Neon colored test tubes around a cannabis leaf

Do you know what a third-party cannabis testing lab does after receiving your sample?

Your cannabis products help people every day.

Whether your customers consume cannabis for chronic pain relief or to relieve occasional anxiety, cannabis is medicine. And like all medicines, your products must be safe. Consumers trust your brand, and they depend on the accuracy of your product labels to safely and effectively experience the plant’s therapeutic effects. 

Testing your cannabis to ensure it’s safe for consumption has never been more critical. Legal states have complex testing regulations, and cannabis testing is now a 1.1 billion dollar industry.

Of course, there’s still a lot of confusion around what happens when you send your sample off to an accredited lab.

Let’s take a look at the tests required to bring your cannabis flower to market.

Why is third-party cannabis testing necessary?

As we’ve noted before, third-party testing is essential for compliance, consumer safety, and quality control. It’s also mandatory in most legal states. Sending your samples to a lab ensures state regulation compliance. It also ensures the safety of your products with lab-verified data.

Of course, third-party testing isn’t perfect. It’s often questionable and inaccurate. That’s why it’s beneficial to test in-house before you send your products to a state-accredited lab. 

How much will cannabis testing cost me?

When you send off cannabis samples for third-party testing, you might spend anywhere from $50 to $250. And the numbers constantly change. 

One estimate shows the weighted average cost for testing can be around $504 per sample, and in 2019, another assessment found testing in California costs around $136 per pound of dried cannabis flower.

Third-party testing is costly, but it’s nothing compared to the financial losses cultivators incur when their sample fails and they have to destroy an entire product or harvest. This should be incentive enough to do everything possible to avoid an “F.”

What are the most common cannabis tests performed?

Every state with legalized and regulated medical and recreational cannabis requires testing for contaminants (pesticides, molds, heavy metals, etc.) and potency (measuring cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, and cannabidiol or CBD.)

Currently, there are five common tests that each state requires. Such as:

Potency Testing

Potency testing determines the cannabinoid percentages in your product. Cannabis is a complex plant comprised of more than 60 psychoactive and non-psychoactive cannabinoid compounds. No matter what state you’re in, you must obtain potency data for two of the most common cannabinoids: THC and CBD. 

Knowing how much THC or CBD is in a given product is essential when prescribing cannabis for a specific therapeutic benefit. Some consumers may want a strain with an equal CBD: THC ratio, while others may benefit from the effects of a strain higher in THC than CBD.

Testing for other compounds in the cannabis plant, like highly aromatic (and beneficial) terpenes, can be performed, but it’s not typically required by law. 

Accredited third-party testing facilities will test for potency using gas chromatography or high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).

Pesticide Testing

Cannabis, like anything other cultivated plant, can fall prey to all sorts of insects and small creatures. Cultivators use pesticides to prevent, repel, and destroy these intruders. 

Naturally, there are concerns around the carryover of pesticides into the final cannabis product. High insecticide and fungicide residuals can be hazardous to your health. Ensuring your product is free of contaminants and safe for consumption is critical.

The risks linked with chronic pesticide exposure are troubling and sometimes fatal, making accurate pesticide testing all the more critical.

The EPA hasn’t yet established cannabis pesticide guidelines since cannabis is still federally illegal. Still, individual states have determined the pesticides they consider safe for consumption and acceptable pesticide levels present in the final cannabis product. California monitors 66 pesticides, whereas Oregon monitors 59. Colorado only targets 15.

Liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry are the most common cannabis pesticide testing methods.

Heavy Metals Testing

Cannabis is a bio-accumulator – it’s highly adept at absorbing all of the soil’s heavy metals during cultivation. 

When cannabis stores contaminants like heavy metals into its flower, it can pose a health risk to any consumer that may ingest or inhale the finished product, especially when it comes to heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, lead, or cadmium.

Heavy metal contamination can even come from the equipment used during the processing and post-processing stages if cultivators aren’t careful about cleaning their machines.

The best method for detecting heavy metals in your cannabis is through inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).

Microbial Testing

Microbial testing is mandatory. Like the food industry, cannabis plants are at risk of microbes, and microbes can prove fatal to immunocompromised consumers.

While bacterias like salmonella and E. Coli may be rather unlikely in cannabis, there is still the chance that some flower or cannabis-infused edibles containing milk and egg could run the risk of contamination.

Labs carrying out microbial testing will often use two methods: culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).

Mycotoxin Testing

As we’ve covered before, molds can be a cultivator’s worst nightmare. When molds increase, they can release a whole swarm of harmful mycotoxins, potentially ruining your entire harvest.

Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites that penetrate deep into the cannabis plant. These molecules, when ingested or inhaled, can cause illness and death. As of today, there has been one confirmed case of a patient dying as a result of carcinogenic aflatoxins produced by aspergillus.

Unlike pesticides and heavy metal contaminants, mycotoxins produce naturally. Cultivation facilities and grow rooms are hotbeds for the growth of molds and fungi. 

While general cannabis testing isn’t so uniform around the country, almost all states test for the same five mycotoxins: aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, G2, and ochratoxin A. However, each state may have varying ideas about what limit of mycotoxins is acceptable to be present on a product.

The most straightforward tests for mycotoxins are qualitative testing strips and quantitive testing strips. Accredited labs may use fluorometry (the visible spectrum of fluorescence) or liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LCMS).

Are there cannabis compliance tips I can refer to?

Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division compiled a list of compliance tips to guide testing your cannabis for research purposes. 

How can I test my cannabis in-house?

Every cultivator should test in-house. In-house cannabis testing helps you understand what you’re growing and enables you to eliminate testing failures before sending your sample off to an accredited lab. 

Understandably, not everyone has a $100K lying around to purchase professional cannabis testing equipment. That’s why we developed our affordable, easy-to-use, portable, non-destructive, accurate, fast, and eco-friendly in-house cannabis testing solutions. 

Compliance and consumer safety come first. Your brand’s trust and reputation come second. Learn how you can pass testing with flying colors while consistently putting out a quality product.