The Importance of Lab Testing in Medical Cannabis Products

by | Aug 14, 2023 | Medical Research, Patient Resources

 Quality Assurance in Medical Cannabis

In recent years, the medical cannabis industry has witnessed a remarkable surge, not just globally, but also in the picturesque state of Utah. Nestled amidst the Rocky Mountains, Utah might be known for its breathtaking landscapes and outdoor adventures, but it’s also becoming a significant player in the burgeoning medical cannabis sector.

Medical cannabis, often hailed for its therapeutic benefits, has been embraced by many Utahns seeking alternative treatments for a myriad of health conditions, from chronic pain to epilepsy. As of 2023, the state has seen a steady increase in registered medical cannabis cardholders, pharmacies, and cultivation facilities. This growth is a testament to the potential of cannabis as a medical aid and the evolving perceptions surrounding its use.

However, with this rapid expansion comes a pressing responsibility. The consumption of medical cannabis directly impacts the health and well-being of patients. Therefore, ensuring the quality, purity, and consistency of these products is paramount. Just as we expect rigorous testing for our prescription medications, the same standards should apply to medical cannabis. Quality assurance through lab testing not only safeguards the health of the consumers but also bolsters the credibility and trustworthiness of the industry as a whole.

What is Lab Testing in Cannabis?

As the medical cannabis industry in Utah continues to flourish, ensuring the safety and efficacy of its products remains paramount. Lab testing plays a pivotal role in this assurance process. But what exactly does this testing entail?

1. Adulterant Tests: The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) has the authority to determine required adulterant tests for various cannabis products, including cannabis plant products, concentrates, and other derivatives. These tests ensure that the products are free from harmful substances that could pose health risks to consumers.

2. Toxin Testing: If there’s information indicating the potential presence of a toxin, or if an inspection of a facility gives reason to believe a toxin might be present, the department may require testing for that toxin. This ensures that the products are not only effective but also safe for consumption.

3. Cannabinoid Quantification: Before any cannabis product is sold, it’s essential to identify and quantify any cannabinoid known to be present in the product. This ensures that patients and consumers are well-informed about the potency and composition of the product they’re consuming.

4. Terpene Profile Testing: Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in cannabis that contribute to its unique scent and may also have therapeutic properties. In Utah, testing of terpene profiles is mandatory for raw cannabis and certain cannabis products, such as those contained in a vaporizer cartridge or in concentrate form. The five highest terpene profiles tested are recorded, providing valuable information about the product’s aroma and potential therapeutic effects.

5. Compliance with Department Rules: A cannabis production establishment in Utah is prohibited from incorporating cannabis concentrate into a derivative product or transferring cannabis to a medical cannabis pharmacy until an independent cannabis testing laboratory has tested it in accordance with department rules. Similarly, a medical cannabis pharmacy cannot offer any cannabis product for sale unless it has been tested by an independent laboratory.

6. Proficiency Evaluations: To maintain the highest standards of testing, the department may require an independent cannabis testing laboratory to participate in proficiency evaluations. These evaluations ensure that the labs are competent and that their results are reliable and consistent.

In essence, lab testing in the cannabis industry is a rigorous process designed to ensure product safety, consistency, and quality. It’s a testament to Utah’s commitment to safeguarding the health of its residents while also fostering trust in the burgeoning medical cannabis sector.

Benefits of Lab Testing in Cannabis

The medical and recreational cannabis industry has seen exponential growth, and with this growth comes the responsibility to ensure that the products are safe and of high quality. Lab testing is the backbone of this assurance process. Let’s delve into the numerous benefits of cannabis testing:

Ensuring Product Safety and Purity:

Compliance and oversight are crucial in the cannabis industry. Lab testing ensures that both medical and recreational cannabis products meet the required quality and safety standards. Products are screened to be free from harmful contaminants, ensuring that consumers are protected from potential health risks.

Verifying THC and CBD Concentrations:

Compliance and oversight are crucial in the cannabis industry. Lab testing ensures that both medical and recreational cannabis products meet the required quality and safety standards. Products are screened to be free from harmful contaminants, ensuring that consumers are protected from potential health risks.

Detecting Harmful Contaminants:

  • Pesticides: Despite regulations on pesticide use in agriculture, there are discrepancies in their uses in the cannabis industry, especially in places where cannabis is still considered illegal. Labs employ techniques like QuEChERS extraction followed by LC/MS/MS or GC/MS/MS analysis to detect any residual pesticides in cannabis products.

  • Microbial Testing: Cannabis products are screened for common bacteria such as E. Coli and Salmonella, as well as yeast, mold, and fungi. Techniques like quantitative polymerase-chain-reaction (qPCR) analysis are used to identify microbial components in the sample, ensuring that the products are free from harmful microorganisms.

