The certificate of analysis (CoA) has become a common document in the world of cannabis business and marketing. It has grown more central as hemp-derived cannabinoids are available in most of the country, including states without organized medical or adult use cannabis programs. This article will look at what a CoA is all about and the common cannabinoids that you’ll see represented on one.
What is a CoA?
You can find them on the website of every seed producer, retailer, and wholesaler of cannabis products: a specific document that is a database representing a particular product’s chemical basis. The layout and details of a CoA may vary, but the purpose is the same. It is a document associated with a cannabis derived product, “attesting to its laboratory analysis for cannabinoids and in some cases adulterants, heavy metals and pesticides, mold, etc. .”
That is the scope we are concerned with in this article, but a CoA is applicable to more than cannabis products. Generically, it is ”a document containing test results that are provided to the customer by the supplier to demonstrate that product meets the defined test .” As such it could be used as a proof of claim for any product, but it is usually associated with “manufactured products like food, chemicals, research products, and pharmaceutical products .”
The CoA benefits customers and producers alike.
So the CoA ensures a certain quality of produced goods, it is a quality assessment to make sure that the purity, potency and safety of the product is within its specification range . A CoA may seem to be primarily customer-facing but it benefits customers and producers alike. Customers and producers can both have confidence that what is claimed on the packaging is in fact true, connecting both parties to measurable standards on which to base business and interaction.
What should be on a CoA?
CoAs come in a variety of formats but most will have similar identifiable features. We can break them down to three basic components: first the top or header section, second the body section, and third the bottom or footer section of a CoA.
Typically a CoA will have a top section to identify the lab doing the testing, the name of the company whose product is being tested, the product sample that is being tested, and a particular batch identifier. A date of testing, or a date of issuance of the CoA, is also common.
Skipping to the bottom, the end of the CoA or footer area will usually have info about the testing facility. This can include the lab’s official seals or signatures of approval, and/or elements like contact info, licenses, notes, and disclaimers.
The header and footer contain crucial identification and functional elements that make the CoA official and operational. If a QR code (quick response code) is included it may be in the header or footer too. QR codes are simply barcodes that have fast machine readability by smart phone cameras, so they have become popular linking tools since their invention in 1994 .
Reading results on a CoA
The body of the CoA has the information about what was tested for, and shows what the results of the tests actually were. Cannabinoid potency is very often the first set of results on the CoA. Results of most interest, like potency or “total THC” or “total CBD,” may also be included as a sidebar or separate section. We’ll look at the top 10 cannabinoids you’ll find there a little later, but each cannabinoid found in the sample will be listed, generally in order of amount found, highest to lowest.
LOD and LOQ
Each compound’s line will have a LOD and LOQ number. Limit of detection (LOD) and limit of quantitation (LOQ) are parameters used to validate analytical methods .
LOD is the smallest amount of concentration of an analyte in the sample that can reliably be distinguished from zero.
LOQ is the lowest concentration of the analyte that can be determined with an acceptable repeatability and trueness.
These two measurements work together to establish a signal-to-noise ratio—in overly basic terms, to determine what amount of a compound is minimally-measurable, vs. the ability of the instrument to accurately minimally-measure said compound . Suffice it to say that LOD and LOQ are important testing factors in lab analysis and CoAs.
Some CoAs also include a measurement of uncertainty, letting you know the variability of a test’s accuracy. This is generally expressed as a “plus/minus” amount or percentage. The actual measurement may be above or below the listed measurement by the acknowledged amount.
Mass vs. percent
Results for each cannabinoid or other compound will commonly be given in a measured amount of weight and in percentage of the total product weight. Percentages are important, and especially for certain hemp derived cannabinoids.
The 2018 Farm Bill
Marijuana is a federally-controlled substance on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Schedule 1 list, meaning it is highly illegal on a national level. At the same time, a majority of Americans now live in states that sanction and regulate medical and/or adult use of cannabis.
A lot has happened since the U.S. War on Drugs began in the 1970s, and the prohibition on cannabis of any sort was instituted. People and politicians are reassessing harsh regulations and punishments around cannabis that have resulted in destructive policies. Bad policies which prioritize policing and control over human health and well being have made the U.S. a leader in locking up its own citizens.
