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NIST Tools for Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance

Summary

NIST has developed an integrated measurement services program for forensic and cannabis testing laboratories to help ensure the quality of routine analysis throughout the cannabis industry, as illustrated below. NIST is uniquely positioned to support commerce in the cannabis community through the improvement of the analytical measurement comparability. The tools developed by this program will support measurements establishing legal, commerce, and safety claims through the development of fit-for-purpose analytical methodologies, production of Reference Materials (RMs), and implementation of a Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP).

If you have additional questions, please contact cannabis [at] nist.gov.

Description

Cannabis

Since the 1970s, cannabis (marijuana and hemp) and its psychoactive constituent, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, have been classified as Schedule I controlled substances. Seized evidence is tested by forensic laboratories, who verify the identity of the plant through macro- and microscopic evaluation and the presence of THC through presumptive and confirmatory chemical testing. Drug scheduling has directed the testing approaches, as qualitative confirmation of the presence of THC was sufficient to demonstrate possession of a controlled substance. Currently, marijuana and THC remain on the controlled substances list, although medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states as well as the District of Columbia. The 2018 Farm Bill defined hemp as cannabis containing less than 0.3 % THC and removed hemp from the controlled substances list. These legal changes have required forensic laboratories throughout the United States the need to implement quantitative analytical methods to distinguish cannabis seizures as marijuana or hemp. However, the majority of these laboratories have little to no experience in or are accredited to perform quantitative drug analysis.

NIST is developing an integrated measurement services program for cannabis to ensure the quality of routine analysis in forensic laboratories to confidently distinguish between hemp and marijuana in seized cannabis samples with a three-pronged approach: (1) robust analytical methods for a range of techniques (GC-MS, LC-UV, LC-MS/MS, NIR) on a variety instrumental platforms*; (2) cannabis Standard Reference Materials (SRM), Reference Materials (RMs), and Research Grade and Test Materials (RGTMs); and (3) Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP). For additional technical information please contact us at cannabis [at] nist.gov ().

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*Any mention of commercial products within NIST web pages is for information only; it does not imply recommendation or endorsement by NIST.

Measurement Services

Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP)

CannaQAP was developed to help cannabis testing laboratories demonstrate and improve measurement comparability and/or competence. A QAP is a perpetual interlaboratory study mechanism akin to a proficiency testing (PT) scheme but without the pass/fail grade. All results from QAP studies are peer-reviewed and made publicly available as published NIST Internal Reports (IRs), however the identities of individual laboratories are anonymized and known only to them and NIST. Examples of laboratories that may benefit from participation in CannaQAP include:

  • Forensic laboratories developing analytical methods to distinguish hemp from marijuana through quantitative measurements or screening thresholds
  • Laboratories testing cannabis products for quality control (safety and ingredient labeling)
  • Regulators performing inspections or market surveys to evaluate product compliance
  • Researchers conducting clinical trials on efficacy of cannabinoids

Studies offered through CannaQAP may include determination of cannabinoids (including total CBD and total THC), moisture, and toxic elements in cannabis plant materials and/or other cannabis-containing materials. Participants may elect to receive samples for some or all studies, as applicable to the work done in their laboratories (e.g., cannabinoids and moisture, but not toxic elements).  Laboratories may also elect to report only selected analytes (e.g., only reporting total THC, but not all cannabinoids). Participants are asked to report results using measurement procedures and calculations normally performed in their laboratories. In addition, participants are asked to identify the type of sample preparation and analytical methods employed in their testing to facilitate conclusions about potential method biases.

Exercise 1

Study

Samples

Cannabinoids

Hemp Oils

Exercise 1 Final Report

Exercise 2

Study

Samples

Cannabinoids

Cannabis Plant Materials

Toxic Elements

Cannabis Plant Materials

Moisture

Cannabis Plant Materials

Exercise 2 Cannabinoids Final Report coming soon.
Exercise 2 Toxic Elements Final Report
Exercise 2 Moisture Final Report

Exercise 3

Study

Samples

Cannabinoids

Cannabis Plant and Oil Materials

Toxic Elements

Cannabis Plant and Oil Materials

Moisture

Cannabis Plant Materials

Exercise 3 Final Report coming soon.

New exercises are announced to participants registered on our QAP-HUB-website (https://qa-hub.nist.gov). New laboratories interested in future CannaQAP participation can request an account at any time to be added to our mailing list.  Participation in CannaQAP is free of charge, although participants are required to pay for the cost of sample shipment by providing NIST with a shipping account number (UPS, FedEx, or DHL). International participants must provide an import shipping account number, if applicable. Participants are responsible for all incurred shipping charges, including those that may result from shipments being returned to NIST because of customs clearance issues. In no cases are participants paid to participate in CannaQAP.

To sign up to receive notification of new exercises, please visit https://qa-hub.nist.gov.