  • Heavy Metals: Cannabis plants can absorb heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury from the soil. These metals are toxic and can accumulate in the human body over time. Techniques like Atomic Absorption (AA), Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES), and Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) are used to detect the presence of these metals in cannabis products.

Challenges in Cannabis Testing:

While lab testing offers numerous benefits, it’s not without challenges. The lack of standardization in testing requirements, especially in the U.S where regulations vary by state, poses significant challenges. Additionally, the industry faces issues like “lab shopping,” where growers and distributors shop around for labs that give them favorable results. Despite these challenges, the importance of lab testing cannot be understated. It is the cornerstone of ensuring product safety, quality, and consumer trust in the cannabis industry.

Dangers of Untested or Street Cannabis

The rise of medical cannabis has brought about a new era of safety, regulation, and quality assurance. However, not all cannabis products on the market undergo the same rigorous testing and scrutiny. Untested or “street” cannabis, often sold on the black market, poses significant risks to consumers. Here’s why:

Inaccurate Potency Levels:

One of the primary concerns with untested cannabis is the unpredictability of its potency. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that nearly 70% of hemp product labels either over or under-represented their CBD potency. This inconsistency can lead to unintended effects, especially for those using cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Contamination with Harmful Substances:

Untested cannabis products can contain a range of harmful contaminants, including:

  • Heavy Metals: Cannabis is an accumulator plant, meaning it absorbs whatever is in its immediate environment, including soil, nutrients, and water. This can lead to the absorption of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can be toxic when inhaled or ingested.

  • Pesticides: Many black-market cannabis products may contain traces of pesticides, which can be harmful when consumed. Laboratories typically test for a regulatory list of common household pesticide analytes to ensure product safety.

  • Mycotoxins: These are toxic secondary metabolites produced by fungi species. Some mycotoxins, like aflatoxins, have mutagenic properties, classifying them as poisonous carcinogens.

  • Residual Solvents: Especially in cannabis derivative and edible products, residual solvents from the extraction or distillation process can remain. These solvents can be harmful when consumed.


Lack of Quality Control:

Quality control ensures that laboratory data is accurate, reproducible, and legally defensible. Without it, there’s no guarantee of the product’s safety or efficacy. Unfortunately, not all states require quality control, leading to inconsistencies in product quality and safety.

Risk of Illness or Adverse Reactions:

Consuming untested cannabis products can lead to a range of health issues, from mild allergic reactions to severe respiratory problems, especially when contaminants are present.

Misleading Packaging and Labels:

Without regulations and testing, there’s no way to verify the accuracy of product labels. This can lead to misinformation and potential harm, especially if consumers are unaware of what they’re ingesting.

Legal Implications:

Purchasing or distributing black-market cannabis can lead to legal consequences, given that these products bypass the regulatory framework established by states.

Is it Worth it?

While the allure of cheaper prices or higher potencies might draw some towards the black market, the risks associated with untested cannabis are significant. For the safety and well-being of consumers, it’s crucial to purchase cannabis products from reputable sources that adhere to state regulations and testing protocols.

Regulations and Standards: Overview of Current Regulations in Utah Governing Lab Testing in the Cannabis Industry

The state of Utah has established comprehensive regulations to oversee the cannabis industry, ensuring that products are safe, effective, and of the highest quality. One of the critical aspects of these regulations pertains to the independent cannabis testing laboratories. Here’s an overview of the current regulations in Utah:

Licensing and Operation:

  • Independent cannabis testing laboratories in Utah are required to obtain a license, which is valid for 12 months from the date of issuance. Renewals must be submitted at least 30 days before the license expiration date.
  • The license is non-transferable, and any change in ownership exceeding 50% necessitates adherence to specific requirements.
  • Before issuing a license, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) inspects the proposed premises to ensure compliance with state laws and rules.

Laboratory Requirements:

  • Laboratories must employ a scientific director responsible for maintaining quality standards and supervising staff. The director’s qualifications range from a doctorate with 2 years of post-degree experience to a bachelor’s degree with 6 years of experience.
  • Laboratories must follow validated analytical methods from reputable scientific organizations or notify the UDAF of any alternative methods.
  • All testing laboratories are required to maintain an average testing turnaround time below ten business days within any three-month period.
  • Laboratories must achieve and maintain the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 17025:2017 accreditation.

Security and Inventory Control:

  • Security measures include alarm systems, video surveillance, and controlled access areas. Video footage must be retained for at least 45 days.
  • Each test sample must have a unique identification number, and the inventory control system should trace each sample to its originating lot or batch.

