Recent Developments in Cannabis Vaping Product Safety – A Q&A with Corey Mangold, CEO of PurTec Delivery Systems

By Aaron Green
No Comments

Vaping is a multi-billion dollar cannabis product category representing more than 20% category share in the US, according to a recent Headset.io report. The 2019 vaping crisis, whereby lung injury and several deaths were caused by the adulteration of vapor pen cartridges with vitamin E acetate, highlighted the importance of safety and emissions testing for vapor pen products. In addition to volatile organic compounds, metals and ceramics contained in the heating elements of cartridges are also a concern. While the FDA has a robust program for emissions testing in nicotine products, they do not currently regulate cannabis. Cannabis vaping is currently regulated at the state level in the United States.

Cannabis vaping is popular among minors owing to its discrete nature. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 14.7% of teens reported vaping cannabis in 2018. In a separate research study, University of Michigan researchers found that teens vaping cannabis were two times more likely to experience respiratory issues than teens who smoked e-cigarettes.

We spoke with Corey Mangold, CEO and founder of PurTec Delivery Systems, to learn more about cannabis vaping safety and their PurGuard technology. Prior to entering the cannabis space, Corey founded a software company in 1998. He also founded the advertising agency Gigasavvy in 2008, which he recently exited from in March 2021.

Aaron Green: How did you get started in the cannabis industry?

Corey Mangold: I got started in the cannabis industry in 2016. My daughter was away at college in San Luis Obispo and got pregnant and was going to have a baby, which obviously I was excited about. I decided to have her come down to Southern California and start a company together, as I’ve done multiple times in my career successfully. I wanted to show her the ropes, and teach her everything from finance to HR, to business development, marketing – everything it takes to be successful – and give her the tools that she would need to be successful for her life.

Green: What kind of things were you into before 2016?

Mangold: I founded my first company in 1998 in the software industry and had that company up until 2005. In 2008 I started another company called Gigasavvy, a nationally recognized advertising agency out of Irvine, California, which I successfully exited in March of 2021.

Corey Mangold, CEO and founder of PurTec Delivery Systems

When deciding to start a company with my daughter, we were interested in the cannabis industry – I think everybody was back in 2016. In 2016, I had started using cannabis again after probably about a 16- or 17-year hiatus. I was using a vape because I had children in the house. I went to literally anywhere I could and bought every type of cartridge on the market. What I found was that their user experience was not like what it was on the nicotine side of vaping. I reached out to associates of mine who had been manufacturing vapes since 2011, starting with the blue e-cigarette, and we engineered a unique device that was proprietary and completely unlike anything on the market. It was incredible, and still to this day, I think it’s probably the best 510 thread cart on the market. We launched that under the Orchid Essentials (CNSX: ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) brand in California and Oregon.

Green: Is that cart something that you sell to other brands as well, or is it purely for the Orchid brand?

Mangold: Yes, purely for the Orchid brand, but it’s what inspired me to start PurTec Delivery Systems. After a few years of struggling in this industry because we didn’t have the access to capital needed – Orchid is a US company traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE:ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) – and dealing in a substance that’s federally illegal, there was no access to any traditional financing, be it factoring or inventory financing. We were literally creating as much product as we could every month and then selling out almost instantly, and then waiting till the next month to get money in from all our accounts to make more. We had to slug it out. We did get into a little over 500 stores in California and Oregon, but it was just a battle, and I didn’t really want to be touching cannabis.

In 2020, I had a breakthrough in my strategy. I was watching the TV show Gold Rush and I watched one of the guys go and have to buy a new wash plant. He pulls up to this dealer’s yard that sells wash plants and tractors. I saw this dealer had a lot of inventory and clearly a lot of money, and I realized the place to make money was selling the shovels, not really digging for gold. I said to myself if I have the best shovel out there, why am I digging? I should just be innovating new shovels and selling shovels. Hence, I started PurTec Delivery Systems and now for the last year and a half have been 100% focused on developing advanced vaporizer technologies.

Green: Tell me more about PurTec.

Mangold: I founded PurTec with the sole intention of creating safe vaporizers for consumers. We conducted an 18-month safety study in Switzerland with our partners, on vaping devices in the market. I learned a lot of things that I already knew but wanted to see it proven by independent laboratories and by PhDs and MDs, and really see what was so concerning to me. For the last year and a half, we have sought to develop a safe line of vaporizers. I’m very cognizant about what’s going on in my body and want to know what’s going on internally with these products. I don’t think anyone would be using them if they knew what was really going into their lungs.

Green: What are some of the things that consumers should be thinking about when it comes to vape safety?

Mangold: Consumers should be thinking about all the different aspects from inhaling vaporized heavy metals to ceramics. Ceramic particle inhalation is one of my biggest concerns. I think it’s been ignored. I think all the manufacturers know about it and I think it’s been swept under the rug. I think it’s one of the threats that we have. There should be regulatory bodies that are out there protecting consumers like the FDA, hence why I believe federal legalization is so important, because if the FDA was involved not even one of these products would be on the market because the first thing the FDA would do would be very extensive emissions testing to find out what compounds and potential toxins are entering into your body.

Green: There’s clearly a need for safety and regulation in the space, but from where you’re sitting, is there a demand? When consumers go into a store, one of their main focuses is: what’s the THC content? How do you see consumer demand for safety and how do you think about building that awareness?

Mangold: I don’t think there is consumer demand yet. The consumer demand right now is for getting medicated and having fun or getting whatever relief or primary reason you use cannabis. I can point to a direct correlation with the opioid epidemic. No one knew they were as horrible as they are, and doctors were prescribing them left and right, and everyone thought it was okay. People think these cannabis products are okay because they’re on the shelf in every licensed dispensary, and the California Department of Health and the Department of Health in every other state and country has been involved to some degree. So, consumers think that they’re safe. The problem is they’re likely not just like we weren’t with opioids.

I don’t think the consumer demand will be there for quite some time until we start seeing a lot of long-term health impacts where we start seeing people getting lung disease, we start seeing people getting iron lung, different potential brain issues from inhaling adhesives and heavy metals. I think once the health impacts are seen clinically – just like we saw with the opioid crisis – once that was really in the forefront, everybody saw with their own eyes, and then they were aware that there was a problem. So, I think that it’s important to become aware of the potential health impacts, but I think it will take quite some time before that happens.

Green: It sounds to me like you want to get ahead of the industry on this because if it does go federally legal, there will be more stringent requirements. How do you think about that from a product design and development perspective to get ahead of a problem that exists but isn’t reflected in current regulations?

Mangold: The best thing we can do right now in the cannabis vape industry is to look at what the nicotine vape industry is doing. It is controlled by the FDA and there are standards for vaporizers in other parts of the world that are very stringent, like the AFNOR standards, which are in the European Union regulations for vaporizer safety.

What we do is we find the most stringent standards in the world, and we test our products to those standards. If the standards get stricter, we can develop our products and re-engineer them to meet those new requirements. Right now, all our products are emissions tested at AFNOR standards and over-engineered even for those standards. We also are constantly working on reduction of potentially hazardous materials: reductions of heavy metals; only using proven safe and effective materials and FDA approved materials like SAE 316L surgical stainless steel; and using improved ceramics that are not as brittle as the ceramics being used by almost every single manufacturer out there. There’s a lot of things that can be done. It takes supply chain management, understanding the technology and having strong solid teams of scientists and doctors that know this stuff much better than anyone else in the industry does, and leveraging their expertise.

Green: You recently launched a safety feature for minors. Can you tell me more about that?

Mangold: Yes. Two weeks ago, we launched a new software application called PurGuard. PurGuard is a massive innovation and is the first of its kind that we’re aware of. It’s a piece of software that pairs with any device, whether it’s a disposable pod system or a 510 cartridge. You then pair it to your phone and take a picture of your government ID. Then the camera looks at your face, runs quick facial recognition and runs an age check through the largest age-checking platform API in the world. Then based on location and legal age of the user’s location – some states are 18 and different countries have different rules – it validates your ability in your market to be consuming that product. This technology works in 180 different countries.

Once that occurs and the device is ready for you to use, we have another feature that we’ve developed. There is an auto-lock feature that we have where if you’re a parent, like me, and you have kids in the house, you can turn your device to auto-lock right from your phone. When you walk away from your phone and are 10 feet away, your Bluetooth connection will break, and it will automatically lock the device and so your child can’t walk into your bedroom and take your device.

This technology is important to us. Consuming cannabis is horrible for the health of minors. There are serious mental effects on brain growth that occur from using cannabis at a young age because the brain is still developing up until about the age of 23 to 25. So, it’s not safe for them to be using. Of course, I’m sure we all smoked when we were in high school, but the ease of use of vape and the discretion, I think allows minors to use significantly more cannabis than previous generations did 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s a massive problem right now and I think it’s just a matter of time before the FDA requires such protections. This industry can only survive if we protect minors. So, we’re getting ahead of the curve and setting the standard.

Green: What kind of hardware does PurGuard work with?

