Is Your Cannabis Safe? Here’s What You Need to Know About Lab Testing

Person in Lab Coat Holding Clear Vial filled with Safe Cannabis

Cannabis, hemp, and CBD safety testing is the analytical process of screening the plant or product for its contents and any contaminants that may have been introduced during cultivation, manufacturing, storage, or transport.

Potency levels of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpene profiles, as well as contaminants like pesticides, heavy metals, residual solvents, pathogens, and mycotoxins are all checked for. If a cannabis product is intended to be inhaled, ingested, or topically applied, the product must be tested and approved to ensure it is safe for medical and recreational use.

Testing requirements can vary from state to state, but most are generally similar requiring that all legal cannabis products must undergo safety testing. In California, for example, compliance testing is regulated by the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and requires the following full panel of tests to be completed for safety and to confirm product label claims for dosing and efficacy:

Potency Analysis (Cannabinoid Content)

Terpene Analysis

Pesticide Analysis

Foreign Matter Screening

Microbial Screening

Mycotoxin Screening

Heavy Metals Screening

Moisture Content

Water Activity

All tests are completed on individual batches of a product. This practice maintains quality control, as one single sample of a naturally grown or derived product cannot represent all batches over time, regardless of it being the same product. Factors such as changing growing conditions, manufacturing environment, and even different packaging (among many other things) can cause batch-to-batch variability. Thus, each batch needs to be individually tested and approved for consumption.

How Do We Test for Safety?

To uncover exactly what is in a cannabis product, a testing lab will perform a variety of analyses utilizing high-tech analytical testing instrumentation such as GC (gas chromatography) and HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) systems coupled with various modes of detection like mass spectrometry and diode-array detection. Different methodology is used depending on the analytes of interest or screen being performed.

How do Dangerous Contaminants Make Their Way into Products?

Pesticides: There are diverse cannabis and hemp cultivation methods, including outdoor, greenhouse, and indoor, each utilizing different pesticides depending on their growing environments. There are two types of pesticides—systemic and non-systemic. Non-systemic pesticides are topical pesticides that can be easily washed off of a plant before use, whereas systemic pesticides are actually absorbed by a plant when applied to seeds, soil, or leaves. Many pesticides pose great harm to human health. For this reason, flower and final products must be screened for any dangerous pesticides prior to consumption.

Residual Solvents: Cannabis, hemp, and CBD products undergo a variety of processing techniques before they make it onto dispensary shelves. While some manufacturers use “solvent-free” techniques that don’t introduce any potential adulterants into products, many manufacturers use different types of solvents like butane, isopropyl alcohol, propane, or ethanol, depending on their extraction needs. When consumed or inhaled by humans, these solvents can cause harm to the body and lungs. Thus, products must be tested to ensure that any solvents used in manufacturing and production have been properly removed.

Heavy Metals: Inhalation or ingestion of heavy metals can cause severe illness, including neurotoxicity, in humans. By nature, the cannabis and hemp plant will accumulate metals and other elements from the air, soil, water, pesticides, and fertilizers in their cultivation environment—both outdoors and indoors. Heavy metals can also be introduced during the manufacturing process and can hide in surprising places such as in hardware or final packaging, leaching into the product over time. For this reason, its important to complete stability testing (shelf-life studies) to determine how a product changes over time and under certain storage conditions.

Mycotoxins: Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxins in molds and fungi. They can be found on many food crops like grains, nuts, fruit, and cannabis and hemp crops—especially under warm and humid conditions which are conducive to microbial growth. Ingestion or inhalation of mycotoxins by humans can cause great harm including nausea, vomiting, or death.

Microbial Pathogens: Pathogenic bacteria can pose serious health risks to humans, especially to those whose immune systems are compromised. Respiratory problems, gastroenteritis, and diarrhea are among the effects of inhaling or consuming microorganisms. It’s imperative to test the final product to ensure it’s free from any microorganisms that may have been introduced during cultivation, transportation, manufacturing, storage—or even spread by whiteflies, as in the case of Aspergillus.

Foreign Matter: Hair, mold, insects, cinders, sand, dirt, soil, and even Mammalia excreta (fecal matter) can make their way into products during cultivation, curing, manufacturing, storage, and transporting—despite best efforts to avoid them. Often, improper product handling or facility cleanliness issues in production stages are the cause. It’s important to screen for any foreign matter contaminants to ensure the safety of products.

Moisture/Water Activity: All plants are made up of mostly water. Harvested cannabis and hemp must be dried appropriately prior to storage or manufacturing, as too much water will create a breeding ground for microbial growth such as bacteria, yeast, and mold. The drying process must also be consistent across an entire batch for safety and to accurately determine microbial viability (the probability of any growth occurring). Testing for moisture and water activity is an important measure to confirm shelf-life and stability of a product.

How do Brands Prove Their Label Claims?

Laboratory tests are the only way to confirm label claims. Potency test results declare the factual amount of cannabinoid content like THC and CBD, while terpene profiling indicates the presence and quantity of terpenes in the product. Terpenes help differentiate strains and have a powerful influence over the effect and experience of the cannabis being consumed. Because of their importance, potency and terpene data are the most commonly made label claims to help consumers choose products that fit their needs.

Potency: Potency testing measures the cannabinoids in cannabis and hemp. To confirm that that a plant or product will cause a desired effect or intensity, its potency must be accurately calculated.

Terpene Profiles: Testing for terpene profiles helps to identify unique strains, allowing consumers to make more informed decisions about products that work best for their needs.

How Can I Check if a Product is Safe?

Locate the Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for the product that confirms it was safety tested by an ISO 17025 accredited laboratory. The CoA will allow you to view all testing results. CoA’s can be found via QR code on product packaging, on the products website, or by asking the lab listed on the product directly.

How Do I Find an Accredited Testing Laboratory?

Its imperative to find a lab that is ISO 17025 accredited, but there’s more to it. A majority of labs are only accredited for a few of the tests they perform. You should always check that a lab is accredited for every single compliance test they are performing, and one that stands behind its results. Its also important to find a lab who can coach you through any unexpected failures.

Questions about safety testing? Contact us! Call or email CannaSafe at 1 (818) 922-2416 or [email protected]

CannaSafe is the world’s first ISO 17025 accredited cannabis testing lab and is fully accredited on all compliance testing methodologies. Built on quality and integrity, CannaSafe has expert teams and processes in place that ensure accurate and dependable testing results.

One Comment

  1. Eli Richardson

    I’m glad you talked about how cannabis products get safety-tested before they reach us. Recently, one of my aunts said she’s interested in getting a CBD product for her pain. My aunt wants to be sure she’ll be safe when taking any cannabis product, so I’ll be sure to share your article with her. Thanks for the information on what type of methods they use to test cannabis.

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