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Cannabis testing: Labs critical for cannabis R&D

Cannabis labs have been busier than ever as new marijuana-related products go through significant research, development and testing before they hit the market.

“It’s a similar system to pharmaceutical labs,” said Anthony Smith, chief science officer for Evio Labs, based in Central Point. “For all intents and purposes, this is a biotechnology business in the Rogue Valley.”

Smith is a pioneer in the local cannabis industry, opening the first-of-its-kind lab in Jackson County, Kenevir Research Lab, before it was bought out by Evio, which has expanded the operations and operates nationwide and in Canada.

Testing of cannabis products is a state requirement, but Smith said the trend is to develop oils, edibles, drinks and other consumables.

Many companies that create these products now do their own analysis as part of the research and development process, he said.

“Another revolution in the industry is all kinds of in-house testing,” Smith said.

This has resulted in a lot of back-and-forth effort between the labs and the manufacturing companies during the development phase. Smith said he often helps manufacturers select the right equipment for their own analytical purposes.

The in-house testing is used to refine the production process and get consistency for a particular edible or other consumable.

Lab analysis by a company such as Evio is required by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission before a product lands on the shelf.

Cannabis, the kind that gives you a buzz, is still heavily tested, but cannabidiol, one of the components in a nondrug strain of hemp, has become more popular.

“A big and growing part of our business is hemp guys,” Smith said.

Hemp fields are obvious to many Jackson County residents because hemp doesn’t need to be enclosed in fences. Hemp has barely detectable amounts of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that gets you high.

Growers are also extracting various other components out of cannabis, such as cannabigerol, or CBG, which is thought to have antibacterial effects.

Another revolution is in vape pens, which contain a cartridge filled with THC oil and sometimes CBD or other compounds.

Manufacturers add terpenes, which are flavors usually derived from marijuana, to give vape oils a certain taste.

However, the natural flavor profile of marijuana by itself may not work in some edibles.

“Most people don’t want a cannabis-flavored chocolate or gummy bear,” he said. “It just tastes nasty.”

Manufacturers go through a lot of steps to make sure they get things right before market.

“There is lots of process validation through pilot batches,” Smith said. “There is an expectation that there is homogeneity of THC doses.”

Because of the highly refined methods of extracting THC, the distillates produced are basically breaking the original cannabis material down to the molecular level.

As a result, Smith said, “For food products, there isn’t really any difference between something that came from a sativa or an indica plant.” Sativa is generally thought to produce a more cerebral high, while indica varieties provide more of a body high.

Expensive gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers are some of the machinery that detect particular compounds to determine potency.

Pointing to his Shimadzu chromatograph, Smith said, “That system is worth one-and-a-half to two Lamborghinis.”

Typical turnaround for testing is five to seven days, he said.

While many customers want cannabis bud with high percentages of THC, others are looking for certain flavor profiles or a particular kind of high.

“Anything above 10 or 12 percent is twice as high as yesteryear,” Smith said. “I’ve heard the connoisseurs don’t care about that number.”

He said the percentages are based on averages taken from samples in the field, but the actual bud smoked by a customer could vary by 3 or 4 percentage points.

Evio receives only small quantities of cannabis products for testing, which are kept for up to two months after analysis.

“Most of the materials are tested and destroyed,” Smith said.

His office off Vilas Road has an intake area, and in the back of the building different stations analyze different components of cannabis, all carefully tracked according to state regulations.

Smith said many business owners complain about the amount of mandated analysis and oversight by the state, but he thinks that will change.

“Over time, the burden of required testing will lighten up,” he predicted.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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