Mangold: PurGuard works with every single type of device that we manufacture: 510 thread cartridges, disposables, and pods. If it’s a 510-thread cartridge, the battery has to be a PurTec battery, and the cartridge has to be a PurTec cartridge. They communicate to each other through certain technologies, and it can even recognize what oils are in the cartridge or the pod or the disposable. Moreover, we can tell what strain it is, when it was manufactured, what the potency levels are and more. It records all the usage statistics. We’ve also proven with our hardware, the actual milligram contents being consumed per hit, or draw based on volume, and draw duration. We can track and report to people and say, “Hey, you’re consuming 100 milligrams of THC a day, that’s too high, you need to slow down and maybe go down to 50 milligrams a day.” That will be what is required as it is being required in the nicotine industry under the FDA pre-market tobacco applications (PMTA). When the FDA comes into cannabis, they’re going to want to see the same thing. They’re going to want to know that cannabis products are not promoting people to use more, and they are trying to get people to use less. It doesn’t mean stop using it, but use it in moderation, like everything in life. You shouldn’t be drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. You probably shouldn’t be smoking a pound of weed a day either. Everything in life is moderation and this application not only protects minors but also teaches us about our consumption habits.

Green: A theme here is “skating where the puck is going to be.” What kind of trends are you looking at right now in the industry?

Mangold: The biggest trend I see right now in the industry is disposables. We’ve seen that the trends in cannabis consumption trail behind the nicotine industry by 2-4 years. We see a lot of our customers and potential customers shifting into disposables and are now seeing a very large spike in sales of disposables. I think that’s a big trend, but with that comes another major issue: we now have lithium-ion batteries being thrown away at astonishing rates and going into landfills. PurTec has an answer for that that we’ll be launching here in the next four to six months That will be I think the biggest innovation in regards to eco-friendliness within the vape industry. That’s where I see things going right now.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Mangold: The thing that interests me most, and what I’m most interested in learning about is regulations. Not the regulations themselves, but how regulations are drafted. I’ve sat in several meetings with rules committees for different regulatory bodies throughout the United States and it is laughable. I was recently in a state I’m not going to mention. I asked them what scientists and what doctors they have consulted with and they said none. I just found that dumbfounding. The state regulatory bodies are making decisions without doing due diligence and without bringing in subject matter experts in some cases.

I’m very interested in learning about how we can change our regulatory bodies. Taxpayers pay these salaries and their job at the end of the day is to protect consumers. I think that these cannabis regulatory bodies need to be way more involved with their state’s Department of Health, as well as with the FDA, and National Institute of Health and looking at this as a holistic approach. How do we protect consumers? This is a drug. It’s like anything else out there. If you’re selling tomatoes that were sprayed with a certain pesticide, you must do the research and you have to know what’s in that product before you start putting it in people’s hands. Otherwise, you may have people dying left and right. So, I’m very interested in learning more about regulatory bodies and how they need to evolve and hopefully I can help push them into evolving sooner rather than later.

Green: Great, that concludes the interview, Corey.

Mangold: Thanks, Aaron.

Cannabis Manufacturing Considerations: From Raw Materials to Finished Goods

By David Vaillencourt, Kathleen May
No Comments

Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(es) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction and operation, as well as to guarantee safety of employees.

Materials of Construction

The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces22 provides a method for evaluating the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics, and other non-porous, surfaces of products (including intermediate products). Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Covering7, UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings 8, the International Building Code (IBC) 9, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility. 

Utilities

Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), compressed air and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection and sewage.

  1. Water
Microbial monitoring methods can include frequent/consistent testing

Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods and for cleaning activities. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter 1231, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes 2, provides extensive guidance on the design, operation, and monitoring of water systems. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Microbial monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 61, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests 3and Chapter 62, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms 4, and chemical monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 643, Total Organic Carbon 5, and Chapter 645, Water Conductivity 6.Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures and in wastewater treatment procedures  A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.

  1. Lighting

Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.

  1. HVAC
urban-gro
Proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.

Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow and air quality play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations as described in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification 26 are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.

  1. Compressed Air

Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications 21, separates air quality levels into classes to help differentiate air requirements based on facility type.

  1. Electrical Infrastructure

Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC) 12, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 13, National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 14, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 15 and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

  1. Fire Detection and Suppression

“Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs.”Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Fire Code (IFC) 10, and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols 27.

  1. Gas detection

Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905 9. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems 16 and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems 17 and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors 18.

Product and Process Flow

Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are assessable with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials. 

Facilities Management

Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.

Damage from whiteflies, thrips and powdery mildew could be prevented with an appropriate PCP

A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation and monitoring.

Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings and belts and the calibration of monitoring sensors.

In most medical cannabis markets, an established Security Program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. ASTM International standards: D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System 23, D8217 Guide for Access Control System[24], and D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS) 25 provide guidance on how to set up a suitable facility security system and program. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in an SOP per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.

Future Expansion

The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors, if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize down time while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.


References:

  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
  2. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <1231>, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes.
  3. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <61>, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests.
  4. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <62>, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms.
  5. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <643>, Total Organic Carbon.
  6. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <645>, Water Conductivity.
  7. ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
  8. UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
  9. International Building Code (IBC).
  10. International Fire Code (IFC).
  11. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
  12. National Electrical Code (NEC).
  13. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
  14. National Electrical Safety Code (NESC).
  15. International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
  16. UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems.
  17. UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems.
  18. UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
  19. International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Good Practice Guide.
  20. International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Guide Water and Steam Systems.
  21. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications.
  22. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces.
  23. D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System.
  24. D8217 Guide for Access Control Syst
  25. D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS).
  26. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA): Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification.
  27. NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.

Ask the Experts: Aspergillus Across the Supply Chain

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
No Comments

In an industry where compliance is such a dominant influence, navigating and understanding cannabis microbiology can be a tall order. With some education, research and knowledge on microbial contamination though, it doesn’t have to be  a daunting task. From when a cannabis plant is started, throughout the plant lifecycle, all the way to sample preparation in a testing laboratory, microbial contamination is a constant pain point.

For indoor cultivators, Aspergillus mold is often the biggest microbial challenges. Understanding regulations, partnering with a good lab, and knowing what to look for before problems occur are paramount. Contaminated crops are unmarketable. Remediation costs are expensive and time consuming. The difference between success and failure can cost hundreds of thousands per incident.

Whether you’re in the cultivation facility keeping an eye on your valuable crops or a lab technician seeking to streamline operations, identifying and mitigating microbial contamination is an essential skill. Prior to the publication of their upcoming ebook on the subject, The Dirty Secrets of Aspergillus, we sat down with Renee Engle-Goodner, principal consultant at REG Science, LLC in regulatory science and postharvest science, and Maria McIntyre, strategic operations business manager of cannabis & hemp microbiology at bioMérieux, to better understand cannabis microbiology from cultivation to the lab.

Q: With Aspergillus being one of the biggest challenges for cultivators, describe some best practices you have found for preventing microbiological contamination for cannabis indoor cannabis cultivation facilities?

Temperature and relative humidity are the two driving forces for microbial contamination after looking at your workflow and facility.

Renee Engle-Goodner & Maria McIntyre: Contamination events or failed compliance tests require costly remediation. By taking several proactive actions you can reduce risks while increasing product quality and consumer health. It’s critical to know your environment. This allows you to implement best practices, including sanitation protocols and an ideal facility environment. In-process and environmental testing is critical prior to the required local compliance tests. Here are four best practices we found to be the most important for cultivators when it comes to mitigating microbial contamination:

  1. Know Your Environment: It is impossible to make your entire facility a clean room, but you can thoroughly clean, disinfect and maintain your facility. One crucial factor  is air quality stemming from the attic and the HVAC system. Microbial contaminants, including mold like Aspergillus, can readily grow on porous materials like unfinished wood, ceiling tiles, carpet and insulation. Before setting up your operation, make sure to test the facility using swab samples for surfaces, and physical samples for things such as plant material, growing components (soil, coco), insulation, wood, etc. Once you know the problems you need to address, you can be proactive avoiding unexpected challenges. Understanding your environment allows you to put the checks and balances in place. This can be done in a few simple steps including: identifying challenge points, implementing risk analysis and HACCP, understanding air quality and flow, and a routine environmental monitoring program.
  2. Implement Sanitation Practices: Chemical treatment and other volatile processes help to keep your facility and instrumentation clean. This may include commercially available techniques such as: routine chemical fogging (ozone, chlorine dioxide, etc.) and chemical surface sanitation, in conjunction with UV light disinfection. Sanitation practices are essential to product quality, safety and profitability. If you are starting with an environment lurking with hidden contaminants, how do you expect to have a high quality, safe and highly valued product? To find out more about sanitation practices stay tuned for the launch of our ebook, The Dirty Secrets of Aspergillus. 
  3. In-process & Environmental Testing: In-process testing finds your “hot spots”  leading to improvements or redesigns to the infrastructure and/or processes. Partnering with your compliance testing lab to conduct initial and routine R&D testing to understand the risks and provide the opportunity to reduce risks. Alternatively, many indoor cultivation facilities opt to bring R&D testing in-house. bioMérieux offers several novel solutions to support the industry needs for Aspergillus testing while maintaining simplicity in the process and putting science first.
  4. Best Practices for Being Proactive: Facility buildout and planning is important to ensure your workflow and environment is  mitigating microbial contamination risks. Temperature and relative humidity are the two driving forces for microbial contamination after looking at your workflow and facility. Being consistent, proactive and routine in your monitoring can mitigate risks effectively. Your quality management program should include root cause analysis and steps for remediation, preventing problems from occurring repeatedly.

