Emerald Conference 2017: A Chromatographer’s Perspective on Cannabis

Cannabis is a growing like a weed! The third annual Emerald Conference was held early February this year in San Diego, CA, USA and the turnout was incredible. From a general point of view, the cannabis industry is undergoing changes that will provide consumer’s confidence for their safety.  From a chromatographer’s perspective, we get a unique view of how the changes will be monitored, what analytes are going to be tested, types of matrices, extraction needs, etc. and to see how we fit into propelling cannabis testing into the future.  In the same sense, we also understand the challenges of being without a federal regulating body and the importance of testing different components. The Emerald Conference provided a venue by which the industry can come together to discuss the major challenges in cannabis such as: cannabinoid potency, terpene profiling, residual solvents, and pesticides.  What leads to further confusion is that the analytical chromatographers have to measure components at percent levels (such as THC) while at the same time screen for trace level compounds (e.g. pesticides) at the parts per billion level. Analyzing what we learned at this conference helps us become better equipped at solving cannabis chromatography problems.

Historically, cannabis has been grouped into the toxicology industry as it is still considered a Schedule I substance by the federal government, but due to recent state’s legalization, the cannabis industry has become independent with a large chromatography focus. Concerns we see in the food industry are similar to what we see in cannabis, such as food labeling and pesticides.  Due to the illegal status at the federal level in the United States, there is effectively no definitive data or guidance regarding the use of pesticides on cannabis. Therefore, individual states are left scrambling to develop best practices. With limited information, laboratories, processors, and end-users are left wondering what the acceptable levels of pesticides are, what should be expected, and how to analyze them.  The Emerald Conference addressed this and focused on QuEChERS (Quick-Easy-Cheap-Effective-Rugged-Safe) as the preferred sample preparation technique to extract the multi-residue pesticides from their flower matrix followed by HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) or GC (gas chromatography).

Seperation and Extraction of THC, Cannabinoids from Marijuana
Fast and Efficient Separation of Ten Naturally Occurring Cannabinoids by Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC) using Lux® 5µm Cellulose-2 Column

Extraction is an interesting aspect to this industry. While many people may think of the flower as the principle product, there are several techniques and procedures that produce extracts eventually used in end-user products (i.e. Oils infused food or drinks or concentrates for vape pens). There were several conversations on topics such as supercritical fluid extractions (SFC) and butane extractions as well as the subsequent analysis to determine potency and purity from residual solvents. It will be very interesting to monitor which direction extractions will go depending on the future needs of the industry.

Another hurdle in the cannabis industry is proficiency testing. In developing tests, standards, and methods, international organizing bodies have been collaborating to design an effective program. A discussion was held presenting the challenges and future developments for these laboratories and the future looks promising.   Variations between labs were smaller and for the most part the results were more consistent.   Attendees who were proficient in other industries such as pharmaceutical, environmental, and food testing typically have experience working within the constraints of guidance documents from various regulatory or other authoritative bodies. However, partially due to the youth of this industry, many cannabis business operators lack familiarity with proper method validation, knowledge of laboratory practices and other aspects of operating a reliable testing facility. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear the discussion people were having in trying to improve their analytical work and be part of the process to develop solutions to these problems.

The primary topics of interests at the conference has remained the same.  The industry is seeking guidance on pesticide and residual solvent analysis; more cannabinoids are being analyzed for potency; and terpenes are being analyzed more as growers and processors seek to understand more about this product. Lastly, proficiency testing standards are being developed with the goal of being part of the process by which testing laboratories can obtain accreditation.   The outcome of all of these talks were unified in their purpose: to work towards a cannabis testing solution that makes the products safer and regulated with the best interest in mind. Phenomenex looks forward to again sponsoring this conference in 2018.

Can’t wait to see you there in 2018!

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