Legal Cannabis: The Science Behind the Scenes

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By Ashton Abrahams, President, Sigma Analytical Services

“Legalization” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as, “the act of allowing something by law.” It is a fairly simple concept, but in practice, the transformation of cannabis from a forbidden substance to an essential medical ingredient (and popular recreational choice) has been anything but linear. Decades of lawsuits, countersuits, legislation, amendments, and regional differences have created a patchwork of law that is almost impossible to decipher. What is certain, however, is that cannabis has mainstream acceptance throughout most of North America. That is why just about every pharmaceutical company is either selling products made from cannabis or heavily researching it. It is everywhere from skincare products, to muscle ache creams, to anti-emetics. And in many states, it is recommended by doctors for combatting a wide range of medical conditions from epilepsy to PTSD.

With legalization comes increased responsibility for cannabis producers and companies that sell their products for medical uses. While there are strict laws on production and distribution to protect consumers, it is important to have uniform standards in place to ensure safety and efficacy. In this respect, cannabis should be treated no differently than any other product used for wellness purposes. Unfortunately, many of these measures fall short, creating potentially negative health results for people who depend on cannabis-derived products.

Ironically, this problem is at least in part a byproduct of the success of decriminalization and legalization efforts throughout North America. As more states– not to mention the entire country of Canada – legalized cannabis, the patchwork of laws that previously existed were simply inadequate to ensure uniformity and safety. And in many places, the technology simply was not available. This is where advanced testing can make a huge difference.

Let’s look at something relatively simple, like mould. This is a problem that affects many agricultural products, and cannabis is no different. The problem can start small, but by the time it is discovered, entire crops can be rendered unusable. They can equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses, if not more. Most laboratories take 7 to 12 days to detect mould, during which time the problem can continue to spread. Cutting edge laboratories, using modern technologies, can discover the presence of mould in about two days. This has a massive effect on saving cannabis and ensuring safety of the supply for those who need it.

When most people think of testing cannabis and derived products, they think of two things: THC and CBD. Both are important, of course, and it is critical to know the levels of both of those compounds in any product that contains cannabis. But there are dozens of other compounds – other cannabinoids like CBG and CBN, and terpenes are the best known – which can also be tested in the laboratory. This is critical for cannabis-based therapies, where consistency in presence and concentration is key to effectiveness, and being free of contaminants is key to safety.There is a very high number of compounds present in cannabis plants, so in many ways it is a lot harder to test cannabis than it is to evaluate lab-created compounds, and most laboratories just are not up to the task.

The pace of science is only accelerating, and that is as true in agriculture as it is in computer hardware. Companies that do not commit themselves to rigorous testing programs driven by advanced laboratory science are going to get left behind.

Ashton A. Abrahams is the Co-Founder and COO of Sigma Analytical Services, a GMP-certified analytical and microbiological testing laboratory that offers comprehensive analytical and consulting services, method development and validation in cannabis and cannabis derived products. 

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