Q: Given  microbiology testing is such an important indicator for product safety, what are the top items to consider when building a microbiology laboratory or finding a lab to meet your testing needs?

Cannabis experts are a key resource, but it’s also important to know microbiology.

Engle-Goodner & McIntyre: Understand the risk and goals by consulting with scientific experts. Yes; scientific cannabis experts are a key resource; it’s equally important your resources and suppliers really know microbiology. Here are the top considerations when it comes to microbiology labs:

  1. Performing micro testing doesn’t need to be challenging. In fact, it can be very simple. Know your options and the differences. The testing is performed routinely. The simpler the sample prep and the process, the easier life in your lab will be and the more confidence your team will have that they are following the procedure correctly.
  2. Not all scientific solutions are created equal. Rapid micro solutions remove the guess work. Select a rapid micro method that meets local regulations and really achieves the regulatory requirements. It’s critical the solution also embraces robust and reliable science. This includes methods  requiring an enrichment to create the conditions for your target organisms (such as Aspergillus) to thrive if present and grow to a detectable limit. Scientific credibility is proven by independent lab testing and certification via AOAC (Association of Official Agricultural Chemists). Combine this with a company that has a rich history in microbiology and experience with diverse and difficult matrices and this will take you further faster.
  3. Consumer safety microbial testing is not new. The cannabis matrix is easily adopted into cannabis microbiological testing. Why to reinvent the wheel? There are companies with vast expertise in microbiology, diverse matrices and across multiple disciplines to ease the learning curve and reduce the climb. bioMérieux partners with indoor cultivators, vertically integrated operations and cannabis compliance labs to leverage their knowledge and expertise in microbiology to provide reliable cannabis-validated test solutions and consultative partnership.
  4. Strong partnerships are essential. Find a cannabis microbiology partner to walk hand-in-hand with you; including set-up , training validation and beyond. A partner is an extension of your operations and  supports when things don’t go as planned. Trust me, we are working with biological organisms and unique situations will arise. Select a partner rather than just a supplier.
  5. When you hire a consultant or additional resources, it’s commonplace to pay upfront and set everything upfront and operational from the start. There are many elements to consider in hiring a support network. This starts with understanding your needs and goals to set a strategy. With this, you won’t waste time and money doing it wrong the first time.

There’s a lot to know and it’s normal to feel the discomfort. If you are confused, find a reputable consultant with experience in microbiology, science, lab operations and knows the cannabis industry. It’s important to conduct your research as not all consultants have equal experience.

To learn more, stay tuned for the launch of the ebook, The Dirty Secrets of Aspergillus by Renee Engle-Goodner and Maria McIntyre, coming Fall 2021.

About Renee Engle-Goodner

Renee Engle-Goodner has possessed a deep, lifelong passion for science and innovation. She earned a Genetics BS from UC Davis. Renee’s research focused on forensic entomology. She received her Genetics MS from UW-Madison. Renee worked for AgroFresh as a Lab Manager, EH&S Site Manager and Senior Biologist. She has worked for Delicato Family Wines as their Analytical Lab Manager. Renee was also the Chief Scientific Officer at the first non-legacy lab validated under the strict new enforcement regulated by the Bureau of Cannabis Control. REG Science, LLC is Renee’s regulatory science consulting company where she is the Principal Consultant. Renee is a serious advocate for safe and clean cannabis products in this budding, evolving industry. 

About Maria McIntyre

Maria McIntyre, a trailblazer in Cannabis Microbiology who has a lifelong enthusiasm for human health and public safety reflected in science, education and innovation. Having the distinctive and dichotic education in both biology and chemistry led her to R&D roles within food science, pharmaceuticals, regulatory compliance, and microbiology. She utilizes her background and experience today at bioMérieux as Strategic Operations Business Manager: Cannabis + Hemp Microbiology to improve product safety and human health in the cannabis industry.

Content sponsored by bioMérieux

Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 4 – LifeTonic

By Aaron Green
No Comments

Russell is the CEO of NES Technology Holdings, a technology development and marketing company that operates Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic Brands. NES Technology Holdings has invented a technology portfolio of more than 160 granted and pending patents that cover inventions across several high-value industries, including cannabis, beverage, fragrance and nutraceuticals. The company is currently in license acquisition diligence processes with 7 of world’s 10 largest fragrance companies and has received a joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes with its extraction technology. It is also launching ionized cannabis beverage products that provide effects as quickly as alcohol in Nevada and Colorado this fall.

Vapor Distilled invented and commercialized an evaporative extraction process with 40 international patents granted and pending that, along with CO2 extraction, is one of only two fundamentally new extraction processes invented in the last 50 years. Instead of using solvents or hydrocarbons to extract oils from plants, evaporative extraction directly evaporates essential oils from plants and condenses the evaporated compounds into an extract. The process takes less than two seconds to complete and extracts higher levels of volatile terpenes than existing extraction methods. Vapor Distilled has built a fleet of commercial-scale extraction machines and has supplied some of the cannabis industry’s largest brands. The company is currently licensing its evaporative extraction technology within the perfume industry and is marketing an aroma hop extract to replace the dry hopping step when making beer.

LifeTonic invented a drug delivery technology with 56 patents pending and granted, that turns oil-based plant compounds like CBD and THC into electrically charged cannabinoid ions that dissolve completely in water without emulsifiers or additives. When cannabinoids are ionized, absorption is significantly enhanced and their effects can be felt in minutes. The effects of a LifeTonic ionized CBD beverage can be felt by most people in less than 5 minutes, whereas the effects of a LifeTonic ionized THC beverage can be felt by most people in less than 8 minutes. For reference, typical onset times for cannabis beverages are 30 minutes or longer. LifeTonic beverage technology will allow cannabis beverages to work as quickly as alcohol, enabling cannabis to become a social drink.

Russell Thomas, CEO of Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic

We spoke with Russell Thomas, CEO of Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic about his cannabinoid evaporation process and rapid onset beverage technologies. Thomas is a career entrepreneur and inventor with 21 years of experience inventing and protecting intellectual property. Russell’s team has generated more than 160 granted and pending patents. Prior to entering the cannabis industry, Thomas worked in the cleantech industry.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Russell Thomas: I came to the cannabis industry from the cleantech industry where I worked on technologies that improved the fuel economy of vehicles. I saw opportunities in the cannabis industry to improve cannabis extraction, which was one of the most important supply chain verticals in cannabis. Every product, from edibles to beverages and vape products, requires a cannabis extract. Any product that needs to be accurately dosed requires an extract. The old way of making edible products with cannabis butter was simply not viable as the industry matured, and most people were rapidly moving away from smoking cannabis and embracing vape products. Even with the entire industry almost completely dependent on extraction, no fundamental innovation was occurring. The primary ways that cannabis was being extracted were chemically intensive. The cleaner methods, such as CO2 extraction, were slow and expensive for terpene recovery. I saw this as a great opportunity to provide a better solution within a primary funnel of the cannabis supply chain.

We commercialized an extraction technology that evaporates cannabinoids directly from plant material in the form of vapor, and then recondenses that vapor back into an essential oil. The entire process takes less than two seconds to complete and preserves fragile terpenes. That technology, called Evaporative Extraction, is the foundation of Vapor Distilled.

Green: What timeframe was that roughly?

Thomas: We capitalized our company in 2015 and began selling wholesale extracts in 2017.

Green: Can you talk more about the evaporative extraction process?

Thomas: Our process works in a similar way to a cannabis vaporizer, but on a massive scale. Our extract is literally recondensed cannabis vapor. In one step, we extract, refine, and activate cannabinoids. On one end, plant material goes in the machine, and on the other end, extract and depleted plant material comes out. Our total extraction time is less than two seconds if you measure the time from when the plant material goes into the extractor and when the extract is condensed.

The LifeTonic logo

A continuous feed of dry plant material is introduced into a heated air stream. The air stream pneumatically conveys the plant material through a series of turbulent, heated evaporation chambers. Upon entering the evaporation chambers, volatile plant compounds are instantaneously distilled from the plant material. A centrifugal separator removes the depleted plant material from the air stream. The air stream is rapidly cooled, causing the volatile plant compounds to condense into an essential oil.

We achieve nearly total activation of THCA to THC simultaneously during extraction and, on average, we extract approximately two to four times more terpenes than a conventional extraction process. The cannabis industry is rampant with exaggeration about terpenes, but we are the only cannabis company negotiating a joint venture with a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes, and I think that says a lot about our process.

Green: Is the extract coming out then as an oil?

Thomas: Our extract comes out of our machines as a fully-activated, high-terpene content, full spectrum oil. Unlike the THC crude that emerges from other processes, our extract requires no further distillation, activation or refinement. You can put it straight into a product.

Green: How about terpene recovery?

