Aurum Labs, a cannabis testing laboratory based in Durango, Colorado, announced last week that they have become certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for all of the compliance testing required for hemp products. The press release says they are the first independent lab that is actually based in the state to receive the CDPHE certification for every compliance test.
Last year, Colorado rolled out hemp testing regulations that are some of the most comprehensive in the world. The required pesticide screening includes testing for more than 100 different types of pesticides. The new rules, along with the certification requirement, make it difficult for labs to enter the market, with only eleven total labs certified by the CDPHE for various hemp compliance panels and only five certified for every type of test, according to the department’s website.
Most of the companies on that list certified to conduct hemp compliance testing are familiar labs with large footprints, such as Eurofins, Kaycha Labs, Columbia Labs, SC Labs, InfiniteCAL and ACS Labs. Most of these labs are out of state and by the looks of it, only four independent, Colorado-based labs are certified so far: Aurum Labs, Gobi Analytical, Botanacor Labs and Minova Labs. Gobi and Minova, however, are not yet certified for pesticide testing, while Aurum appears to be certified for all compliance testing. Botanacor Labs, based in Denver, was certified back in June of 2021 to every compliance test except for pesticides.
“It’s difficult to compete with these large, private-equity-funded labs, but Aurum is passionate about serving the evolving hemp industry” Liz Mason, director of operations at Aurum Labs, said in a press release. “We are committed to staying on the scientific forefront to give the most comprehensive services to our clients.”
The supply chain for consumer cannabis products is complex, involving cultivation, extraction, manufacturing and packaging. While global best practices exist for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), the certifications are not tailored to the cannabis industry.
CSQ has developed tailored standards for the cannabis industry to assist cannabis companies in improving their quality. As a division of ASI, a woman-owned business that’s provided safety solutions to the food industry since the 1940s, the CSQ standards were built in 2020 to meet ISO requirements, GFSI requirements and regulatory cannabis requirements from seed-to-sale. CSQ is the first cannabis certification program to meet the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements with plans to be benchmarked in 2022.
We interviewed Tyler Williams, CTO and founder of CSQ. Tyler founded CSQ after working at ASI – a family-owned food safety company in St. Louis.
Aaron Green: Nice to meet you, Tyler. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Tyler Williams: It’s kind of a long story, but it’s a good story. My mom worked for ASI for 15+ years. That company has been around since the 1940s and is one of the oldest food safety companies in the world. The owners were ready to sell about five or six years ago, and my mom ended up using a small business loan to purchase the company. That’s how I got started in a food safety and dietary supplement space.
About three to four years ago, we started getting inquiries from cannabis companies asking about GMP audits and certification and different things. We started doing certifications to our GMP food processing standard or dietary supplements depending on what they wanted but realized that there were a lot of things that weren’t applicable to cannabis companies or there were extra things needed for cannabis companies. That’s how I started working with cannabis companies to start developing the CSQ certification program and it has just kind of grown over the years.
We currently have four standards at the CSQ level. CSQ plans on being benchmarked to GFSI which stands for Global Food Safety Initiative. We plan on going through that process to get the benchmark next year. There are four standards underneath CSQ: one for growing and cultivation; one for extraction; one for food and beverage edibles; and then cannabis dietary supplements. We’re looking to add standards for cosmetics, cannabis contact packaging materials, retail and consumption lounges.
Last year, when we were doing our pilot audits, we realized that the CSQ standard was great for medium to big sizedMSOs because they’re already doing these best practices. It’s easier for them to, you know, implement a few things, and then get certified, whereas for the smaller guys who might be coming from the illicit market, it’s a lot harder – it’s a lot bigger jump from them to go from zero to 100. Last month, we released our unaccredited cGMP, cGMP+, cGAP and cGAP+ standards. The difference between the regular and the plus is that the plus has HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and then it also includes a recall module where the site must do a mock recall while the auditor is on-site.
CSQ doesn’t perform the audits. We license the use of our standard to accredited certification bodies and then they must get accredited to be able to certify companies under the CSQ name.
Green: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of CSQ and the structure of the organization?
Williams: We’re a for-profit company. We thought about going the non-profit route but it’s a lot more intricate and a lot more people involved when you go that route. Our parent company is ASI, and we are under the ASI global standards division which is responsible for developing standards. So, CSQ is one of those standards under that brand and that’s kind of the foundation of it. We have two licensed certification bodies right now. ASI has a certification body, and they are one of our licensed CBs and then WQS, who’s based out of North Carolina and has a big presence in South America which is great because we’re starting to get inquiries from companies in South America as well.
