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Why Does Cannabis Need To Be Lab Tested?

If you’ve ever purchased a cannabis product, you’ve probably seen the words “Third Party Tested” on the label. Many cannabis producers are getting their products lab tested before introducing them to the consumer. Why is lab testing important? There are several reasons that cannabis needs to be lab-tested before purchase.

We will examine these reasons, and also find out what exactly these tests are testing for, and what kind of tests they are. Being aware of these factors may prevent you from purchasing an untested product that could be potentially hazardous or doesn’t suit your needs. 

What are the Reasons Labs Test Cannabis?

1. Safety

Like any agricultural product that we consume, there is an array of materials that come in contact with cannabis before the final product is placed in front of you. These materials can be anything from nutrients to heavy metals in the soil to pesticides used in the plant’s cultivation. Pesticides can even spread from a neighboring farm. These materials can be easily absorbed anywhere in the plant from the top of the cannabis flower to its roots, and can then be consumed by us. Some of these materials can be dangerous to our health. Cannabis products are now tested before they are sent out to consumers to ensure our safety.

Cannabis can be invaded by mites, rodents, and other infestations that could harm the plant. As a result, pesticides and fungicides are often used by cannabis cultivators. Additionally, plant growth regulators are chemicals that may be used to increase the growth of cannabis and can also be used as a herbicide. All of these chemical compounds can leave a residue and possibly be dangerous to consumers if left at unsafe levels. For instance, a pesticide containing myclobutanil could cause cancer and increase the risk of birth defects.

Heavy metals that are in the soil can be absorbed through the plant’s roots, and therefore exist in the final product. If enough lead is found in cannabis, for instance, this could affect the makeup of our bones and teeth, muscle movements, and nerves and blood vessels.

Microbes can grow due to the natural moisture that occurs in the plant. Any plants with mold or fungal contaminants can be harmful, especially to people with asthma, allergies, or have a compromised immune system. In these cases, mold can cause a severe infection. For the average person, mold can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs.

Testing the products for these harmful contaminants is the only way to ensure consumer health and safety. There have been standards set in place by regulatory agencies that have established the top limit for things like pesticides, heavy metals, microbes, residual solvents, and mycotoxins in the cannabis plant. These standards give a baseline for the testing procedure. Each compound has an acceptable limit and is listed in the product’s certificate of analysis. This is true for any agricultural product we consume.

2. Potency, quality, consistency, makeup, and profile

It is important to know what you are getting in your product. What cannabinoids and terpenes do they have in it and how much? Knowing the makeup and profile of your product will enable you to know what kind of high you will get. You will then come to better rely on your product due to its consistency.

Varying amounts of compounds will influence the overall experience. To ensure the product you consume is high quality and consistent, make sure it has been lab-tested. When producers know the exact contents of their products, it allows them to be properly labeled. Then when reading the labels, you can easily find the best choice for you in terms of potency, terpenes, and other contents.

Being aware of the product’s contents is especially important for medical cannabis. Users of medical marijuana depend on a certain standard of cannabis for their health. Thus, knowing what they can expect from their product allows them to depend on it to treat their condition. Having an unexpected component in their product could lead them down a health spiral that hurts them rather than helps them.

Pieces of marijuana in different laboratory bottles.

What Do Labs Test For?

Now that we know a few of the reasons why cannabis should be lab-tested, let’s find out what it is specifically tested for. To be clear, testing will vary depending on the company testing as well as the location. In general, however, most tests are about the same; but some can be a bit more thorough. Here is a list of the things cannabis products are typically tested for:

  • Potency: Cannabis producers are required by law to test their products for THC and CBD. It is important to list the level of potency on the bottle so the consumer can pick what is right for them. Some people prefer more THC, while some prefer CBD with no THC at all. Several metrics can indicate the content, such as by including cannabinoids per weight, total cannabinoids present, or a ratio of THC:CBD. Other cannabinoids tested by labs are CBDa, THCa, CBG, CBN, and CBC. These are sought after by people looking for medicinal benefits who need to know the product they are getting.
  • Chemical contaminants: Commercial growers often use pesticides, fungicides, and rodenticides to protect the crop from outside invaders. Additionally, chemicals like artificial growth hormones can be dangerous for human consumption. An often used fungicide called myclobutanil is harmful if swallowed, and can cause eye irritation. It may also damage the organs and can affect fertility. Many other FDA-approved chemicals can negatively affect us if consumed. And they can not only show up in the plant form but in concentrates as well. The extraction process can concentrate the amounts of pesticides as well, which could be especially dangerous. Having the cannabis tested can eliminate any potential risk from consuming chemical contaminants. Banned pesticides are agreed upon by state regulatory bodies. Cannabis products are then tested and must be un-contaminated to be sold in a dispensary.

  • Terpenes: Terpenes are aromatic oil compounds found naturally in cannabis, as well as other plants. Within cannabis products, terpenes determine color, flavor, and aroma. Often found in CBD products, terpenes can provide benefits like better sleep, more energy, or pain relief. Producers test the terpene content to maintain a consistent product, allowing the consumers a reliable product for their lifestyle or medical needs.
  • Microbial contaminants: If a product has been processed improperly or has been contaminated, bacteria can develop. This bacteria could potentially harm the consumer. Lab tests are in place to make sure that no bacteria is in the product that shouldn’t be. Tests will also be for moisture content since bacteria need moisture to grow. More moist products, such as fresh cannabis, will be tested for bacteria like E.coli, Clostridium botulinum, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Mycotoxins like fungi, mold, and mildew also flourish in a wet environment. These can be dangerous if ingested, especially for those with existing medical conditions or who are immune-compromised. Typically microbiological contamination occurs during the cultivation of the plant, but it can also happen during the handling and packaging of the product.

