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Business & Profession Business, Classification, Extraction, Formulation, Profession

Proposing a Standard Nomenclature for Cannabis and Hemp Derivatives

The US cannabinoid industry has experienced exponential growth since California first legalized medical cannabis in 1996 under Proposition 215. After the enactment of Proposition 215, 32 individual states have legalized medical marijuana under State statutes, and the US Federal government officially declassified industrial hemp from a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, thus legalizing the crop on a national level. 

The past 24 years have expanded opportunities for the legal cannabis and hemp industries to develop; however, agreement on terms and definitions across the product life cycle has lagged compared with more developed and established markets, such as world agriculture, metals, and energy. 

Nomenclature within the cannabinoid industry has developed naturally over time; even during prohibition, there was an unwritten naming system for buyers and sellers to communicate specific products and characteristics. The current loose naming system has provided the industry with a rudimentary way of structuring and mapping its world. With legalization, an increasing number of derivative products have emerged in the market; for example, distillate, resin, live resin, rosin, diamonds, crystalline, and isolate.  

The global growth of the cannabis and hemp market has attracted the attention of organizations interested in standardizing the nomenclature within the industry. Because of the lack of industry-accepted terms, inefficiencies within the greater market are occurring as buyers and sellers describe similar products with an array of names. The development of standard terminology will:

  1. Make it easier for cannabis and hemp derivatives to be traded as a global agricultural commodity.
  2. Facilitate smoother business, scientific, and social conversations surrounding the crops and their derivative products.

Workshop design and rationale

We believe the Emerald Conference is the most advanced technical and scientific conference in the cannabinoid industry. It is the leading industry forum for discussion on how science and data support best practices in cultivation, production, and quality assurance. Since its launch in 2014, the conference has continually fostered communication and collaboration, and it is renowned for attracting the top subject matter experts. 

In 2020, recognizing evolution within the cannabinoid industry, the conference added a workshop on current nomenclature and standardization efforts in the cannabinoid industry to the agenda. The discussion was centered around documenting the current folk taxonomy and exploring how that lexicon can be integrated into well-established biological and chemical nomenclature systems. 

The workshop design prioritized gathering input from a diverse quorum of industry stakeholders and subject matter experts. Proposed definitions were presented to the group and discussed. After the discussion period, attendees were asked to vote on whether the proposed definition should be adopted.

Results and analysis

There was a strong turnout for the workshop, with over 50 influential scientists and industry experts, including several listed as amongst the world’s Top 20 experts in cannabis testing by industry publication The Cannabis Scientist. 

The audience was evenly split between male and female gender, and over 93 percent of the audience had some college education. Furthermore, 60 percent of the audience considered themselves “very familiar with” or “experts” in cannabis or hemp. With such well-qualified participants, it’s no surprise the workshop proved to be an incubator for great discussions on nomenclature. 

The goal of the workshop was to create an initial nomenclature framework for the cannabinoid industry and, in doing so, lay the groundwork for more complex classification discussions with established taxonomy organizations. 

Before the workshop began, established definitions from the PanXchange hemp commodity exchange platform were identified to help facilitate productive discussions. These definitions were constructed through buyer and seller surveys and direct communications with companies and individuals operating in the industry. 

Six potential category definitions were presented: two types of “raw” biomass and four extraction products. The proposed definitions were discussed amongst the workshop participants, who then voted on whether to i) accept, ii) accept with revisions, or iii) reject. 

The overarching theme of the discussions was that we should broaden the category descriptions at this time, and return to the more detailed aspects once the basic structure is well established. The proposed definition, voting results, and commentary from the workshop are described for each category below. 

1. Biomass, Extraction Grade

Original Proposed Definition: Cannabis plant material that has been harvested from the field for the purpose of cannabinoid extraction. The resulting product consists of cannabis flowers, leaves, and stalks and has been dried to less than or equal to 12 percent moisture on a dry-weight basis.

The audience voted overwhelming (62 percent) to accept with revisions. Some of the commentary was centered on the definition being too specific; for example, containing the terms flowers, leaves, and stalks. Several participants argued that the quantity of these items should be specified if they are going to be included in the definition. Based on the suggestions from the workshop, “extraction grade” was dropped from the category description, and the term “biomass” was defined as follows: 

Biomass: Harvested Cannabis sativa (including hemp) plant matter. 

