Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
For nearly a decade in the early 2000s, Flin Flon, Manitoba, was home to Canada’s “marijuana mine.”
Saskatchewan company Prairie Plant Systems held an exclusive contract to produce cannabis deep within an unused section of the Trout Lake Mine, a location reportedly selected as a grow site for its security.
Andrew Adams, the former director of Health Canada’s drug analysis service, oversaw the testing for the cannabis that was grown in the mine shaft.
Beyond the cannabinoid content, the government tested for metals, fungal toxins, microbial and chemical contaminants, and other foreign matter. According to Adams, the data was freely accessible and posted on a Health Canada website.
But when a media outlet ran their own tests and found the THC score to be lower than advertised (Adams recalls the number allegedly dropping from around 12 per cent per Health Canada’s tests to closer to 6 per cent), it set off a controversy.
Adams had some questions about those results. Mainly, which lab performed the tests and where did that lab get their standards from?
“At the time, it would have been illegal to buy standards, it’s a controlled substance,” Adams tells The GrowthOp. “They couldn’t have gone out and legally purchased a THC standard from a chemical company. So where did they get the standard from? What is the certification around that standard? How do you know that standard is accurate? Did you use a valid analytical method? Did you have proper controls in there?”
Adams, now the president and CEO of the not-for-profit Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation (CALA), says some of those questions can still be asked of cannabis labs today.
Adams, along with a number of laboratories, are calling for accreditation for Canada’s testing labs to boost confidence in the results and demonstrate a commitment to proper testing procedures.
Achieving accreditation would require a site visit by experts to assess that labs are compliant with ISO/IEC 17025, the main International Organization for Standardization (ISO) spec used by testing and calibration laboratories. Labs would also be required to participate in proficiency testing, where different labs test the same sample and the results are compared.
Adams, who was a federal government employee for more than 30 years, says in the lead up to legalization, as the government held consultations on the proposed regulatory regime, lab accreditation was never discussed.
“I read the consultation documents. And there were a lot of questions in there about making sure the analysis is correct so that we can have confidence in the numbers, the cannabinoid levels, microbial contamination, metal contamination, pesticides, a whole range of concerns came up again and again,” he says. “Unfortunately, nowhere in that consultation was lab accreditation ever mentioned.”
Accreditation, according to Adams, would ensure those concerns are addressed and that there’s trust in the numbers.
“The reason I support accreditation is it really gives you confidence in the analytical results that are coming out of the laboratories, it makes sure that labs have the quality management system in place, and it gives you an assurance of the technical competence of the laboratory,” he says.
Other organizations, like Kitchener, Ont.-based Labstat International Inc., are calling for testing standardization.
Unlike some other countries with established medical cannabis programs, Canada does not have a standard testing methodology. And though cannabis testing is required by law in Canada — every batch needs to be third-party tested by one of the 145 labs across the country that have been certified to work with cannabis by the federal government — the lack of standardization remains an issue, according to Peter Joza, chief technical officer of Labstat.
“The testing process can be improved through standardization, allowing for meaningful comparisons to be made between products or even comparisons within different variants or batches of the same product,” Joza tells The GrowthOp by email, adding that the issue goes beyond potency profiles. In particular, Joza notes that there are not any regulatory requirements for the analysis of aerosols emitted from cannabis vaping devices. “This means that while producers must test the cannabis extract or oil in the vape cartridge, they are not required to test the actual vapour that’s emitted and inhaled by the customer,” he explains.
“With no testing standards for these types of products, laboratories could be generating results in any number of different ways. Thus, it is not possible to compare the results from one product to another. Therefore it’s also quite difficult to make claims about safety. This can be misleading to customers and regulators.”
According to Adams, accreditation and proficiency testing would also put an end to so-called “lab shopping,” where cannabis producers seek out laboratories that are easy to work with or assign a higher THC score to the products. THC percentage remains one of the biggest drivers of cannabis purchasing.
A 2018 study published in Nature found systematic differences in the cannabinoid content reported by different laboratories in Washington, which became the first U.S. state to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012.
“What has been a persistent problem in the industry is labs producing results that are not fully accurate, and that often manifests itself as inflating the THC numbers in the plant,” Nick Jikomes, the study’s lead author and Leafly’s principal research scientist, told The GrowthOp last year. “The packaging and labelling are, unfortunately, not always going to be accurate signifiers of the cannabinoid content of the plant.”
Adams says accreditation would ensure that labs are operating in a “technically competent way.”
“You can’t be fudging numbers. If you caught doing anything untoward, that’s it, you’re going to lose your accreditation, you’re going to get suspended,” he says.