Editorial Feature

The Techniques Used to Catch Cannabidiol Fraud

A 2019 Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) report found that less than 40% of CBD products studied in the United Kingdom contained the advertised amount of CBD. Image Credit:  Tinnakorn jorruang/Shutterstock.com

There have been multiple cases of companies conducting fraudulent activity when making cannabidiol products that could be potentially harmful to the human body.

Cannabidiol, known more commonly as CBD, is one of over 100 different cannabinoids that can be found in cannabis plants. Although cannabis plants contain a lot of different compounds, CBD can account for up to 40% of a plant’s total extract.

Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is not thought to have a psychoactive effect and is instead being pursued as a compound of interest for medical use. The legality of CBD is ever-changing due to ongoing research, but currently, it is being sold around the world as a trace element in various commercial products, as a pure CBD oil, a spray, plant extracts and capsules, but there is a lot of controversy and fraud surrounding the use of CBD.

How CBD Works

Cannabidiol works by acting on the endocannabinoid system in the brain. The mechanism of action is not yet fully understood, but CBD is said to have an affinity for the G-protein cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2.

CBD1 receptors are found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. They work by inhibiting synaptic transmissions by acting on the voltage-gated calcium and potassium channels. CBD 2 receptors are also found in the brain, but are primarily located in the immune system.

CBD has been shown to have medical benefits, but there is not enough evidence to reinforce claims that it can help conditions such as epilepsy, depression, anxiety and pain disorders without negative side effects. Studies have shown that CBD can have a toxic effect on the liver, so any use requires close monitoring.

The Types of CBD Fraud

Types of CBD fraud include:

  • Products containing unlisted safe ingredients
  • Products containing unlisted hazardous ingredients
  • Products containing illegal levels of THC
  • Products containing no CBD in the extracts

The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) issued a report in 2019, showing that, in the United Kingdom, less than 40% of the CBD products they tested contained the advertised amount of CBD. Nearly half of the samples tested had illegal amounts of CBN.

Heavy metals and solvents were also discovered in the products tested, and, although the levels found met those permitted for pharmaceutical products, they were above the threshold required for food safety.

In the United States, the amount of CBD fraud being carried out poses a huge problem, with products regularly getting recalled by the FDA, and companies being sued over toxic contaminants in their CBD products.

CBD needs to be analyzed for research and clinical samples, but also to ensure that non-clinical samples and products from companies are following current legislation. Multiple techniques can be used to analyze CBD. The types of analytical methods used to analyze CBD include spectroscopy, chromatography and spectrometry techniques.

Spectroscopy Techniques Used to Combat CBD Fraud

Spectroscopy techniques used to analyze CBD include atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

With AAS, the atoms absorb light and transition to a higher level of energy. The amount of absorption of the ground state atoms in the gaseous state can then be quantified. AAS can be used to fight CBD fraud, as is it a standard method used to detect metals.

NMR is a type of spectroscopy that uses the nuclear spin states of molecules to analyze samples. NMR can be used to catch CBD fraud by creating a chemical fingerprint of cannabis and using pattern recognition to identify CBD.

Chromatography Techniques Used to Combat CBD Fraud

Chromatography techniques used to test CBD include thin-layer chromatography, gas chromatography and liquid chromatography.

Thin-layer chromatography (TLC) uses a solid silica stationary phase on a planar material such as aluminum or glass, and a liquid mobile phase that is the solvent mixture.

Separation occurs through differential migration, but TLC is mainly a qualitative technique, so it is best used as a quick method to test the purity of a compound or product.  

Gas chromatography (GC) separates thermally stable and volatile compounds by using differential migration of a sample through a column. The column contains a solid or liquid stationary phase, while the mobile phase is a gas.

The detection method used for CBD analysis with GC is flame ionization detection. When it comes to analyzing cannabis and CBD products, they might need to be derivatized before examination due to their instability. Some of the acid forms of certain cannabis products are also unable to be analyzed by GC alone.

Liquid chromatography (LC) is a technique that separates compounds using a solid stationary phase and a liquid mobile phase. When analyzing CBD, the mode of analysis is reverse phase chromatography, and the detector of choice tends to be an ultraviolet detector. Liquid chromatography can be used for cannabinoid profiling as well as to detect mycotoxins and screen for pesticides and contaminants.

Combined Techniques

Gas and liquid chromatography can be combined with mass spectrometry to allow for both qualitative and quantitative information.

Chromatography techniques will separate compounds in a mixture, but by combining that with mass spectrometry, you can also apply structural identification.

When using GCMS, samples can be compared to known libraries, but overall, liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry is the most popular technique to use when analyzing CBD products and samples.

Another combined spectrometry technique used to catch CBD fraudsters is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS is a technique that combines an ion-generating argon plasma source with detection by mass spectrometry. It is another technique that is commonly used to detect trace metals, so it can be used for CBD analysis to spot any toxic metal contamination present in CBD products.

References and Further Reading

National Library of Medicine / PubChem. Cannabidiol. [Online] Available at: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Cannabidiol (Accessed on 10 July 2020).

Welty, T., Luebke, A. and Gidal, B. (2014) Cannabidiol: Promise and Pitfalls. Epilepsy Currents, 14(5), pp.250-252. https://dx.doi.org/10.5698%2F1535-7597-14.5.250

Haleem, R., & Wright, R. (2020) A Scoping Review on Clinical Trials of Pain Reduction with Cannabis Administration in Adults. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, 12(6), 344-351. https://dx.doi.org/10.14740%2Fjocmr4210

Centre for Medicinal Cannabis. CBD IN THE UK: Executive Summary. [Online] Available at: https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/51b75a3b/files/uploaded/Report%20%7C%20CBD%20in%20the%20UK%20-%20Exec%20Summary.pdf (Accessed on 10 July 2020).

McKenzie, S (2020) Cannabinoid Analysis Techniques. [Online] Available at: https://www.azolifesciences.com/article/Cannabinoid-Analysis-Techniques.aspx (Accessed on 10 July 2020).

Analytical Cannabis. [Online] Available at: https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/ (Accessed on 10 July 2020).

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Louise Saul

Written by

Louise Saul

Louise pursued her passion for science by studying for a BSc (Hons) Biochemistry degree at Sheffield Hallam University, where she gained a first class degree. She has since gained a M.Sc. by research and has worked in a number of scientific organizations.


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