2. Biomass, Flower 

Original Proposed Definition: Material that has been harvested, climate-controlled cured, dried to less than or equal to 12 percent moisture on a dry weight basis, and trimmed for the specific purpose of retail consumption as a consumer product. Biomass flower is to be free of any molds, mildews, pesticides, herbicides, and other contaminants. 

After a thorough discussion, 68 percent of the audience settled on accepting the definition for the category with revisions. The proposed revisions were similar to those from the first category. Susan Audino (S.A. Audino & Associates, LLC) made a compelling argument to remove the last sentence from the definition based on the distinction between safety and standardization, with broad agreement from the audience. Based on these discussions, the category was re-defined as “Flower” and defined as follows: 

Flower: The flowering portion of the plant, generally denser in trichomes, cannabinoids, and terpenoids than the rest of the plant matter such as stalks and fan leaves.

During the discussion regarding the first two categories, the terms trim, seeds, fiber, hurd, flower purity, shucked, bucked, wet flower, and hand-trimmed (to mention just a few) were discussed, with the majority suggesting the biomass category be structured hierarchically (tree-structure) in a top-down approach. Based on these suggestions, we propose a top-down structure in Figure 1. With the new terms come newly proposed definitions, outlined below:

  • Wet Flower: Cannabis or hemp biomass that has not been cured and refers to the trichome-covered part of the female cannabis plant.
  • Dry Flower:  Cannabis or hemp biomass that has been cured and refers to the smokable, trichome-covered part of a female cannabis plant.
  • Trim: Excess plant material removed from flowering stems after harvest.
  • Hurd: Absorbent wood-like product high in cellulose, derived from the inner portion of the bast or stalk of an industrial hemp plant.  
  • Fiber: Separated from the outer bast or stalk of an industrial hemp plant through the process of retting or similar mechanical method.  
  • Seed: Mature seeds resulting from the pollination of female flowers.
Figure 1. Proposed top-down structure for defining categories of agricultural products in the cannabis and hemp sector.

At this juncture, the conversation pivoted to derivative products resulting from the extraction of cannabinoid-rich “biomass.” There are almost limitless descriptions and terms used throughout the hemp and cannabinoid industry for cannabinoid-rich derivative products. The workshop again focused on creating a framework of categories.

3. Oil, Crude

Original Proposed Definition: Cannabinoid-containing biomass that has been refined using CO2 supercritical extraction or other equivalent extraction methods to concentrate cannabinoids to an oil state. The resulting liquid is a thick but viscous amber to gold-colored liquid, typically exceeding 50 percent cannabinoid concentration.

The audience almost entirely agreed to reject the proposed definition for oil, crude. Some of the reasons included the definition being too descriptive regarding color, and the fact that the word supercritical is a descriptor of the state of CO2, not the extraction process. Based on the suggestions and comments, the following revised definition is proposed: 

Crude: Material extracted from cannabis (including hemp), often with solvent-based extraction methods, which includes compounds of interest (usually cannabinoids and terpenes), lipids, and waxes.

4. Oil, Winterized 

Original Proposed Definition: Winterized crude oil is non-winterized crude oil that has been further refined by the process of winterization and decarboxylation to remove various waxes, lipids, chlorophyll, and other unwanted plant material. The resulting product is an amber to gold-colored liquid typically exceeding 50 percent cannabinoid concentration.

Approximately 70 percent of the audience participants voted to accept or accept with revisions. This was surprising based on the discussions, which included points such as “the American oil chemists have previously defined such processes that are applied to vegetable oil, should their definition be used?” The other conversations centered on chemical classification for “waxes” and “lipids,” specifically that the composition is still not known. Based on these discussions, it was determined that the winterized category was a secondary derivative product, as shown in the top-down structure for defining derivative products in hemp and cannabis seen in Figure 2. Using that concept, the revised definition for the category is proposed as: 

Winterized Oil: Material, often an oil, refined to remove lipids and waxes from crude.

5. Oil, Distillate

Original Proposed Definition: “Distillate is a highly refined extract typically containing a cannabinoid potency exceeding 75 percent. The distillation process involves the use of solvents such as butane or alcohol or solventless extraction methods to produce gold to clear viscous liquid. Full spectrum distillate contains an undisturbed and full cannabinoid profile, showing measurable amounts of CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids such as (CBG, CBC, CBN, etc.).”