Thomas: This is by far what we do best. We excel with the recovery terpenes and volatile compounds from plant material. From day one, we noticed that our evaporative extraction process yields about two to four times more terpenes by mass compared to traditional extraction methods.

While we started as a cannabis company, we recently received a compelling joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfume products with our technology. We are also under NDA with 7 of the world’s 10 largest fragrance companies to complete diligence processes to license our extraction technology.

As part of our licensing diligence process, we are performing paid fragrance extraction research for three multi-billion-dollar fragrance companies. Our evaporative extracted fragrance extracts are presenting a broader and more complete range of volatile compounds compared reference samples. We are also seeing substantially improved yield of volatile fragrance compounds. Combined, this gives us the advantage of being able to produce more extract at a lower cost, while also producing a superior product. This combination is how licensees can take market share away from any fragrance company that does not have access to our technology, and it is why we are seeing so much rapid traction in this area.

We have also extracted hops with our technology. If you’ve ever smelled a traditional hops resin, it smells good, but the smell doesn’t fill the room. If you put just a drop of our hops extract on any surface, the entire room will smell strongly of a premium IPA beer. It’s so potent you don’t want to get it on your hands or clothes because you will smell like beer for hours. It’s powerful and wonderful stuff!

Green: What is your business model?

Thomas: At our core, we are a technology development and licensing company. We first identify what we believe to be critical verticals and bottlenecks in high-value industries, then we develop and patent highly differentiated and disruptive technology solutions that we believe exist nowhere else. We then demonstrate both market fit and viability at scale through proof-of-concept sales of branded and high-profile, white-labeled products produced with our unique technologies. Finally, we systematically license and exit the various portions our IP portfolio though the orchestration of highly competitive bidding processes that promote both defensive and strategic acquisitions of our technologies. We are currently at the final phase of our model with licensing our extraction technology, and we are receiving offers as part of a competitive bidding process.

Green: Okay, let’s change gears here and start talking more about LifeTonic and your cannabinoid ionization technology. Can you talk high level about the onset times of cannabinoids in different matrices and media?

Thomas: Through LifeTonic, we invented 56 international patents granted and pending cannabinoid ionization technology that compresses the normal onset time of cannabis beverages from 30 minutes down to just a few minutes. Our cannabinoid ionization technology can also be used as a rapid onset vape alternative when sold in a breath spray format. We are currently selling hemp-based versions of these products through LifeTonic.com, and we are bringing THC versions of these products to market in Nevada and Colorado this fall and winter under the brand name LifeTonic.

All conventional and even nano-emulsified cannabis edibles and beverages take a long time to work. A cannabis chocolate can take 45 minutes to two hours before the effects kick in. Cannabis gummies are faster, but it still takes half an hour to 45 minutes to feel the effects. The very best nano-emulsified cannabis beverages take about a half an hour to work on average, if you are lucky. That long of a time delay effectively eliminates the social aspect of consuming cannabis, so most people instead choose to vaporize or smoke cannabis.

If you look at the largest investments that have been made across cannabis, some of the most prominent have been made by alcohol companies. Constellation Brands invested nearly $4 billion into Canopy Growth, with a mission to find an alternative to alcohol in cannabis. Molson Coors has partnered with Hexo and AB InBev has partnered with Tilray, both with that same mission. Even after all this effort and investment, cannabis beverages represent just a sliver of the market because current cannabis-based beverages take too long to work. The fastest ones on the market, on average, take around a half hour to kick in.

Imagine going to a bar and knowing that every time you got a shot of tequila or a shot of whiskey it’s going to take thirty minutes or more for the effects to even begin to kick in. That would be terrible. That would be the end of social drinking. Unfortunately, that is how a conventional cannabis beverage works.

You can’t really get a social drinking experience with cannabis yet, so most people vape it because it’s fast. But a lot of people don’t want to smoke something; in fact, they don’t want to inhale at all. So, we saw beverages as a huge opportunity. How do we make cannabis beverages work as fast as alcohol? That’s what our ionization technology delivers. From all the people we’ve surveyed – hundreds of people – they say that they reliably feel an onset within about seven to eight minutes with our technology. That is just about as fast as a shot of tequila or whiskey.

“With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming.”What we’ve done is very different from available nanoemulsion technologies. All those technologies try to mix oil and water, and oil and water don’t mix. In a nanoemulsion, you mix cannabis, a carrier oil, an edible detergent and water, and then you run it all through an ultrasonic homogenizer that breaks the cannabinoids and oil into microscopic droplets suspended in water. There are a lot of styles of nanoemulsions, from spray-dried nanoemulsions to liquid liposomal encapsulations, and they all confer certain absorption benefits when compared to straight-up oil absorption. But still, even the microscopic oil droplets suspended in water are quite large compared to what we have done, and still take quite a long time to digest.

We looked at the cannabis molecule and we said, “You know what? If we can put a strong negative charge on it, if we can ionize it, then we can make it behave more like a dissolvable salt instead of an oil.” When we treat it this way, the cannabis molecule dissolves completely in the water without emulsifiers or additives. When something is dissolved, there is no nano-emulsion droplet size. It is single molecules dissolved water. A single ionized cannabinoid molecule is about 1,000 times smaller than an average nano-emulsion droplet – and this greatly enhances absorption. The onset speed of ionized cannabinoids compared to nanoemulsions is measurable as just a few minutes instead of a half hour or more.

We have 56 granted and pending patents on LifeTonic’s ionization technology. We can ionize THC, CBD, CBG and CBD – most cannabinoids are compatible. There are also several herbal products that are compatible with our ionization technology, like the curcuminoids in turmeric, which are normally very hard to get into water. We can also ionize the eugenol that is in cloves. Ionized eugenol is an intoxicant, so we have big plans for alcohol alternatives outside of cannabis.

We’re using this technology to enter the Nevada cannabis market with one of the largest dispensary chains and cannabis product manufacturers in Nevada. With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming. We’ll craft every kind of cocktail you can imagine, only without alcohol. All these beverages will work in a matter of minutes to provide the first true social drinking experience with cannabis. After you enjoy a beverage, you may purchase a package of ionized THC beverage powder sachets in the cannabis cocktail lounge or at any of the dispensaries within our distribution network. You can pour the powder into any beverage, and it becomes a friendly, fast-acting THC beverage that will get you high, but not leave you with a hangover. We will also be selling a breath-spray format that works almost as quickly as vaping.

Green: What kind of validation studies have you done?

Thomas: We have conducted several broad market studies for our ionized products and almost all people report a profound onset within a few minutes. We have not completed a formalized clinical trial, but we are closing a major funding round that will allow us to do so. We plan to begin controlled pre-clinical trials focused mainly on ionized CBD because it’s far easier to get FDA approval for clinical trials on CBD than for THC. Our studies will monitor a couple dozen volunteers with a functional MRI and watch the change in the brain using our oral spray and beverage products compared against a standard CBD tincture control. We know that we’re going to see fast action because everybody who uses it says that a feeling develops in minutes.

Green: What geographies are you active in and exploring?

Thomas: CBD and hemp products from our extraction technology have been sold in every US state and parts of Europe. Additionally, hemp-based CBD and CBG versions of our ionized products and ionized turmeric products have been sold in several states through our LifeTonic.com, our ecommerce site. We have also sold white labeled versions of our ionized products through partner brands. We will be launching THC versions of our ionized products with our partners Nevada this fall. We expect THC versions to also be available in Colorado this winter.

Green: So, you are creating the powders on site?

Thomas: Yes. We manufacture ionized CBD, CBG, eugenol and turmeric beverage powders on site. We also manufacture and fast acting ionized sprays. These products are sold through our own retail site and we white label for other brands. Per our long-term licensing strategy, these sales establish market viability through sales. Selling products and establishing market viability prior to licensing significantly increases the value of our licenses and exits. It’s very important to answer the question: Do people buy it and do people love it? So far, we like the feedback!

On the THC side, we manufacture ionized products through partners in each cannabis state that we enter. We manufacture the ionizing base here in Colorado, then we ship it to other states where our partners add the THC and package it in LifeTonic-branded packaging. The analogy is that we sell a proprietary Coca-Cola formula without the caffeine, then our partners add the caffeine and bottle it in Coca-Cola branded bottles. In this way, we ensure that the hardest part of our process is controlled house to ensure consistency and quality across all states. It also allows us to be a non-plant touching business, since we only sold upstream base products that did not contain THC. We pick the best manufacturing and distribution partner in each cannabis state and grow from there.

Green: What’s the one thing you’re most interested in learning about?

Thomas: Increasing the bioavailability of cannabis. I have been most passionate about making cannabis work as quickly as alcohol and giving people an alternative to inhaling it through smoking or vaping. That’s definitely what we’ve been most excited about as a company.

Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview!

Thomas: Thank you Aaron!

Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 3 – RealSleep

By Aaron Green
No Comments

Sleep health is a large and growing global market. According to Statista, the global market value of the sleep market was $432B in 2019 with an expected CAGR of 6.3% from 2019 to 2024. Supplements are a growing category of popular sleep health products with common ingredients including melatonin, valerian root, and more recently cannabinoids such as CBD and CBN.

