How to Accurately Test the THC and CBD Content of Your Cannabis Product

How to Accurately Test the THC and CBD Content of Your Cannabis Product

As the cannabis industry expands, cultivators strive to produce the best possible cannabis flowers. Companies must carry out several mandatory tests and regulatory procedures to bring these flowers to market and ensure the safety and satisfaction of consumers. When stakeholders prioritize transparency and quality control, they build trust with their customers and contribute to the industry's growth.

Independent laboratories are primarily responsible for conducting cannabis testing, employing advanced techniques to determine the potency and purity of cannabis products. In compliance with FDA regulations, manufacturers must disclose the cannabinoid profile of their products, including total THC composition. Inaccurate label information could put patients at risk of consuming contaminated or ineffective products, endangering their health and well-being.

Marijuana testing ensures safety and efficacy, which plays a pivotal role in the purchasing process for cannabis users, who rely on accurate information to make informed decisions about their cannabis purchases and consumption.

The Value of an Informed Customer

The current cannabis culture has deviated significantly from the practices of the 70s and 80s. During that time, there were fewer cannabis strains available, and people were familiar with the THC and CBD levels in each of them.

Over the past decade, with the rise of modern cultivation techniques and the legalization of cannabis in many areas, the market has become flooded with a superabundance of options. Given that no two marijuana strains are the same and each cultivar offers a distinct taste and aftereffect, it poses a difficult challenge for consumers who try to understand each strain's nuances to make educated decisions.

As a result, individuals must familiarize themselves with the various strains and their effects to make the right decisions about their cannabis use.

Why Is Testing so Relevant?

Thanks to a comprehensive analysis of the cannabis plant's chemical composition, cannabinoid profile, and terpene content, labs can determine the product's potency and purity while identifying potential contaminants or harmful substances.

Cannabis testing is a vital process that empowers consumers to make purchasing decisions. We could go as far as saying that accurate testing is the cornerstone of the cannabis industry, ensuring that products meet the highest standards of quality and safety. By analyzing the chemical composition of cannabis products, testing labs can create detailed reports that provide consumers with a comprehensive understanding of what they're buying.

For medical cannabis patients, knowing the exact composition of a product will allow them to choose the strains that will help them manage pain, reduce anxiety, or improve sleep. This level of precision is essential for patients who rely on cannabis to manage chronic conditions and need consistent, reliable results. For adult-use consumers, cannabis testing helps them avoid unpleasant experiences, guiding their decision-making process and choosing the products among the many options available.

This process is a game-changer for growers because it eliminates the need for trial and error with each strain. By conducting tests, growers can gain a deeper understanding of the chemical composition of each plant. This information saves time and resources and allows the grower to be more precise when cultivating, which results in higher-quality yields. Growers can confidently produce consistent and reliable results, ensuring success in a competitive market.

As the cannabis industry matures, testing will remain vital to ensure quality and safety for all medical and recreational users. Thus, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) initiated a groundbreaking program to assist laboratories in precisely measuring essential chemical compounds found in cannabis products such as marijuana, hemp, oils, edibles, tinctures, and balms.

Sometimes there are discrepancies between the THC potency and the percentages indicated on the product's label. Therefore, manufacturers need to ensure their product labels reflect the actual THC potency of their products to maintain transparency and uphold consumer trust. The primary objective of this program is to enhance the accuracy of product labeling and enable forensic laboratories to differentiate between hemp, which is legal in all states, and marijuana, which is not.

The Cannabis Quality Assurance program (CannaQAP) is a significant step towards ensuring that consumers receive accurate information about the products they purchase. It will also aid law enforcement agencies in enforcing regulations related to cannabis products and providing laboratories with the necessary tools and resources to measure chemical compounds accurately, helping to establish a more reliable and trustworthy cannabis industry.

CannaQAP will have far-reaching implications for the cannabis industry and its consumers. With the increasing popularity of cannabis products, having accurate labeling and testing guarantees consumers know what they purchase. This program will contribute to the growth and development of the cannabis industry while also promoting public safety and consumer protection.

What Elements Need Testing?

Cannabis testing laboratories use advanced equipment and techniques to test for various contaminants, such as pesticides, heavy metals, and residual solvents, as well as to determine the potency and composition of cannabis products.

Potency Testing

Accurately determining the concentration of cannabinoids in a product is crucial for consumers who want to use a precise amount. A potency analysis measures the levels of specific cannabinoids, such as THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, and CBN, present in a sample. These concentrations can help consumers identify the type of product that suits their needs. For instance, some may prefer products with high levels of THCA, while others may look for products that are high in CBD and low in THC.

Potency testing is particularly relevant for orally consumed infused products, as it may take an hour or more to feel the effects of the product.

Terpene Testing

Meanwhile, terpenes and terpenoids are responsible for the diverse range of aromas found in cannabis. Understanding a product's terpene content can assist consumers in selecting a strain that aligns with their desired scent and effects. A terpene analysis accurately measures the concentration of numerous terpenes and terpenoids, helping consumers make educated decisions and confidently select a product that meets their needs.

