A federal science agency announced on Tuesday that it is launching a cannabis testing program to help ensure that the products people purchase from retailers and dispensaries are accurately labeled.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said that since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s an urgent need for consumers to be adequately informed about cannabis products being sold on the market. To that end, the agency will be spearheading a multi-phase project to encourage best practices in lab testing.
While the immediate focus of the Cannabis Quality Assurance (CannaQAP) program will be on hemp-derived oils like CBD, officials said it’s possible they will expand the program to test marijuana flower, concentrates and edibles—a notable step for a federal agency while the intoxicating version of cannabis remains prohibited.
The program is meant to “help laboratories accurately measure key chemical compounds in marijuana, hemp and other cannabis products including oils, edibles, tinctures and balms,” NIST, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said in a press release. “The program aims to increase accuracy in product labeling and help forensic laboratories distinguish between hemp, which is legal in all states, and marijuana, which is not.”
The first part of the CannaQAP effort will involve NIST sending hemp oil samples to participating labs and asking them to “measure the concentration of various compounds and report back.” It added that plant material samples will be sent for testing at a later stage.
NIST said that while most labels note the concentrations of two key cannabis ingredients—THC and CBD—many labs do not have experience conducting these tests, leading to cases of “unreliable” results.
“When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10 percent CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number,” NIST research chemist Brent Wilson said.
The institute will send hemp oil samples with identical concentrations of THC, CBD and more than a dozen other cannabinoids to participating labs. “Those labs won’t be told the concentrations of those compounds but will measure them and send their results back to NIST, along with information about the methods they used to do the analysis,” it said.
“After collecting responses, NIST will publish the measurements the labs obtained. That data will be anonymized so that the names of the individual labs are not revealed,” the notice states. “However, the results will show how much variability there is between labs. Also, NIST will publish the correct measurements, so each lab will be able to see how accurate its measurements were and how it performed relative to its peers.”
NIST research chemist Melissa Phillips said that anonymity “means that labs don’t have to worry about how their performance will be viewed.”
“Our goal is to help labs improve, not to call them out,” she said.
Once NIST researchers are able to review the results, they said they will be better positioned to issue recommendations on best practices for cannabis testing. The initial exercise is expected to take six months to a year.
“We hope to see a tightening of the numbers the second time around,” Wilson said.
NIST noted that the CannaQAP program is important as a matter of criminal law given that hemp farmers must comply with a federal mandate that their crops contain no more than 0.3 percent THC.
The Food and Drug Administration recently submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.
The report, which is responsive to a mandate that Congress attached to appropriations legislation last year, shows significant inconsistencies between cannabinoid concentrations that are listed on labels and what the products actually contain. At the same time, it found negligible evidence that dangerous metals and minerals are contaminating these products.
The new federal CannaQAP effort might go beyond legal hemp products.
“NIST is also planning to conduct future exercises with ground hemp and possibly marijuana,” the agency said. “Those exercises will involve measuring a larger number of compounds, including terpenes—the chemicals that give different strains of marijuana their distinct aromas—and compounds that people don’t want in their cannabis such as fungal toxins, pesticides and heavy metals. Future exercises may also include extracts, concentrates, distillates and edibles.”
Finally, NIST said it will be developing a standard hemp reference material, or “a material that comes with known, accurate measurement values” that labs can use to validate their testing methods.
“Labs can accurately measure how much sugar is in your orange juice because they have standardized methods and reference materials for that type of product,” Susan Audino, a chemistry consultant and science adviser the AOAC International, a group that creates standard methods for laboratory analysis. “But cannabis has been a Schedule I drug since the ‘70s.”
Phillips of NIST said the institute’s goal with this program is “to support U.S. industries by helping labs achieve high-quality measurements.”
Labs that would be interested in participating in the CannaQAP program can register on NIST’s website. The deadline to sign up for the first exercise is August 31.