A federal agency is starting a cannabis plant testing program so consumers can purchase marijuana from dispensaries safe in the knowledge the product is labeled accurately.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is behind the project titled the Cannabis Quality Assurance (CannaQAP) program. Its aim is to “help laboratories accurately measure key chemical compounds in marijuana, hemp and other cannabis products including oils, edibles, tinctures and balms.”

Another aim of CannaQAP is to attain consistent measurement results and promote best practices in lab testing.

“When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10% CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number,” said NIST research chemist Brent Wilson.

NIST, which is a part of the US Department of Commerce, describes CannaQAP as essential following hemp’s legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill. Cannabis plants with less than 0.3 percent THC are considered hemp, while higher concentrations of THC are ultimately a matter of federal criminal law. It’s a fine line, yet accurately measuring THC concentration is not straightforward, as some states have found out since hemp was legalized.

CannaQAP will initially focus on hemp-derived oils such as CBD but, perhaps surprisingly for a federal agency while marijuana prohibition remains in force, will also look to test cannabis flower, concentrates and edibles.

“The program aims to increase accuracy in product labeling and help forensic laboratories distinguish between hemp, which is legal in all states, and marijuana, which is not,” NIST said in a press release.

In the first phase of the CannaQAP project, NIST researchers will send hemp oil samples to labs to measure the concentration of various compounds. After those labs report back with their findings, NIST will then send plant material samples. The two key marijuana ingredients, as far as consumers are concerned, are THC and CBD which regularly appear on labels but are widely considered unreliable. To help determine to what extent this may be the case, NIST will send hemp oil samples to labs with identical concentrations of CBD, THC and many other cannabinoid compounds.

“Those labs won’t be told the concentrations of those compounds but will measure them and send their results back to NIST, along with information about the methods they used to do the analysis,” NIST said.

“After collecting responses, NIST will publish the measurements the labs obtained. That data will be anonymized so that the names of the individual labs are not revealed,” the statement reads.

“However, the results will show how much variability there is between labs. Also, NIST will publish the correct measurements, so each lab will be able to see how accurate its measurements were and how it performed relative to its peers.”

Once all the first phase testing is complete and the data is reviewed, NIST believes it will be in a strong position to make recommendations on best practices for lab testing on cannabis. This phase is expected to take anywhere between six months and a year.

The second phase, as noted, may look at lab testing methods beyond hemp.

“NIST is also planning to conduct future exercises with ground hemp and possibly marijuana,” NIST’s statement reads. “Those exercises will involve measuring a larger number of compounds, including terpenes—the chemicals that give different strains of marijuana their distinct aromas—and compounds that people don’t want in their cannabis such as fungal toxins, pesticides and heavy metals. Future exercises may also include extracts, concentrates, distillates and edibles.”Labs can register their interest to participate in the first phase of the CannaQAP program on NIST’s website up until August 31, 2020.

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