When you consider which CBD products to buy, you most likely focus on their price and effect. Does a gummy or a tincture or a pre-rolled CBD joint deliver the pain relief, better sleep, or any of the other myriad of health benefits that you seek from CBD? Does it do so at a reasonable cost? If so, you’re likely to make a purchase.
But there is another big factor to consider: safety.
Just like with any marijuana plant or product, CBD products are susceptible to a wide range of pesticides, heavy metals and molds. Using a series of rigorous machines and tests, however, a lab can confirm whether a product has a clean bill of health — or whether it needs to be tossed. Furthermore, since the U.S. Farm Bill requires that CBD contain no more than 0.3% THC (which can occur naturally in CBD-rich marijuana plants and hemp), labs play a crucial role in confirming that a CBD product is legal and isn’t going to leave you unexpectedly stoned out of your gourd.
To learn more about how to test for CBD, what to look for and why it matters, we caught up with Ron Brost, the Lab Director of Stillwater Laboratories outside of Whitefish, Montana.
Stillwater was founded in 2017, shortly after Montana passed Senate Bill 333, which made medical marijuana testing mandatory in the state. It’s one of just a handful of such labs in Montana, and the company’s five dedicated “couriers” retrieve thousands of samples from across the state. Business is booming; the lab estimates that they test 70-100 products daily.
Ron and his wife Kristine, the lab’s operations director, bring extensive experience to their work. Prior to launching Stillwater, Ron was a chemical engineer at Apple, where he used much of the same equipment as he does now. Kristine is a lawyer with a background in biology. She has helped design and build scientific laboratories.
Before we jump into the details of CBD testing, we want to remind you that customer safety is of the utmost importance for us at High Road. That’s why all of our tins of gummies and mints include a QR code that you can scan for detailed test results. We send our products to Fidelity Diagnostics, which is a bit closer to our home base in Missoula.
What to Watch Out for in Your CBD
It’s crucial that businesses like ours can all be confident in the safety of our CBD products, especially considering that many folks who rely on them already have compromised immune systems and general health. Even healthy individuals can experience adverse effects from ingesting pesticides, like rashes, headaches, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, nosebleeds and eye irritation. Extensive exposure to heavy metals in CBD, while unlikely, can lead to organ failure or cancer.
Ron explained that pesticides like myclobutanil are among the most common offenders he sees in lab samples. They are often used to kill mold and keep plants insect-free.
“Pesticides are chronic and very difficult to remove,” he told us. While it’s obviously concerning when plants are exposed to pesticides, Ron added that when pesticides get stuck inside extraction equipment, it can be an even bigger issue. “Contaminated equipment is very difficult [to clean],” he said. “I’ve seen cases where people have shared equipment because nobody can afford [to buy their own]; I’ve seen contamination hop from place to place.”
Heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead are big concerns for Ron; he calls them “the bad boys.” Heavy metals can leach into plants through the soil. (In fact, hemp is being grown at Chernobyl to absorb the heavy metals still stuck in the ground there.) Additionally, heavy metals are sometimes present in cheap extraction equipment, where they are absorbed into plant material that’s being processed for vape cartridges, edibles and more.
“You buy equipment from Asia and often it's not intended for extracting organic materials,” Ron said. “The glazes leach out, and now we have lead in our product that’s intended for very sick people.”
Microbes, Mycotoxins, Molds and More
Ron noted a few other potential contaminants that are less likely to appear in CBD products, but still important to test for: mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi), microbes such as E. Coli and Salmonella, and molds like powdery mildew and bud rot that can lead to infections in your lungs.
Potency and More
Labs like Stillwater and Fidelity Diagnostics test to make sure that, in the case of CBD, there is a maximum of 0.3% THC in any sample. They will also note the presence of other cannabinoids like CBN, CBG and CBC. This information can be found in the Certificate of Analysis the lab produces for all of their samples.
Wait, How Exactly do You Test CBD?
Testing CBD and marijuana products requires both extensive experience and some very fancy equipment.
For starters, it’s crucial to keep CBD products separate from the rest of a lab’s samples to prevent cross-contamination. “Although the fundamentals are the same, we plan the lab around separating our medical marijuana business from our CBD business,” Ron explained.
When it comes to the former, he said, the process is similar to prepping a medical marijuana sample. First you blend the plant matter into a yummy green liquid. Then you dissolve it until it’s at the appropriate concentration to be run through the epically precise (and expensive) High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) machines, which measure the concentrations of both cannabinoids and the more questionable contents mentioned above.
Ron Brost shows off a liquified sample… No, it’s not a kale smoothie.
Edibles like our gummies and mints, however, require a more involved process because of the starches, sugars and other ingredients that need to be separated from the cannabinoids, with the aid of solvents, to ensure that the sample is pure and accurate. “It’s a much bigger deal,” Ron said.
Go See for Yourself!
With all this information in hand, it’s time to do some research of your own! As we mentioned earlier, when it comes to High Road products, all you need to do is scan the QR code on the back of our gummy and mints tins to get all the details. Check other companies’ websites to see their own test results.
If you grow hemp or medical marijuana plants of your own, you can additionally send in samples to labs like Stillwater to learn what’s in them. Together, we can make sure that CBD remains a tool for healthy living.