The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on the California brand, PlugPlay:
PlugPlay – Executing on Social Media
This company is about three years old and based in Los Angeles. PlugPlay distributes proprietary vaporizers and cartridges to more than 150 dispensaries throughout California.
The company’s brand identity is a bit different from the traditional California cannabis company image. They trade the typical beach, yoga and plant imagery for a more modern, contemporary and sleek theme. Furthermore, the brand ambassadors featured throughout PlugPlay’s social media and communications reflect the diversity of its market.
The demographic they target in social media is increasingly tech-savvy and on the younger side. PlugPlay uses a few very smart tactics to engage with this demographic: They experiment with bold and creative content formats, some being a bit more refined than others. They engage in the comments section with their followers in an unabashed, genuine manner. Lastly, they share information with their followers on current events effectively, whether it be the vaping crisis back in 2019 or the current coronavirus pandemic.
All of these marketing tactics have worked tremendously in their favor. In March, PlugPlay’s social media earned them the #1 spot on the Pioneer Index, up from #10 in February.
As cannabis markets continue to gain traction, inconsistent and largely unpredictable markets have left recreational consumers in an informational fog. Try as the industry may, or may not to inform consumers, the lack of knowledge was evident when an established Colorado hash company opened a second operation in California. Expecting high demand for their solventless concentrates, the demand for their solvent-based counterparts came as a surprise. Initially hoping to eliminate solvent extracts from their product line-up, the company was forced to devote about half their overall production to solvent extracts, until information spreads and attitudes start to change. Over the past year several companies have joined the solventless side of history, but consumer understanding remains largely stagnant. For those immediately overwhelmed by terminology, cannabis extracts, concentrates or hash are all interchangeable terms describing concentrated cannabis. Under these umbrella terms, two distinct categories emerge depending upon whether chemical solvents were or were not used to extract the hash. Hence: solvent or solventless. A brief overview of cannabis concentrates will help consumers to understand the evolution away from solvent extractions and toward a superior solventless future.
Before regulated cannabis markets, cannabis extracts had long been in use. These old-world methods of cannabis extraction use very basic solventless techniques to create more potent, concentrated forms of cannabis. Dry sifting is easily the oldest form of cannabis extraction and a prime example of one solventless technique. Something as simple as shaking dried cannabis over metal screens and collecting the residue underneath creates a solventless product called keif. Dark brown bubble-hash, made popular decades ago, is another ancient technique using only ice and water to perform extractions without chemical solvents. After decades of stagnant and limited old-world methods, changes in legislation allowed cannabis sciences to flourish. These old-world hash methods were quickly forgotten, replaced by the astonishing progress of modern solvent extractions.
The emergence of solvent extracts revolutionized cannabis around 2011, creating new categories of cannabis products that exploded onto the scene. Not only did solvent extracts produce the most potent and cleanest forms of hash ever seen at this point, it also created new possibilities for hash-oil vape cartridges and cannabis extract infused edibles. These solvent extracts use butane, propane, or other hydrocarbon solvents to extract, or “blast” cannabinoids from the plant. By running solvents through cannabis and then purging or removing leftover, residual solvents, a super-potent, premium hash product is achieved. Regulated markets require testing to ensure only a safe level, if any, of the solvent used in the extraction process remains in the final product. This technology ushered in the first wave of concentrates to medical and recreational markets under the descriptive titles of wax, shatter and crumble. While these effective and affordable products can still be found today, far superior products have largely replaced wax and shatter. Distillation techniques can further purify and isolate THC-a, while removing harmful residual solvents. For a time, Solvent-free was used to describe this ultra-purified distillate, but the needless term has fallen out of use. Solvent-free is still a solvent extraction using chemical solvents, don’t be fooled. Distillation and CO2 extractions have fallen into general disfavor as they destroy the flavorful terpenes and valuable cannabinoids, that when present create an “entourage effect.” This “entourage effect” happens when the medicinal and recreational properties are most effective, pronounced, and impactful due to a full range of terpenes and cannabinoids being present in the final product. With companies manually reintroducing terpenes to their final extracts, it’s an attempt to restore what was lost during solvent extraction processes. Many brands claim to use cannabis derived or food-grade terpenes to infuse or reintroduce terpenes into their purified hash oils. While this adds flavor and taste, especially to distillate cartridges, it’s far from an ideal solution. Armed with this new information, the informed consumer looks for a full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids in their hash.
