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By Brian Owens for Chemistry World
Ensuring that America’s medical marijuana is reliable and of high quality will help patients and drive down opioid use in the country, according to Americans for Safe Access
A group dedicated to improving access to and the safety of medicinal cannabis in the US is offering its certification programme free of charge to cannabis testing labs to help fight the country’s opioid epidemic.
The Americans for Safe Access (ASA)’s Patient Focused Certification (PFC) programme is intended to be a mark of quality for cannabis testing labs, and to help them prepare for ISO 17025 accreditation – the main international standard for demonstrating the technical competence and accuracy of testing and calibration labs, says Jahan Marcu, director of the certification programme.
The process of earning the certification involves multiple steps. Marcu or his colleagues first conduct a physical inspection of the facility, to confirm that it meets zoning, construction and safety standards, as well as state and local laws regarding the proximity of cannabis facilities to schools or churches. They next assess the lab’s paperwork involving maintenance, cleaning and training records, and also observe its employees in action, ensuring that they are following best practices for sample gathering, preparation and testing.
The whole inspection process can take two days, and it is repeated in a surprise visit about a year later. The certification is recognised by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, which also offers a discount on ISO certification for labs that have completed the PFC programme.
The service would normally cost between $5000 (£3855) and $8000, but ASA is now offering it for free, provided that labs cover the travel costs of the inspector, and agree to offer a discount on their services to other organisations that have received PFC certification. ‘We decided we need to have certified labs more than we need to make money from the labs,’ Marcu tells Chemistry World.
He emphasises that increasing the number of certified, reliable cannabis testing labs in the US will help improve the safety and reliability of medical cannabis in the country. The labs test for whatever is required by state regulators, which can include potency, genetic profiles, harmful contaminants like pesticides or heavy metals, and bacteria, as well as yeasts or moulds. ‘We need this so that patients can have safe cannabis,’ Marcu says. ‘Patients have a right to clean medicine.’
Cleaning-up the industry
It will also help to professionalise the industry. While many states require medical cannabis to be lab-tested, the lack of a good professional certification has meant that producers could shop around for a lab that would give them the results they wanted. ‘There has been a huge absence of any third party stamp of approval,’ says Jeffrey Raber, president of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs. ‘This adds to the validity and credibility of the labs.’
But the main impetus for offering the free certification now is to try and help deal with the opioid epidemic sweeping the US. The rate of opioid use in the US has rocketed by about 500% over the past 15 years. ‘Public health labs are so overwhelmed with opioids, they don’t have time for much else,’ explains Marcu. ‘By empowering local cannabis labs, we can assist the government in protecting public health.’
Marcu also points out that having access to safe cannabis medicines can help drive down opioid use. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that states with access to medicinal cannabis had a 25% lower opioid overdose mortality rate.
When tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is administered alongside morphine, the dose of morphine can be reduced by three-quarters while providing the same level of pain relief. Because cannabis does not depress respiration, as opioids do, taking them together greatly reduces the chance of an overdose. Cannabis drugs can also be used in place of opioids, stopping patients from using them in the first place.
But many of the people that might supplement or replace opioids with cannabis have not used marijuana before, says Marcu, and they need to be reassured about the safety of the drug. ‘They’re concerned about how much they’re getting, in what form and want to minimise the side effects,’ he says.
Therefore, having a trusted source that indicates the safety and quality of medical marijuana products is important. ‘If we have standard, validated products, patients can look to those for front line pain relief,’ states Raber. Since there is little risk of overdose with cannabis-based drugs, he says they can be a ‘much better option’ than opioids.
M A Bachhuber et al, JAMA Intern. Med., 2014, DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4005