America’s hemp industry was decimated by cannabis regulation, but newly-approved rules from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have launched the industry on a high-growth trajectory. Testing will play a critical role in the hemp industry’s future, but laboratories offering testing services face a complicated regulatory environment. Here’s what you need to know about testing hemp under the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program.
Restoring the US Hemp Industry
For thousands of years, the variety of Cannabis sativa we know as hemp has been used for fabrics, ropes, lubricants and other industrial applications. Hemp cultivation in the United States predates the American Revolution. In the early 20th century, however, hemp’s role began declining as new industrial materials offered better performance. Then the Marihuana Tax Act of 1938 shuttered the entire industry as cannabis of all varieties fell under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The collapse was so complete that the US Department of Agriculture had to create a Hemp for Victory program during the Second World War.
That wartime revival was short-lived and little changed until Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill allowing university and state laboratories to conduct hemp research. However, researchers could only use industrial hemp with a concentration of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) less than 0.3% on a dry weight basis.
The 2018 Farm Bill eased many barriers to industrial hemp production. The legislation freed states to develop regulations and licensing programs for hemp producers and integrated hemp farming into other federal programs.
“At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers, and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets,” said then-Secretary Sonny Perdue in the USDA’s 2019 announcement.
Hemp is an easy crop to grow, yet growing hemp remains more complicated than growing corn. Weather, soil conditions and the other variations in farming could yield hemp crops with THC levels above the 0.3% threshold. Producers must certify their crops as industrial hemp - creating a need for extensive testing.
Implications for Laboratories
With the hemp industry expected to grow six-fold by 2027, the demand for hemp testing is skyrocketing. But laboratories need to be careful. Entering this new market has operational, compliance and other implications. Some of the USDA rules that impact laboratories include:
DEA registration delayed enforcement
Since samples from hemp producers may have THC levels exceeding 0.3%, laboratories could find themselves in possession of a Schedule I controlled substance. As a result, any labs that conduct hemp testing must be registered with the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
As the USDA circulated draft rules for its hemp regulations, the hemp industry complained that few laboratories met that requirement. “Given the limited number of DEA-registered labs available to hemp producers,” the Final Rule states, “delay in enforcement of this requirement is continued until December 31, 2022.” This is not a free pass for testing labs. The delayed enforcement is meant to give the testing community the time it needs to go through the DEA’s registration process. Laboratories must still comply with federal rules and regulations and meet relevant standards of performance.
The USDA provides guidelines for sample collection. The guidelines explain when to collect samples, how to identify sample sites, how to take the cuttings and how to label the samples. This prescriptive approach met with resistance during the input period. State and tribal governments, with USDA approval, can adopt performance-based approaches to hemp sampling that ensure hemp crops remain in compliance. As a result, laboratories will face state-by-state variations in sampling methodology that may impact their testing processes.
The USDA also provides guidelines for hemp testing. In order to confirm that a producer’s hemp lot is within the acceptable THC level, laboratories must “perform chemical analysis on the sample using post-decarboxylation.” This method was specified in the 2018 Farm Bill. The heat used in gas chromatography converts tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) into THC, producing a measurement of the total THC concentration in the sample.
Under the Final Rule, laboratories can use “similarly reliable methods” provided the tests measure total THC concentration levels. Reports from liquid chromatography testing, for example, must list results for both delta-9 THC and THCA.
The tests laboratories conduct on hemp samples collected for harvest give producers the documentation they need to prove their crops are industrial hemp. The new rules require laboratories to share these test results electronically with the USDA. The rules also encourage labs to use web portals and other digital communications to report results to producers.
During its information-gathering phase, the USDA asked the industry about hemp testing certification programs and ISO 17025 accreditation. Supporters of the requirement said that programs similar to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Laboratory Approval Program would provide a consistent hemp-specific baseline for laboratory performance. Others pointed out that meeting LAP or ISO 17025 standards would be too expensive and difficult for small and newly-formed laboratories.
Due to this feedback and the severely constrained capacity of America’s hemp laboratories, the USDA decided not to set accreditation requirements. However, the Final Rule “strongly encourages” labs to get ISO/IEC 17025:2017 accreditation and will “continue looking into” the option for a USDA-administered program.
CannaQA Supports Your Lab’s Hemp Testing Services
The implications of the 2018 Farm Bill — as well as relevant state, local and tribal regulations — run deeper than we can cover in this article. The only way the hemp industry can meet its growth projections is with access to well-run laboratories that can provide the hemp testing they need. Laboratories, in turn, need internal systems that can meet the regulatory and operational requirements that come with hemp testing.
LabLynx, Inc. created CannaQA to support the unique needs of cannabis testing laboratories. Our laboratory information management system (LIMS) automates your lab’s data processes and provides features that support hemp testing:
- Chain of custody: CannaQA integrates with state-mandated track-and-trace systems.
- Sample tracking: Barcoded sample labels generated at accessioning (or in fact at any point) eliminate errors due to manual transcription.
- Instrument integration: CannaQA can integrate with your lab’s instruments to ensure accurate recording of test results.
- Configurable methods and workflows: Rather than force you into one way of working, CannaQA is fully configurable and customizable for your specific hemp testing procedures.
- Reporting: Once tests are complete, CannaQA can automatically transmit reports to regulators. Producers can receive their reports via e-mail or optional web portals.
- Accreditation: Having a LIMS makes getting ISO/IEC 17025:2017 and other accreditations much easier.
Although entering the hemp testing market poses challenges for laboratories, CannaQA can help streamline the process. For more information about using CannaQA LIMS to support your lab’s hemp testing services, visit cannaqa.com or contact LabLynx at email@example.com or 866-LABLYNX (522-5969).
"8 things you didn’t know about hemp", National Public Radio.
"The Farm Bill, hemp legalization and the status of CBD: An explainer", Brookings Institution.
"Establishment of a Domestic Hemp Production Program", Federal Register, US National Archives.
"Sampling Guidelines for Hemp", USDA AMS.
"Laboratory Testing Guidelines", USDA AMS.