Spectral Analysis: Providing Insurance for the Cannabis Industry – THC and CBD Testing

By By Ahmed Korayem, Product Marketing Lead

The cannabis business is a rapidly growing market that attracts cultivators and others in the supply chain for the high potential return. Although at face value no different from other agricultural products, cannabis is a high-value crop offering significant margins. However, the disconnect between regulations and varying laws have prevented the industry from obtaining standard financing and tools typically used in other agricultural markets.

Cannabis Content: The Key is Potency, not Weight

Unlike commodity crops, cannabis harvests are evaluated and priced based on the potency of chemistry, not weight. This is true for the entire supply chain, from grower to distributor, manufacturer, extractor, and medical dispensaries. In each case, a targeted potency can provide a strategic advantage, whether it’s a matter of securing the best pricing, ensuring a range of different product strengths, as well as product consistency for edibles and oils.

The same is true for the industrial hemp market. Hemp is now used not just in rope, textiles, and clothing, but in food, paper, bioplastics, insulation, and biofuel. The cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp is just as potent as CBD derived from cannabis.

The key to truly leveraging the potency, however, lies in accurate measurement and documentation. Most grower operations and middlemen are confined to using remote chemical testing, sending samples to large labs for high-pressure liquid chromatograph (HPLC, currently the norm) evaluation, gas chromatograph (GC), or thin layer chromatograph (TLC) tests. These testing services employ professional chemists who conduct tests that require hours, various chemical solvents, and special equipment. A typical HPLC measurement, for example, requires grinding the samples to a powder, adding a solvent solution, extracting six times to ensure all cannabinoids are transferred into a common solution, and finally measuring samples within the equipment.

The Hefty Price of Lab Testing & Analysis

While the tests can offer a high degree of accuracy, there is a cost: besides requiring hours of in-lab time, samples often spend days in transit to and from the lab, preventing timely agricultural decisions on optimum potency, delaying sales from growers to distributors, or dispensaries, and even holding up industrial hemp shipments that require solid test documentation. Samples sent to the lab may not be representative of the rest of the batch, and the necessary lab testing can eat into profits.

NeoSpectra-Scanner: A Cost-Effective Testing Tool for Guiding Cannabis Cultivation and Business

Now, however, with the advent of a chip-sized spectral sensor for near-infrared (NIR) material analysis, large and small growers alike can reduce the need for expensive and time-consuming remote measurement. The NeoSpectra-Scanner is a mobile measurement tool that can be used easily onsite, either in the field (or grow house) or in the office, warehouse, and factory.

The testing tool offers a number of advantages, providing growers with the ability to detect and quantify the two most important compounds in cannabis: Tetrahydrocannabino (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) in active and acid forms; as well as moisture; sugar content; and even the terpenes that give the product distinct flavors. Frequent, instantaneous measurement can help determine how to optimize irrigation, lighting, and soil fertilization, and can enable the detection of harmful materials such as molds and fungus. For example, since cannabinoid content can vary by 5% on a single plant, cultivators can measure buds from the same plant in order to ensure that proper lighting hits the entire plant.

Further up the supply chain, distributors, extractors, and retailers can provide themselves with an on-the-spot assurance that they are receiving the potency quality they have paid for, which is important for their own labeling and documentation.

An Instantaneous, Non-Destructive Measurement System

Using the NeoSpectra-Scanner, the process is much simpler and quicker than a lab analysis. NIR measures the cannabis in raw form, is non-destructive, does not use solvents, and takes less than a minute to provide results. Measurement can take place as often as needed. With the scanner, a beam of light is shined onto the leaves, buds, or seeds. Some of the light is absorbed by the sample, some are scattered, some is reflected. The light coming out of the sample is analyzed by the scanner and compared to an internal database to detect and quantify the materials targeted for measurement.

The Value of Onsite Testing as Insurance

While regulations usually require that a third-party lab must test products and provide a certificate of authenticity, onsite testing using the NeoSpectra-Scanner offers major protection. The cannabis industry is evolving fast but is in a constant state of legal flux — it’s important for any party within the supply chain to document that they have made every effort to ensure compliance and quality. Even industrial hemp companies and shippers should be looking at handheld, real-time testing as it can assure receiving departments of high-quality product, while printed test results can serve as legal affidavits for law enforcement – certifying that it is not cannabis — that accompany the hemp on cross country trips.

Onsite testing also enables parties to send the highest quality samples to the third-party lab for testing and certification. Of course, in-house testing also allows every organization to make better business decisions, from validating whether a new piece of equipment actually lives up to the vendor’s claim of increasing potency, to detecting THC in seeds that are supposed to be CBD-only. Similarly, as buds reach maturity and maximum expected potency, growers can cost-effectively and quickly measure them every day and then make a quick decision to harvest at their highest levels. Some cannabis farmers have chosen to use onsite testing as a stealth weapon to determine the best way to cultivate different strains in new, optimum ways.

But growers aren’t the only ones turning to onsite testing. Manufacturers and extractors need to be confident that any product they produce has a uniform amount of cannabinoid content and they must be able to closely monitor THC and CBD levels so that medical patients can be assured of consistency of content and uniformity of the mix throughout the product. Clearly, the industry will continue to change rapidly, and we expect the NeoSpectra-Scanner to be an important part of guiding those changes.