Stakeholders at all levels must be attuned to the accurate and documented measurement of Delta 9 THC in products.
One step in combating the decades-long demonization of cannabis happened in 2018 when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill. The Bill established new definitions for illegal marijuana and legal hemp, both from the same plant, lol. The Bill stated that the federal government considers cannabis with less than .3% Delta-9 THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis) per dry weight to be “hemp.” Cannabis with more than .3% Delta-9 THC per dry weight is considered illegal “marijuana.” Under the Bill, all other plant material and substances derived from legally-defined hemp are also federally-compliant .
The distinction of the percentage of Delta 9 THC in cannabis then becomes an important initial test for cannabis derived products. This helps to explain the increasing prevalence of CoAs in the industry—stakeholders at all levels must be attuned to the accurate and documented measurement of Delta 9 THC in products.
Beyond the federal legal distinction, states may have specific regulations determining which, and what amount of, particular cannabinoids are allowed in hemp derived cannabis. Testing labs are able to customize testing protocols to ensure products are within legal parameters for specific states.
Seeing the amount of each cannabinoid in a product gives consumers the ability to monitor what they consume. A CoA lists these in an organized way that can also be used to compare batch to batch, and product to product.
In addition to showing the cannabinoid levels of a cannabis product, CoAs may show tests for contaminants and impurities. These can include leftover materials from production or conversion processes, or harmful materials that were absorbed from the air, water or soil the cannabis was grown in. Regardless of the source, a CoA can report any detectable foreign materials.
Top 10 Cannabinoids on a CoA
If you start paying attention to CoAs, you’ll see certain cannabinoids more often than others. The cannabis plant has around 540 chemical substances, and over 100 are cannabinoids . Cannabinoids are simply “the chemical compounds of cannabis that have an effect on the human body when the plant is consumed .”
The endocannabinoid system is a complex cell-signaling system which is integral for maintaining health.
The effects are made possible because of the human endocannabinoid system that has evolved to create and use cannabinoids in our physiological processes. It is a complex cell-signaling system which is integral for maintaining health. Its receptors are found in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells of the human body .
Cannabinoids may appear more often on CoAs because they are naturally more abundant in the plant matter that created a product, or because they have been added as distillate or isolate during production. Here are 10 very common cannabinoids that appear on CoAs, and what you should know about them.
CBD is a cannabinoid discovered in 1940. It is often the most prevalent compound in cannabis, the other being THC. CBD is not psychoactive like THC, and may even change THC’s effects on the body when both are present . When interacting with the endocannabinoid system, CBD does not bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors. Rather, it interacts indirectly with the receptors through transient receptor potential vanilloid, or TRPV1 receptors . There is interest and research in CBD related to anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain, but more high-quality evidence that it is effective may be needed before it is available more widely for these purposes . There is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved version of CBD, called Epidiolex, available by medical prescription for use in treating seizures .
CBG is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in trace amounts in harvested and processed cannabis. Cannabigerolic acid (CBGa) is the precursor of cannabigerol (CBG), and is responsible for creating most downstream synthesized cannabinoids like THC and CBD . Because of this CBG is lovingly called the “mother of all cannabinoids,” but since most of the CBGa is converted into cannabinoids, traditionally there is very little left in the plant upon harvest and use. Therefore CBG has a high production cost and it can actually take thousands of pounds of biomass to yield a small amount of CBG isolate . A 2018 study indicates that CBG is a regulator of endocannabinoid signaling , so it may have a small part to play in much of human physiology.
CBN is a cannabinoid found in low concentration in the cannabis plant and is mainly a product of the aging of tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCa). When cannabis is aged, THCa in the plant converts to cannabolic acid (CBNa), and when decarboxylated by air, heat or light, converts to CBN . CBN is sometimes considered to have psychotropic properties , and can have up to 25% potency compared to Delta-9 THC . It is reported that CBN is sedative but proper studies are scarce . CBN has exhibited properties related to many medical uses, but again, more studies and data are needed before these are borne out .
CBC is a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid found in low to levels in cannabis. It reportedly does not affect the psychoactivity of THC, but does seem to have a different effect if THC is present . Like CBD, CBC works through TRPV1 receptors and by stimulating CB2 receptors, but does not have significant activity at CB1 receptors . CBC has been studied for its pharmacological uses , and is said to have significant pharmacological potential based on existing research .
