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Smokable Cannabis vs Edible Products: Understanding New Jersey Testing Regulation Differences

ByTrichome Team

March 23, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—let alone a cannabis lab testing professional—to know there’s a difference between smokable cannabis products and edible ones. But these two products have different effects on the body and different testing needs to ensure consumer safety. 

Here’s what to know about testing compliance for edible vs smokable products in New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program (NJMMP), specifically for heavy metals, microbiological impurities and water activity.

Heavy Metal Testing in Cannabis

Lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium testing are required for both edible and smokable products. Chromium testing is required for plant material and processed products. There are also different allowable thresholds for heavy metal presence in both edible and smokable products, but generally speaking, the threshold is higher in edible products. 

Testing for heavy metals is extremely important for consumer safety. Cannabis and hemp plants are extremely effective phytoremediators—they’ve been used to uptake heavy metals from highly contaminated soils, like those found in Chernobyl, with great success. The plant’s skill in metal uptake, however, can have detrimental impacts on human health if products from contaminated plants are combusted and inhaled or otherwise ingested. 

Chromium—specifically hexavalent chromium—is a common byproduct of industrial processes and is extremely toxic to humans, especially when inhaled. Lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium are known as toxic metals and linked to cancers in humans as well as neurological damage, organ damage and developmental delays. 

Testing for Microbiological Impurities in Cannabis

Testing for microbiological impurities is slightly more complex and varies more between edible and smokable products.

Edibles are tested for pathogenic E. coli (STEC), salmonella, total coliform, listeria monocytogenes, aflatoxins and ochratoxin A (known more commonly by their general term, mycotoxins)

Cannabis and hemp plant and flower material are tested for total aerobic microbial count and total yeast and mold count. They also undergo testing for E. coli, salmonella, aflatoxins and ochratoxin A. 

Testing for microbiological impurities is important to protect consumer health because these contaminants can cause serious harm when combusted and inhaled. For example, aflatoxin and ochratoxin can cause cancer, kidney disease and immune system issues—particularly problematic for immune-compromised patients who may be using cannabis to address symptoms. 

However, testing for microbiological impurities has a long way to go to truly ensure consumer safety. At Trichome Analytical, we recommend testing for aspergillus in flower, not just testing for total yeast and mold counts. We also recommend that flower, like edible products, be tested for STEC instead of simply general E. coli, which can leave out critical contamination information.

Lastly, we recommend that testing regulations automatically allow labs to use any AOAC-verified method regardless of technology employed (e.g., qPCR vs plating). Additional in-house developed methods should be allowed on a case-by-case basis after review and approval by the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC).

Water Activity in Cannabis

Water activity (Aw) is essential to measure to ensure the shelf-stability of cannabis products. If cannabis products, particularly flower, contain too much available water, it could allow for harmful bacterial and microbial growth. Bacterial growth is unlikely if water activity is below .6 Aw (out of a maximum of 1), so properly quantifying Aw is critical. 

As with other categories for testing, there are differences between flower products and edibles regarding their levels of acceptable water activity. For flower, the maximum level is .65 Aw, whereas for edibles, it’s .85 Aw. 

As we’ve explored in other articles, there are numerous examples of issues in legal markets across the U.S. with microbial growth on plant or edible material before sale and in storage. Tighter regulations, therefore, are key to protecting consumer health and business health alike. 

Testing regulations aren’t here to sanction businesses or make life difficult. They’re necessary protections for consumers, and they can help businesses stand out from the crowd on measures of safety and quality. For more information on New Jersey’s cannabis testing guidelines, please reach out to our team.