Story by Michael Hagar
It’s actually a very complicated question when you start considering all the potential factors involved. Between seed and shelf there are many steps in the creation of cannabis products and, despite our best efforts to control variables throughout all stages of the process, sometimes unwanted molecules find their way in. In order to prevent the consumption of harmful contaminants, cannabis analysis laboratories have skillfully employed the tools of science and technology to deliver solutions to these problems.
What kind of equipment is used in these laboratories and what are some unique approaches and techniques found in this business? These questions and more took CannaBiz Journal on a journey to the first certified marijuana testing facility in Washington state: Analytical 360.
The sky and roads were clear as we traveled up I-5 on a warm summer morning. After a few hours’ drive from headquarters we arrived at our destination in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle. Excited, full of questions, and not knowing what lay ahead, we gathered our gear and walked into Analytical 360. After checking in at the front desk we were greeted by Edward Stremlow, the lab’s COO, and were promptly led into the main office, which could easily be referred to as a “command center.” Here we were introduced to John Brown, the lab’s CTO, and began discussing the history of Analytical 360, the equipment used in their daily operations procedures and much more.
History of Analytical 360
As it turns out, the lab’s origin is quite interesting. Washington’s medical marijuana program began operating in 1998, but by the time 2010 came around testing standards had yet to be developed for medical marijuana. The bill governing medical marijuana was expected toinclude mandatory requirements regarding testing standards but, interestingly, this language was vetoed when Washington passed their legislation. Concerned about the future of the markets and the safety of patients, Analytical 360 decided to become the first lab to independently offer the complete chemical analysis of edibles, flowers, concentrates, and any other marijuana-containing products at exceptional rates and with a high degree of scientific accuracy.
After years of serving the medical marijuana industry and having established a golden reputation as a cannabis testing authority in the Pacific Northwest, Analytical 360 next played an important role in the drafting of the cannabis testing standards for Washington’s I-502 legislation. The company made state history when it became the first cannabis analysis lab certified by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board (WSLCB). Since then the lab has provided thousands of clients in the recreational and medicinal industries with potency testing, moisture analysis, foreign material and microbial bioburden screening, residual solvent testing, and terpene analysis through the use of High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and Gas Chromatography (GC) at their Seattle and Yakima locations respectively.
After a healthy hour-long conversation, which yielded more information than can be discussed in this article, we had to bid farewell to John and, shortly after, Ed was gracious enough to walk us through their 5,000 sq ft. high-throughput HPLC laboratory. This was the first time we were able to experience what goes on in such a facility and, although some of the specific process details remain unique to the laboratory and shrouded in technical density, we were able to condense some of this information into a generic cannabis testing walk-through as follows:
Stepping Through the Lab
1) Bag and Tag: When a sample is brought or sent into the lab for testing, the first step is to label it and then enter the sample’s information into a database to keep track of products as they move through the different testing phases. The details of this process will vary depending on which lab is used. It’s interesting to note that in Washington samples can be selected by producers compared to Oregon, where labs require an entire products batch to be brought in and samples selected from the batch. An issue that may occur when producers select their own samples for testing is that they might try to find the “best” part of their flowers to skew results. There is no way to know whether the sample test results will actually correspond to the products that make it on the shelves.
2) Visual Analysis: After a sample has been brought into the lab, checked into the tracking system and labeled, a lab technician performs a visual analysis of the sample. Typically this process employs what’s known as a High-Magnification Dissecting Microscope. This microscope is attached to a computer and allows lab technicians to identify contaminants, such as mold or foreign materials like animal hair, dirt, etc., and also to take snapshots of the sample for cataloging purposes. If you’ve ever seen a close-up photo of trichome structures on flowers, chances are it was taken with one of these. Interestingly, one of the lab technicians working at the time told us that flowers in particular have very recognizable traits and, after honing their craft through analyzing thousands of samples, they are able to practically identify a particular strain simply by putting it under the microscope.
3) Moisture Measured: After passing the visual inspection phase, samples that require moisture analysis, usually flowers, are placed in a highly controlled oven for 24 to 48 hours so water loss can be measured and cataloged.