CBDV is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in low levels in cannabis . It interacts with the body in various ways including via TRP receptors and CB1 receptors, the latter by affecting how the endocannabinoid system processes and modulates certain chemicals . There is not much data available about CBDV’s medical uses, but it has shown potential as a tool against seizures, perhaps an even better one than CBD .
Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (ˈdel-tə |ˈnīn | te-trə-hī-drə-kə-ˈna-bə-ˌnȯl)
∆9 THC is the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis and was discovered in 1964. It is often the most prominent compound in the plant, but the amount can vary quite a bit—please see the above section on the 2018 Farm Bill and +/- .3% ∆9 THC definitions of hemp and marijuana for context. Prior to the revised definition of hemp, the word “THC” used alone often referred to ∆9 THC, even though there are other types of THC (see below). ∆9 THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system via CB1 and CB2 receptors, some of which are located throughout the body including parts of the brain that affect “thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination and movement .” THC has been widely studied and used for medical reasons . Nabiximols, aka trade name Sativex, is a medical preparation of THC, made by GW Pharmaceuticals . It is available for prescription in 25 countries, and is being tested for use in the United States .
Delta-8-Tetrahydrocannabinol (ˈdel-tə |ˈāt | te-trə-hī-drə-kə-ˈna-bə-ˌnȯl)
∆8 THC THC occurs naturally in the cannabis plant, but in low quantities. It has a double bond on the 8th carbon chain, and delta-9 has a double bond on the 9th carbon chain. This small distinction is enough to produce slightly different cognitive and physical effects . Research in 1973 compared Delta-8 to Delta-9 THC and reported that Delta-8 produced effects similar to Delta-9, at a third less potency . The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) additionally stated that Delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects, similar to delta-9 THC, and that concentrated amounts of Delta-8 THC are typically manufactured from hemp-derived CBD . Modern Delta-8 products have been called “marijuana-light” and “diet weed” which aligns with these findings.
Delta-10-Tetrahydrocannabinol (ˈdel-tə |ˈten | te-trə-hī-drə-kə-ˈna-bə-ˌnȯl)
∆10 THC is another cannabinoid that occurs in low levels in cannabis. Following the pattern, it has its double bond on the 10th carbon chain, and is reported to have similar but lower intensity effects to Delta-9. Delta-10 has been described as a mood-enhancer . Not much data is available on the effects of Delta-10 on the body. Delta-10 THC is not easy to manufacture and must be refined extensively, so you usually don’t see it in abundance. Because of this, a lot of products combine Delta-10 with Delta-8 .
Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (te-trə-ˌhī-drə-kə-ˈna-bə-nȯl-ˈik |ˈa-səd)
THCA, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is the non-psychoactive acidic precursor to THC found in raw and live cannabis. “In its natural state, the cannabis plant goes through a vegetative and then flowering stage where it produces cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), the source of many therapeutic cannabinoids. Enzymes called synthases convert CBGA into THCA and other cannabinoids such as CBDA or CBCA before being converted to their parent compounds .” As the plant dries, the THCA slowly converts to THC, and heat expedites this conversion through a process known as decarboxylation . THCA may indeed have therapeutic benefits but academic studies are limited. Research published in 2017 found that THCA’s clinical use may be hampered by its relative instability due to minimal binding affinity at CB1 . On the other hand, there is interest from the industry in continuing research and developing applications for this common cannabinoid.
THCV is found in cannabis alongside THC but it is not clear whether it is psychoactive . THCV interacts with the endocannabinoid system via the CB1 receptor and to a lesser extent, on the CB2 receptor . A theory is that since THCV can block the CB1 receptor, known to stimulate appetite, it could reduce appetite. Preliminary evidence for this is based on animal research and more published scientific studies may be needed to support these benefits in humans .
Now you know about common cannabinoids on a CoA
CoAs keep producers and consumers on the same page regarding what is and isn’t in each product. People have easy access to information about which cannabinoids and other compounds are present in a product, and which potentially harmful elements are not.
We’ve seen how a CoA works, why it’s useful and important, and ten of the common cannabinoids you’ll see represented on CoAs. You can now use your knowledge to explore the CoAs of your favorite products in more depth, and to be better informed about future products.