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Federal Science Agency Issues First Report On THC And CBD Variability In Cannabis Laboratory Testing Results



A federal science agency has released a new report as part of its effort to ensure that cannabis products are accurately tested and labeled for THC, CBD and more than a dozen other cannabinoids. It’s part of an ongoing effort by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to encourage standardized analysis of a wide range of cannabis compounds and contaminants across an ever-expanding class of legal products.

The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced The Cannabis Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP) last summer. The program’s goal, NIST said at the time, was “to help laboratories accurately measure key chemical compounds in marijuana, hemp and other cannabis products including oils, edibles, tinctures and balms.”

Laboratory testing of cannabis has been happening more or less openly in the U.S. for years, at least since the early days of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. While NIST has acknowledged that most existing product labels already included concentrations of at least THC and CBD, the agency says many labs don’t have sufficient experience conducting those tests, which has led to “unreliable” results.

NIST already guides standardized testing and measurement in other industries, such as dietary supplements and food safety. “We work already in this space with regulators, product manufacturers, farmers, on the forensic side as well as in other areas,” NIST research chemist Brent Wilson told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview. “We had the interaction with them already, and we knew that they needed us to get involved to help improve the analytical testing [of cannabis] that’s being done in the community.”

The first exercise in the CannaQAP program, which is the subject of the new report released last week, involved evaluating how laboratories determine the concentration of cannabinoids in hemp oils. Testing laboratories across the country were sent two samples of hemp oils containing known concentrations of THC, CBD and 15 other cannabinoids. After testing the samples, the labs returned their results to NIST along with an explanation of their testing methods.

The primary goal of the first report, published July 27, is meant to show how much variability exists between testing labs and methods. Its goal is to be observational and educational, not to pass judgment on the labs techniques or measurements. It published results in anonymized form, looking for how much measurements varied. “There needs to be a platform for these laboratories to demonstrate their confidence without worrying about…failing or passing a test that they’re taking part in,” Wilson said.

Overall, 116 laboratories participated, although not all reported results for each sample, nor did all submit results for each cannabinoid contained in the samples they analyzed. According to a list of self-identified participants, the group comprised an international mix of commercial labs that already focus on cannabis testing, commercial or academic chemical testing labs, law enforcement agencies and assorted others. Overall, about 83 percent returned data to NIST, Wilson said.

“The industry as a whole compared pretty well with the target values,” he said of the overall THC and CBD results covered in the report. “The accuracy as a community was good.”

Because the quality assurance program is intended to be anonymous and nonjudgmental, Wilson declined to draw any significant critical conclusions about the significance of the variability between laboratories’ results. Asked how the group’s cannabis results compared to those of other regulated industries NIST works with, he said the report showed “very similar results to what we’d expect in any of the similar programs that we’ve done. There’s always going to be a large amount of variability at first [but] as things progress, we expect to see that variability shrink.”

“We generally don’t go into the details about the capabilities of an industry,” he added, explaining that job is better left to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state regulators. “Our main goal is just to try to improve the measurement capabilities.”

NIST THC results showing variability among testing laboratories

Results of laboratories’ testing for delta-9 THC in a hemp oil sample (via NIST)

Wilson did draw a few broad conclusions about the quality assurance results. For one, laboratories overall generally clustered around the intended measurement of the test samples when testing for THC. But some returned results that were significantly above or below the target value. By comparison, labs that returned test results for CBD also clustered around the accurate result, but those that missed the mark tended to fall below the intended value. Compared to THC, Wilson added, CBD results also showed “a fairly wide range of variability.”

NIST CBD test results showing variability among labs

Results of laboratories’ testing for CBD in a hemp oil sample (via NIST)

Wilson attributed the difference between the two patterns as likely resulting from differences in calibration when conducting testing, though he said other differences—such as testing method or storage conditions prior to testing—may also explain the results. “The variability is there across all analytes being measured,” he said—which is to be expected.

“Everybody wants a true value for something, but the truth is that the true value is unknown,” Wilson emphasized. “Somebody tells you the concentration is 0.3 percent—that’s the estimated value. They don’t know what the true value is.”

Every testing method—and every test itself—has minor differences that affect the end result such that it’s impossible to eliminate any margin of error. Test a sample four times, and even the best tests will return minutely different numbers each time, he said. “There’s always some type of uncertainty associated with that.”

One obstacle NIST faces in interpreting some of the results, Wilson said, is that in some cases a vast majority of labs, up to 93 percent, said they used similar testing methods for some compounds.

