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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Cannabis 2.0 product testing is a challenge due to complex chemistry
  2. Labs are still working to validate testing methods
  3. Most new products are not expected on shelves until the new year

With dozens of new cannabis products entering the market in the coming months, analytical labs are scrambling to figure out how to test the wide array of new formats. Cannabis 2.0 products are more complicated than dried bud or oil from a chemical perspective, and developing and validating testing methods could become a significant bottleneck.

Labs test cannabis products for cannabinoid levels and for contaminants – such as pesticides and heavy metals – before the products are released into the market. Accurate testing requires clean samples that won’t trip up the testing machines. The method of getting a clean sample, however, changes dramatically depending on the environment or “matrix” the chemicals are in.

"When you're dealing with flower or oil, from a chemistry perspective, you are dealing with very similar products,” explained Kaveh Kahen, president and CEO of Sigma Analytical Services in Toronto.

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“But when you’re looking at edible samples, the story is completely different...All these additives, all these sweeteners, all these things that are infused in the product add to the complexity of the matrix that you’re analyzing, and therefore you cannot develop one method for a gummy and expect that the same method can be applicable to a different kind of edible,” he said.

There are 70 labs licensed by Health Canada to conduct analytical testing on cannabis. Mr. Kahen says the coming bottleneck has less to do with the number of labs than with how many have developed and verified tests for new products.

“There is already a little bit of a backlog in labs to get the results out, so that's one challenge the industry has and I think, at least in the short term, it will get worse until more labs develop validated methods," Mr. Kahen said.

In New Brunswick, the Research and Productivity Council, a crown corporation that does cannabis testing, has spent months developing new testing methods, said Diane Botelho, RPCs chief science officer. The organization sent a questionnaire to LP clients over the summer asking about what new products they planned launch.

While RPC is in fairly good shape, said Ms. Botelho, the lab’s ability to validate new tests has been challenged by the fact that Cannabis 2.0 products have not been legally available.

"It certainly has been a challenge in trying to understand and predict what we’re to expect in a lab. And of course we can’t go out and buy these for validation,” she said.

Even after testing methods are validated for new products, the movement of products through testing labs may be slower for Cannabis 2.0 products.

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More time is needed for sample preparation — mashing up a brownie and extracting the compounds of interest from a stew of fat and sugar, for instance. And equipment will need to be re-calibrated for different product batches that come through a lab.

"It's not a plug and chug approach we can take for everything. So from a throughput perspective it certainly has its challenges,” said Ms. Botelho.

This was echoed by Mr. Kahen: “If you can keep your products within a manageable range of matrices and products that labs can develop the methods for, that would obviously be preferred.”

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the new regulations that could make things more manageable. The rules do not specify when in the production process a product needs to be tested, explained David Wood, a partner with the law firm Borden Ladner Gervais. In certain circumstances, a company may be allowed to test cannabis extracts before they’re added to a final product.

"If a processor is realistically of the view, and Health Canada agrees, that there’s no chance of microbial or chemical contaminants being introduced upon the addition of the food matrix – and that’s a big if – then the problem is sidestepped. One would be able to, in compliance with the updated regulation, test the cannabis input. But that would be very dependent on the exact example,” Mr. Wood said.

Mr. Wood expects simpler products, such as concentrates and concentrate vaporizers, to hit the shelves first. Edibles may take more time to come to market. In any case, few products are likely to be available until the new year, he said.

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“For those processors who are completely on the ball and just filed all their new product notifications, December 17 would be the very first day, if everything goes well, that they can offer them for sale... directly to their medical clients,” he said.

“In the adult use market, with the majority of the provinces you have to warehouse. So you’re asking people that work at a liquor authority, which is a crown corporation, to take on a bunch of extra work one week before Christmas. That’s just an unrealistic proposition. I’ve heard from at least one liquor regulator that they’re not even going to try to get [new products] on the shelves before the new year."

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