4) Mortar and Pestle: Next, samples are ground until they are much finer, to increase their surface area and to homogenize the components as best as possible before extraction is performed. At Analytical 360, this process was performed through the use of glass mortar and pestle, which we were grateful to get a picture of.
5) Solution Created: A solvent of choice is used on the sample—often times methanol, ethanol, or acetonitrile, depending on the kind of product and particular test being performed. Then a solution is created, which now contains all the cannabinoids and molecules found throughout the sample product.
6) Filtration and Dilution: Next, samples are placed onto a vortex mixer where they are shaken vigorously for 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on product. Then they are filtered to separate plant materials from the cannabinoids contained in the solution. Filtered samples are then placed on a centrifuge to pull any remaining solids away from the liquid and filtered again. Once filtered, the sample solution is diluted as required to match the calibration of the HPLC, otherwise final readings may end up off the charts or too low to be read. This calibration process is quite meticulous and is performed by the lab technicians who, in the case of Analytical 360, have degrees in chemistry and a high-degree of understanding of every testing process and the equipment used. When dilutions are completed, samples will end up in a 1 ml vial before heading off to the HPLC.
7) Microbial Analysis: When microbial analysis is part of the ordered test regimen, the next step of the testing process isknown as “plating,” which is standard EPA methodology. Sterility is key during this phase. Once sample weights have been taken, they are put into a buffer solution and then placed in an incubator overnight. Then a bit of the buffer solution, which may now contain mold spores, microbes, etc., is plated onto various sized petri dishes and any live organisms begin to grow and multiply. Plating is the golden standard for microbial testing and takes between 24 hours to four days, depending on what critters are alive. There is a faster method of performing microbial analysis that is gaining popularity known as qPCR or “quantitative polymerase chain reaction,” but it is rather expensive to use and new to the cannabis analysis industry.
8) Elution Profile Created: Once a sample has been filtered and diluted down to within the instrument’s range of detection, it is loaded into an HPLC through an autoinjector and a chemical composition profile, known as the “elution profile” is generated. This process is rather technical, but basically the final sample is passed through a column filled with micro-media such as silica beads. The beads have different ionic charges and act as a magnet toward particular compounds, based on atomic affinities such as THC-A or CBD-A. This is how the components are separated. Once they leave, or elude, from the column, their particular refraction is recorded via three different ultra-violet lights in a UV detector. For more in-depth information on this entire process we recommend visiting the Wikipedia page on HPLCs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-performance_liquid_chromatography).
A Unique Approach
After Ed led us through the entirety of HPLC analysis, he took us through the rest of their Seattle facility and shared more about the lab’s future plans and other informational tidbits. As mentioned previously, Analytical 360 has another facility in Yakima where they currently perform GC testing for residual solvents and terpene analysis. Ironically, this facility is located at an old hops genetics lab—cannabis and hops are essentially cousins—and is significantly larger at 20,000 sq ft. However, despite its smaller size, Ed informed us that at the time of our visit the lab was undergoing the accreditation process to perform GC residual solvent and terpene testing under the same roof but in the next room right down the hall. He also explained to us that GC testing requires a very controlled environment and that something as simple as perfume or deodorant on an employee could be picked up in the process, thus skewing results.
Next we were led farther down the hall to a room in the back of the facility being used for storage of solvents and other lab gear. Here we discovered a unique feature about the lab and their business practices. Instead of paying $10–15,000 for furniture made out of pressboard, Analytical 360 designed their own lab tables in-house, with solid wood and at specifications designed to make lab life much easier. Prefabbed tables are essentially based on a cookie cutter design and don’t take into consideration the real world needs of the lab technicians. By designing and manufacturing their own furniture, Analytical 360 is able to save tens of thousands of dollars and provide their workers with a more comfortable and functional environment.
Last but not least, we’d like to mention another unique aspect of Analytical 360. Instead of considering test results private information this lab believes in transparency and posts the results of their tests in various product categories on their website for all to see. We at CannaBiz Journal would like to thank the Analytical 360 staff for their transparency, hospitality, the top-notch laboratory services they provide, and for working actively toward the common good of the cannabis industry in Washington and beyond. We believe that Analytical 360 is a shining example of a cannabis analysis laboratory and we’re looking forward to visiting others and seeing what they have to offer, as well.