Colorado's Hemp Industry Faces Testing Challenges

As one of the first states to legalize hemp, Colorado has become a leader in hemp farming and product innovation. However, factions of the state's hemp industry worry about falling behind in one critical step in retail hemp and CBD: testing.

Of the eleven state-certified laboratories currently listed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, only six are located in Colorado. The lack of in-state testing forces hemp farmers to send crops to CDPHE-certified labs in California, Florida, Michigan, Oregon or Wisconsin in order for business deadlines to be met, according to Samantha Walsh, vice chair of the Colorado Hemp Association.

"We warned the Department of Health last year when they were crafting regulations on what would qualify for a certified laboratory," Walsh says. "This is just testing hemp."

The CDPHE's hemp laboratory requirements resemble those of handling blood and biological samples, Walsh argues. Her concerns extend to the Ph.D.-level experience necessary for hemp lab director positions, and the "fine balancing act of timing" that hemp producers follow in order to have their samples tested within thirty days of harvesting, per the Colorado Department of Agriculture's newly adopted hemp rules, which were approved by the USDA in August after more than a year of negotiations.

"This is a mandate that’s coming from the federal government regulations, and we have a small window to turn around those samples — and it also just keeps in line with good consumer safety measures, making sure that the products that are reaching the hands of consumers are tested and safe," Walsh says. "But, you know, you don’t have to have the most stringent CSI-crime-lab level of regulations in order for that to be achieved."

As of now, only two labs are certified by the CDPHE to complete a full panel of tests for samples, including pesticides and contaminants: The ACS Laboratory in Sun City Center, Florida, and Eurofins Food Integrity and Innovation in Madison, Wisconsin. Although not all hemp is required to undergo full-panel testing — it depends on what the hemp's intended use is — it could add to a potential backlog.

"Considering we are the largest hemp-producing state in the country, that’s going to cause a significant bottleneck for our industry,” Walsh says.

A CDPHE spokesperson says the department expects Colorado's hemp labs to have enough capacity for the 2022 fall harvest season, and that more labs may receive certification by then.

"We do not anticipate testing availability issues at this time based upon average laboratory testing capacity. In addition, most hemp testing will occur in the fall just prior to harvest, so there may be additional laboratories certified by this time," says CDPHE Disease Control and Public Health Response communications director AnneMarie Harper in a statement.

As hemp labs continue to make upgrades in order to keep up with state regulations, Harrington Baker, quality assurance manager for Louisville CBD company Bluebird Botanicals, says the rest of the hemp and CBD supply chain had to adjust, as well.

"The turn times went up drastically," he says, adding that only one Colorado lab currently has the ability to complete required pesticide tests. "It was the pesticide limits that were really low which were difficult for labs at first, but everybody bought the equipment they needed or refined their methodologies to be able to hit their limits."

Lisa Stemmer, senior marketing director for Botanacor Laboratory, one of Colorado's certified hemp labs, says Botanacor has implemented new pesticide testing in anticipation of new pesticide requirements expected to come in April. According to Stemmer, the new rules could double the amount of pesticides Colorado hemp is tested for — from around fifty to over 100 — based on the final product.

"From the laboratory's perspective, it's a difficult test to do and it requires very, very expensive equipment and some really intricate instrumentation," Stemmer explains. "Some labs don't want to do it or don't have the equipment to do it, or have said it's not worth putting that kind of investment in."

Despite the extra work involved, Stemmer believes that more testing is a necessary speed bump for the hemp industry in order to reach a higher level of consumer safety.

“The only way that hemp is going to be truly safe in Colorado and safe for every consumer — and you don't have any recalls like we do on the marijuana side — is for people to do this testing," she says. "And for people to do the testing, it’s going to take the CDPHE level of enforcement that they haven't been doing.”