Cannabis Quality Control Testing Using Gas Chromatography

June 19, 2018
Abstract / Synopsis: 

The cannabis industry has been struggling to keep pace with the changing attitudes toward the drug. With no standardized regulations for quality control between states or countries, there is a huge gap to fill in terms of rigorous testing. The industry is considerably different than the pharmaceutical industry, where drugs pass through extensive quality control to meet stringent safety standards. The challenge for global cannabis producers and processors is how to combat the lack of rigorous testing and oversee quality control to ensure reliable, safe, and consistent products. Gas chromatography (GC) is a successful analytical technique for cannabis testing that provides opportunities to advance the cannabis industry.

The lack of standardized regulations means that producers of cannabis and cannabis-derived products can supply goods unhindered, potentially carrying unsafe levels of pesticides, mold, fungi, and bacteria that can be hazardous to human health. But the cannabis industry is constrained by a legal framework that makes it very difficult to find cannabis with tested cannabinoid content.

This article highlights the work that is being done by Shamanics, a cannabis oil extraction company based in Amsterdam (1). The company works with cannabis, in particular the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD), to produce high quality CBD oil. Unlike many of its competitors in the Netherlands, Shamanics conducts key analyses on products before they’re taken to market to provide tested, quality products to meet consumer demand.

Effects of Cannabis

Cannabis consists of the dried flowers of the female Cannabis sativa L. plant, also known as hemp or marijuana, and contains a number of active substances including Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD (2). Through selective breeding, growers have developed strains with different sensory, psychoactive, and medicinal properties.

During the past decade, evidence has been presented that cannabis could have therapeutic effects in a number of major diseases such as epilepsy, cancer, and Gilles de la Tourette syndrome (3). However, as a result of the restrictions imposed on cannabis research, it is thought that many studies were carried out without adequate control trials or sample sizes. For patients who rely on cannabis for medicinal use to ease their symptoms, safety and consistency are difficult to guarantee. To be considered as a drug for medicinal use, cannabis shouldn’t be different from any other pharmaceutical. In the pharmaceutical industry, consumers trust that prescribed medication has been tested to contain no harmful contaminants and a precise dose of an active pharmaceutical ingredient. As the cannabis industry becomes increasingly transparent, there is scope for the increased testing and research that consumers demand.

The Growing Legal Market

Traditionally, there have been blurred lines between countries and states on their rules and regulations around cannabis, for both medicinal and recreational use. In the United Kingdom, the possession and supply of cannabis is illegal but there have been a number of cases where cannabis has been prescribed for medicinal use. One example of cannabis prepared for medicinal use is the drug Sativex, which has THC as an active compound. It is also possible to buy CBD oils from high street stores in the UK, but those products have usually been extracted from hemp rather than cannabis (4).

In contrast, 30 states in the U.S. have legalized cannabis for medicinal use (5). California’s legalization of recreational cannabis in January 2018 was a huge milestone in the industry. And with legalization comes regulation; the state has imposed stringent rules around standardized quality testing of cannabis products including pesticide testing. All legal cannabis must be tested for residues of 66 pesticides listed by the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

Despite this movement, cannabis isn’t classified as a medicine because it remains illegal under federal law, set at the U.S. government level. Subsequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the plant or plant extracts as a medicine. However, Δ9-THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in the Cannabis sativa L. plant, has been an FDA-approved drug for more than 25 years.

Navigating the landscape of cannabis testing in comparison to the imposed regulations is complex. For example, Massachusetts legalized cannabis for medicinal use but required safety and potency testing by a third-party for all products despite it being illegal to operate a cannabis testing laboratory in the state.

Despite this backdrop, the cannabis market is forecasted to continue to grow. A recent report suggested that medical marijuana sales will grow to $13.3 billion in 2020 and adult recreational sales are estimated to reach $11.2 billion by 2020 (6).

  2. C.M. Andre, J.-F. Hausman, and G. Guerriero, Front Plant Sci. 7, 19 (2016).
  3. “Clinical Studies and Case Reports,” (2016).
  4. “Emc, 2018,” Sativex Oromucosal Spray
  5. “Governing – the states and localities,” State Marijuana Laws in 2018 Map, (2018).
  6. New Frontier Data, “The Cannabis Industry 2017 Annual Report,” (2017).
  7. G. Haines, “Everything You Need to Know About Marijuana Smoking in the Netherlands,” The Telegraph,

Andrew James is the marketing director at Ellutia. James has worked at Ellutia for more than 20 years, during that time he has been involved with many aspects of the business from product development to strategic planning. Through this wide range involvement, he has developed an extensive wealth of knowledge and experience in the chromatography industry. James has been in charge of the company’s marketing for the last eight years, working to continually grow both the Ellutia brand and company as a whole. Direct correspondence to: [email protected]

​How to Cite This Article

A. James, Cannabis Science and Technology 1(2), 32-37 (2018).