Testing for Residual Solvents

It is a common practice to use solvents, such as chemical-free CO2 or even harsher chemicals, to extract cannabinoids and terpenoids from plant material. However, when obtaining concentrates through chemical extraction, there could be residual solvents in the final product. Therefore, it is necessary to measure the amount of solvent in a cannabis concentrate to provide manufacturers the information to adjust their process and ensure the production of the highest quality concentrates.

Testing for residual solvents in cannabis helps identify any potential health risks. Furthermore, this allows manufacturers to comply with regulatory requirements.

Testing for Cannabis Pesticides

When there are pesticides in a cannabis product, it indicates pesticide use during the cultivation process or pesticides contaminated the flower or final product after cultivation. Pesticide analysis focuses on identifying the presence of 12 commonly used pesticides in cannabis cultivation.

Microbial Screening of Cannabis Products

Natural products contain varying amounts of natural microflora. A comprehensive microbial screen of cannabis can quantify Total Viable Aerobic Bacteria, Total Viable Yeasts and Molds, and Total Viable Coliforms (including E. coli). Additionally, polymerase chain reactions (PCR) can screen for the presence or absence of salmonella spp. and possible Shiga toxin-producing strains of E.coli.

It's important to note that Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Salmonella spp. are considered opportunistic pathogens and carry a strict zero-tolerance policy in food samples. Quantifying the natural micro-flora in natural products helps ensure they are safe for consumption and usage.

Why Measure THC and CBD Levels?

Measuring THC and CBD levels in laboratories is crucial for the industry. Testing accuracy is essential to yielding products that are safe and effective. However, measuring these levels can be complex and requires specialized equipment and expertise.

The levels of CBD and THC compounds present in the plant determined its potency. As such, it is natural to be curious about the precise amounts of these compounds in a cannabis product before consumption. Therefore, it is essential to obtain accurate information about the THC and CBD content of any cannabis product before use.

In the past decade, medical marijuana has gained significant attention, prompting experts to delve deeper into the properties of cannabis and its diverse effects. Extensive research discovered that high levels of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis, may have adverse effects on the human body, outweighing its potential benefits. As a result, it is crucial to understand the varying effects of cannabis and its components to ensure safe and effective use in medical treatments.

Currently, the levels of THC and CBD in marijuana products have significantly increased, reaching up to 30%. Extracts, in particular, contain high concentrations of these compounds. However, even seasoned cannabis users are often unaware of the amount of THC they consume, particularly when purchasing from unlicensed vendors.

When consumers know a product's potency, it ensures safe and responsible consumption. With the rise of high-potency cannabis, purchasing from reputable sources and being aware of proper dosing and consumption methods is more important than ever. By doing so, users can enjoy the benefits of cannabis while minimizing potential risks.

Recent research has revealed that the optimal CBD:THC ratio is 1:1. This proportion effectively reduces the psychotropic effects associated with cannabis consumption. Through cannabinoid levels analysis, experts can now provide dosage recommendations, while recreational users can choose a strain that aligns with their desired experience.

Licensed dispensaries must have access to product details, including essential information such as THC and CBD content levels and other compounds present. Seed banks also provide this valuable information to their customers. Thanks to this data, cannabis users can confidently select products that meet their needs and preferences.

Understanding the Potency of Cannabis: THCA, THC, and Decarboxylation

If you are curious about the potency of cannabis products, it is essential to comprehend the difference between THCA and THC and how they relate to each other. Contrary to popular belief, cannabis does not produce the psychotropic cannabinoid THC directly but tetrahydrocannabinolic acid or THCA, a non-intoxicating compound.

THCA transforms into THC through decarboxylation, which occurs when applying heat energy to the cannabis product, typically by the consumer using a lighter, vaporizer, or oven. THCA does not get you high but interacts with the endocannabinoid system, and it has an additional carboxyl group, making it heavier than THC.

When you walk into a dispensary in the United States, you see detailed labels on every product, and you will notice low THC levels and high THCA levels upon closer inspection. When cannabis users smoke, vape, or cook their products, most THCA will convert to THC. You will also see a number for the maximum amount of THC, which represents the amount of THC that should be present after decarboxylation.

How is the THC level determined?

As mentioned, THCA and THC have slightly different molecular weights-THC is 87.7% of THCA's mass. When THCA gets converted to THC, the total weight of the newly formed cannabinoid becomes less than the total dried weight of the herb.

The next consideration is the conversion process efficiency. During the decarboxylation process, not every molecule of THCA converts to THC, an estimated 75% of the cannabinoid acid will make the switch, and even under these harsh conditions, some THC will degrade to CBN.

