THC, CBD, Cannabinoids, & Terpenes: The Importance of Cannabis Testing

THC measuring solutions

Can you determine how much THC is present in your cannabis strain? Well, it is difficult to analyze the THC% in cannabis, unless you test the samples. If you are buying cannabis products from a certified medical dispensary, you can check the label to read the “Total THC” composition.

However, as there is no official industry standard for testing THC in Cannabis, different producers use different testing procedures and calculate the % of THC in different ways.

Why it is Important to Test THC Potency of Cannabis

The chemical makeup of marijuana for medical use must be precisely analyzed. The cannabinoid profile of cannabis is like a fingerprint, made up of more than 70 compounds, the ideal dosing of which can impact the patient’s treatment.

THC plays a key part in the psychoactive effects of cannabis and is also known to be an antioxidant. THC also appears to have some anti-inflammatory properties and helps reduce neuropathic pain.

Many considerations go into accurate THC testing. For example, when testing flowers, the moisture content can affect the reading.

Moisture content makes a difference when testing for potency in cannabis flowers because THC is measured as a percentage of the product’s total weight.

So if the sample is dried out, it will weigh less than a sample with more moisture. Both samples may contain the same amount of THC, but the test will indicate that dry cannabis is more potent by percentage.

how to measure THC and CBD content

CBD and THC Levels

Data related to cannabinoid potency measures the cannabinoid levels found in the cannabis products. The CBD and THC potency data are needed by producers. The levels of CBD and THC have to be known by the consumer so they are aware of how much to consume.

For instance, some cannabis patients might desire a marijuana strain that has a higher ratio of CBD: THC while recreational users might want the opposite.

In recent years, researchers have started to understand more about the connection between the cannabinoids in different strains of marijuana and the strain-specific effects experienced by consumers.

High levels of CBD helps calm anxiety, for example, while a large amount of THC does the opposite and can create agitation.

Researchers have also discovered that a 1 to 1 ratio of CBD to THC causes the CBD to cancel out the psychoactive effects of the THC. This is ideal for those who need THC for medicinal purposes but don’t want the high. Other cannabinoids have similarly interesting interactions.

This may be somewhat useful to recreational users who are searching for the ideal strain that will give them the perfect high, but its necessary information for those who use medical cannabis.

The right cannabinoids in the right proportions can provide pain relief, treat nausea, or even help with insomnia.

Testing Solutions Explained

Tests can be broken down into two main types: those for consumers to conduct at home and those for businesses to conduct at laboratories or on-site.

Consumers want solutions to be able to verify the quality of the product they purchase or grow themselves at home since access to large accredited labs is financially and logistically prohibitive.

For companies however, investing on on-site testing equipment or a lab is key, not only for regulatory compliance, but also in ensuring the integrity of the product, something critical in keeping satisfied return customers.

integrity weed
Integrity Farms, South Park, CO

Benefits Home THC Test Kits

Until now, expensive lab testing was the only way to assure potency and quality. Recently, home testing kits that yield reliable results are available to consumers and small scale growers.

MyDx test kit review
MyDx home test kit and smartphone app

If your only concern is whether a substance contains THC, THC test kits are smaller, more straightforward, and more affordable than full-spectrum cannabinoid testing at a lab.

By adding a small sample and waiting a few minutes, you can quickly find out if a substance is packing a psychoactive punch or has a zero THC level.

Cannabis and THC test kit manufacturers like MyDx, tCheck, and HiGrade work to make it easier for legal recreational cannabis users to test products to achieve the kind of high they enjoy, as well as enabling medical users to pick strains that best suit the kind of symptom relief they need most.

If all you’re looking for is data on potency to fine-tune your garden or titrate your dose, home testing can be a viable and economical option.

tCheck test kit review
tCheck home potency test kit

Although each kit is different, the process often involves taking a small amount of your chosen strain (usually 1 gram) and applying a test fluid. You then apply the mixture to a glass plate and put it in a container with another test fluid.

These fluids separate cannabinoids from your weed and carry them up the plate, with different cannabinoids showing in different colors. You then apply a dye to reveal these spots and read the results.

HiGrade analyzing kit review
HiGrade analyzing scope and tester app

It might sound a little tricky, and realistically it is. In some cases, you might need to take multiple tests to get an accurate reading.

Best Commercial Testing Solutions

The more scientific way to go about home testing is to find a thin layer chromatography (TLC) test. These tests require precise measuring and multiple steps to get the result, but the result will let you know your sample’s THC content to a single percentage point.

Below are some of the most popular THC testing equipment and laboratory supply vendors that specialize in various types of cannabis testing.

Commercial In-House Testing Equipment Suppliers

conquer scientific review

Conquer Scientific: Sells industrial-grade lab equipment, both new and used, which makes it a great source for cash-strapped startup operations.

THC, CBD, Cannabinoids, & Terpenes: The Importance of Cannabis Testing

LabX: Sells a wide variety of laboratory equipment including high-end chromatography testing equipment, extraction equipment, THC potency testing equipment and hemp analyzers.

Orange Photonics review

Orange Photonics: Maker of Lightlab 3, a completely portable test station in a rugged, bright orange suitcase. This is a great solution for those who value mobility or have dispersed grow operations.

Sage Analytics review

Sage Analytics: Another maker of portable, instant-results test equipment. Core products include a the Profiler II for quick, accurate potency testing, ToxDetective for testing for pesticides/fungicides or other dangerous chemicals, and The Beacon, a desktop application for dispensary potency testing.

Commercial Supplies for Growers Outsourcing Testing

Cannalytics Supply review

Cannalytics Supply: Purveyor of test strips, pipets, microcaps, and everything else you need for sample collection to send off to a laboratory or your in-house testing team.

