Sunday, April 10, 2016

New Testing for Marijuana

Years ago, Alka Seltzer had an ad campaign in which people proclaimed "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." That came to mind last summer when I read about a college student who died in Colorado after eating more than recommended, "an entire marijuana cookie." As an aside, I cannot think of a single time I have ever eaten a partial cookie, and several times I have eaten an entire box (those Girl Scouts are out to get me!). Perhaps expecting anyone to eat a partial cookie is not realistic?

There is scientific progress in the marijuana debate recently though. Much has been said about the strength of marijuana in the modern marketplace. I have touched on the subject in Marijuana May be a Problem and Measuring Marijuana Intoxication. Essentially, there are challenges presented by marijuana consumption that are not currently presented by alcohol. This struggle to determine strength will be an issue for those who smoke it and those who eat it. 

Recently Fox News reported on a new process for measuring edible content, and it illustrates the ingenuity that perhaps we take for granted. The success and innovation we see from science is truly amazing sometimes. 

The fact remains that marijuana is illegal. Some states have elected not to criminalize its possession (within limits in some cases) under state law. This year, Florida joined the path to that posture with medical cannabis, passing HB 307

But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That gets confusing, because the federal government has proclaimed that it will not enforce these particular laws. Physicians who believe in its properties cannot prescribe it due to the unenforced federal prohibitions, which remain the law and thus could lead to prosecution later, should an administration elect to enforce the law in the future. 

And thus, marijuana exists in our society in a murky grey-area of semi-acceptance. But don't necessarily look for the Food and Drug Administration to play a huge role in dealing with marijuana safety anytime soon. Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration apparently recommended changing the Schedule I categorization of marijuana. Some outlets suggest that the Drug Enforcement Agency may make a Schedule change this year. This trend suggests that the conundrum of testing and disclosing strength of cannabis may become increasingly important. 

Fox reported recently that "the murky laws surrounding the world of cannabis laced goodies means that those who eat them often have no idea how much marijuana they are really consuming." This is not a complication isolated to marijuana. We are faced with a vast volume of label claims on our grocer's shelves. Label claims may be made through loopholes or "blatantly false or misleading claims," according to USA Today. And, that is on the foods/ingredients the FDA is addressing. At the current time, label expressions about cannabis may or may not meet FDA standards. 

The essential ingredient for a "high" is the cannabidiol that comes from marijuana. The volume present in a product is of interest to the user. So far, the practice has been to use a "high performance liquid chromatograph" or "HPLC" (as an aside, remember My Cousin Vinny, discussing the "dual column gas chromatograph" used to test the tire rubber? The prosecutor asks "does that thing come turbo-charged?" The state's witness, deadpan, "only on the floor model." Priceless).



Fox reports that a more accurate method of measurement has recently come to the marijuana edible business though. Critics complain that the previous state-of-the-art practices of using the chromatograph leads to highly inconsistent results. In fact, "producers of cannabis edibles complain that if they send off their product to three different labs for analysis, they get three different results." Sure that is a problem for the producers, but in the end, the problem is really for the people who ingest the product. For them, knowing the strength might be critical (eat the whole cookie and it could potentially kill you).

So the American Chemical Society has been working on a solution. They concluded that the "HPLCs don’t actually give accurate readings for food stuffs;" In fact these machines "were never designed for you to inject a cookie into them." Apparently, the issue is that the "sugars, starches and fats will wreak havoc on HPLC equipment." The machines are not designed to deal with these compounds and as a result do not deal with them consistently. 

The new process recently announced starts by freezing food like marijuana cookies or gummy-bears using dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Then sand is introduced into the food and the whole mixture is ground up. This creates "a homogeneous sample." Scientists are calling this process "flash chromatography." Using it, "scientists were able separate the various chemical components of the sample." This is then analyzed by the HPLC.

The scientists claim this methodology "could yield far more accurate and reliable measurements of THC and/or CBD levels in an edible product than was previously possible.” Their research has been determined "accurate" with "gummy bears, brownies, cookies and certain topical lotions." The article does not explain how "accurate" is measured. 

Having admitted that the old method ("inject a cookie into" the chromatograph) does not produce accurate results, one wonders what method is used as a standard, against which this new method is measured for accuracy. Hopefully "accurate" means both that the results are now replicable; to be "accurate," one would hope that three samples to three labs should produce significantly similar if not identical results. Hopefully "accurate" means that the content is really reflected so that overdose is preventable.

But, this new method is seen as an important breakthrough with "far reaching implications for dispensary standards." The article suggests that legalization of marijuana is an eventuality that will spread across the country. In the evolution of marijuana availability, "for both recreational and medical purposes," accurate information about strength and probable impairment is seen as critical. 


Just as we have become tuned to interpreting our food labels to understand fat, carbohydrates, sugar, sodium and more, this will be an education. Perhaps it is more critical however, as illustrated by outcomes already associated with marijuana overuse?

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