With terpene preservation a new priority, all aspects of hash making were reevaluated. By using fresh-frozen cannabis flower, solvent extractions quickly reached new heights. Using the same techniques as prior solvent extractions, the cannabis plant is frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than trimming and drying the crop as usual. Freezing the plant preserves valuable terpenes helping to create a new category for hydrocarbon extracts under the general label of live resins. This live resin, containing vastly greater profiles of terpenes and cannabinoids than earlier waxes, shatters or crumbles is sold as live-resin sauce, sugar, badder, frosting, diamonds and more. Many versions of live resin re-use previous terms that describe consistencies. These live resin solvent extracts outperform the wax, crumble and shatters of old, and are priced accordingly. Some of the best solvent extracts available today use butane to extract hash oil, which forms THC-a crystals and diamonds seen in live resin sauces. Having learned the value of terpenes and cannabinoids, early efforts to purify THC were clearly misled. The industry defining use of fresh-frozen cannabis flowers greatly improved the quality of all extracts having realized the psychoactive effects are largely dependent on the various profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes. Pure THC-a crystals and isolates are easily achieved with solvent extractions but, produce inferior effects both medicinally and recreationally. Discovering the “entourage effect” as described earlier, these elements of cannabis allowed old-world solventless techniques to be re-inspired and reinvigorated with the benefit of healthy genetics and a hearty understanding of past mistakes.
Having gone full circle, solventless techniques are again at the forefront of the cannabis industry, having attained near perfection for our current understanding of cannabis anatomy.
Using the lessons and tendencies of prior extractions, the solventless method, in all its final forms, begin with the same initial process to make ice-water hash oil. Often referred to as solventless hash oil (SHO), fresh-frozen flowers are submerged in ice and water, soaked and agitated before the water is filtered through mesh screens. As these mesh screens are measured by microns, the increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes that break free from the cannabis plant. The 120- and 90-micron mesh screens usually collect pristine trichome heads. After scraping the remaining material from the screens, its sieved onto trays where the hash can dry using modern techniques of sublimation. The results are beyond phenomenal and are sure to shock even life-long cannabis consumers. This technique isolates only the most potent and psychoactive parts of the plant, to produce white to clear solventless ice water hash. When done with precision 6-star ice water hash is formed. The hash can be sold and consumed as is or undergo additional solventless techniques to produce hash-rosin. Not to be confused with live-resins, rosin uses pressure and slight heat to squeeze ice-water hash, into hash-rosin. Some companies have elected to whip their rosins into a solventless badder or allow their hash rosins to undergo a cold cure process that creates textures and varieties like hash rosin sauce. Regardless of the final solventless product, they all begin as ice water extractions. These simple, natural methods of extraction are quickly being adopted by companies known for live resin. As solventless extracts are safer, cleaner and superior in quality to solvent chemical extractions, the race is on as the industry shifts toward a solventless future.
While I’d be happy to never see another solvent extract again, without the miraculous breakthroughs and advances in all aspects of cannabis manufacturing and production we may have not yet arrived where we are today. When using solvents to extract, the trichomes, which contain the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, are dissolved by the solvent, which is then evaporated off, leaving behind dissolved trichomes. In solventless hash, these trichomes remain whole and are never dissolved or broken down. Instead they are broken free by agitation in ice and water, separating the trichome heads from their less-active stems. These valuable trichomes heads contain everything pertinent and are never destroyed, dissolved or melted like solvent-extractions are forced to do. The benefit of keeping the heads of these trichomes whole results in a far superior product expressing the full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids the way mother nature intended. This natural profile of trichomes lends itself directly to the entourage effect that solvent extracts were found to be missing.
Extraction techniques are not equal and depend upon whether quality or mass production is the aim. Solvent extracts have quickly begun to represent the old-guard of mass-produced cannabis concentrates, with the solventless new-guard focusing on quality, small batch, hash-rosin excellence.
As the legalization of cannabis continues to spread across the U.S., both THC and CBD products are rapidly growing in popularity, and we can expect that popularity to increase in the coming years. The cannabis industry alone is expected to account for nearly $16.9 billion in revenue this year.
Subsequently, there is a rising need among infused product manufacturers for sufficient filling machinery for CBD and THC products. These products, including CBD oil cartridges, require filling equipment that can provide quick turnaround, detailed parts and simple changeover and cleanup, among other factors. Let’s go over the different types of filling machinery used for these products.
Vial Filling Machines
For small vial packages made of glass, metal or plastic, vial filling machines are available. Often used for a variety of pharmaceutical products, they’re now suitable for filling liquid THC and CBD oil. Vial fillers are also often suitable for filling liquid products of varying viscosity levels, with either the installation of peristaltic pumps or volumetric filling stations.