The specificity of the defined category led to around 60 percent of audience participants voting to reject the proposed definition for Oil, Distillate. The dialog revolved around the term “distilled,” referring to a process and not a product, whether parameters from the distillation process should be included in the definition, and care over the term “full cannabinoid profile,” as the true profile can be difficult to assess. Incorporating these suggestions, an alternative category definition is proposed: 

Distillate: Material refined from cannabis (including hemp) concentrate, using distillation to separate compounds of interest. Often found to contain high percentages of single compounds. 

 6. Isolate 

Original Proposed Definition: A pure, white, crystalline powder exceeding 98 percent for one individual cannabinoid. Through the refining process, all organic plant matter such as waxes, chlorophyll, and plant oils have been removed, resulting in a highly concentrated product, free of other cannabinoids.

The discussions for isolate as a category were driven by the need to consider the morphology of “isolate” and whether this definition causes issues with products downstream of isolate. Although the discussion revolved around the revisions needed for the category, over 60 percent of the audience voted to accept the category definition with revisions. Based on the suggestions, the new proposed definition for the category is as follows: 

Isolate: Material comprised of near-pure single compounds of interest.

The conversations during the second half of the workshop focused on derivative products from extracting and processing cannabis or hemp raw material. We attempted to define four distinct categories and during the discussion, it became evident that the overall structure of the categories needed to be redesigned to include other terms, such as kief, rosin, and concentrate. This was embodied by a comment made by John Abrams (The Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium (CESC)), using the PubMed MESH term system as an analogy to describe the system as a potential top-level distinguisher, such as Extract, Crude, and so on. 

Figure 2. Proposed top-down structure for defining categories for derivative products in the hemp and cannabinoid industry.

The proposed top-down structure seen in Figure 2 has been set forth for future discussions regarding categorizing hemp and cannabis derivative products. The framework for extract and isolate now includes new categories for extract, kief, rosin, concentrate, and crystalline. Newly proposed definitions are outlined below.

  • Extract: Material derived from cannabis plant (including hemp) whereby a form of separation is used to create a substance with concentrated compounds of interest. 
  • Kief: Material extracted from cannabis (including hemp), often by material separation of trichomes from plant matter.
  • Rosin: Material extracted from cannabis (including hemp), often by applying pressure and heat to biomass.
  • Concentrate: The result of applications that concentrate compounds of interest from cannabis (including hemp).
  • Crystalline: Solid crystals of a single purified cannabinoid.

Key takeaways and next steps

We consider the first nomenclature workshop for the cannabis and hemp industry a success. The workshop brought to light the complex and challenging task of establishing a standard lexicon for the industry. Developing the standard lexicon will be an iterative process, providing a road map for classifying derivative products from the hemp and cannabinoid industry into internationally recognized biological and chemical classification systems (Figure 3). We believe establishing a concise set of nomenclature definitions that are created and accepted by the industry is paramount to increasing efficiency in new and emerging markets. With that goal in mind, we will plan two consecutive workshops in 2020 and 2021 to continue to iron out the details discussed in this white paper. 

Once the nomenclature is established within the cannabinoid industry, further discussions will be possible with various industry standardization groups, such as ASTM and NIST. Joint work between the Emerald Conference and these groups will ultimately allow the nomenclature to evolve into product specifications. 

Product specifications are relied on in most established commodity markets to describe not only the physical nature of a product but the specific characteristics that define the quality of the product and directly influence pricing. For example, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has implemented specifications for energy markets outlining specific gravity, sulfur content, and viscosity –  the buyer is able to procure a product suitable for the intended use, while the seller gets a fair price based on those specifications. 

Outlining these specifications is an essential step to enhance liquidity within a market and to provide a reference that other transactions can be based upon. We believe establishing these specifications (for example, moisture, potency, or the presence of heavy metals) will be important to allow the cannabinoid industry to continue the rapid growth it has realized over the past few years.

Establishing standardized nomenclature is a monumental task and will require ongoing efforts – but we believe it is a critical step in the evolution of the industry.

Have your say! 

You can submit comments on the proposed definitions by emailing Kellan Finney or joining us at our forthcoming (virtual) workshop on November 24, 2020 at MJBizCon Science Symposium.

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About the Authors

Kellan Finney

Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of 8th Revolution, New York, USA


RJ Hopp

Director, Hemp Markets at PanXchange, Inc, Denver, Colorado, USA


Wes Burk

President of Emerald Scientific, San Luis Obispo, California, USA


John Abrams

Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of the Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium (CESC) and Principal, Abrams BioConsulting, San Diego, California, USA

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