humans (the most toxic classification a molecule can have). Ochratoxins have a similar carcinogenic and mutagenic profile as aflatoxins.
Given the health risks associated with exposure to these mycotoxins, it’s essential for the sake of consumer safety that mycotoxin analysis is carried out as part of the plants normal testing regimen.
As cannabis consumption has grown exponentially, cannabis products have become much more complex than the average homemade pot brownies.
Products like gummies, dabs, shatters, and waxes are made with cannabis concentrates that have been extracted from cannabis flower.
Cannabis extraction is a process by which cannabis material is exposed to a volatile solvent which strips and concentrates compounds such as THC and CBD from the cannabis plant material.
The most common extraction techniques are alcohol extraction and hydrocarbon extraction, using a solvent like butane.
The volatile solvent is evaporated off, leaving behind a high-potency cannabis oil or wax, or cannabis extract or concentrate. In theory, the volatile solvent will be completely removed in this process, but in practice, residual amounts of potentially toxic solvents can remain. Testing will confirm solvents have been evaporated to a safe level for consumer use.
Terpenes are a class of phytotherapeutic organic compounds created by a variety of plants—not just cannabis—responsible for the flavor and smell of the plant. Over 100 different terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant with profiles ranging from “floral” to “piney.”
It’s these pungent aromatic oils that give cannabis cultivators their own distinctive citrus, mint, berry, spicy, woody, or clove-like flavor. Just like a fine wine, many factors affect a plant’s terpene development – climate, weather, age, maturation, soil type, and fertilizers.
Testing for terpenes is not necessary, as they are not toxic or dangerous in any way. Terpenes are therapeutic and help support and enhance the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids. However, testing for terpenes helps us understand what specific cannabis cultivars may be best for an individual.
Like THC and CBD, terpenes are secreted from the tiny hairs that cover the buds, called trichome glands. Trichomes are the shiny, sticky, mushroom-shaped crystals which act as a defense mechanism in nature, protecting the plant from insects and animals through the production of fragrant oils that repel these dangers.
It’s the unique and varying combinations of these terpenes found in each cannabis cultivar that creates a specific aroma and flavour, along with an individualized set of potential therapeutic benefits.
More than just being valued for aroma and taste, though, terpenes are being studied for their psychoactive and physiological effects. Terpenes, too, bind to receptor sites in the brain to affect the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Terpenes are believed to exhibit medicinal properties independent from cannabinoids. Overall, terpenes contribute to a cultivar’s particular influence – a phenomenon known as the entourage effect when coupled with cannabinoids.
In the end, if the goal of the cannabis industry is to make a highly enjoyable and therapeutic plant available to everyone who needs and wants to consume it, then we owe it to both the cannabis community – as well as the world at large – to ensure that every cannabis product is as healthy, safe, and effective as possible. And that means knowing exactly what’s inside.