Role of Chromatography in Cannabis Testing

In our Global Assessment series, we’ve already covered many exciting technologies and topics, such as portable spectroscopy machines, NGS, Triple quadrupole ICP-MSatomic spectroscopy, and their respective roles in the industry. Today our analyst, Ivan, will give us some insight into the role of chromatography in cannabis testing.

The cannabis market is growing rapidly, especially with the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in California. In the US, nine states have fully legalized (for recreational and medical) marijuana while the use of marijuana for medical purposes only is lawful in 29 states. Canada is also planning to legalize marijuana in August 2018.

As a result of this booming market, several states have mandated cannabis testing standards to ensure consumer safety from harmful chemicals and contaminants. Generally, these regulations require growers to test for residual solvents, pesticides, and trace heavy metals in their products. Regardless of differing testing regulations in each state, most growers, manufacturers, and retailers want labs to test for cannabinoid potency, primarily for concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is commonly associated with the psychoactive effect in cannabis while CBD is a compound in marijuana that has a pain-relieving effect. These test results will provide transparency for the customers and eventually also determine the price of the product.

QueChERS extraction of dried cannabis flowers for pesticide analysis

With growing demand in this market, new opportunities arise for analytical instruments — especially chromatography systems. There are several methods for cannabis testing, but chromatography is dominant due to its fast and effective results.  High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is the most popular testing method, dominating half of the total cannabis testing market. Gas chromatography (GC), along with thin layer chromatography (TLC), and supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC) are other well-known techniques used in this market. In potency testing, most labs use HPLC since this method does not require heating and provides a more accurate content analysis compared to GC. For pesticides and residual solvent screening, GC/MS is commonly used as it accurately detects traces of volatile compounds. The list of pesticides that need to be tested varies from state to state due to different regulations.

908 Devices’ G908 3-in-1 GC-HPMS analyzer

Since the methods and procedures utilized by cannabis testing labs are not exclusive to the marijuana industry, demand for cannabis testing is also fulfilled by general analytical labs. The instruments needed for this analysis are also not unique, since any HPLC or GC/MS system can generally be used to analyze cannabinoids. However, several vendors offer a specialized instrument for cannabis testing. Last year, Shimadzu released its Cannabis Analyzer for Potency, an easy-to-use cannabinoids content analyzer based on HPLC. It comes with analysis and reporting software which enables three analysis methods: high throughput, high sensitivity, and high resolution. 908 Devices offers the G908 3-in-1 GC-HPMS analyzer, which provides total potency, terpenes, and residual solvent analysis by utilizing a combination of ballistic gas chromatography and high-pressure mass spectrometry.

Even though the cannabis testing market is still in the early developing stages, it is increasingly boosting demand for chromatography instruments. Even simpler techniques such as TLC will find growth opportunities, as they provide an easier and cheaper alternative to HPLC or GC. However, there are still some uncertainties in the market due to different state-level regulations and the lack of standardization in testing methods. As more policies are being proposed to regulate this growing industry, demand for QA/QC and analytical services in the cannabis market will eventually bloom.

The value of all these instruments and technologies is evident, and so we’ve extensively covered them in our 2018 SDi Global Assessment Report, the gold standard of published market research for the analytical and life science instrument industries.

10 replies
  1. Cannabis
    Cannabis says:

    I simply want to offer you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info you’ve got here on this post. I will be returning to your blog for more soon.

  2. Olivia Smith
    Olivia Smith says:

    Nice post..
    I appreciate your article, its really provide us useful information.
    Chromatography is the import part of Cannabis Testing.
    Thank you so much.

  3. Nicholas Cenciniamo
    Nicholas Cenciniamo says:

    I represent several small and medium size businesses. Regarding Chromatography testing for the presence of various drugs: how accurate is a typical or general analysis, expressed in nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml), for example, for THC, which I understand is one of the few substances there is an established cut off level for?

    • Devin Holland
      Devin Holland says:

      Hi Nicholas,

      Thanks for your question. There are a lot of different factors at play here, and some clarification is needed to give you a concrete answer. Do you know what type/brand of chromatography system is being used in your situation? (such as a gas chromatograph vs. an HPLC system). Also, the sample type being analyzed is extremely important to consider. Are you mainly interested in THC testing in plants for more commercial purposes, or are you speaking of human biological samples, such as urine for drug testing?

      • Devin Holland
        Devin Holland says:

        In testing the presence of THC for a drug test (which I believe what the question is referring to), typically the detection limit for GC/MS is 1 ng/ml THC from oral fluid test based on this study: Detection of the Marijuana Metabolite and 2ng/ml for LC/MS based on this study: Drug Testing in Oral Fluid.

        However, our article mainly describes the quantitation of cannabinoids in the cannabis itself which has a wide range of accuracy depending on the techniques, concentration, and instruments being used. Shimadzu’s Cannabis Analyzer has an accuracy of +/- 3% (

        Hope that information is useful!

  4. Mac Watson
    Mac Watson says:

    Hi Ivan Gandayuwana,
    I like your blog a lot. I was not aware of role of Chromatography in Cannabis Testing this much but your blog help me a lot in this. Do share these type of blogs in future.

  5. Greta Fiedler
    Greta Fiedler says:

    Thank you for this helpful article! I am curious why FTIR/Infrared Spectroscopy is not used widely in the cannabis industry for quantification? The petroleum industry uses FTIR with the method transmission for mineral quantification, does this method not work with cannabis?

    • Devin Holland
      Devin Holland says:

      Hi Greta,
      Yes, IR Spectroscopy can be used to measure potency and moisture and other aspects of cannabis, but it doesn’t seem to have really caught on in the marketplace, since chromatography appears to offer greater certainties about the results.

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