“They used very similar types of methods,” he observed, making it harder to identify how differences in testing method might influence results. “It makes it more difficult to understand if it’s the method.”

NIST plans to conduct a similar test again in about a year to see how results compare to the first round of quality assurance testing. “Let’s test you and see how you do on the exact same matrix,” Wilson explained. “Have you improved your measurement capabilities from a year ago? … Part of the goal is just getting labs thinking about this and seeing what they can improve moving forward.”

The second of CannaQAP’s exercises, which is still being prepared for publication, will focus on cannabis plant material and examine not only cannabinoids but also testing for moisture and toxic contaminants such as heavy metals. Exercise three has yet to be announced, but Wilson said he expected more information to be announced later this month. “We do have some things that we’re planning to include, but I can’t really divulge that right now.”

As part of its overall cannabis testing program, NIST is also working to develop a hemp reference material with known concentrations of various compounds, which the agency says labs could use to validate their testing methods. Currently no such cannabis reference material exists.

A key motivation for the program as a whole was the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp across the country. Crucially, it defined hemp as cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC—an arbitrary distinction that sent law enforcement agencies and product manufacturers alike scrambling to test samples for compliance. “Labs can have a hard time distinguishing between the two because accurately measuring THC can be difficult, especially at such low levels,” NIST said in a January release.

“If you’re going to confiscate a farmer’s crop, or subject a person to prosecution,” Wilson said in a statement at the time, “you want to be sure that measurement is accurate.”

Exercise two of the quality-assurance program focuses on plant matter rather than homogenized oil, and it includes marijuana samples that exceed the 0.3 percent limit on THC in hemp. Participating laboratories—220 signed up—received six total samples, three of which were at or below the federal 0.3 percent cutoff, and three samples Wilson said were “around 0.3 to 2 percent” THC.

Testing a Schedule I controlled substance—any cannabis samples over 0.3 percent THC—”presents additional challenges on our part,” the researcher noted. For example, rather than simply shipping hemp samples, NIST has to ensure participating labs have the proper U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration paperwork so NIST can perform a legal transfer of marijuana.

As the program evolves, Wilson said NIST expects to use samples that have higher concentrations of THC “so we can target both hemp and marijuana companies that are out there to try to improve their capabilities.” He also said future studies will focus on the wide array of products that cannabinoids are added to, including edibles, topicals and a range of nutritional supplements.

“The entire cannabis space is still new in terms of testing,” Wilson said. One thing he’s heartened by is the broad consensus he says he’s seen among researchers, law enforcement and commercial testing labs on the need for improved accuracy and standardization in testing. “Across all aspects of the community, all of them want to improve,” he said. “The only path forward is together.”

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Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.


Banking Activity Increases In States That Legalize Marijuana, Study Finds



While marijuana businesses often struggle to find banks that are willing to take them on as clients due to risks caused by the ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis, a new study found that banking activity actually increases in states that legalize marijuana.

The research doesn’t make a direct connection between state-level marijuana reform and the increased activity, but it does strongly imply that there’s a relationship—even if the factors behind the trend aren’t exactly clear.

Researchers set out to investigate banking trends in states that have legalized cannabis, looking at bank regulatory filings with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2011 to 2016. They found evidence that “banking activity (deposits and subsequent loans) increase considerably in legalizing states relative to non-legalizing states.”

That’s in spite of the fact that banks and credit unions run the risk of being penalized by federal regulators for working with businesses that deal with a federally controlled substance.

“While uncertainty can result in overly cautious behavior and hinder economic activity, we do not find evidence of this with cannabis laws and the banking industry,” the authors wrote in the new paper—titled, “THC and the FDIC: Implications of Cannabis Legalization for the Banking System.”

The study analyzed data from “150,566 bank-quarter observations from 6,932 unique banks located in 46 different states.” It found that deposits increased by an average range of 3.14-4.33 percent—and bank lending increased by 6.54-8.62 percent—post-legalization.

“Our results indicate that deposits and loans increased for banks after recreational cannabis legalization.”

Of course, it makes sense that legal states would see increased financial activity in the banking sector after opening a new market, even if only some banks choose to take the risk of working directly with cannabis businesses. The emerging marijuana industry also supports an array of ancillary firms and traditional companies that provide services to dispensaries and grow operations.

As of June 30, there were 706 financial institutions that had filed requisite reports saying they were actively serving cannabis clients. Thats up from 689 in the previous quarter but still down from a peak of 747 in late 2019.

