Insights from industry

Compliance Testing within the Cannabis Industry

insights from industryAdam FloydAnalytical ChemistCascade Lab Consulting
In this interview, Adam Floyd, the Analytical Chemist at Cascade Lab Consulting, talks to AZOM about compliance testing within the cannabis industry.

Please could you start by telling our readers who you are, what you do, and a little about your background?

My name is Adam Floyd, and I am an analytical chemist. I work primarily in the cannabis testing space in California, doing compliance testing for the state.

Any retail cannabis good that you buy at a dispensary will have had compliance testing done on it. In this context, compliance testing is a form of safety testing, very similar to the safety testing done in industries, such as baby food or tobacco.

All these products have to go through analytical testing, although the cannabis standards are particularly strict.

Could you talk about the kind of equipment you use to perform this testing?

We have two laboratories: one in Nevada City, California, and one in Hollister, California. These laboratories are exclusively equipped with PerkinElmer instruments.

For example, we use a NexION ICP Mass Spectrometer for heavy metal analysis, allowing us to test for all the analytes required in California. This instrument is very robust and with an easy workflow.

We use a Flexar HPLC for potency testing, routinely testing 12 different cannabinoids. We also use the Clarus GC Mass Spectrometer with Headspace for both residual solvent and terpene analysis – we are able to use both of those techniques on the same insturment.

We use the QSight 420 LC Triple Quad for all of our pesticide analyses. The unique design of this instrument means that we are able to cover the entire list of 66 pesticides and five mycotoxins required in California.

This work is typically done with both a GC Triple Quad and an LC Triple Quad, but because of the design of the QSight, we are able to use two different ionization sources and do everything using a single platform.

Non-LC amenable compounds can be analyzed through atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI) versus standard electrospray ionization (ESI), which is the usual technique for LC Triple.

One of the other things that I love about the QSight is that its design requires very few cleaning steps. This is important because cannabis is one of the nastiest matrices out there to work with in terms of its impact on insturmentation.

There are more than a hundred different matrices in cannabis. I wrote an extraction SOP for cannabinoids, and we included 41 different matrices in that SOP alone.

There is typically a certain amount of sample preparation for any kind of biological matrix, but what specifically sets cannabis apart? Why is it such a difficult matrix to work with?

There are a number of reasons why cannabis is so challenging. The first is the cannabis flower itself and the fact that the terpene and cannabinoid profiles in these flowers are vastly different between strains.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Ben Armstrong, did a study where he looked at pesticide recoveries in different strains of flower. He discovered a big difference in the recovery of some pesticides based on the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the flower itself.

The range of extracts also adds complications – there are live resins, butters and distillates, each with their own properties that require different extraction techniques.

Our job is to figure out how to analyze each one of these complex and difficult matrices, and a lot of the time, this is done on the fly – the sample shows up at our labs and people want results in two days. I have spent many late evenings working with these samples.

Another issue is all the product formulations. We often see brownies, cookies and different edibles, but also more novel formulations. We have tested drinks, THC beer, transdermal patches, horse pills and dog treats.

As it is such a new industry, people are trying to find their place in it. As a compliance lab, we have to figure out how to test all these formulations.

How has the compliance lab space developed to meet the needs of the market since it has become legal to sell cannabis products in California? What trends have you seen in terms of methodologies and analysis techniques as a result of this?

The Department of Cannabis Control oversees all cannabis functions in the state of California, and their Laboratory Division oversees the regulatory lab. Cannabis was a black-market industry until somewhat recently.

One of the biggest problems in the industry in California is nefarious labs either pumping up potency values or passing through dirty products, which should not be passed.

This is a significant problem that they are addressing by opening state labs and looking towards standardizing the methodology.

Six to eight labs have collapsed over the last six months. I think a lot of people came into this industry expecting it to be a money-printing machine, and the reality of the situation is that it is not. There are 38 active labs in California, and the barrier to entry is expensive – at least $1.2 million in instrumentation.

It also takes 6 to 9 months to get through the validation process with a good team, but this can take as long as two to three years. That is a period in which the lab is burning cash with $0 in revenue. I would say that this is one of the big struggles.

Chemical methodology is another challenge. Until somewhat recently, nobody was allowed to touch cannabis. A lot of these methods are brand new. I have done a tremendous amount of work developing methods and it is a constantly evolving process.

Toxicology and related methods have been established for many years, while EPA methods must be run exactly. In California and other states that have legalized cannabis, they expect labs to define their own methods rather than stipulating what these should look like.

As a scientist, you want to do everything you can to provide accurate data, and there have been a lot of late nights on my part trying to achieve that. It is moving in a positive direction, however, and things are definitely a lot better than they were a few years ago.

How has the COVID pandemic affected the cannabis market? A lot of industries have exhibited a binary response, with many scientific fields either shutting down or struggling. In contrast, many medical analysis labs have flourished because there has been so much work to do around the pandemic. Where has the cannabis market - and your lab - fallen on that spectrum?

