The cannabis industry is booming in the US, and many scientists are jumping at the chance to develop high-quality testing facilities to meet the growing demand. Cannabis-testing laboratory revenues in the US are expected to reach $850 million by 2020, according to independent investment research and advisory firm GreenWave Advisors. But cannabis laboratories have a unique set of design requirements, regulations, and equipment that must be considered.
Whether you are converting an existing lab to accommodate cannabis testing or building from scratch, it is important to assemble a team of experts to guide you through the process. Seek out an architecture firm that specializes in cannabis laboratories, as they will know the special infrastructure requirements needed. They may also collaborate with engineers or custom lab furniture manufacturers who can help resolve design challenges or answer logistical questions.
Safety and security
Security and cleanliness are two of the most important factors to address when constructing a cannabis-testing lab. Mandated security requirements may vary by state, but at a minimum, the lab should be equipped with 24-hour video surveillance and alarm systems and have on-site security, says Christopher Witowski, PhD, chief scientific officer of AltMed (Sarasota, FL), a cannabis-based pharmaceutical company. Entry into and out of the facility should require a special access card or another form of identity authentication to prevent any unauthorized persons from entering.
Testing labs should also be sterile to avoid any contamination issues or safety hazards. Personal protective equipment is an obvious first step to ensure staff and the products they are working with remain safe. The chemicals commonly used in a variety of cannabis-testing procedures can corrode or damage furnishings, so be sure to select furniture and surfaces that are designed to withstand harsh chemicals and that are easily cleanable.
Witowski also advises that lab managers know how much solvent they plan to store on-site and how much future storage they will need if the design plan includes a multistage buildout. “Extraction is certainly where the biggest emphasis is placed on safety, as many solvents used in these processes are hazardous,” he says. “Every state has differing local storage and handling regulations of hazardous material. Check with your local fire marshal to ensure you can use the extraction method you want, whether it be CO2, ethanol, or hydrocarbons, which often require C1D1 [class one division one] rooms.” Other considerations Witowski cites include facility sprinkler systems, airborne solvent monitoring systems, HVAC, electrical requirements, and hazardous waste storage and disposal.
Equipment and software
Most of the instruments needed to carry out cannabis testing and analysis are already very familiar to experienced analytical chemists— high-pressure liquid chromatographs (HPLC) are the most widely acceptable means of testing cannabis for potency; mass spectrometers (MS) can test for pesticides; and real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) units can be used for terpene, contaminant, and strain testing. But those working in a cannabis lab may not have the same expertise or skill sets as traditional chemists. For example, a plant biologist or agricultural biologist may not be accustomed to working with such analytical equipment. That is why Shimadzu Scientific Instruments developed two dedicated products, the Cannabis Analyzer for Potency and the Hemp Analyzer, based on HPLC. As Bob Clifford, PhD, general manager at Shimadzu, explained, the company labeled the instruments as “analyzers” instead of “HPLC” instrumentation “because the main function is to provide the concentrations of cannabinoids in flower, plant, and concentrates through simple operation,” said Clifford. “Thus, a technician, instead of a higher-paid analytical chemist, can operate the system.” The analyzers allow for a simple and straightforward three-step process—start-up, analysis, and monitor. They also come with a sample preparation instruction manual, analytical test methods, an analytical column, a guard column, custom premix 11 cannabinoid standard, and premixed mobile phase to dedicated custom software. Additionally, Shimadzu offers an LC-MS/MS that can measure pesticides, mycotoxins, and aflatoxins in a single run in less than 15 minutes and a GC-MS/MS that can measure pesticides, terpenes, and residual solvents, reducing the capital cost for running a cannabis laboratory, according to Clifford.
When searching for specialized cannabis testing equipment, lab managers should find a manufacturer that is “all-in” and ready to support the product for cannabis application, advises Clifford. “Cannabis may be legal on the state level, but it is illegal on the federal level. As a result, some instrument manufacturers are only dipping their toe in the cannabis market. For example, some of these manufacturers may support food, environmental, or pharmaceutical applications, but the cannabis plant is very complex, containing over 500 compounds. Thus, a history of analytical cannabis-testing experience should be required from the manufacturer,” explains Clifford, who also recommends checking manufacturers’ websites for dedicated microsite web pages for cannabis. Shimadzu’s web page (www.GrowYourLab.com) contains informative videos, applications, brochures, and white papers that address the cannabis market.
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have become a necessity in all types of laboratories, and cannabis-based labs are no exception. However, these specialized labs benefit from additional features that are not necessarily included in more general LIMS. Some examples include preloaded compliant test protocols, labels, and reports optimized and readily adjustable for the rapidly changing industry; optimized sample loading screens including differentiation between medical and recreational marijuana; and tools for creating new, compliant test protocols, labs, and reports.1
States now also require seed-to-sale software programs for cannabis production labs to keep a complete record of a specific plant’s journey— from cultivation through processing and manufacturing to point of sale—which ensures labs are staying compliant with regulations. “We have to report all [test] results to a specialized software system, which requires additional training and setup of our LIMS,” says Jeremy Sackett, founder and chief science officer at Cascadia Labs (Bend, OR), a cannabis-testing lab offering analytical services to meet regulatory and research requirements in legal cannabis markets. A variety of seed-to-sale software programs are available, and many offer additional features and add-ons, so be sure to find the best fit for your needs.
An evolving industry
Witowski and Sackett both addressed how changing regulations and an ever-evolving industry landscape can greatly influence the design and operation of cannabis-testing labs. Witowski, who has designed functional laboratory and processing facilities in Arizona, Florida, and New York, says, “When you’re designing your facility, don’t think about where you want to be in a few months, but rather a few years down the road. This will ensure that you will avoid costly reconstruction, which will also hamper your current production rate.”
For Sackett and Cascadia Labs, which is the second-oldest lab of its kind in Oregon, the plan to launch a new cannabis lab in California came with complex logistical hurdles. “California has a new regulatory program with a good set of tests and requirements for public health and safety around [cannabis] products that wasn’t available before,” explained Sackett. However, due to federal regulations, Cascadia Labs is unable to ship THC-rich products across state lines to California. “To enter California meant we needed to build a new lab. To have to replicate the entirety of the laboratory is meaningful from a financial and workload standpoint,” said Sackett. “The evolution of the industry in the last few years has been rapid, but I also consider that we’re still in an infancy stage. There’s still a lot of growth that needs to happen.”
Therefore, lab staff should keep an open mind and develop a flexible design plan that can easily adapt to future changes, additions, and new regulations.
“I’m hopeful that cannabis will ultimately be regulated more closely to the nutraceutical/ dietary supplement market than the stringent single-compound, clinical trial model of the pharmaceutical industry. Cannabis operations would be wise to start looking into good manufacturing practices and adopting these principles and guidelines,” concluded Witowski.
View On-Demand: Tools for the Cannabis Testing Lab