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New NIST Study Will Help to Standardize Cannabis Potency Testing

The legal difference between marijuana and hemp is the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is contained in each. THC has intoxicating capabilities. Consequently, it is classified by the DEA as a schedule 1 controlled substance and considered illegal under federal law. Because hemp has only trace amounts of intoxicating THC, it doesn’t fall into this category and was federally legalized by the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. This means it is legal to manufacture, sell, and consume cannabis products as long as the THC concentration is below the federal mandate for hemp of 0.3% by dry weight.

However, with a lack of standardization for testing consumer product goods between labs, getting a reliable concentration of THC has proven somewhat difficult for the emerging legal cannabis/hemp industries. Many labs are not equipped with the right techniques and have variability due to calibration standards, analysts, instrumentation, and sample handling and preparation procedures, leading to difficulty in achieving standardization in the industry.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is conducting a study that will help labs provide accurate measurements of THC and other cannabinoids in products. This is in tandem with their quality assurance program branded CannaQAP.

NIST will prepare samples with well characterized amounts of THC, CBD, and other compounds and send them out to participating labs that are equipped to test for cannabinoid potency. The labs will measure the levels of different cannabinoids and the results will be sent back to NIST for statistical comparison.

The repercussions of violating the 0.3% THC threshold are serious as it may lead to the loss of crop or prosecution. Therefore, it is imperative that guidance is provided to labs on how to produce accurate measurements. The study will not only focus on THC levels, but also the levels of 16 other cannabinoids. For hemp farmers, this will prove the legality of their crop and will help producers and consumers to be able to accurately label and dose their products.

Since biomass is inherently heterogenous, NIST is being particularly thorough in their methods of standardization of the samples sent out for analysis in the study. The plant samples are being ground into a powder and screened according to particle size. The homogenous powder will then be batch tested for levels of cannabinoids and contaminants. The samples will then be packed and sent to the participating labs with strict instructions for sample handling and results reporting.

The results of this study will be published by NIST, with individual results from participating labs anonymized. With this study, NIST hopes to create a learning opportunity for cannabis testing labs and will also use the results to summarize the methods and practices that worked best, providing guidance to the industry. Lastly, NIST hopes to create a reference material for hemp that will act as an industry guideline. This will provide leadership and guidance for hemp testing methods and procedures.

The lack of standardization in testing methods has been a significant impediment that has curtailed the growth of the legal cannabis industry. When the purity and potency of a sample fluctuates from one product to the next, consumers begin to lose confidence in the products, something that standardization from organizations like NIST will help remedy.

Check back to learn more about Ionization Labs’ participation in the NIST CannaQAP program from one of our chemists. 

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