But the question remains: why are some banks deciding to take on marijuana clients while others remain wary of federal repercussions?

The study authors—from the University of Arizona, Drexel University, San Diego State University and Scripps College—put forward two possibilities about why “the risk from regulatory uncertainty did not decrease banks’ willingness to accept deposits or make loans.”

The increase “may suggest that banks were either unconcerned about the potential risk associated with accepting cannabis related deposits or optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt to the needs of legalizing states,” the paper reasons.

Confidence about working with a federally illegal industry may well have been bolstered in 2014 when the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) under the Obama administration issued guidance to financial institutions on reporting requirements for cannabis-related businesses.

The second option, optimism about federal reform, also seems possible. It was around the time that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was first introduced that there was a notable spike in financial institutions reporting that they have marijuana business clients.

In the years since, that legislation has been approved in some form five times in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s continued to stall in the Senate. In general, banks reporting marijuana accounts has remained relatively stable since 2019.

“Although many have speculated about the increased legal risks to banks, there is a lack of evidence for instances where banks are criminally prosecuted or lose their federally insured status,” the study states. “If these negative repercussions rarely happen, it makes sense that banks would not respond to the legislative uncertainty.”

“As more state regulators issue statements in support of banks and credit unions serving the cannabis industry, the financial institutions can become more optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt in their favor with time,” the authors wrote.

Despite optimism for future reform that certain lawmakers have expressed, it doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of the latest failed attempt to secure protections for banks that choose to work with state-legal cannabis businesses as part of a large-scale defense bill.

A pro-reform Republican senator recently slammed Democrats for failing to advance marijuana banking reform despite having a congressional majority and control of the presidency.

For what it’s worth, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department recently said that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.

With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.

A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.

Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.

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Young People Who Use Marijuana Have Better Orgasms and Sexual Function, Study Says



Young people who smoke marijuana and drink alcohol have better orgasms and overall sexual function than their peers who abstain or use less, a study in Spain recently concluded.

Because the existing scientific literature on the impact of drinking and drug use on sexual functioning is contradictory—finding both benefits and harms—a team of researchers from the University of Almeria designed the new observational study to analyze their affect with three commonly used surveys to detect potential risky drinking and cannabis use, as well as changes to one’s sexual functioning.

“Sexual function in young people who use cannabis and alcohol more frequently was shown to be better than in those who do not use either.”

From January to June 2020, researchers assessed 185 females and 89 males between the ages of 18 and 30 who were either regular cannabis or alcohol users or non-users, excluding those who used other substances like opiates or MDMA, as well as screening out those with pre-existing conditions like depression and diabetes, which could have a negative impact on their sexual performance.

“Sexual function is improved in young people who are high-risk cannabis consumers with a moderate risk of alcohol use, resulting in increased desire, arousal, and orgasm,” the study, published at the end of last month in the Journal Healthcare, found. “This improvement is usually associated with a reduction in anxiety and shame, which facilitates sexual relationships.”

The cannabis users scored higher than non-users on both the overall sexual functioning scale and the subscales of arousal and orgasm. And those who used cannabis the most were found to report higher sexual functioning and arousal scores than the moderate users. No differences were found on the desire and orgasm subscales between moderate and heavy users and no differences were detected amongst men and women respondents to the survey.

“Our findings indicate that young people who use cannabis frequently, regardless of gender, have better overall sexual function.”

When it comes to alcohol use, no significant differences in either overall sexual function or in any of the subscales measured, were found between drinking and non-drinking participants. However, there were statistically significant differences based on levels of alcohol consumption, potentially suggesting some dose dependent outcomes.

Those who reported heavy drinking scored higher on the total sexual function questionnaire and the arousal subscale than those who did not drink at all, the study found. And the high consumption participants had significantly higher total questionnaire and orgasm subscale scores than the moderate consumption participants. But those participants who reported an existing alcohol dependence had significantly lower scores than their peers whose drinking was evaluated to be merely at a higher risk for dependency.

These marijuana results are consistent with previous studies that found cannabis use enhances sex and masturbation, increases sexual desire and leads to better orgasms, as well as those that have found cannabis consumers have more sex than cannabis abstainers, and a higher score on sexual health inventories and serum testosterone levels.

“The findings of this study revealed a higher score in sexual function, as well as arousal and orgasm, in subjects at risk of having cannabis-related problems and risk of addiction associated with alcohol consumption.”