RealSleep is a cannabinoid formulation company developing personalized products to improve sleep outcomes. RealSleep’s product strategy has been developed by top scientists and sleep experts, and clinically tested to aid individuals seeking to fall asleep faster, sleep deeper and cut down on sleep disturbances. Their studies have shown that 90% of people taking RealSleep have reported experiencing better sleep immediately

We spoke with Michael Kamins, co-founder and partner of OpenNest Labs and RealSleep, about RealSleep’s innovation in personalized formulations for better sleep. Kamins founded RealSleep as an incubated company under OpenNest Labs, where he is also a founding partner. Michael is the Chief Community Officer of the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, and just led the world’s largest study on CBD and general health with Wholistic and Radicle Science, where he is also an advisor. Prior to RealSleep, Michael worked in tech where he was an early employee at Musical.ly (now TikTok) building brand partnerships.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Michael Kamins, co-founder and partner of OpenNest Labs and RealSleep.

Michael Kamins: I got into the industry professionally about two and a half years ago, but my relationship with the plant goes back to high school. Prior to jumping into this space, I was working primarily in digital media. I was an early employee at Musical.ly, (eventually rebranded as TikTok), leading global music partnerships and growth. I helped grow that business by leveraging the social capital of music artists and celebrities and doing partnerships with record labels. At the end of 2018, I really saw the opportunity in the cannabis space. One of my best friends in Los Angeles, Dr. Jeff Chen, someone I did my MBA with at UCLA, became the founder and executive director of cannabis research at UCLA Medical. Seeing all the clinical research that he was doing and the objective health outcome data coming out of that research was really a huge inspiration to me. I saw a massive whitespace and opportunity to help build that bridge between the medical community and the cannabis marketplace. There’s been almost a century of cannabis prohibition setting back our scientific understanding of the plant. We know more about the rivers and plants in the Amazon than we do about the composition and compounds within the cannabis plant with regards to their wellness benefits.

I met my partners, Tyler Wakstein, Kris Bjornerud and Max Goldstein and we started a cannabis venture studio called OpenNest Labs, which is building out a diversified portfolio of cannabis consumer brands. We are focused on leveraging our collective experience at building ventures and communities and rallying those communities around a brand.

Over the last two and a half years, it’s been super exciting building brands that you see on shelves. We’re still in the early stages right now of building brand loyalty. A lot of cannabis consumers are still going into dispensaries and asking, “what is the cheapest product that I can buy with the highest potency?”

Green: Tell me about RealSleep, how did you come up with the idea and what is the basic concept for the end user?

Kamins: RealSleep comes from the passion that I had developed for medicinal aspects of the cannabis and hemp plant, thinking about not only THC and CBD – which are two major cannabinoids in the plant – but also thinking about the other 120 plus cannabinoids, each with their own unique properties.

It turns out that half the world’s population suffers from one poor night of sleep a week, and sleep issues lead to the highest rate of other comorbidities. We were thinking about the addressable sleep market, with ourselves being a part of that market, and wanting to build products that would help not only ourselves, but the countless other people around the world that suffer from poor sleep too, as it impacts their daily lives.

I’ve had issues with sleep myself. I have a genetic hearing condition called tinnitus. It’s a ringing in your ears that other people can experience environmentally from exposure to loud noises. I’ve had loud ringing in my ears my entire life even in quiet situations, like right before I go to sleep. I’ll often be lying in bed awake for an hour or two unable to sleep with the ringing. Everyone else on the team has had their own sleep issues and realized the profound negative impact of lack of sleep on other areas of health and wellness, whether it be next day energy or immunity.

We felt that by leveraging our access to the medical research community and even running clinical research on our own to validate the efficacy of the product relative to other products on the shelves, we could create a product that was safe and effective. We came across a clinical trial on insomnia and CBD by one of our research partners, the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. What we saw from a lot of that anecdotal data was that CBD, and hemp in general, really helps to provide restful and restorative sleep.

CBD and CBN are two highly effective compounds for sleep and melatonin is by far the most widely researched and used over the counter sleep aid. We are sourcing clinical research on other ingredients such as valerian root, L-Theanine and GABA, and the list of ingredients goes on. We were interested in formulating a product that incorporates these safe and effective ingredients.

We noticed from our research and our access that sleep is as unique to an individual as their fingerprint. Take brainwave patterns when you are sleeping as an example. No one person’s patterns are the same. You could essentially identify an individual based on those patterns. One solution, or one product, is not going to help everyone. So, we worked with UCLA and the head of their laboratory of sleep and circadian medicine, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Chris Colwell, to understand the science of sleep. He is one of the most renowned sleep researchers in the world and is the head of our scientific advisory board for RealSleep. We’ve done clinical studies with over 900 people and 10,200 nights of sleep and used this data to develop a personalization engine in the form of a quiz that takes 90 seconds and allows us to map ingredients to specific answer selections. From these answers we deliver products that are customized to the individual consumer specific to their unique needs

We’re proud of the journey that we’ve gone on to understand the science and research behind sleep and to develop this personalization engine variations of products that work for each individual and their unique needs.

Green: Tell me how the questionnaire and personalization engine works. I understand the ingredient profile will change based on the customer’s responses?

Kamins: Sleep impacts an individual’s general health and wellness. For me, if I don’t sleep well, my next day is filled with anxiety, and that anxiety leads to worse sleep; it’s a vicious cycle. For other people, it could be a metabolic issue that leads to poor sleep or poor sleep that leads to weight issues. The list of other health issues and diseases linked to poor sleep goes on. So, while we’re looking at combating sleep to prevent other health issues down the road, one person who’s looking to get better sleep to improve one aspect of their life could be different from another person and the area of life they are looking to improve upon.

The quiz is essentially a combination of validated, reliable and flexible measures of patient reported outcomes. We use a combination of gold standard patient reported sleep questionnaires, one of which is called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, another being the RAND MOS scale, and others. We also work with our scientific advisory board and machine learning experts to advise us on customizing these questions with logic. We then use the responses to generate the appropriate formulations for our customers.

The questions cover everything from very specific questions on sleep, like sleep latency (the time it takes to get the bed) or sleep fragmentation (the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night) sleep duration, sleep quality, and then other areas of health that you’re looking to improve upon. Examples include metabolism, cardiovascular health, skin health, anxiety and stress. So, all these things factor into the different ingredients that we layer into the formulation.

Let’s say you don’t have a problem getting to sleep, but you wake up a lot of times in the middle of the night. Your formulation might be very different from someone who has trouble getting to sleep, but they don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Overall, one of our big goals with the formulation of all these products is that they increase your next day cognitive alertness by giving you that high sleep quality and restorative sleep. We don’t want to make anyone groggy the next day. Because overall, what you’re trying to achieve with sleep is you want to be ready to go the next day and be able to perform at your peak.

Green: So, you mentioned CBD, CBN and melatonin already as ingredients. Are there any other ingredients?

Kamins: Depending on what your answer selections are for the quiz, we will layer in L-Theanine, valerian root, Ashwagandha and even some of the other novel cannabinoids like CBC (cannabichromene). We have about 24 different ingredients that we can layer in, so it just depends. When you look at all the permutations and combinations of formulations and dosages, it’s in the trillions. From a supply chain standpoint, we’ve simplified it in a way that makes it very easy to funnel people into one of many predefined combinations of ingredients and dosage levels.

Our algorithm is an unstructured machine learning algorithm. The more people that take the quiz and the more people that provide feedback on their sleep score makes our programming and our personalization engine smarter.

Green: How does your manufacturing and packaging work?

Kamins: We have a strong relationship with a pharmaceutical partner that we have been growing even before RealSleep. It is a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility underneath a regional health care provider in the state of California. Everything they do is incredible. It’s a state-of-the-art facility and focused on complete transparency and building the products with the highest efficacy and safety profiles. They’re based in LA, and they’ve been such a pleasure to build our supply chain with.

Green: What kind of trends are you looking at in the formulation space?

Kamins: From a cannabinoid side, there’s been a bit more of a look towards some of the novel cannabinoids that have traditionally catered to a niche consumer base that is educated on cannabis. From being inside the industry, it’s very easy for me to talk about all the different cannabinoids, but a lot of people still don’t even know the difference between THC and CBD.

Our goal overall is to build efficacious products and educate people on all the different formulations and the different ingredients going in. Outside of cannabis, this year we’ve seen a large boom in consumer demand for Ashwagandha. There’s just so much hype around it in terms of how it impacts stress and energy and even libido, which is interesting. It’s probably the hottest non-cannabinoid ingredient that we’ve seen. Specific to sleep, the combination of L-Theanine and GABA and how they potentiate each other is impactful. Then there’s valerian root, which has been a big one over the last few years for sleep.

Green: Last question. What are you most interested in learning about?

Kamins: A personal interest of mine over the last few years is understanding from a scientific perspective, each of the cannabis compounds in greater detail. I think part of it is just really the curiosity to know the unknown. We’re at a point in the industry where there are still so many unknowns on the science-side of cannabinoids.

