Committee Blog: What’s Up With Cannabis Standards?
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Committee Blog: What’s Up With Cannabis Standards?

by David Vaillencourt, The GMP Collective, NCIA Facility Design Committee
Alena Rodriguez, Rm3 Labs, NCIA Scientific Advisory Committee

The cat is out of the bag despite the continued federal illegality of cannabis in the United States. A few years ago, the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) recognized the need for standardization to address the safety and quality of cannabis used for medical purposes for the now estimated 3 million+ patients across the country. While the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) does not develop standards and does not operate as a self-regulatory organization, it strongly supports the work being done by experienced standards-setting bodies. While NCIA lobbies for federal descheduling, the involvement of the USP and other organizations is another strong indicator of progress with respect to consumer and patient safety. 

The USP is a nonprofit that humbly began with a small group of physicians on a brisk New Year’s Day in January of 1820. At the time, people would turn to their local apothecary for medications, where a druggist would mix together custom preparations from hand-collected plants and minerals. The types and quantities of these ingredients varied widely, with multiple names for the same medicine. Though sometimes not the fault of the physicians, it was not uncommon for the treatment to be worse than the disease. The USP rapidly evolved from a resource to an authority, when the importation of poor-quality medicines from Europe led to the Drug Importation Act of 1848. Tragic incidents of impurities and toxins in drugs over the years ultimately led to the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, in which Congress declared that certain medicines sold in the US must meet applicable USP quality standards. It should be noted that the USP included standards for cannabis preparations in the Pharmacopeia from 1851 until 1942.

Nearly 80 years later, the USP and several other internationally recognized groups are responding to the need to support the cannabis industry despite the quagmire of cannabis legality. Recently, the USP formed an expert panel of clinicians, scientists, and industry representatives from around the world resulting in a peer-reviewed article recently published in the Journal of Natural Products. The recommendations offered in this article (available here) provide a valuable foundation for the alignment of testing and quality attributes for cannabis flower. It is important to note that the USP published this information in a peer-reviewed article rather than a formal compendial monograph because of cannabis’ Schedule I status. Regardless, this article is another critical milestone towards standardization of the widely used plant, and it is only possible with support from individuals with knowledge of cannabis. Fortunately, there are established platforms that we as an industry can participate in and align with, known as Standards Development Organizations, or SDOs, that work closely with the USP to continue the advancement of our industry. In fact, many SDO efforts are referenced in the USP article.

ASTM International is one SDO that has responded favorably to industry and regulatory requests for assistance in standardizing cannabis. Founded in 1898 as the American Society for Testing and Materials, the group pioneered the standardization for the steel used to fabricate rails as frequent rail breaks across the fast-growing railroad industry plagued efficient transport of goods across the country between previously disconnected cities. Of the over 12,800 global standards published through ASTM’s rigorous consensus process, nearly one-third of them are codified within our federal regulations. ASTM Standards help ensure that the products in our lives can be depended on for safety, quality, and reliability.

The next time you wear a snowsport helmet, buy a crib for your child, use surgical gloves, pump gasoline, or get a new roof for your house, thank ASTM for creating the standards that help ensure that these items are safe. And lucky for us, now ASTM is focusing on cannabis standards.

In 2017, Committee D37 on Cannabis was formed, with subcommittees focused on developing test methods, cultivation best practices, quality assurance, processing and handling, security, and electronic devices. Today, over 800 members from 26 countries are actively contributing to the development of voluntary consensus standards. To date, more than a dozen voluntary consensus standards have been passed through the highly respected balloting process, providing specifications on water activity for cannabis flower, guidance on security plans, and many more. You can learn more about Committee D37 here and become a member here.

Another SDO is AOAC International, formerly known as the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. AOAC is a third-party, international association that establishes standard analytical methods and has been around since 1884. With the help of expert volunteers, AOAC ensures all Official Methods of Analysis (OMA) are highly scrutinized, scientifically sound, and defensible. OMA methods are recognized in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations and are legally defensible in court globally.

AOAC created the Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP) to convene experts to discuss, develop, and validate cannabis testing standards. CASP is made up of five working groups: Microbiological Contaminants, Chemical Contaminants, Cannabinoids in Consumables, Training and Education, and Proficiency Testing. So far, CASP has published two First Action Official Methods for Cannabinoids in Cannabis sativa Dried Flowers and Oils (2018.10) and the Quantitation of Cannabinoids in Cannabis Dried Plant Materials, Concentrates and Oils (2018.11) and which are the first internationally recognized methods for potency in cannabis. They have also released several Standard Method Performance Requirements (SMPRs) that are developed through a voluntary consensus process, and prescribe the minimum analytical performance requirements for analytical methods during validation of the method. You can learn more about CASP here and register to join here.

The work of USP, ASTM, AOAC, and others supports effective quality control of consumable products to promote public safety. These organizations create standards that are recognized by federal and state regulations across applicable consumable industries. Standards allow consumers to trust the products they buy have been subjected to thorough safety and quality controls that are the same no matter which state you buy the product in. Each organization has created an expert panel specifically for cannabis in order to help prevent uneven approaches to safety and quality. The efforts of USP, ASTM, AOAC, and AHPA directly relate to NCIA’s mission to promote the growth of a responsible and legitimate cannabis industry. With several thought leaders active both in NCIA and these organizations, it is imperative that moving forward we liaison with each other to ensure cannabis quality efforts are in alignment.

As NCIA says, “our industry is stronger, smarter, and more prosperous when we work together.”


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