Why Cannabis Decontamination Is An Instrumental Part Of The Post-Harvest Process

Since the rise of the industry, cannabis cultivators and processors have navigated uncharted waters in terms of compliance and contamination. It’s a natural biological process for plants to contract diseases or harmful bacteria often. Still, it can quickly become a detriment to your entire crop and consumers who rely on it for medicinal or recreational relief. 

There is no federal code or regulation around the processing or handling of cannabis products, compared to that of the drug, food or alcohol industries. States that have converted to a legal cannabis market are responsible for implementing their testing regulations and policies, while the federal legalization of cannabis is still a looming discussion.

Between the disconnect of each state’s quality standards, the lack of insight or validity into proper post-harvest processing, and truncated research behind the science of cannabis cultivation methods—one thing for certain is that cannabis decontamination is paramount. 

The industry has turned in every direction to determine the safest and most accurate process for identifying toxins, fungi or bacteria in cannabis and its processing methods. 

So how does a booming legal cannabis market ensure consistent quality control through the cannabis chain of custody?

The first factor that plays into the importance of cannabis decontamination is the legality and federal status of the plant. Because of the Scheduled 1 status of cannabis in the Controlled Substances Act, simple safety processing regulations that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would typically require for food, beverage or alcohol industries do not apply to cannabis. Cannabis products are considered by the Federal Government to be a drug, and the Federal Government has determined that irradiation is generally recognized as safe and effective (see Vol. 84, No. 241. December 16, 2019, Federal Register). When the FDA identifies unsafe chemical contamination in processed foods or beverages, the agency works with the manufacturer to resolve and remediate the product. 

Cultivators and cannabis operators are left on their own to sort out safety precautions and procedures around cannabis decontamination. On top of that, many pathogens, microbes, bacteria or mold that cannabis is susceptible to can be extremely minuscule or unrecognizable to the naked eye. 

Also similar to food and beverage consumables, smoking or ingesting cannabis contaminated with harmful mold or toxins can cause serious health risks to consumers. Heavy metals, pesticides or microbes consumed from cannabis can cause short or long-term infection, carcinogenicity and reproductive or developmental damage—which can be particularly devastating considering the number of medical marijuana patients who depend on the plant for medicine. 

Without properly examining and inspecting for microbial contamination in the post-harvest process, how can you ensure the cannabis product is safe for consumption? 

Consider the touch points and sources that contact your flower in the post-harvest process. From the initial harvesting to when the final sticker label is sealed, ensuring your crop is well-protected, sanitized and safe for consumption is a hefty task in and of itself.

Of course, this rising concern of contamination is not unique to just the cannabis industry—chemical, thermal, radiological and physical principles are regulated techniques for food decontamination. Other industries have unveiled their efficient decontamination practices and expertise to cannabis processors, providing advanced technology and innovative solutions to decontamination.  

Cannabis irradiation is a leading solution in today’s cannabis decontamination methods. 

Photonic decontamination technology is an effective method of reducing harmful molds and bacteria infecting cannabis, without altering the cannabinoids, terpenes, and chemical compounds of the flower. These X-ray Photons penetrate and inactivate harmful pathogens like aspergillus, yeast, and mold from the dried/cured cannabis flower. The process is done at room temperature, and unlike other decontamination methods, it does not create heat. Consequently, this means the initial cannabinoid and terpene content levels are not compromised while maintaining the product's integrity and purity. This exposure to irradiation is also a common solution in food decontamination. In cannabis testing labs, this method has been highly effective in destroying 99% of the microorganisms being tested. 

Ozone cannabis decontamination is another effective method of destroying and reducing the number of microbes in cannabis as long as the ozone can access the location of the microbes. It works in a sealed gas chamber that releases ozone on the plant matter, disinfecting and killing the surrounding microbes and pathogens. This solution is efficient for the full range of microorganisms tested in cannabis labs nationwide. It’s a safe method for reducing the level or quantity of harmful toxins. Still, it does not effectively reduce the microbial load to non-detectable within the depths of the plant’s structure beyond the surface. It also can potentially result in terpene loss and color change as ozone is an oxidizer and can affect the flower product.

The world is a dirty place, and regulations around safe cannabis are still hazy, but by implementing these industrial solutions to product contamination, we can provide more clear and concrete safety and quality control for consumers and patients. Safe cannabis starts with the initial sow of the seed—identify any environmental factors or external sources that could cause risk for harmful mold or bacteria growth down the line. In the post-harvest process, this threat is amplified with multiple external touch points in the cannabis chain of custody that risk the product’s final form. 

It will continue to be instrumental for cannabis operators to incorporate a decontamination strategy into their harvesting process. Cultivators and processors in the industry either choose to remediate their product after a failed cannabis test, or introduce a microbial decontamination process as part of their post-harvest operation before sending batches for testing. 

The choice is up to you as the operator, but either way, it results in a safe, more compliant and pure product for your consumers. 


Matt Broxterman, Senior Account Executive, Rad Source Technologies

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