For the most part, the pandemic has affected us negatively, which is unfortunate. We employ strict COVID precautions, but a lot of the work - whether it is cultivation, retail shops, distribution or laboratories – all requires human beings to be physically on-site. The amount of work that can be done remotely is fairly limited.

Vaccination does not seem to be widespread in the cannabis industry and many people are still having to isolate after contracting COVID. This prevents both the cultivators and us from generating revenue, and it has certainly made it harder.

Could you tell our readers more about the current state of the cannabis market in California in light of the pandemic and other changes?

It has certainly changed. If you tried to raise money for a cannabis business even four years ago, people would throw cash at you all day long. Now, it is much harder, for a number of reasons.

One key reason is that growing good cannabis is an art form, but growing decent cannabis is not all that difficult.

It is a commercial product, and the drop in retail price has affected a lot of cultivators. Many years ago, cannabis sold for as much as $3,500 to $4,000 a pound, and now, people are selling it for as low as $350 to $400 a pound.

Four or five years ago, you could not get rid of weed fast enough. Now, people are sitting on significant volumes.

These factors have led to a lot of these businesses operating paycheck to paycheck in a sense, and sitting on products affects the bottom line a lot.

There is also still a huge black market in California, with well over half of the cannabis grown in the state not going through compliance testing. No taxes are being paid on that cannabis, and it is potentially dangerous too.

I think that many lessons have been learned, and the state seems to have started to understand these problems. The market has certainly been tumultuous over the last few years and it is not in the best state, in my opinion. I think that there is a lot of work still to be done.

In terms of your labs, what are your main plans for development over the coming years?

One of the things that are difficult for labs is logistics, particularly in terms of getting samples. For example, we are about 500 miles away from the Los Angeles area, from Southern California.

There is a tremendous amount of business there that we cannot easily tap into. We cannot mail samples, so you have to physically send a driver down there, and the logistics of that can be very difficult.

One of the things that we are trying to do right now is to have three labs in California. That will allow us to service about 90% of the state.

As you grow, if you have three labs, the cost per operation is relatively lower than a single lab. For example, you only need one person to do the finances and handle the logistics - it all makes a lot more sense.

One of the things that kill labs is instrument downtime, so it is advantageous to have backups that allow samples to continue to be processed. I have seen a number of labs collapse because of instrument downtime.

This network of labs is our primary goal at the moment, and we are working on eventually expanding outside of California. This will allow us to bring the standard that we have here into other states that are starting to get online with lab testing.

We feel that we are a few years ahead of that, which will give us a competitive advantage moving into some of these new states.

You chose to use a full suite of PerkinElmer analysis equipment in your existing labs. Could you talk about your history with PerkinElmer and how you came to that decision?

I used to work for PerkinElmer. I was the Field Application Scientist for gas chromatography for cannabis for the entire United States. This role saw me spend a year traveling around, delivering training and helping to write methods for cannabis analysis.

One thing that I will say about PerkinElmer is they have taken the ambitious step to embrace cannabis.

A lot of the instrumentation companies were initially very anti-cannabis, and a lot of them still are. PerkinElmer took that leap, and our labs need to have close, supportive instrumentation partners to be successful – something we get through PerkinElmer.

Where would you like to see the industry in 5 to 10 years’ time? What steps do regulatory or industry bodies need to move the environment and market in a positive direction?

One of the biggest necessary steps is ensuring proper oversight. Some of the nefarious labs in the state have been rewarded for doing bad work and passing bad products. The state has recently opened two internal labs to address this.

I previously worked in the fertilizer industry, and this industry had state labs that would pull the product off the shelf and test it. If the label claim was not plus or minus 10% of what they got, this would be flagged up.

Currently, these nefarious labs can just operate, causing problems. If I am putting out a COA that says 18% THC, but a lab down the street is putting one out that says 28%, who are the flower growers going to work with?

The state needs to help the people that are trying to do things the right way and crack down on the black market. I think that they are already moving in the right direction, and I am very hopeful to see how this evolves over the next couple of years.

About PerkinElmer

PerkinElmer is a global leader committed to innovating for a healthier world. Our dedicated team of 12,500 employees worldwide is passionate about providing customers with an unmatched experience as they help solve critical issues especially impacting the diagnostics, discovery, and analytical solutions markets. Our innovative detection, imaging, informatics, and service capabilities, combined with deep market knowledge and expertise, help customers gain earlier and more accurate insights to improve lives and the world around us.

About Adam Floyd

Adam Floyd is Chief Scientific Officer for The Higher Commitment, the co-founder of Cascade Laboratory Consulting, and the CEO of Soil Labs. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and has over ten years of professional experience in the cannabis industry with previous roles at Vermicrop Organics, General Hydroponics, The Hawthorne Gardening Company, PerkinElmer, and Think20 Laboratories. He frequently engages in public speaking opportunities in the cannabis laboratory space and is a prolific writer on the subject.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by PerkinElmer.

For more information on this source, please visit PerkinElmer.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.


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