Farm to final product: role of chromatography, mass spectrometry in cannabis industry



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The Cannabis industry is an emerging market that has recently evolved, providing everything from medical treatment for a wide range of maladies to recreational use. In the same way the industry has expanded so quickly and the uses for cannabis are so all-encompassing, so has the demand increased for advanced instrumentations to ensure safety and quality of the cannabis product as it makes its journey from farm to patient. Cannabis-based products (whether they’re for medical purposes, industrial hemp, or recreational cannabis) all require various test panels encompassing complex analytical instrumentation to guarantee safety and quality before reaching consumers. The safety of cannabis is of great concern, especially in medical cannabis patients who are immunocompromised. For this reason, contamination from natural or synthetic origin needs to be screened to deem the product’s safety. In the cannabis plant, there are 144 cannabinoids and 120 terpenes, as well as other phytochemicals that are extracted, purified, and processed to cater to specific applications. These techniques include Super Critical Fluid Extraction (SFE), organic solvent extraction, and processing of varying degrees such as infused cannabis product. Each step of processing means introducing potential biological and chemical contaminants such as residual solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, or microbial contaminants. Additionally, storage conditions can exacerbate levels of these contaminants. Lastly, the cannabis plant is an excellent bio-accumulator; this means the potential contamination of pesticides and heavy metals from fertilizer, water sources or pesticide applications are likely. To ensure the plant’s safety, various tests enforced by state or federal regulators are carried out by chemical engineers or chemists as quality control before the release of cannabis-infused products. Some of the processes to ensure cannabis safety include the separation techniques Liquid Chromatography (LC) and Gas Chromatography (GC), and Ultraviolet (UV) and Mass Spectrometer (MS) to detect levels of contaminants. Most of the mandated tests panels involve LC, GC, UV, and MS analysis. Often, the instruments needed to perform the test panels demand a significant operating cost and are a critical component of a company’s operations to ensure compliance with state and regulatory bodies. This forces technical staff to be knowledgeable and involved in designing or operating the instrumentation. This report contains a detailed historical perspective of Cannabis, tracking its evolution as an industry to its present state. The current status of Cannabis legality and regulation in the U.S is also examined. Also included is an overview of Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, and how they apply to the Cannabis industry. Additionally, a case study of the medical marijuana (MMJ) program in Missouri and the industrial hemp program in Kansas are explored in greater detail. Lastly, my collaboration with the hemp test lab at Kansas State University in establishing test methods for cannabinoids’ characterization is discussed.



Medical marijuana, Cannabis, Hemp, Mass spectrometer, Liquid chromatography

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Master of Science


Department of Chemical Engineering

Major Professor

Keith L. Hohn