My passion for science has led me to support medical researchers in the space, so much so that I am an advisor and chief community officer to a nonprofit medical research organization called the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, which to date has funded over six and a half million dollars in human clinical trials with cannabinoid rich therapeutics. One we’re currently conducting at UC San Diego is studying the impact of CBD on autism and other neurological conditions. That’s given me incredible exposure to research in the space. I am also a strategic advisor to a for profit medical research organization called Radicle Science, which is a very swiftly running clinical research for CBD and other cannabis brands in the space.

All in all, I’m driven by the possibilities that come with continuing to unlock the science behind the plant. By doing so, we can innovate products with efficacy and can educate people who are uninformed about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, which will in turn benefit the industry and society. Striving for research breakthroughs and being transparent about our findings is going to help us destigmatize cannabis and legitimize the industry. 

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks, Michael!

Kamins: Thanks, Aaron.

Best Practices for Training New Hires and Documenting Operations

By Dede Perkins
No Comments

Let’s just say it. There is an undeniable chaos in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big or small operator, it’s likely that you don’t have a documented system for creating and managing ever-changing SOPs or for consistently training all employees on the most current versions of those SOPs. This chaos is often the result of rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, and the ever-present turnover in our industry. When department leadership changes, and it often does, established policies and procedures are often left behind. In some cases, this is a positive sign of growth. As a company outgrows SOPs and as it develops more sophisticated ways to cultivate, extract, process, manufacture, package and sell cannabis and cannabis products, inevitably, the old ways of doing business need to be replaced. For those operators who have prioritized operational excellence, whether they want to position their company for new investment, merger or acquisition, or just want to create a consistent and standardized, branded product, it’s critical to get control of SOPs, training and documentation.

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

As with most big goals, to obtain operational excellence, you need to break the goal into manageable steps. Assuming you have accessible quality policies and procedures in place, properly training employees when they first start work and on an ongoing basis as policies and procedures change is the number one key to successful operations. When employees know how to do their job and understand what is expected of them, they are positioned for success. When employees are successful, it follows that the company will also be successful. Documenting operations is a second important step in obtaining operational excellence. While training and documentation appear to be different, in best-practice organizations, they are inextricably linked.

One Set of SOPs

Those of us who have been in the cannabis industry for a while have experienced firsthand or heard stories of facility staff working off of two sets of SOPs. There’s the set of SOPs that are printed or digitally available for the regulators, let’s call them the “ideal” set, and then there are the SOPs that actually get implemented on a day-to-day basis. While this is common, it’s risky and undermines the foundation of operational excellence. Employees often know there are two sets of SOPs. Whether they express it or not, many are uncomfortable with the intentional or unintentional deception. When regulators arrive, will they have to bend the truth or even lie about daily operations? Taking the time to establish and implement one set of approved SOPs that is compliant with both external regulations and internal standards is good for employee morale, productivity and ultimately, profits.

What’s the best way to get control of a facility’s SOPs? Again, break it into manageable steps:

  • First, task someone with reviewing all SOPs that are floating around. Determine if any are non-compliant, which ones need to be tossed and which ones need to be revised so they work for the company as well as outside regulatory authorities.
  • At a minimum, establish a two-person team to draft, review, publish and distribute the final SOPs. Ensure that at least one member of the team has management level authority. Assign that employee the responsibility of reviewing the SOPs before “publication” and distribution.
  • Archive, delete, or actually throw away outdated or non-compliant SOPs
  • Revise or create new best-practice SOPs that are in compliance with external regulations and internal standards
  • Establish a system to update SOPs when external regulations and internal standards change
  • Use a naming convention that distinguishes draft SOPs from final SOPs, for example, “Post-Harvest Procedure, FINAL”
  • Inform employees that they will be retrained on the new SOPs and that approved SOPs will always have the word “Final” in the title
  • Store the final SOPs in an easily accessible location and give employees access, not only during training, but on an ongoing basis

Centralized Repository for Final SOPs

Storing final, approved SOPs in one easily accessible, centralized location and giving employees access sounds simple, but again, this is the cannabis industry, so this often doesn’t happen. Many of us have or are currently working for an organization that stores SOPs in multiple places. Each department may have its own way of updating, disseminating and storing SOPs. Some SOPs are stored in a printed binder stuffed in a drawer or left on a bottom shelf. Others are stored digitally. Some use both systems, which creates confusion. Who knows if the digital versions or the printed versions are the most current? Surely someone knows, but often the front-line staff do not.“Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees.”

Establishing a centralized repository for final, approved SOPs is the foundation of operational excellence. It lets employees know that operations are organized and controlled, and it reassures regulatory authorities and external stakeholders—think insurers, bankers, investors—that the company prioritizes compliance and organization. And external stakeholders who believe that an organization is proactive and well-run tend to be more forgiving when the inevitable missteps occur. Companies that are organized, have effective training systems, regularly conduct internal audits to identify potential issues and take identifiable action steps when necessary to remediate issues, receive fewer deficiency notices, violations and fines than their less organized competitors.

Train Employees

Many states require cannabis operators to provide a specific number of training hours prior to an employee beginning work, and a specific number of continuing and refresher training hours annually. Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees. To do so, set clear expectations and decide who is responsible for what. Is the HR manager responsible for initial onboarding and training? Are department managers responsible for ongoing and annual training? Create a training responsibility chart that works best for your company; write it down and share with all stakeholders.

Documenting all key areas of operation on a recurring basis will help you keep track of a large facility and workforce

The next step is to figure out how to train your employees. Individuals have different learning styles, so ideally, you’ll offer multiple ways for them to master the requirements of their position. Assign written materials and if possible, attach short videos showing the best way to complete a task. Follow up with a quiz to determine comprehension and a conversation with a department lead or manager to answer questions and review the key take-aways. Ideally, the department manager or lead employee will work with the employee until they are competent and comfortable taking on new assigned tasks and responsibilities.

Sum It Up 

Operational excellence begins with:

  • Knowledge of and access to current external rules and regulations and internal standards
  • One set of approved and easily accessible policies and SOPs that comply with both external and internal standards
  • An initial training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • An ongoing training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • Systems to:
    • Test knowledge before employees begin unsupervised work
    • Stay up-to-date with all changes to external rules and regulations and internal standards
    • Control policy and SOP revision process
    • Inform all stakeholders when policies and SOPs change
    • Test that employees understand new standards
    • Document all key areas of operation on a recurring basis
    • Address deficiencies and evaluate whether SOP revisions are warranted
    • Document and implement necessary remediation when necessary

For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking you don’t have time for this, ask yourself, “Can you afford not to?”

For those of you committed to operational excellence and doing what it takes to get there, congratulations on being a visionary leader. Your efforts will pay dividends for your own company and will help the cannabis industry grow into a well-respected, profitable industry that improves lives.

Flower-Side Chats Part 9: A Q&A with Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

By Aaron Green
No Comments

In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.

We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.

Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.

These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.

While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.

Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?

Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.

When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.

Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?

Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.

I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.

There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.

Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?

Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.

Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?

We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.

We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.

At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.

We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.

Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?

Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.

“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.

We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.

It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.

Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?

Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.

So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.

Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.

Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?

Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.

If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.

I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.

If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!

Thut: Thanks Aaron.

Current Trends in Banking for Cannabis-Related Businesses

By Paula Durham, CFE, CCCE
No Comments

Cannabis is still federally illegal and is included on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with such other substances as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines.1 It is a federal crime to grow, possess or sell cannabis.

Despite being federally illegal, 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical and/or adult use purposes,2 and both direct and indirect cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) are growing at a rapid rate. Revenue from medical and adult use cannabis sales in the US in 2019 is estimated to have reached $10.6B-$13B and is on track to reach nearly $37B in 2024.3

Because the sale of cannabis is federally illegal, financial institutions face a dilemma when deciding to provide services to CRBs. Should they take a significant legal risk or stay out of the market and miss out on a significant revenue opportunity? So far, the vast majority of financial institutions have been unwilling to take the risk, resulting in a dearth of options for CRB’s. Until recently, cannabis business operators had few options for financial services, but times are changing.

This piece will discuss current trends in banking for cannabis-related businesses. We will cover differences in legality at state and federal levels, complexities in dealing in cash versus digital currencies, Congressional actions impacting banking and CRBs and how banking is changing. The explosion of state legalization of cannabis over the past several years has had a strong ripple effect across the US economy, touching many industries both directly and indirectly. Understanding the implications of doing business with a CRB is both challenging and necessary.

Feds Versus States

Money laundering is the process used to conceal the existence, illegal source or illegal application of funds.4 In 1986 Congress enacted the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which makes it a federal crime to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of “specified unlawful activity.”5 Therefore, CRB transactions are technically illegal transactions under the MLCA.

Financial institutions therefore face a risk of violating the MLCA if they choose to do business with CRBs, even in states where cannabis operations are permitted. In addition, financial institutions could also face criminal liability under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for failing to identify or report financial transactions that involve the proceeds of cannabis businesses operating legally under state law.6

Federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws

In short, because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, processing funds derived from CRBs could be considered aiding and abetting criminal activity or money laundering. States, however, began legalizing cannabis in 1996, and by 2009, thirteen states had laws allowing cannabis possession and use.7 Despite this legislation, federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws.8 That changed under the Obama administration when, shortly after being elected, President Obama stated that his administration would not target legal CRB’s who were abiding by state laws.[9] In an attempt to provide clarity in this murky environment, beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued three memos designed to guide federal prosecutors in this area. However, none of the DOJ memos issued from 2009 through 2013 addressed potential financial crime related to the legal sale or distribution of cannabis in states allowing the use of medicinal or recreational cannabis.