Older studies that previously found some evidence of erectile dysfunction among heavier alcohol consumers may have been influenced by the older ages of the respondents, according to the research team behind the new paper, which focused on individuals in their late teens and 20s, “where erectile dysfunction is less common.”

Questions remain about the different types of sexual relationships (long-term vs sporadic vs unstable) that frequent consumers engage in or if there is any correlation between use and relationship type.

The research team also cautioned that this study did not capture any potential medium range and longer-term consequences of heavier drinking and cannabis use, including any potential proclivity to engage in less safe sex practices due to inebriation.

Since the increased desire, arousal, and orgasms in young people who are high-risk cannabis consumers with a moderate risk of alcohol use, is usually associated with a reduction in anxiety and shame, which facilitates sexual relationships, the study called for future sex education practices to focus on strategies that reduce shame and anxiety, to prevent young people from developing potential drug and alcohol dependency issues later on in their lives.

Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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One-Third Of Programmers Use Marijuana While Working, With Many Touting Creative Benefits, Study Finds



More than one-third of software programmers say they’ve used marijuana while working, with many finding that it helps promote creativity and get them into the “programming zone,” according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan said that anecdotal evidence suggested that those in programming were more likely to use cannabis on the job, so they set out to conduct the “first large-scale survey” on the topic, asking 803 developers to detail how marijuana comes into play in their work.

A main motivation for the study was the fact that drug testing policies remain common in the programming sector, which may be contributing to “hiring shortages for certain jobs.”

That’s even the case at the federal level, the study authors note, citing comments by former FBI Director James Comey, who said in 2014 that he was interested in loosening employment policies around cannabis because some prospective agents “want to smoke weed on the way to the interview.”

“This prohibition of cannabis use in software engineering has contributed to a widely-reported hiring shortage for certain US government programming jobs,” the study says.

All told, 35 percent of survey participants said that they’ve “tried cannabis while programming or completing another software engineering-related task.” Seventy-three percent of that group said they’ve consumed marijuana while working in the past year.

The study—titled “Hashing It Out: A Survey of Programmers’ Cannabis Usage, Perception, and Motivation” and published this month in Cornell University’s arXiv—also looked at frequency of use among those who said they’ve used marijuana while engineering.

Fifty-three percent said they’ve consumed cannabis while programming at least 12 times, 27 percent said they used it at least twice a week and four percent said they use it while working on a nearly daily basis.

The study authors wanted to get a better understanding of why programmers chose to consume marijuana, too. And they found that the most common tasks that people used marijuana for were brainstorming, prototyping, coding and testing.

“Overall, we found that programmers were more likely to report enjoyment or programming enhancement motivations than wellness motivations: the most common reasons were ‘to make programming-related tasks more enjoyable’ (61%) and ‘to think of more creative programming solutions’ (53%),” the study found. “In fact, all programming enhancement reasons were selected by at least 30% of respondents. On the other hand, general wellness related reasons (such as mitigating pain and anxiety) were all cited by less than 30% of respondents. Thus, while wellness does motivate some cannabis use while programming, it is not the most common motivation.”

While there’s a notable prevalence of cannabis consumption among programmers, even most of those who don’t use marijuana are supportive of reform, the study found.

“Ninety-one percent of our participants say that marijuana use should be legal for both recreational and medicinal use compared to 60 percent of the general United States population in 2021,” the authors wrote.

The study also found that “cannabis use while programming occurs at similar rates for programming employees, managers and students despite differences in cannabis perceptions and visibility.”

“Our results have implications for programming job drug policies and motivate future research into cannabis use while programming,” the study states.

Drug testing policies have become a hot topic as more states enact legalization.

After New York opted to end prohibition this year, for example, the state Department of Labor announced that most employers are no longer allowed to drug test most workers for cannabis.

Amazon recently said that its earlier decision to end drug testing for cannabis will also be retroactive, meaning former workers and applicants who were punished for testing positive for THC will have their employment eligibility restored.

Lawmakers in the Senate and House have both included language in recent appropriations reports urging a review of employment policies for federal agencies with respect to personal use of cannabis. The House version passed in July, while the Senate Democrats’ report was released in October.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a memo to federal agencies this year that says admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration came under criticism after it was reported that it had fired or otherwise punished dozens of staffers who admitted to prior marijuana use. That came after the White House instituted a policy of granting waivers to some staff who’ve used cannabis.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki subsequently said that nobody in the White House was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.” However, she’s consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on a federal form that’s part of the background check process.

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