Transportation and Waste Disposal:

  • A printed transport manifest, detailing various aspects of the transported cannabis, must accompany every transport.
  • Cannabis waste generated during testing must be stored, managed, and disposed of in accordance with state law. Before disposal, cannabis waste must be rendered unusable by mixing it with other materials.

Violation Categories and Penalties:

  • Violations are categorized into Public Safety Violations, Regulatory Violations, and Licensing Violations, with penalties ranging from $500 to $5,000 per violation, depending on the severity and category.

Importance of Standardized Testing Protocols:

Standardized testing protocols are crucial for ensuring consistency, reliability, and accuracy in lab results. With the cannabis industry’s growth, consumers and medical professionals need to trust that the products they use or prescribe are safe and meet the claimed specifications. Standardized protocols ensure that all laboratories adhere to the same high standards, eliminating discrepancies in results and ensuring that products on the market are of the highest quality.

Consumer Awareness: Interpreting Lab Results in Cannabis

In the rapidly expanding world of cannabis, ensuring product safety and quality is paramount. As consumers become more educated about their choices, understanding lab results becomes crucial. Here’s a breakdown of the role of lab testing in building consumer trust and how consumers can interpret these results:

The Problem with Hemp and Cannabis Labels:

Many headlines have highlighted the inaccuracies in hemp and cannabis product labels. For instance, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that nearly 70% of hemp labels either over or under-represented their CBD potency. Furthermore, 18 of the 84 hemp products studied contained THC, sometimes in amounts significant enough to produce intoxicating effects. This has led to a growing trend of consumer mistrust, emphasizing the importance of third-party lab testing and the publication of Certificates of Analysis (COA) for consumer review.

What is a Certificate of Analysis (COA)?

A COA is a verified document provided by third-party laboratories that details the testing results of a product. It offers insights into the potency of ingredients, such as cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBG, and CBN. COAs also include information on terpenes and ensure the product is free from harmful contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides, molds, and bacteria. If a COA is not readily available, it’s advised not to consume or purchase the product.

How to Read a COA:

  • Header: This section provides details about the report date, the third-party laboratory’s name, the product’s brand, batch number, and description. It’s essential to ensure that the COA’s data matches the product you’re considering.
  • Results Summary: This section gives a quick overview of the key results, including the potency of all cannabinoids and safety testing results for contaminants.
  • Potency (Cannabinoids & Terpenes): Here, you’ll find detailed information about the concentration of each cannabinoid and terpene in the product. The results are often presented in both mg per gram and as a percentage of the product’s overall weight.
  • Safety Test Results: This section provides results for harmful contaminants such as residual solvents, heavy metals, mycotoxins, and pesticides. It’s crucial to ensure that every analyte tests below the safe limit.
  • Pathogenic Microbiology: This section highlights the presence or absence of dangerous microorganisms like Listeria Monocytogenes. A result indicating “absence” is what consumers should look for.
  • Footer: This section confirms the laboratory’s transparency and accountability. It should contain signatures from the laboratory’s key personnel and provide details about the lab’s license and credentials.

Red Flags to Watch Out For:

  • When comparing the COA to the product, be wary of missing safety tests, missing cannabinoids, absence of lab certifications, excessive THC, lesser CBD than advertised, and fewer terpenes than claimed.

The Pivotal Role of Lab Testing in the Medical Cannabis Industry

Lab testing goes beyond merely checking boxes on a compliance sheet; it’s a rigorous process that delves deep into the molecular structure of cannabis, ensuring that every product that reaches a consumer has been thoroughly vetted for purity, potency, and quality. This meticulous scrutiny ensures that harmful contaminants, from heavy metals to pesticides, are absent, and that the therapeutic components, like CBD and THC, are present in accurate and effective concentrations.

For consumers, especially those who turn to medical cannabis for relief from ailments, the importance of this cannot be overstated. They deserve products that live up to their promises, free from the shadow of doubt or concern. Lab testing, and the transparency it brings, ensures that they can trust the products they use, knowing that behind every label is a rigorous process dedicated to their safety and well-being.

Furthermore, as the industry continues to grow, standardized lab testing will play a crucial role in shaping regulations, guiding research, and informing medical professionals about the potential benefits and risks of cannabis-based treatments. It’s a cornerstone upon which the credibility and future of the medical cannabis industry rests.

In essence, lab testing is more than just a procedure; it’s a commitment to excellence, a pledge to transparency, and a testament to the unwavering dedication of the medical cannabis industry to its consumers. As we look to the future, it remains our most vital tool in ensuring that the promise of medical cannabis is realized to its fullest potential, bringing hope, relief, and wellness to countless individuals worldwide.