What is “Cannabis Testing” Exactly?

Between confirming potency and screening for contaminants, cannabis testing labs are here to ensure product quality and safety.

Testing your cannabis can help inform formulas for infusion or extraction.

So you’ve just harvested your homegrown bud, gotten ahold of some strong-smelling nugs, or baked your own delicious edibles, but you’re not sure how potent any of it is. What now? Ring up your friends at the cannabis testing lab to get the 4-1-1!

Confirming potency is just one way a cannabis testing lab can serve as a resource for enhancing your understanding of the cannabis products you’re crafting or consuming. Chemical analysis reveals a lot about products, which can assist with refining growing practices, optimizing infusion or extraction methods, or even determining how or how much to consume. 

At most labs operating in the cannabis space, there will be two categories of analyses available for almost any kind of cannabis product you’re looking to have tested. The first type is potency profiling, which will supply you with a list of active compounds present in a given product. The second is safety screening to confirm products are free of contaminants that may not be suitable for certain consumption methods. Both kinds of analyses feature screens that may or may not be helpful depending on the type of product and the reason someone wants them tested. That is to say, all tests are not always necessary, which is why we like to discuss the products and purpose for testing with clients before they select which screens to have performed. 

Potency testing is among the most popular and useful analysis that the majority of cannabis enthusiasts are interested in. Whether someone is growing their own or just looking to dial in their dose, seeing potency data is both informative and helpful since it reveals what could be considered the “active ingredients.” The two separate tests that contribute to analyzing potency are the cannabinoid profile and the terpene profile. Each of these tests identifies different sets of molecules that belong to the two main classes of compounds thought to be most involved in determining how cannabis products will affect the individuals consuming them, i.e. cannabinoids and terpenes (there could be others involved, but more research is needed to know for sure). 

Many may know cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are responsible for some of the physiological effects experienced with cannabis consumption, but there are actually a host of additional cannabinoids that may be involved in determining how our bodies react to a specific strain of cannabis. At MCR Labs, we currently test for 17 cannabinoids, including THC and CBD as well as CBN, CBG, THCv, CBL, and more. Unfortunately, the research is still limited, making it hard to know for certain how these molecules affect cannabis users. What we do know is there are well over one hundred unique cannabinoids that can be produced by different varieties of cannabis plants, which is why we’re always striving to increase the number of these compounds we’re able to detect (stay tuned). 

Terpenes are another class of cannabis constituent that has gained prominence in recent years. They are most well known for helping to create the aroma and possibly the flavor of different varieties of cannabis. More importantly, they may well play a significant role in forming the “entourage effect” experienced with using cannabis. Again, this is something that will require many years of research before we can understand the mechanisms involved, but for now, knowing which terpenes are present can help consumers identify which strains of cannabis they might prefer on a consistent basis. 

Looking at analyses beyond measuring potency, safety screens can also be beneficial to growers and can play an important role in providing peace of mind to cannabis consumers. The analytes these screens look for can consist of contaminants the plant pulls from the growth media, microbiological organisms on the exterior, or chemicals that may have been used during extraction or cultivation. Not all of these screens are applicable to each different product or situation, but they’re all beneficial and necessary, depending on the circumstances, to ensure the safety of cannabis users.  

For instance, growers may be interested in testing for heavy metals to determine if the soil and water they use for growing contain high levels of these elements, which can lead to elevated concentrations in their plants since cannabis is a highly effective bioremediator. If growing outdoors, it may be necessary to test for pesticides even if none were used directly on the plants as these chemicals can travel through the air from neighboring agricultural operations. Consumers may wish to test older or suspicious-looking products for molds or other microorganisms that can result from suboptimal storage conditions. Those doing their own extraction for making concentrated products can learn a lot about their methods by having the final product tested for residual solvents that can linger after the purging process. In each of these cases, a good laboratory will consult with you to determine which tests are recommended and which aren’t necessary based on why someone is interested in testing.

In some states, testing is required for products to be made available on the regulated market, which is important for protecting and educating consumers. The philosophy at MCR Labs is that anyone growing or crafting cannabis products should have access to this same level of testing, so any individuals working with the plant for fun or for its medicinal value can benefit from the data and information testing provides. In this way, we’re all working together to advance our understanding of cannabis and break down some of the stigma that still clings to its use.

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