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Quality Assurance

With the global legal cannabis market expected to reach more than $192 billion by 2025, now is a critical time to focus on the standardized testing and quality control needed to ensure that it’s safe for human consumption and deliver the correct potency that your customers demand.

Of course, there are many reasons to make sure that cannabis is fresh and free of contaminants. Contamination by pesticides is a major concern of consumers. In 2016, an investigation performed by the Ministry of Environment and Health in the Netherlands found that 90% of cannabis plants had been exposed to pesticides. Non-licensed producers are not bound by law when it comes to cultivating their product, and so their cannabis is more likely to be contaminated with things that are a threat to health, such as pesticides or fungi. Having a robust quality assurance program in place not only means that licensed producers operate within the law, but also goes a long way to reassure your customers that the cannabis they are buying is of excellent calibre.

The Challenges of Product Safety

Any laboratory testing of cannabis faces problems on several fronts. The plant has an elaborate chemical makeup with nearly 500 compounds, around 100 of which are cannabinoids, 120 terpenes, and about 24 flavonoids. The chances of these interacting with each other are high, and so their stability is called into question. Also, their concentration throughout the plant is inconsistent, given that they are distributed between the stem, the leaf, and the flower. These inherent complexities of the plant are further compounded when they’re crossbred.

To ensure quality you have to address the contamination risks throughout the process.

The limits set by the government for contamination are low, so to ensure quality you have to address the contamination risks throughout the process. Deron Caplan Ph.D., a horticultural scientist and director of plant science at Flowr, a licensed producer based in BC’s Okanagan Valley, underlines the importance of this. “You have to ensure that all of your employees are wearing clean clothes, hairnets, and booties to make sure you’re not spreading contaminants from room to room or person to plant,” he says. “You have to be careful in terms of the environmental conditions of the room you’re trimming in. If it’s too moist in there, you may have an environment that is conducive to bacterial infection. This impacts on drying and curing, so if you have conditions that are too wet, or your product is too wet for too long, you allow bacteria, yeast and mould to grow and that is a potential risk.”

Drying and Curing

The drying and curing processes have a large impact on quality. Caplan explains that drying out the plant involves decreasing the moisture content to a point where bacteria, yeast, and mould will no longer grow. Once it’s at that “safe zone,” the curing process can begin, and that allows for some enzymatic degradation. It’s important to note that this is what we think happens, but it’s not confirmed. Curing breaks down the chlorophyll in the flower, which makes it more palatable when smoked or vaporized, and the process can take somewhere from a week to several months.

Does the strain have an impact on this? It’s difficult to determine, says Caplan. “Some cultivars have more dense buds, and some are airier (more fluffy). The ones that are dense maintain a higher moisture environment in the bud for longer, so you’re more likely to get botrytis, or bud rot.”

Danira Jaksic, director of quality assurance at Sundial, agrees, “You don’t want the moisture leaving too fast, or not at all, as that can cause the plant to rot from the inside. You need to make sure that the environment is suited to that strain. Our master grower knows that a certain strain will dry a certain way, and so we know that at a particular moisture content it moves to the next phase of drying, and at the next it can be packaged.”

Drying out the plant involves decreasing the moisture content to a point where bacteria, yeast, and mould will no longer grow.

Research and development are all-important to this part of the production cycle. Jaksic explains that Sundial will subject each strain to one or two growth lifecycles to profile their chemical makeup. She describes, “We start testing into the cycle. For example, it may be an eight-week strain, but we may find that we like the cannabinoid and terpene profile at four weeks into the flowering cycle. It doesn’t go directly into production; we research and develop every strain.”

The Impact of Packaging

Packaging isn’t all about branding or protecting the product during transit; it can actually affect the quality of the cannabis as it makes its way to a licensed retailer or consumer. The reasons are humidity and ultraviolet (UV) light, an invisible form of radiation that makes up for around 10% of the total output of the sun. UV light can break down cannabinoids, so packaging needs to be opaque or UV resistant. The example that Caplan gives is specialty tea retailer DAVIDsTEA. You’ll notice that all of their in-store product is kept in stainless steel packaging to protect the flavour profile; UV will break down the volatile chemical compounds that are crucial to its quality.

Two-way humidity control packs will control the humidity so that it doesn’t dry the product out too much, which can also make it harsh to consume. It will also make sure that it’s not so moist that it spoils.

Further Improvements in Quality Assurance

Data collection is the key to future improvements. Jaksic says, “I think that the more data we collect, the more we’re really going to be able to establish what is the best life cycle for [each] strain and what will deliver the best product.”

According to Caplan, the main hurdle to improving the drying and curing processes is gaining an understanding of what actually happens at this stage in the cycle. He says, “We understand that it prevents spoilage, which is common for grains, herbs and teas, but the curing process for cannabis is a mystery. We know what happens when we cure tobacco, but it’s not so clear when it comes to cannabis. Is it enzymes breaking down chlorophyll? Is it some kind of bacterial action? A lot of research needs to be done, and once we understand what processes are occurring, we can come up with improved protocols.”

What could these look like? An example would be a three-month curing process being superceded by a week-long cure at a specific temperature. As research and development with licensed producers is able to move at a faster pace than academic study, Caplan thinks that we could see some significant improvements within five years, even allowing for the interrelated aspects that make it very difficult to study. He sums up, “Research doesn’t happen quickly. Cannabis time is ten times that of any other industry!”