How Do Professional Labs Measure THC and CBD Levels?

There is a variety of ways to measure THC and CBD concentrations. The most common technique is called High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). HPLC can separate and quantify a mixture of chemicals in a liquid solution.

In HPLC, a sample is collected from cannabis flowers mixed with a solvent such as ethanol. The solution is then pumped at high pressure through a tube. The tube contains a material that attracts some molecules in the sample based on their chemical properties.

At the end of the column is a detector. Compounds that are attracted to the material inside the tube will travel slower and reach the detector later.

HPLC detectors typically measure UV light absorbance, which can be associated with specific molecules. When the molecules reach the detector, their relative abundance is measured.

chart of cannabinoids and effects
Beautiful visual representation of popular cannabinoids

Because different cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, travel at different speeds through the column, they will be detected at different times, allowing for characterization of the sample.

The desire to identify additional cannabinoids has led to wider use of two more sophisticated chromatographic techniques, Ultra Performance Chromatography (UPC) and Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC).

Compared to HPLC, UPC has the advantage of a higher separation efficiency, which results in better resolution, and shorter analysis times. SFC has all of the advantages of UPC, combined with much easier sample preparation.

Portable devices are also being used for potency tests. Fourier Transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) can provide quick and easy potency spot tests for THC, THCa, CBD, and CBDa in dried cannabis buds and processed oils.

Although not as sensitive as chromatography, FTIR can analyze whole flowers for potency, terpenes, and moisture content. Because the technique is not a primary method, standard samples are needed with known concentrations determined by other techniques, such as GC or HPLC.

However, potency testing is only one service offered by professional laboratories. Contamination from pesticides, molds, bacteria, and other foreign substances can be a serious concern.

Patients with sensitivities or compromised immune systems might consider insisting on products that have passed contaminant tests as well.

How to Choose a Good Test Lab?

Currently, there are many testing laboratories around the world, but they differ in one critical aspect: accreditation. Although the laboratory can be accredited, it cannot offer an accredited THC test. The highest quality test you can get (globally) is an accredited lab with a THC certified test.

For America, the accreditation to verify for your lab of choice would be ANAB, which stands for the ANSI National Accreditation Board (and ANSI stands for American National Standards Institute)

If you’re in Canada things are a little more clear cut, as you can just visit the Government of Canada website and view an active list of government licensed testing labs.

If you are outside of the U.S or Canada you can do a specific search for your countries accreditation body and government regulatory agencies to ascertain which labs are legit.

When finally choosing a laboratory, your options are:

  • Accredited laboratory + THC accredited test (highest quality; laboratory and THC accredited; the most accurate CBD and THC test; used by the police; full regulatory compliance)
  • Accredited laboratory, but not certified THC test (medium quality; the laboratory is accredited, but THC test is not; modest accuracy; partial agreement)
  • Unaccredited laboratory test and THC test (poor quality and efficiency; neither laboratory test nor THC test; limited regulatory compliance)

Understanding Testing Variables for Consumers

Final THC levels depend on consumption method. This needs to be taken into account with testing. Understanding how your product is going to be consumed by shoppers is critical in understanding how best to measure THC, CBD and their respective derivatives.

Decarboxylation of THCA to THC starts occurring at around 180°C. As you increase the temperature from there, other magical compounds like terpenes (that work together in concert) will begin to vaporize, each at a different temperature.

At even higher temperatures, you’ll start to get combustion. This will affect not only levels of THC and other cannabinoids, but also terpenes. Moreover, combustion can produce byproducts that may be hazardous to your health.

There isn’t an exact, magic number for the temperature at which cannabis flowers start to combust, but the temperature range of most commercial electric vaporizers should be below this threshold.

HerbCEO Final Thoughts

Traditional smoking methods that directly ignite flowers are a different story. The temperature of a typical lighter flame will be well over 1,000°C, which would be expected to cause degradation of THC into CBN and some destruction of terpenes.

Cannabis Testing Standardization

According to Confidence Analytics, a state-certified laboratory in Washington, “there are no strong regulations in place about how cannabis chemicals are measured.

However, HPLC has emerged as the dominant technique for measuring cannabinoids.” In other industries, there are specific guidelines on testing methods and settings for laboratory equipment.

This lack of regulation can lead to discrepancies in potency data and inaccurate cannabinoid data. If proper testing practices are in place at each laboratory, reported potency data should be similar across the board.

A wide variety of testing should be completed to ensure the safety and quality of cannabis products. Distinct testing methods are used to collect data on terpenes, contamination, and residual solvent levels. Consistent and accurate testing is important for industry transparency and consumer safety.

Unfortunately, there have been controversy surrounding potency testing methods, with suspected inflation of THC concentration in some cases. Therefore, the industry needs to push for a general standard for cannabis testing to ensure accurate potency reporting.

Houseplant Overview

HerbCEO Conclusion

Ultimately most testing needs fall into two categories. First is the regulatory and safety category driven by local and state governments to ensure the safety of products being sold both medically and recreationally.

Accurately communicating the amount of THC a certain product has at a dispensary for example is important for ensuring the integrity of both the brand and the industry as a whole.

Clearly communicating compound levels is also critical in gaining trust with the larger public, who because of years of negative stigmatization, already may view the cannabis industry with a skeptical eye.

After medical and recreational and regulatory testing comes the second big category, which is DIY or “home testing”.

With more states decriminalizing but not yet fully legalizing retail sales of cannabis, home growing for personal consumption has been growing in recent years.

Using accredited national testing laboratories for small home-grown personal yields is cost prohibitive and can take a long time.

The emergence of ever increasingly sophisticated home testing kits is a great advancement for both the medical and recreational industry as it allows home growers and recreational hobbyists to more accurately understand the potency of their cannabis products.

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