To assist financial institutions in navigating potential financial crime implications of banking CRBs, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) issued guidance in 2014 that clarified how financial institutions could conduct business with CRBs and maintain compliance with their Bank Secrecy Act requirements (2014 Guidance).9 According to the 2014 Guidance, financial institutions may choose to interact with CRBs based on factors specific to each institution, including the institution’s business objectives, the evaluated risks associated with offering such services, and its ability to manage those risks effectively.

The 2014 Guidance requires those who choose to provide services to CRBs to design and implement a thorough customer due diligence review that includes, in part, analyzing the licensing of the entity, developing an understanding of the business operations of the entity, and ongoing monitoring of the entity.9 In addition, financial institutions are required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) for every transaction they process for a CRB, should they choose to accept the business.

Although the 2014 Guidance does outline a path for financial institutions to engage with CRBs, it does not change federal law and, therefore, does not eliminate the legal risk to financial institutions.10 By its very nature, the 2014 Guidance was a temporary fix, subject to changing views of different administrations, evidenced by the fact that all three of the DOJ guidance documents noted above were rescinded by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4, 2018.12 The DOJ enforcement posture could change once again in a Biden administration. Biden is on record as favoring decriminalization, and Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland has stated that if confirmed he will deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes. Garland also believes using limited government resources to pursue prosecution of cannabis crimes states where cannabis is legal does not make sense.12

Because of the uncertainty and high risk, most banks remain unwilling to serve CRBs. Those that do serve CRBs charge exorbitant fees (fees of $750-$1,000 or more per account per month are not uncommon), pricing many smaller operators out of the financial services market.

Cash is King – Or Is It?

Cannabis operators have discovered the old adage “cash is king” is not necessarily true when it comes to the cannabis space. Bank-less CRBs are forced to utilize cash to pay business expenses, which can be particularly difficult. Utility companies, payroll companies, and taxing authorities are just some of the providers that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay in cash. For example, cannabis operators have been turned away from IRS offices when attempting to pay large federal tax obligations in cash. Likewise, cannabis operators have been unable to utilize payroll processing companies to administer payroll and benefits for their businesses because the processors won’t take cash. CRBs can’t use Amazon or other online retailers because online providers cannot accept cash.

Because dealing in cash is so difficult, CRB operators look for workarounds such as using personal credit/debit cards to purchase business equipment and supplies. This doesn’t eliminate the cash problem, however, because the credit card holder will likely have to accept cash as reimbursement. Such transactions could be considered an attempt to hide the source of the cash, which is, by definition, money laundering.

CRBs often have large sums of money onsite

Some bank-less CRBs try to skirt the system by obtaining bank accounts in the name of management companies or other entities one step removed from the actual business. While operators often choose this route in an effort to streamline business and operate out of the shadows, it again runs afoul of banking laws. Transferring cannabis related financial transactions to another entity is actually the very definition of money laundering – which, as noted above, is defined as the process used to conceal the existence or source of “illegal” funds.

In addition to the difficulties in making payments or purchasing business supplies, operating in a cash-heavy environment poses significant safety risks for cannabis operators. CRBs often have large sums of money onsite and transport large sums of cash when purchasing product or paying bills, making them a target for robbery. In 2017, there was a spate of dispensary robberies across the Phoenix Metro area, including one at Bloom Dispensary that took place during operating hours.13

Managing all that cash increases the cost of doing business as well, in the form of increased labor, insurance, and security costs. Cash must be counted and double counted, which can be time consuming for staff, not to mention the time it takes to deliver physical cash payments to hither and yon. Ironically, lack of banking significantly decreases transparency and clouds the waters of compliance, as operating strictly in cash makes it easier to manipulate reported financial results.

Potential Congressional Solutions

In recent years Congress has undertaken several efforts to pass legislation designed to address the state/federal divide on cannabis, which would likely clear the way for financial institutions to provide services to CRBs, including:

  • R. 1595 – Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Act”);
  • 1028 & H.R. 2093 – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act); and
  • 2227 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act).

The climate in Washington DC, however, did not allow any of these initiatives to pass both houses of congress. Had any been sent to the White House, President Trump was unlikely to sign them into law.

The cannabis industry has new reason to believe reform is on the horizon with shift in political leadership in the White House and Senate. Newly anointed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently committed to making federal cannabis reform a priority, and President Biden appears committed to decriminalization, reviving the hope of passage of one of these pieces of legislation.

The Changing Banking Landscape

Even though there is little in the way of formal protections for financial institutions, and with the timeline for a legislative fix unknown, an increasing number of banks are working with cannabis operators.

According to FinCen statistics, there were approximately 695 financial institutions actively involved with CRBs as of June 30, 2020. It is important to note that these statistics are based on SAR filings, which banks are required to file when an account or transaction is suspected of being affiliated with a cannabis business. However, some of these SARs may have been generated on genuine suspicious activity rather than on a transaction with a known cannabis customer.

Number of Depository Institutions Actively Banking
Cannabis-Related Businesses in the United States
(Reported in SARS)14

There are arguably more banking institutions offering services to CRBs than ever before. The challenges for CRBs are (1) finding an institution that is willing to offer services; (2) building/maintaining a compliance regime that will be acceptable to that institution; and (3) cost, given the high fees associated with these types of accounts. 

How CRBs Get Accepted by Banks

The gap between CRBs’ need for banking and the financial services providers’ sparse and expensive offerings to the sector has created an opportunity for third-party firms to intervene and provide a compliance structure that will satisfy the needs of the financial institutions, making it easier for the CRB to find a bank.

These third-party firms perform extensive BSA-compliant due diligence on applicants to ensure potential customers are following FinCen guidance required to receive banking services. After the completion of due diligence, they connect the CRBs with financial institutions that are willing to do business with CRBs and provide checking/savings accounts, check writing capability, and merchant processor accounts. These firms often provide additional services such as armored car and cash vaulting services. Some of these firms also offer vendor screening, pre-approving vendors before any payments can be made.

One such firm, Safe Harbor Private Banking, started as a project implemented by the CEO of Partners Credit Union in Denver, Colorado, who set out to design a cannabis banking program that would allow Partners to do business with Colorado CRBs.15 The program was successful and has since expanded into other states who have legalized cannabis. Other operators include Dama Financial and NaturePay.

While these services offer hope for many CRBs, the downside is cost. These services perform the operations necessary to find, open, and maintain a compliant bank account; however, the costs of compliance are still high, pricing some small operators out of the market.

Is Digital Currency an Answer?

 Digital currency is also making its way into the cannabis world. Digital currency, or cryptocurrency, is a medium of exchange that utilizes a decentralized ledger to record transactions, otherwise known as a blockchain. One of the largest benefits of blockchain is that it is a secure, incorruptible digital ledger used for, among other things, financial transactions.16 Blockchain technology offers CRBs a transparent and immutable audit trail for business and financial transactions. Several cannabis-specific cryptocurrencies have sprung up in the past several years, including PotCoin, CannabisCoin, and DopeCoin, to name a few.

In July 2019, Arizona approved cryptocurrency startup ALTA to offer services to the state’s medical cannabis operators.17 ALTA describes itself as a “digital payment club where cash-intensive businesses pay each other using digital tokens instead of cash.”18 ALTA members purchase digital tokens that are used to pay other members using a proprietary blockchain based system. The tokens are redeemable for US dollars at a stable rate of 1:1, and CRBs do not need a bank account to participate in the ALTA program.

ALTA proposes to pick up members’ cash and exchanges it for tokens, which are then used to pay other members for goods and services. Tokens may be redeemed for cash at any time.18 The company has been approved by the Arizona State Attorney General, and one of the first members they hope to enlist is the Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR). Enlisting ADOR into the program would allow dispensary members to pay state taxes digitally rather than hauling large amounts of cash to ADOR offices.

Similarly, Nevada recently contracted with Multichain Ventures to supply a digital currency solution to the Nevada cannabis industry. Nevada Assembly Bill 466 requires the state create a pilot program to design a “closed loop” system like Venmo in an effort to reduce cash transactions in the cannabis sector. Like ALTA, Nevada’s proposed system will convert cash to tokens which can then be transacted between system participants.19

While both proposals are promising for Arizona and Nevada CRBs, the timeline as to when, or if, these offerings will come online is unknown. Action on cannabis reform at the federal level may render these options moot.

Looking to the Future

Although states are legalizing cannabis in one form or another in growing numbers, the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal poses a significant barrier to accessing the financial services market for CRBs. While most banks are still reluctant to offer services to this rapidly growing industry, there are more banks than ever before willing to participate in the cannabis industry. Recent changes in leadership in Washington DC offer a positive outlook for cannabis reform at the federal level.

As the “green rush” continues to envelop the country, financial services options available to CRBs are slowly growing. Many new options are now available to help CRBs find a bank, develop compliance programs, and manage the cash related problems encountered by most CRBs. However, these solutions may be out of reach for the budget-conscious small operator. Also, there are a number of cryptocurrency solutions designed specifically for CRBs; however, when, or if, these solutions will gain significant traction is still unknown.


