Cannabis Oil Testing and Consumer Protection
In a jurisdiction where cannabis is prohibited by law there is little if any protection for the cannabis consumer. To protect people from poor practise and contaminated cannabis products the laboratory testing of cannabis products and quality control is essential.
In an uncontrolled, unregulated market it is common to find cannabis contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, toxins and microorganisms. It is also quite common to find products containing mould spores, bacteria and fungus, these contaminants can have a detrimental effect on health, which can be compounded if people are using cannabis for medicinal purpose
Producers of pharmaceuticals, food or drink products are regulated and required to provide third-party testing to verify the safety of their products, unfortunately, there is no basic level of safety or quality control under a system of prohibition, or indeed a decriminalised (cannabis) model.
As well as testing for contaminants, the potency of cannabis products is also important for cannabis consumers. To protect the consumer and the general public a testing and labelling scheme for cannabis and cannabinoid preparations is essential, imagine the chaos if alcohol was not tested and labelled accordingly. The effects of drinking a full glass of vodka is very different to drinking a glass of beer.
As the legal cannabis market develops and matures so will the demand for cannabis concentrates and cannabis extractions many of which are used by seriously ill people to treat their condition(s).
Many cannabinoid extractions are made with the use of a solvent, e.g. butane, hexane, isopropyl alcohol and ethanol are commonly used to produce cannabis concentrates, however unless the products are tested for solvent residues some of the solvent used in the extraction process will remain in the final product and some of these residues can be detrimental to health.
For accurate analysis HPLC testing is required to determine the terpene and cannabinoid content, cannabis producers should have (minimum) access to the following tests:

  • Terpenoid test with gas chromatography (GC)
  • Microbiological test – testing for the main moulds, bacteria and fungi
  • Potency testing of cannabis flowers (cannabinoid profile) by gas chromatography
  • Testing of extracts and cannabis preparations via HPLC
  • Solvent residue testing

HPLC test result for a pure CBD extraction: source: BB Spain

Testing standards
There are two main types of testing, Gas Chromatography (GC) and High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).
Gas chromatography (GC) is a common type of chromatography used in analytical chemistry for analysing compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition. Typically, GC analysis is used to determine the purity of a substance, samples are converted to a gas and the gas is then analysed.
High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is another process used in analytical chemistry to separate, identify, and quantify the individual components in a mixture of compounds and HPLC analysis is more suited to the testing of cannabis extractions and preparations than the plant material itself.

Why cannabinoid testing is important
Cannabinoids produced by the plant are in their natural acid state and to be bioavailable they require transforming from their acid form to a neutral form, this is achieved by the application of heat (or UV light), this process is called decarboxylation. For example, to make THC-acid effective against cancer it has to be converted from THC-a to THC, when cannabis is inhaled via smoking or vaporisation a significant amount of the cannabinoids are converted (by heat) from their acid form to their neutral form.
However, if THC-a is orally ingested the acidic cannabinoids will remain in their original state and bioavailability will be greatly reduced.
HPLC analysis identifies the major cannabinoids present in both their acid and neutral forms, GC testing converts cannabinoid acids into cannabinoids so therefore is unsuitable for the testing of orally administered cannabinoid preparations. As HPLC testing does not use heat it can be used to identify and quantify both the acidic and neutral cannabinoids in a sample and therefore we can monitor the efficiency of our decarboxylation process. We use HPLC analysis for cannabinoid extractions, preparations and other products such as medibles, edibles and topicals.

 Terpene Testing
Terpenes are the chemical substances responsible for the aroma of cannabis and many express their own medicinal properties, e.g. anxiolytic and neuroprotective effects.
Common terpenes present in cannabis varieties are α-Pinene, β-Pinene, limonene, myrcene, linalool, and β-caryophyllene.

 Microbiological Testing
Mould and bacteria are everywhere and while not all are harmful some microorganisms such as E. coli are extremely harmful for humans and cannabis can become contaminated at any stage during cultivation, drying or processing.
High levels of microorganisms can be avoided by following good hygiene practises during the cultivation, processing and storage stages.
In Spain in 2014, Fundación CANNA carried out a study in cooperation with 31 Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC’s), over 50 individual samples of cannabis were analysed. The aim of the study was to identify and determine the microorganisms present and they were found in 80% of the samples analysed. Bud Buddies would like to conduct a similar exercise in the UK.
The spores of fungi are often inhaled during smoking and although some of the spores are destroyed (via incineration) the ones not subject to the source of combustion can easily reach the lungs. Cannabis that has not been correctly dried, cured or stored provides an ideal medium for their development.

Some of the potentially pathogenic microorganisms that can be found in Cannabis:
Aspergillus genus,
the spores of these fungi are generally found in the environment and they develop with high humidity levels, they can lead to the production of mycotoxins (aflatoxins) which are highly carcinogenic substances. They can also invade human tissues resulting in aspergillosis and ill people with a compromised immune system struggle with this fungus which and its presence creates a high risk to immunosuppressed users.
Penicillium genus, creates problems with people who are allergic to its presence.
Enterobacteriaceae, are normally found in soil and faeces and their presence is generally indicative of poor hygiene measures, the use of poorly or incorrectly formulated organic fertilisers can also result in contamination. Two enterobacteriaceaes which can be present in cannabis are E. coli and salmonella.