Rotary fillers can also fill containers at high speeds and with quick turnaround, and are ideal for filling various types and sizes of containers made of materials such as plastic, metal or glass. A good rotary filler will be able to meet the demands of high-speed environments consistently and with accuracy.
Fixed or Variable Volume Cartridge Filling ToolsAs the industry develops more demand for high-quality filling and other types of equipment, more machines are likely to be manufactured or configured specifically with these types of products in mind.
Fixed and variable volume cartridge filling tools often feature a single-handed operation and are used to rapidly fill cartridges for THC and CBD oils used for vaping. With fixed volume fillers, you’ll be able to designate a specific and consistent volume, while variable volume models allow for different fill volumes for applications requiring versatility.
Automatic filling machines will be able to fill a large number of products at varying speed settings, without the need for manual operation. These machines can fill many different types of products with consistency that helps maintain optimal productivity. As with other fillers, automatic fillers are often customizable in a wide variety of configurations.
For concentrates, filling syringes are ideal in many cases. Many patients are in need of a specific dosage of oil, and a syringe can allow for accuracy through the inclusion of measurement indicators. Many dispensaries sell syringe units, so this type of packaging method is likely to continue to rise in popularity.
Other Types of Equipment for Liquid Cannabis Packaging
In addition to reliable filling systems, manufacturers should make sure every other aspect of their packaging lines is covered with high-quality equipment. Facilities will require a variety of conveyors to transport products from one end of the line to the other, cleaners to ensure that bottles or other containers are clean prior to filling, and labelers to apply custom labels to packaging, among other machinery.
With one or more of these types of liquid fillers in a facility, companies can maintain accuracy and efficiency throughout their operations when filling CBD or THC products. As the industry develops more demand for high-quality filling and other types of equipment, more machines are likely to be manufactured or configured specifically with these types of products in mind.
RoHS 3 (EU Directive 2015/863) adds a catch-all “Category 11” of regulated products that includes electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), e-cigarettes, cannabis vaporizers and vape pens. This category becomes effective July 22, 2019. The most significant restricted substance applicable to this category is lead, and RoHS requires regulated products to contain less than 1000 parts per million (ppm). This follows on the heels of California’s new 2019 regulations requiring the testing of contents of cannabis vape cartridges using even stricter limits for lead (which makes sense because it applies to the product being consumed, not the separate electronic components). These regulations may seem unrelated, but anecdotally there have been widespread reports of higher than expected lead content in China-sourced electronic components, including both cartridges and related electronics. Whether metal used in e-cigarette type products is the source of any lead in the actual nicotine, cannabis or other concentrated product is an entirely different topic, but new laws, and in particular the new RoHS catch-all category, make 2019 an important year for any company responsible for certifying or testing lead levels in e-cigarette or vape products.
Background on EU RoHS
RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) originated in the EU in 2003 as a restriction on hazardous substances in specified categories of electronics and electronic products. Other countries have passed laws styled after RoHS, but only the EU RoHS is addressed here. Unlike some environmental laws, RoHS is not only focused on the safety of products during their life cycle of consumer use, but is designed to keep restricted substances out of landfills and recycling centers.
The original RoHS restricted the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBB and PBDE. RoHS now restricts the use of a total of ten substances after the EU added four types of phthalates to its restricted substance list. Compliance with RoHS became a requirement for the use of the CE mark in 2011, and replaced a RoHS compliant mark on restricted products.
RoHS specified categories for regulation include large household appliances, small household appliances, computer equipment, lighting, power tools, toys, certain medical devices, control equipment (smoke alarms, thermostats and their industrial equivalents), and ATM machines. Newly added Category 11, the “catch all” category, includes all other electronic and electrical equipment not covered in the previous categories, including electronic nicotine delivery systems, cannabis vaporizers and vape pens.
RoHS Lead Exemptions Complicate Compliance
RoHS provides numerous exceptions to its strict 1000ppm lead standard that are slated to expire in phases from 2021 through 2024. Most Category 11 exceptions will not expire until 2024. For example, RoHS permits different levels of lead for lead in glass and ceramics, lead in high temperature solders, and lead in copper and aluminum alloys. So, an e-cigarette may contain some parts that are held to the highest level of lead restriction, it may but contain isolated components that (at least through 2024) are held to more permissive standards. While this leeway may reduce manufacturing costs for certain components, it creates greater complexity in testing. Anecdotal reports suggest that especially for products that compete heavily on price, sourcing from lesser-known Chinese foundries has resulted in unpredictable lead levels.