The following formula accounts for the imperfect conversion of THCA and the difference in molecular weight based on these variables:

(0.75 × 0.877 × % THCA) + % THC

The equation takes into account the rate of conversion during the decarboxylation process. Other methods of consuming cannabis may increase the conversion rate and bring the total number of THCs closer to the maximum value. For example, heating extracts at 200 °C for five minutes can bring conversion closer to 100% but also minimizes the degradation of THC to CBN.

How to Read Cannabis Product Labels

Most cannabis products sold legally in the US must test and label with THC and CBD. When looking at a typical label, there will probably be various percentages like CBDA, CBD, THCA and THC, and maybe things like total THC and total cannabidiol.

Total THC refers to how much THC will be present as a percentage of dry weight after the THCA becomes THC. Should the THC and THCA percentage levels be added since THCA will get converted into THC? The answer is no.

Since THC is lighter than THCA, it is 87.7% of the molecular weight of THCA. The Total THC on a product label, was obtained through the formula mentioned earlier.

THC and CBD Measurement

Now, how do labs measure CBD and THC levels? There are several methods analytical laboratories can use to calculate potency and purity in CBD and THC concentrations. The most common procedures include:

High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) - this testing quantifies THC, CBD, and other cannabinoid concentrations by separating, identifying, and analyzing the components in the mixture.

Gas Chromatography (GC) and Liquid Chromatography (LC) - Chromatography separates small molecules, proteins, or nucleic acids by boiling the molecules.

Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC) - this option analyses flowers, hash, and edibles, but it does not work with glycerol products.

Even though there is no established standard to determine the testing method laboratories must use, the most common method is high-performance chromatography (HPLC).

HPLC involves taking a sample of cannabis flowers and mixing it with a solvent, such as ethanol. The solution gets pumped through a tube at a high level of pressure which contains a material that attracts some molecules in the sample because of their chemical properties. At the end of the column is a detection device. The compounds that are attracted to the material inside the tube will travel at a slower rate and will reach the detector at a later time.

HPLC detectors typically measure the absorbance of UV light, which can be associated with specific molecules. Their relative abundance is measured when the molecules reach the detector. Given that different cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, travel through the column at different rates, they are detected at various times, allowing sample characterization.

It is from these laboratory measurements that the THC and CBD levels listed on the back of cannabis packaging are derived. These lab values are used directly by consumers for product information. Therefore, accurate potency testing is essential.

Finally, THC Levels Depend on How You Consume Cannabis

Rudolf Brenneisen, PhD. has extensively studied how decarboxylation rates and THC availability are affected by different products (specifically vaporizers) and routes of administration in his laboratory at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Dr. Brenneisen emphasized that "the efficiency/rate of decarboxylation depends on the temperature and time of heating, as well as the design and technology of the vaporizer." His lab has studied how the efficiency of THCA conversion to THC in both flower and cannabis extracts is affected by different vaporization temperatures and products. "Heating of cannabis extracts at 200 °C for five minutes results in almost 100% decarboxylation of THCA to THC, without forming CBN," he said.

At about 180 °C, the decarboxylation of THCA to THC begins. While compounds like terpenes start to vaporize at different temperatures as it increases. Combustion will start at even higher temperatures, affecting the levels of THC, terpenes, and other cannabinoids. Burning can produce by-products that can be harmful.

“Burning of cannabis (not tested and validated in my lab) at >700 °C will probably result in a higher decarboxylation rate, but also more degradation into CBN and the production of potentially harmful byproducts. In addition, temperatures that are too high lead to loss of terpenes, which are important ‘entourage effect’ compounds,” Dr. Brenneisen explained.

There is no exact magic number for the temperature at which cannabis flowers begin to burn, but the temperature range of most commercially available electric vaporizers should be below that threshold. Traditional smoking methods that set fire to the cannabis flower are another story. The temperature of a typical lighter flame is well over 1000 °C, which would probably degrade THC to CBN and destroy some terpenes. All these factors will affect the cannabis experience.

Is Cannabis Testing at Home Possible?

Users can test THC potency in the comfort of their homes with the help of a home THC test kit. Here is how it works:

Buy a Home Test Kit

Find a variety of test kits at a local dispensary or order one online. Choose a kit that looks for THC in particular, as kits that test for THC and CBD can be more difficult to interpret. Depending on the level of accuracy, the approx. price will be between $20 to $100.

Select the Marijuana Strain

While many cannabis strains include THC levels in their labels, it is always wise to test at home to ensure the label is accurate. When testing, avoid contact between the selected strain and any other strains, as this could give a different reading.

Read the Instructions

Although home test kits are easy to use, you may find small differences between them, so it is always a good idea to read the instructions carefully to reduce the risk of inaccurate results and ensure how to perform the test. One kit can contain several tests, so if there is no assurance the results are right, there is the chance to do a re-test.

Place the Marijuana Sample in the Test Vial.

Place about one-fifth of a gram of marijuana in the bottom of the vial, breaking large clumps into smaller pieces. Check the specifications on the kit to know how much to put in the vial.