Testing and Consistency

As of today, South African permit the private use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. As public opinion shifts, with 81% of South Africans supporting the use of cannabis as a medical treatment and 49% supporting legalization for recreational use, this trend is expected to grow not only in South Africa but in other countries as well. 

The end of cannabis prohibition is within reach and at the benefit of millions of patients and recreational users, essentially spawning a new and thriving industry. Like any other industry, regulation and testing are needed in order to ensure consumer safety and in the case of cannabis, product consistency. 

Traditional cannabis testing involves the use of sophisticated analytical instruments by laboratories to identify and quantify the levels of cannabinoids (namely THC – known as potency testing), terpenes, contaminants, residual solvents (in the case of cannabis extracts), and pesticides. Table 1 summarizes the instruments used to test for cannabinoids, terpenes, residual solvents, microbes, and metals. Table 2 shows the instruments used to test for pesticides in cannabis samples. 

Table 1: The instruments utilized in cannabis testing

AnalyteInstrument Used
CannabinoidsThin layer chromatography (TLC), Gas chromatography (GC), Liquid chromatography (HPLC/UHPLC)
Terpenes GC-FID
Residual solventsHeadspace GC, GC-FID
MicrobesCulture plating, immunochemical assays, quantitative polymerase chain reaction
MetalsInductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS)

Table 2: The instruments utilized in pesticide testing in cannabis samples

PesticideUseInstruments Used
Abamectin Insecticide/acaricide (ticks and mites killer)LC-FLD (fluorescence detector); LC-MS/MS
BifenazateBifenazateLC, LC-MS/MS
BifenthrinInsecticideGC-ECD (electron capture detector); GC-MS/MS
Chlormequat chloridePlant growth regulator (PGR)LC (liquid chromatography); GC-MS/MS
CyfluthrinInsecticide IC (ion chromatography), LC-MS/MS
Daminozide (Alar)PGRUV spectroscopy; LC-MS/MS
Fenoxycarb InsecticideLC/UV; LC-MS/MS
ImazalilFungicideGC-ECD, LC-MS/MS
MyclobutanilFungicideGC-ECD; GC-NPD (nitrogen phosphorous detector); GC-MS/MS; LC-MS/MS
Paclobutrazol PGR, fungicideLC-MS/MS
Pyrethrins InsecticideGC-ECD
SpinosadInsecticideLC-MS/MS; immunoassay
Spiromesifen InsecticideGC-MS; LC-MS/MS
TrifloxystrobinFungicideGC-NPD; GC-MS/MS; LC-MS/MS

With no governmental oversight at this point, South Africa is responsible for defining its own regulations and requirements surrounding cannabis testing, from the plant to the finished cannabis product. What has resulted is a fragmented and disjointed system that is, despite the best intentions, failing the very people it’s trying to protect. South Africa can’t meet the demand for testing laboratories due to cannabis consumption. What should labs be testing for, how they’re testing, and the information reported to the patient or consumer is inconsistent at best and unreliable at worst. From process inconsistency and human error to ‘gaming the system’, commercial lab testing is volatile at the moment. There are good, credible labs and there are those who lack technical acumen. There are labs that unethically provide clients with the results they desire and expect rather than ones that are honest and accurate. For those driven by profiteering, it is shockingly easy to manipulate results; shake the bag of cannabis until the trichomes (those tiny crystals that cover the buds and are rich in THC) collect at the bottom. Smear a bud in them, start the test, and voila! High numbers! Profit motivation aside, sampling errors, flawed testing practices, and technical inconsistencies can also affect results substantially. Some testing labs are even being driven out of business simply because they report honest results, rather than the results clients want. Time and time again a producer will abandon an honest testing lab for reporting “bad” results and test the same product at a competitor who passes and certifies every batch with “good” results (i.e. high in THC content). This lack of regulation can lead to a volatile environment where honest labs are put out of business by labs that are willing to give clients their desired results. Add to this the natural biochemical complexity of cannabis and the varying regulations and legislations that govern these labs, and getting honest, accurate, and reliable results that users can trust and verify seems out of reach at the moment. That said, for the fortunate few who have easy access to cannabis testing facilities, they should take a moment to recognize and commend these labs for undertaking the risks involved with working with a Schedule 1 Drug. Furthermore, stepping outside of South Africa, in many regions of world, it is practically impossible to test cannabis samples because there are no labs to support such analysis. 

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