  • Physical contaminants: Besides microbes, there are other factors like dust, dirt, hair, and fecal particles that can come in contact with cannabis during handling or packaging. Also, heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium can be found in cannabis products. These may come from the ground and become absorbed in the roots of the plant. Typically a visual microscopic examination is done when testing for physical contaminants.

  • Residual solvents: If the product has been produced through an extraction process, there may be remaining solvents left after the process has been completed. Some common ones are butane, xylene, and ethanol. These solvents help extract cannabinoids and terpenes but can be harmful to human consumption. Small amounts are allowed, but the levels permitted differ from state to state. Not all extraction methods use solvents, like CO2 extraction, and therefore can skip testing for residual solvents.

Types of Lab Tests for Cannabis

Now that we have an idea of what should be tested for in cannabis, let’s discover what lab tests are used to find them. These tests are important for testing potency as well as for discovering potential contaminants that can affect our health.

1. Analytical chromatography (GC, LC, HPLC): This type of test is great for determining potency in cannabis products. It can detect the presence and concentration of certain compounds. It is conducted by dissolving a sample into a fluid and then pouring it through an absorbent. The rate of speed it passes through and the colors that are left behind on the absorbent can be analyzed to determine what compounds are present and at what concentrations. The common methods of chromatography are gas chromatography (GC), liquid chromatography (LC), and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Methods like GC add heat to the samples, resulting in decarboxylated cannabinoids. Therefore, HPLC is said to be the most efficient and accurate method.

2. Mass spectrometry (MS): This test is used to measure masses of molecules and chemical compounds. It does this by ionizing compounds and applying an electric or magnetic field. The rate of deflection is then measured in a spectrum and sorted by mass-to-charge ratio. MS is necessary for testing for the presence of pesticides and other chemicals.

3. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR): GC and HPLC tests are more pricey due to their use of a high amount of solvents and take a lot of time. For this reason, NMR is becoming more commonly used. This test doesn’t destroy samples, use solvents, or take a lot of time. NMR works by measuring magnetic fields around atomic nuclei. The sample is hit with radio waves in a magnetic field which stimulates the nuclei. This is then picked up by radio receivers. The changes in the frequency of the magnetic fields are measured and indicate the detail and structure of the contents.

Why are Cannabis Products Third Party Tested?

Now that we have established why testing is important and what kind of tests there are, who does the actual testing? You may be wondering why the cannabis companies do not test their products in-house before they are sent to retailers. There are a few good reasons for third party testing.

First of all, the equipment needed for hemp and marijuana testing is expensive. A mass spectrometer can cost as much as $10,000. There is also special knowledge from a qualified professional needed to run the equipment and to do the tests effectively.

The tests should be carried out in the right kind of facility that has been cleared for this kind of work. They must be properly sanitized and have enough room for the equipment.

So, instead of shelling out a ton of money for the equipment and making some extra room in their facility, cannabis companies pay a third-party laboratory. This is much more efficient and convenient for them. Also, you the consumer know that the information is being provided by a source that has no interest in the results and cannot profit off of it. You are more likely to trust their test results than any results the producer may have come up with.

A woman doing tests on marijuana samples in a lab.

Testing Standards of Cannabis Products

Testing requirements for cannabis right now are very lax as a whole. Cannabis products are required to be tested for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) content, but that’s about it. Other requirements are vague and varied. Oftentimes companies opt for more testing so you the consumer can know the product you are getting and feel more at ease. Every state has its own set of regulations for analytical testing, making it difficult to have set standards across the U.S. We recommend you check your state’s laws to see what is required of cannabis testing labs in your area.

Because the standards in the cannabis industry are so shaky right now, many states are turning to other industry standards for testing and calibrating their laboratories. These states are turning to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to standardize their practice. Working by the ISO/IEC 17025 standard allows labs to demonstrate their ability to successfully generate valid results. Being ISO 17025 accredited can be a difficult standard to achieve and requires effort to maintain. Therefore having a product with this kind of accreditation can inspire confidence in the consumer.

The testing protocols, or compliance data, are mandated by the state’s regulatory body. The products undergoing these protocols must meet compliance, meaning they have acceptable levels of pesticides, contaminants, mold, and mildew. Cannabis producers need to complete compliance testing to distribute and sell their products legally.

We recommend that you buy products that have been tested in an accredited lab. This usually indicates the tests will be more accurate and thorough. The core group of tests in accredited labs use proper analytical methods to come up with this data. Accredited labs are fully equipped with the right equipment, and have a qualified staff of chemists and microbiologists. Despite the accreditation of these labs, there are still no universal standards to follow, and each state simply follows its protocols.

Consume Smartly and Safely

Whether you are buying CBD topicals, recreational marijuana, Delta-8 distillate, or any other cannabis product, it is always a good idea to buy a product that has gone through a cannabis testing laboratory. But first, as always we encourage you to explore the current state of legalization of cannabis products in your area. Not only should your product be safely lab-tested, but it should also be safe for you to consume legally. Consume smartly and safely.