Quality Control for the Cannabis Industry

by | May 13, 2021

Written by Oladimeji Ewumi

There are predictions that the U.S. cannabis testing laboratory industry will generate total revenue of $4.1 billion by the end of 2027. Cannabis enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are optimistic that this will come to fruition due to cannabis’ increased adoption as an elixir for both acute and chronic conditions. Issues relating to quality control are of primary concern because, following legalization, some U.S. states don’t make cannabis testing mandatory despite its medicinal use. 

Why Quality Control?

To measure the quality of medical cannabis products, accurate standard measurements must first be put in place through quality control. Quality control requires that the medical cannabis end-product possess a minimum level of potency, which is ascertained by rigorous testing before finding its way to the market. International organizations are also coming up with standards and regulations on compound limits so that cannabis products do not adversely interfere with normal biochemical processes in the body. Reasonable quality control also ensures the most effective use of resources at a reasonable production cost. 

However, to keep up with the increasing demand for high potency THC by cannabis consumers, it’s fast becoming a norm among some growers to shop for easy-to-work-with cannabis testing labs to increase potency value on COAs and pass compliance tests. There is also the problem of inaccurate pesticide reporting. These inaccuracies create disparities between actual results and result presented on COAs and are misleading to consumers. Many cannabis testing labs have no choice but to conform or risk losing growers to other profit-oriented competitors. Undesirable lab testing practices can jeopardize consumer health in the long run. Hence, cannabis testing labs must put consumer health above revenue.  Consumers also need to be well informed about what they are consuming.

Josh Swider, a co-founder at InfiniteCAL, believes that inaccurate COAs could be easily remedied with a simple checks and balances system. “For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.”

The solution could be as simple as blind retesting products which report abnormally high THC values or simply secret shopping from various dispensaries and privately testing the products. With good quality control practices in place, it is easy to spot any deviation from the norm or any variable which might suggest that a cannabis product is not fit for consumption.

The Quality Control Process

Quality control of medical cannabis begins at the lab testing stage where cannabis, products are tested using cannabis testing equipment for two primary reasons. First, to validate that they are safe for human consumption. Second, to ensure that they retain the right potency needed to provide the desired medical outcome. Human safety is of paramount importance as far as the production of medical cannabis is concerned because cannabis gets exposed to heavy metals, toxins from chemicals, fertilizers, and microbes that can have severe negative impacts on human health. The final cannabis plant is then tested for any of such residual compounds, and if present, it is checked against the accepted maximum limits set by regulatory agencies.

In consequence of their therapeutic effects, medical cannabis products require quality control and must utilize stringent measures from the biopharmaceutical perspective. Morteo Alleseo, a principal consultant at NNE, stated, “It’s OK to draw inspiration from the traditional pharmaceutical industry; we just also have to remain aware of the fact that medical cannabis is still not wholly considered to be a medicine in the traditional sense––we have to be cautious not to just replicate everything we’ve learned from traditional pharma in the cannabis sector.” 

Although in times past, quality control was carried out at independent testing labs, which made getting results very slow, now many in-house testing labs are coming up, yet, lab testing for quality control isn’t standardized. Even in states where it is legalized, there is a lack of uniformity in quality standards. For example, different laws and variations regulate the testing standard of cannabis across different states. This is a significant challenge for the standardization of a general quality assessment protocol across cannabis testing labs. 

During the lab testing process, cannabis scientists assess the phytochemical composition of the cannabis and their cannabinoid profile using liquid chromatography. Although other chromatography techniques can be used, liquid chromatography is the most preferred due to highly controlled purification standards.

Most notably in the production of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products, quality control checks and balances must be carried out at every stage of the manufacturing process to get a good quality product. This signifies a ray of hope for the standardization of quality control for cannabis. Also, quality control guarantees an excellent consumer experience and maybe an outstanding factor among cannabis brands––as companies that take their quality control protocols more seriously can attract stellar reviews and investors from consumers and diverse industries. As the quality control industry for the cannabis market is evolving every day to accommodate the standardization of QC-tested cannabis before dispatched for sale, the state of California is setting new trends by establishing fully accredited QC testing labs for cannabis. 

In recent times, cannabis testing labs are coming up with new offerings to gain a competitive edge, yet; there remains a high demand for many QC in-house and external labs to cater to the proliferation of the cannabis market. This will open the door for qualified QC experts in the cannabis space. If 2027 prediction must become a reality amidst cut-throat opposition from competitors and legal limitations, a universal quality control standardization measure across all states must be put in place now.