References

  1. Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
  2. “State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
  3. “Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
  4. Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
  5. S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
  6. Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
  7. “History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
  8. Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
  9. FIN-2014-G001, BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses.
  10. Cannabis Banking Coalition Statement.
  11. Sessions, Jefferson B. “Memorandum for All United States Attorneys”. January 4, 2018.
  12. “Attorney General Nominee Garland Signals Friendlier Marijuana Stance”. Marijuana Business Daily, February 22, 2021.
  13. Stern, Ray. “Robbers Hitting Phoenix Medical Marijuana Dispensaries: Is Bank Reform Needed?” The Phoenix New Times, April 11, 2017.
  14. FinCen Marijuana Banking Update, June 30, 2020.
  15. Mandelbaum, Robb. “Where Pot Entrepreneurs Go When the Banks Just Say No.” The New York Times, January 4, 2018.
  16. Rosic, Ameer. “What is Blockchain Technology? A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners.” com, 2016.
  17. Emem, Mark. “Marijuana Stablecoin Asked to Play in Arizona Fintech Sandbox.” CCN.com, October 25, 2019.
  18. http:\\Whatisalta.com\
  19. Wagner, Michael, CFA. “Multichain Ventures Secures Public Sector Contract with Nevada to Supply Tokenized Financial Ecosystem for the Legal Cannabis Industry”, January 26, 2021.

Reducing Cross Contamination in Your Lab

By Nathan Libbey
No Comments

Cross Contamination

Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:

Wash (and dry) your hands properly

Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).

Design Your Lab for Separation

Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:

  • Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
  • Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
  • Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
  • Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.

Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs

Design SOPs that include everything- from hygiene to test procedures and sanitation.

High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Quality requirements
  • Media
  • Cultures
  • Equipment
  • Training
  • Sample handling
  • Lab operations
  • Testing methodology
  • Data handling/reporting/archiving
  • Investigations

Establish Controls and Monitor Results

Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr
Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr

It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.

Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.

Continuous Improvement is the Key

Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.


References

Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.

Mariam Webster (2021. Cross contamination. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cross%20contamination

Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/

Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342

Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.

World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf

Craft Beer & Cannabis: Oskar Blues Founder Joins Veritas Fine Cannabis

In 2002, Dale Katechis revolutionized craft beer. A seemingly simple packaging decision, putting craft beer in a can, sparked an international movement and put craft beer on the map.

Before the craft beer market really gained steam, consumers associated good beer with glass bottles and larger brands selling cheap beer with cans. Through education, creative marketing and a mission to put people over profits, Dale helped the craft beer market expand massively while sticking to his roots. He also managed to convince people to drink good beer from a can.

When Dale founded Oskar Blues about twenty years ago, he didn’t just succeed in selling beer. Through collaboration and information sharing, Dale propelled craft beer as a whole and lifted all boats with a rising tide. He’s hoping to achieve similar results with his new role in the cannabis space.

Dale Katechis, Founder of Oskar Blues & recent addition to the Veritas Fine Cannabis team

Veritas Fine Cannabis, the first craft cannabis cultivator in Colorado, announced that Dale joined the company’s leadership team. Jonathan Spadafora, partner and head of marketing and sales at Veritas, told us that he’s excited about working with Dale. He says Dale is already helping them open a whole world of branding and marketing opportunities. “This is our Shark Tank moment – we’ve got someone who’s been through the fire before and will help us keep differentiating, finding new avenues and new ways to solve problems,” says Spadafora.

His colleague, Mike Leibowitz, CEO of Veritas, shares the same sentiment. “Dale maintained company culture and quality as he grew Oskar Blues into a household name,” says Leibowitz. “Maintaining our unique company culture is paramount as we work to build Veritas Fine Cannabis into the same.”

Dale’s role in the leadership team at Veritas is about sticking to his roots. Through raising industry standards in the best interest of quality products and consumers, the team at Veritas hopes to expand the brand nationally, just like Oskar Blues did, while instilling a culture of disruption and innovation without compromising quality.

We caught up with Dale to learn more about his story and what he hopes to bring to Veritas, as well as the cannabis industry at large. And yes, I had a couple of Dale’s Pale Ales (his namesake beer) later that evening.

Aaron Biros: Your success with Oskar Blues is inspiring. Taking an amazing beer like Dale’s Pale Ale and putting it in a can sounds simple to the layperson, but you launched a remarkable movement to put craft beer on the map. How do you plan to use your experience to help Veritas grow their business?

Dale Katechis: I am hoping that I can apply some of the lessons that I’ve learned through making mistakes of growing a business from the ground up. There’s obviously a lot of road blocks in cannabis and that is certainly one of the qualities of Veritas – how they’ve grown and how they had to do it in an environment that is much more challenging than the beer space.

My experience in small business development could potentially help them navigate this next renaissance of the space. I’m going to help them compete and bring the industry to a level that helps everybody win. I certainly felt that way in the craft beer movement. It was very important to us to bring the whole industry along because we were educators, we weren’t salesmen. In doing that, lifting everyone to a level where the industry benefits as a whole is a part of small business growth. To me that’s the most fulfilling part. It wasn’t just about the Oskar Blues ego at the time, it was about the craft beer scene. And what’s happening in cannabis now is very similar to what happened in the nineties with the craft beer scene.

Aaron: How did you get interested in joining the cannabis industry? What made you choose Veritas?

Dale: Most of my life, I’ve been an enjoyer of cannabis. Very recently, in the last two years, I’ve been intrigued by getting involved in the space. I’ve been shopping around for opportunities and nothing really excited me until I met Jon Spadafora and Mike Leibowitz.

It was really the two of them, the comradery and how they treat their staff that was so similar to the culture at Oskar Blues. Call it a “passion play” if you will, but this was the best opportunity to get involved with a small company and hopefully be a value add for them being in the room and sharing ideas.

Aaron: As a pioneer and leader in the craft beer space, do you notice any commonalities between the growth of the craft beer market and the legal cannabis market?

Dale: It is kind of crazy how many similarities there are. Not just the industry as a whole, but specifically the commonalities between my business, Oskar Blues, and Veritas. Overall, that’s really what allowed me to want to lean in a bit more. I wasn’t in the place where I wanted to start anything on my own. I didn’t want to be involved in fixing anything. I’ve been involved in those situations before and I’m at a point in my life that I don’t want to fix anything. Thankfully there’s nothing that needed to be fixed at Veritas. That was an exciting piece of the equation for me.

Dale takes in the view, getting up close and personal with the plants at a Veritas cultivation facility

Back to your question, how the consumer looks at cannabis versus how the consumer looks at beer in the craft beer space is very similar. There is a bit of an educational piece that’s happening where it’s almost a requirement in the cannabis industry and Veritas is leading that charge out front.

That’s what’s going to catapult Veritas and other companies if they follow suit. It’s their mentality and their philosophy of bringing the industry along as a whole, and I think it’s going to end up boding well for the consumer. The craft beer space was the same.

We had to educate people on a beer can and why we felt like a can of beer was important and exciting. The industry and the consumer associated cans of beer with large, industrial lagers and the can got a bad rap as a result. Not because it wasn’t a great package, but because they were putting bad beer in a good package. So, we had a long road of educating the consumer on the benefits of the can and I think what Veritas is doing with packaging now, how they use quality as such a fundamental pillar of their business, how they focus on the employee experience and the consumer experience sets them up for success, instead of just looking at the bottom line.

I’ve said it throughout my entire career, and at Oskar Blues, we never focused on the profits. You do the right thing for the biggest group of people moving the ball forward and the bottom line takes care of itself. Jon and Mike understand that so I don’t need to fight that battle. It’s another big similarity to the craft beer space.

Aaron: How can cannabis companies keep their craft? How can we, as an industry and as individual businesses, celebrate craft cannabis and follow in the footsteps of independent craft beer?

Dale: I believe that we’re starting to see some of that consolidation [that has been taking place in the craft beer market]. We’re at a time in the market right now where companies with such a solid foundation like Veritas don’t need to go that route to grow. I think we’ll start to see a lot more consolidation in the cannabis industry soon.

Veritas CEO Mike Leibowitz (right) showing Dale (left) a fresh harvest

Back to the point of bonding together as an industry and as a whole. Championing some of the regulatory hurdles that are coming and sticking together is crucial. One company can’t do it. There’s going to have to be some comradery in the industry among everyone trying to hold the bar up high instead of racing to the bottom. You die by a thousand cuts. I’ve lived that life in craft beer and we saw what happened 6-7 years ago when the industry overexpanded because of exponential growth. A lot of egos got in the room, and a lot of breweries spent a lot of money building out capacity and then that same year the market popped out. Everyone who didn’t have a solid foundation, got washed out of the industry.

That’s why I appreciate what Jon and Mike are doing and how they built Veritas. It’s very similar to how we built Oskar Blues. We had humble beginnings; we didn’t spend money on things outside of our core competency. We focused on quality, employee experience, morale and holding on to the culture of Oskar Blues. That’s what Jon and Mike are doing with Veritas and I think that’s really important.