Take Away Points
As vape and e-cigarette companies compete with new features and design elements each year, and companies rely on new manufacturers, keeping up with regulations has proven to be difficult for both U.S. and for EU regulated products. For example, a company has to comply with numerous regulations regarding the oil or concentrate that will ultimately be inhaled by a consumer, and with regulations like RoHS that regulate parts a consumer may never touch or see. Each year, some company comes out with a new set of electronic features that may interact with newly formulated oils or concentrates, other companies compete for features or price points, making these products a moving target when it comes to testing.
Adding lead to many metals makes them easier to work with and therefore cheaper. Anecdotal reports suggest that especially for products that compete heavily on price, sourcing from lesser-known Chinese foundries has resulted in unpredictable lead levels. This can be the result of any number of causes: changes in sub-contractors, uses of industrial equipment for other products that permit higher lead content, or simply unscrupulous management that is willing to risk a contract to save money manufacturing a batch of components. There is speculation that some lead may leach into oil or concentrates in e-cigarette and vape products from the contact between the oil or concentrate and internal heating elements in certain type of products. RoHS compliance with regard to lead levels may reduce the chance of inadvertent lead contamination by such means, and compliance may therefore yield benefits on several regulatory fronts.
Compliance with RoHS for each part of an e-cigarette or vape therefore requires knowing your supplier for each component, but given increased regulation of these products (both the hardware and consumable elements) this can only help compliance with regulations in every relevant jurisdiction.
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus Technical Services Analyst, Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, and Charles Deibel, President Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants resulting from human industrial activities such as mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants and farm/house hold water run-off. They affect the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals, pesticides and the sediments used to make fertilizers. They can also be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact. The inputs used by cultivators that can be contaminated with heavy metals include fertilizers, growing media, air, water and even the clone/plant itself.
The four heavy metals tested in the cannabis industry are lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) mandates heavy metals testing for all three categories of cannabis products (inhalable cannabis, inhalable cannabis products and other cannabis and cannabis products) starting December 31, 2018. On an ongoing basis, we recommend cultivators test for the regulated heavy metals in R&D samples any time there are changes in a growing process including changes to growing media, cannabis strains, a water system or source, packaging materials and fertilizers or pesticides. Cultivators should test the soil, nutrient medium, water and any new clones or plants for heavy metals. Pre-qualifying a new packaging material supplier or a water source prior to use is a proactive approach that could bypass issues with finished product.
The best approach to heavy metal detection is the use of an instrument called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). There are many other instruments that can test for heavy metals, but in order to achieve the very low detection limits imposed by most states including California, the detector must be the ICP-MS. Prior to detection using ICP-MS, cannabis and cannabis related products go through a sample preparation stage consisting of some form of digestion to completely break down the complex matrix and extract the heavy metals for analysis. This two-step process is relatively fast and can be done in a single day, however, the instruments used to perform the digestion are usually the limiting step as the digesters run in a batch of 8-16 samples over a 2-hour period.
Only trace amounts of heavy metals are allowed by California’s BCC in cannabis and cannabis products. A highly sensitive detection system finds these trace amounts and also allows troubleshooting when a product is found to be out of specification.
For example, during the course of testing, we have seen lead levels exceed the BCC’s allowable limit of 0.5 ppm in resin from plastic vape cartridges. An investigation determined that the plastic used to make the vape cartridge was the source of the excessive lead levels. Even if a concentrate passes the limits at the time of sampling, the concern is that over time, the lead leached from the plastic into the resin, increasing the concentration of heavy metals to unsafe levels.
Getting a Representative Sample
The ability to detect trace levels of heavy metals is based on the sample size and how well the sample represents the entire batch. The current California recommended amount of sample is 1 gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary but cannot be larger than 50 pounds of flower. There is no upper limit to the batch sizes for other inhalable cannabis products (Category II).
It is entirely likely that two different 1 gram samples of flower can have two different results for heavy metals because of how small a sample is collected compared to an entire batch. In addition, has the entire plant evenly collected and concentrated the heavy metals into every square inch of it’s leaves? No, probably not. In fact, preliminary research in leafy greens shows that heavy metals are not evenly distributed in a plant. Results from soil testing can also be inconsistent due to clumping or granularity. Heavy metals are not equally distributed within a lot of soil and the one small sample that is taken may not represent the entire batch. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample by collecting several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch, combining them, and taking a 1 g sample from this composite for analysis.
Linger, P. J. Mussig, H. Fischer, J. Kobert. 2002. Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: fibre quality and phytoremediation potential. Ind. Crops Prod. 11, 73–84.
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