Cannabis Reference Materials (RMs)

Natural-matrix RMs are intended for use as laboratory quality control materials, in the validation of established methods and in the development of new analytical methods. RMs are a critical measurement service that is presently lacking in the cannabis community. The use of RMs play an important role in cannabis product measurement community to promote compliance with current and future legislation, labeling accuracy, and good manufacturing processes. The development of RMs at NIST will initially focus on hemp plant and oil materials. Both will be homogenized, packaged, and analyzed at NIST and/or trusted third-party cannabis laboratories for a variety of chemical species such as cannabinoids, total THC, moisture, toxic elements, mycotoxins, and pesticides, as well as microbiological contaminants. For additional information on currently available NIST RMs please visit https://shop.nist.gov.

additional Cannabis Projects

Objective Image Analysis for Color Test Evaluation

Objective: To rapidly (1) develop an objective image analysis method for interpreting colorimetric test results, (2) perform an interlaboratory study using the image analysis method to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of a new cannabis typification colorimetric test, and (3) provide standard operating procedures to forensic laboratories for THC determination. For additional information for this project please contact Ruthie Corzo (ruthmara.corzo [at] nist.gov).

Chemical Foundations for a Cannabis Breathalyzer

Founded in 2019, this program was motivated by the rapid decriminalization of adult use and medical use of cannabis by state governments. This has led to extensive R&D by universities and industry to invent a cannabis breathalyzer for law enforcement to identify cannabis intoxication in a field environment. Several versions of breath collection devices are being marketed for the detection of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) in the breath of cannabis users. THC and other cannabinoids are non-volatile and chemically unstable, creating an as-yet-unsolved reliability challenge that did not exist for the alcohol breathalyzer. ACMD’s scientists and engineers are using their backgrounds in vapor capture and analyses to identify and quantify biomarkers linked to recent cannabis use in the exhaled breath of cannabis users.

For additional information for this project please contact Tara Lovestead (tara.lovestead [at] nist.gov).

Standards organization

NIST’s mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. Standard organization engagement is critical for development of impactful measurement services, and some long-standing partnerships are described below. To share your measurement services needs or suggest new or upgraded solutions, please contact Walter Brent Wilson (walter.wilson [at] nist.gov).

Cannabis_Logo

AOAC International

AOAC INTERNATIONAL is a 501©(3), independent, third-party not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization that brings together government, industry, and academia to establish standard methods of analysis that ensure the safety and integrity of foods and other products that impact public health around the world. NIST staff are actively involved in the Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP) and associated AOAC standards development activities, engaging with CASP member to inform development of NIST measurement services .

ASTM International

ASTM INTERNATIONAL is a globally recognized leader in the development and delivery of voluntary consensus standards with over 12,000 ASTM standards used worldwide to improve product quality, enhance health and safety, strengthen market access and trade, and build consumer confidence. NIST staff are actively involved in the D37 Cannabis committee and associated ASTM standards development activities, and engaging with cannabis community to inform development of NIST measurement services.

The Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC)

OSAC Logo

OSAC is a collaborative body of more than 550 forensic scientists, administered by NIST, that consists of experts from all levels of the government, academia, and industry. OSAC strengthens the forensic practice by facilitating the development of technically sound, science-based standards through a formal standards development organization process, evaluating existing standards, and promoting the use of approved OSAC standards throughout the forensic science community.

Cannabis Meetings hosted by NIST

Forensic Cannabis Workshop – November 14, 2022 

This workshop included presentations from NIST researchers and forensic scientists from outside of NIST. Session 1 presenters provided an overview of the current state of cannabis testing in forensic laboratories moving from qualitative to quantitative measurements. Speakers provided insight on modifications/issues encountered, while also providing insight into current and future needs. Session 2 presenters focus on laboratory quality assurance in forensic laboratories and the Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program. The workshop included a live round table discussion for the presenters to answer questions and exchange ideas with the audience. 

Forensic Cannabis Workshop – November 6, 2020

This workshop included presentations from NIST researchers and outside collaborators. NIST presenters provided an overview of the newly developed sample preparation protocols, quantitative analytical methods (i.e., LC-UV, LC-MS/MS, GC-MS, and portable IR detectors), interlaboratory study results, and updates on cannabis RMs. NIST collaborators presented on their in-house cannabis protocols, analytical methods, validation schemes. All presentations can be viewed through the link above. The workshop included a round table discussion for the presenters to answer questions and exchange ideas with the audience.

NIST Food Safety Workshop – October 28 – 31, 2019

This workshop brought experts from the food industry, government, academia, and support organizations (e.g., trade and standards organizations, instrument manufacturers) together with metrology experts to discuss challenges and possible solutions facing laboratories charged with ensuring the safety of the US and global food supply. Food safety is a broad topic, and this workshop covered challenges with analysis of heavy metals, toxins, and residue contamination resulting from growth conditions to allergens, bacteria, or other contamination occurring during processing and/or packaging. The full report from the workshop is available for download.

NIST Hemp RM and QAP Meeting at NIST – May 30, 2019

The CSD held an informal meeting at NIST with members of the cannabis community to discuss the needs of the hemp community for reliable measurements and product quality control. The meeting consisted of two NIST presentations and an open discussion between the 39 meeting attendees. Participants provided NIST with necessary information to start developing analytical tools to improve measurement comparability and product quality in the cannabis community. CSD has started developing an integrated measurement services program to accomplish these goals through developing cannabis Reference Materials and starting a Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP).

