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Improving the Accuracy of Laboratory Testing of Cannabis

By Dr. Dena Weiss, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Due to different state laws regarding the medical and recreational use of cannabis, it is important for law enforcement departments to have access to reliable laboratory testing facilitates to accurately identify the components of cannabis. Consumers who use these products legally should feel confident that the cannabis package labeling is truly representative of the contents.

Two Main Components of Cannabis

The two main components of cannabis are Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). There are two plant subspecies of cannabis, Cannabis indica and Cannabis Sativa. C. Sativa contains higher concentrations of the psychoactive ingredient THC and is cultivated more often.

CBD oil does not alter sensory perception or produce any type of euphoria, so it is sold without prescription. The oil is derived from the cannabis plant, but is highly touted for its ability to ease anxiety and assist with sleep disorders.

Hemp and cannabis are derived from the same plant species; however, hemp plants contain less than .3 percent of THC. Cannabis plants that are grown to harvest marijuana typically contain 5 to 20 percent THC. In ancient times, hemp fibers were used to make cloth and ropes.  Now most CBD products are made from hemp plants.

Legality of Cannabis

Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has determined that marijuana has a high potential for abuse and is of no medical use.

At the federal level cannabis is illegal. Medical use of marijuana is legal in 33 states; recreational use is currently legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Legislation in many states such as Alabama and South Carolina has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of this July, there were only a few states where marijuana use was illegal:

  • Alabama
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

The legality of cannabis has drastically changed over the past 10 years. The 2018 Farm Bill made a distinction between hemp (3 percent  THC) and cannabis products with higher concentrations of THC. Under the bill federal restrictions were lifted on growing hemp plants, providing growers with the opportunity to profit from the once DEA-restricted controlled substance.

The Many Faces of Cannabis

Whether for medical use or for pleasure, marijuana is taken in many different forms. This makes it difficult for the Department of Justice and state law enforcement agencies to enforce the laws. Some product examples include:

  • Cannabis Oil (CBD)
  • Cannabis edibles and beverages
  • Cannabis beauty products (lotions and balms)
  • Cannabis tinctures
  • Smoking and vaping

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some control over what products containing CBD are approved. Before a product can be marketed for therapeutic use or treatment of disease, it must have prior FDA approval. Many states are also banning edible CBD products because CBD is not an “FDA-approved food additive.”

Cannabis Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) understands the pressure forensic laboratories are under to distinguish marijuana from hemp in suspected illegal drug arrests and seizures. In the past, forensic drug analysts tested marijuana evidence for the presence of THC, but they did not quantify the sample.

Most forensic laboratories do not have staff with the proper training to conduct these quantitative tests. Recently, NIST unveiled the CannaQAP program designed to provide training to these facilities to accurately measure the concentrations of cannabis compounds. The training is designed to be similar to forensic analysts’ proficiency testing in which they are given unknown samples. The unknown samples will include THC, CCD, and 15 additional cannabinoid compounds. The analysts test these samples and their results are reported back to NIST.

The labs will be given the data as to what was accurately measured and what was inaccurately measured. The end result is to develop consistent measurement techniques and protocols across the board that will make all forensic laboratories more efficient.

About the Author:

Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties. Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology, a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.

Dr. Dena Weiss is faculty at AMU, teaching criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after 24 years as a CSI and fingerprint examiner. She has testified in 200+ federal and circuit court cases. She is an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System. She has a BA in Chemistry and Sociology, MA in Forensic Science, Ph.D. in Business Admin, emphasis in CJ.

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