Quality and assurance is an important challenge for the cannabis industry.

By many accounts, 2012 was the year that the cannabis industry was born. Uruguay announced that it would be the first country to completely legalize the herb. Voters in two U.S. states, Colorado and Washington, decided that all adults should have legal access to the cannabis plant.

Now, a few short years later, the industry is booming. For the first time, cannabis businesses are adopting safety and processing standards designed for herbal medicines and dietary supplements.

Individual states have created rigorous testing standards to ensure that cannabis products are safe and free of harmful pathogens or residual solvents. Many states also require potency testing, which seeks to provide consumers with clear dosage information.

Yet, while these local quality assurance standards are a major step up for the industry overall, international cannabis policy is still stuck in the ice age of prohibition.

Jahan Marcu, Ph.D. and Chief Auditor for the American’s for Safe Access’s Patient Focused Certification program, has a few ideas about creating policy that accurately reflects cannabis science.

Marcu summarized some key problems and identifies potential solutions at the latest Emerald Scientific Conference, which seeks to provide innovative cannabis ideas and science worth sharing.

[Editor's note: You can access the entire Emerald Conference now streaming here.]

Problems in International Cannabis Regulation

Everybody deserves access to safe, clean, accurately-labeled cannabis products.

Right now, the international standards for cannabis testing are frequently drawn from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The UN standards were developed to help identify the illicit and psychoactive compounds in the cannabis plant.

Yet, the UNODC guidelines are not based on the most recent science. In fact, the last time international bodies performed a comprehensive examination of cannabis was in 1937. Needless to say, knowledge of basic health and medicine have changed since then.

Outdated understandings about the cannabis plant create several problems for participants in multiple branches of the cannabis industry. One of those problems is estimating cannabis potency.

Scientists following the UNODC guidelines may be lumping cannabinoids together when they should not be. Research conducted by the International Cannabis and Cannabinoid Institute (ICCI) has found that the cannabis plant produces more chemical compounds than often detected.

As a result, laboratories may be overestimating the potency of cannabis products.

Tests for THCA, for example, show that a few different variations of THC acids are present in the plant. THCA is a precursor to the famous psychoactive compound, delta-9-THC. All of these acids may have different effects on the body.

In some cases, labs may be confusing delta-9-THC for a less psychoactive relative, delta-8-THC. Should this be the case, cannabis samples may be a lot less potent than they are made out to be. This fact is an important consideration for states considering potency limits on cannabis strains and products.

How to Establish International Quality Standards for the Cannabis Industry

To avoid this problem, Marcu recommends that labs perform broad spectrum tests on their samples, followed by more targeted evaluations for specific chemical constituents.

“If we’re looking at an extract, for example,” remarks Marcu, “how can we look at a snapshot to see what we’re losing?”

“As you go from non-targeted analysis to targeted analysis you might be losing some information. My favorite analogy is the analytical onion, each technique is like looking at a layer. How can you look at the whole onion to get a big picture?” 

The ICCI and the University of Chemistry and Technology Prague (UCT) have taken an “omics-based” approach to answering these questions. This includes genomics, or the study of genes, and metabolomics, which is the study of metabolites present in an organism.

While some excellent research has been coming out about cannabis genomics, there is still quite a lot of mystery when it comes to what chemicals the cannabis plant can produce and how they might interact with my body. In fact, as Marcu remarks, researchers know very little about the majority of the compounds found in the plant.

On the metabolomics side, research moving forward attempts to answer questions like “what is produced by the plant? What is the end product? What does that look like? What is that fingerprint?”

Thus far, researchers have learned quite a lot. As Marcu mentions, there are over 150 cannabinoids and 140 terpenoids (aroma molecules) present in the cannabis plant. Overall, there are 542 chemical constituents that have been found. There is still much to learn about these compounds and how they interact with the body.

Opening up research to more phase II and phase III clinical trials is also vital for making better cannabis policy.

As Marcu explains, “we don’t need anymore phase 1 studies. We know that cannabis is relatively safe, we know that people aren’t dying in the clinical phase 1 studies that last one month or two months. They’re actually seeing improvements, which is remarkable for a short-term study.”

“But,” he continues, “what we need are the longer term studies. The phase II, the dosing, the comparing of existing treatments, and really zoning in on how effective these medicines can be.”

Interested in learning more? Watch Jahan Marcu’s full talk online plus 30+ other presentations from the Emerald Scientific Conference!

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Do you think international quality standards for cannabis are important?

Do you think international quality standards for cannabis are important?