Training Videos

NIST has generated a series of Tutorials in Analytical Chemistry for training and education in chemical metrology. Each video introduces different aspects of laboratory operations for the analysis of complex matrix samples, including theory and practice of liquid chromatography, sample extraction and processing, data treatment, and practical aspects of quantitative analysis. Most tutorials contain a mixture of PowerPoint slides and video segments to illustrate basic principles and procedures for each topic. Cannabis specific videos in the series are highlighted below. 

  1. Preparation of Cannabis Reference and Control Materials

  2. Gravimetric and Volumetric Based Cannabis Quantitation

  3. Processing Cannabis Samples

Publications

  1. Barber, C.A., Bryan Sallee, C.E., Burdette, C.Q., Kotoski, S.P., Phillips, M.M., Wilson, W.B., Wood, L.J. (2022), Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program: Exercise 2 Toxic Elements Final Report, NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR) 8452, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

  2. Barber, C.A., Bryan Sallee, C.E., Burdette, C.Q., Kotoski, S.P., Phillips, M.M., Wilson, W.B., Wood, L.J. (2022), Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program: Exercise 2 Moisture Final Report, NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR) 8449, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

  3. Wilson, W.B., Urbas, A.A., and Scott, F. “Study Reveals Inaccurate Labeling of Marijuana as Hemp” Police Chief Magazine, 2022, October Issue, 24-26.

  4. Abdur-Rahman, M., Wilson, W.B. “Determination of 11 cannabinoids in hemp plant and oils by liquid chromatography and photodiode array detection” Chromatographia, 2022, 85, 115-125.

  5. Abdur-Rahman, M., Phillips, M.M., Wilson, W.B., Wood, L.J. (2022), Cannabis Laboratory Quality Assurance Program: Exercise 1 Final Report, NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR) 8385, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

  6. Wood, L.J., Barber, C., Rimmer, K., Wilson, W. B, and Phillips, M.M. “Measuring Heavy Metal Contaminants in Cannabis and Hemp” in, Thomas, R.J. (Eds.), “Chapter 23: The Importance of Laboratory Quality Assurance” CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2020.

  7. Lovestead, T.M. and Bruno, T.J. “Determination of Cannabinoid Vapor Pressures to Aid in Vapor Phase Detection of Intoxication,” Forensic Chemistry, 2017, 5, 79-85.

PRESENTATIONS

  1. Wilson, W. B., Mulloor, J., and Yarberry, A. “Development of Gas and Liquid Chromatographic Methods for the Determination of Cannabinoids in Cannabis Samples” ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry Session at 2022 Eastern Analytical Symposium, Plainsboro, NJ, November 14-16, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  2. Wilson W.B., “Analytical Tools to help Forensic Laboratories in Cannabis Testing” University of Central Florida Weekly Seminar, November 4, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  3. Bryan C.E., “Toxic Metals in Cannabis & Hemp: Development of a Cannabis Reference Material and Quality Assurance Program for Trace Elements” Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists 44th Annual Conference, October 2-6, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  4. Wilson W.B., “Cannabis Research at NIST to Help the Forensic Community: CannaQAP, Reference Materials, and Analytical Methods” 44th Annual Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientist, October 2-6, 2022. Cannabis Workshop.

  5. Wilson, W.B., “Assigning target values for up to 17 cannabinoids in cannabis plant and oil samples for use in the NIST Cannabis Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP)” 2022 Virtual Cannabis Research Conference, Virtual, August 8-10, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  6. Wilson W.B., “Results from two CannaQAP Interlaboratory Study Exercises at NIST for Improving Cannabinoid, Toxic Element, and Moisture Measurements in the Cannabis Industry” 58th Annual North American Chemical Residue Workshop, Virtual, July 25-29, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  7. Wilson W.B., and Phillips, M.M. “Accurate THC measurements in seized cannabis plant samples” National Institute of Justice Symposium, 74th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Seattle, WA, March 1, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  8. Wilson W.B., and Phillips, M.M. “NIST CannaQAP: A Tool for Improving Quantitative Measurements in Cannabis” 74th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences, February 21-25, 2022. Oral Presentation.

  9. Mulloor, J. and Wilson W.B., “A Novel Approach for Quantitation of Total THC in Cannabis Plant Extracts by Isotope Dilution Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry” 74th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Seattle, WA, February 21-25, 2022. Poster Presentation.

  10. Yarberry, A., Mulloor, J., Phillips, M.M., Urbas, A., and Wilson W.B., “LC-MS/MS method development and validation for quantitation of cannabinoids in hemp and marijuana samples” 74th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Seattle, WA, February 21-25, 2022. Poster Presentation.

  11. Wilson W.B., “NIST Analytical Tools for Seized Cannabis Samples” Current Trends in Seized Drug Analysis Symposium, Virtual, January 25, 2022. Oral Presentation.

Opportunities

Cannabis Postdoctoral Opportunities at NIST are available in cooperation with the National Academies/National Research Council.

Other Related NIST Projects

Forensic Science Quality Assurance Program

Created November 18, 2019, Updated January 20, 2023