In several countries with a National medicinal cannabis program, pharmaceutical regulations specify that herbal cannabis products must adhere to strict safety standards regarding microbial contamination. Treatment by gamma irradiation currently seems the only method available to meet these requirements. We evaluated the effects of irradiation treatment of four different cannabis varieties covering different chemical compositions. Samples were compared before and after standard gamma-irradiation treatment by performing quantitative UPLC analysis of major cannabinoids, as well as qualitative GC analysis of full cannabinoid and terpene profiles. In addition, water content and microscopic appearance of the cannabis flowers was evaluated. This study found that treatment did not cause changes in the content of THC and CBD, generally considered as the most important therapeutically active components of medicinal cannabis. Likewise, the water content and the microscopic structure of the dried cannabis flowers were not altered by standard irradiation protocol in the cannabis varieties studied. The effect of gamma-irradiation was limited to a reduction of some terpenes present in the cannabis, but keeping the terpene profile qualitatively the same. Based on the results presented in this report, gamma irradiation of herbal cannabis remains the recommended method of decontamination, at least until other more generally accepted methods have been developed and validated.
Keywords: cannabinoids; gamma-irradiation; medicinal cannabis; quality control; terpenes.