Green: How do you go about building industry awareness and acceptance of the standard?
Williams: Building awareness really started with going out to the medium- to large-sized companies and saying, “Will you open your doors and let us come and basically do all these audits for free at your facility just so we can kind of get a baseline across the industry?” So, that started the conversation with industry. The MSOs in the medium- to large-sized companies, are more ready to go through the certification process because they know that federal legalization is around the corner. They know these things are going to have to be in place already so they’re just doing it as preparation. There isn’t much demand for retailers right now like there is in the food and or dietary supplement space. So that’s where the demand is really coming from – wanting to self-regulate in preparation for federal legalization.
Most of our outreach is education-based. We speak at a lot of conferences. We host a lot of webinars and free events and things like that, just to get the word out about CSQ. A lot of people know what GMPs are, or know that they should be following GMPs, but they don’t necessarily know how to get from point A to point B. Our job is to educate them that it’s not as hard as they think it is and it’s not as expensive as they think it is. The cost of an audit is relatively inexpensive. What I always tell people is the sooner you start preparing, the cheaper the whole process is. What happens a lot of times is a facility will not build out their facility to GMP specifications, and then they want to get GMP certified so they must move the hand washing station from the back of their facility to the front where the employee entrance is or things like that. The sooner these companies start thinking about it, the better and that’s basically what we’re trying to do is just educate the industry about that kind of preparation.
Green: cGMP and cGAP are perhaps more broadly accepted outside of the cannabis industry. Do cGMP and cGAP fall under the CSQ certification?
Williams: There are four ingredients that make up the CSQ standard. There are industry best practices, which are specific to just the cannabis industry. There are good manufacturing practices, or good agricultural practices, that are just accepted globally. Then we look at the Codex Alimentarius, which is the global food code. Every country mustwrite their federal rules on food based off this standard. We use the Codex when we’re talking about edibles and things like that. And then the last aspect of CSQ is the GFSI benchmarking requirements. So that’s kind of the basis of our program, making sure that the auditors have certain amount of audit hours, and we have training and processes in place for that. That’s where the GFSI benchmarks are coming out. So, all those four things kind of really create the CSQ standard.
Green: There are clear internal benefits to a company for holding to a quality standard. What are the downstream benefits to the companies that have CSQ? How do the end-users know about it?
Williams: I come from the food industry and if you go to the grocery store, you just assume that everything’s safe.Consumers don’t even think about the certifications that those companies must get to even be able to sell their product in retail stores. They don’t necessarily put those certifications on the packaging material, because as a consumer “SQF” means nothing to most consumers, right? It would only mean something if you’re in the industry.We’re trying to be different with CSQ and get more consumers aware of it. One of the things that we have is a database of certified facilities. Consumers will be able to say, “Okay, maybe I’m interested in this new brand. Are they certified to this program or not?” and be able to see that. We’re also trying to get companies to put the CSQ logo once they’re certified on their marketing materials.
Now, one thing that we cannot do yet is put the logo on the finished product packaging, because we don’t have a testing addendum, but we’re working on that. There’s not a lot of demand for it right now and it’s more expensive audit costs, where you’re talking about lab tests, and things like that. So, it’s something that we’re working on, but we haven’t fully developed yet.
Green: Next question is around d-8 THC and federal regulations. What’s your position on d-8 and how are you thinking about d-8 trends in the future?
Williams: d-8 THC itself as a product, I think it’s fine. I think if it’s made safely, we know all the components I think it’s fine from that aspect. The problem that we have right now is it’s not regulated. That’s where I think we need to have these states that have legalized THC or hemp to then implement rules and regulations and bring d-8 THC into those rules and regulations. And so maybe then it’s only those licensed facilities that are inspected by the state that are producing those products and not just some guy out of his garage. I think a lot of people right now are just wanting to ban it completely and I don’t think that’s the best approach. There’s nothing wrong with the product itself, it’s just how it’s being produced right now in the gray area where no one’s regulated.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Williams: I love what I do. I’m always looking at and reading regulations and then trying to learn something new. I’ve been going through organic certification training right now. At some point, CSQ will probably go down the route of having some sort of organic certification. So that’s been kind of what I’ve been working on and learning right now. But I’m a sponge and I like to absorb new information about the industry.
Green: Thanks Tyler, that concludes the interview!
What is the role of the Quality Control (QC) Laboratory?
The Quality Control (QC) laboratory serves as one of the most critical functions in consumer product manufacturing. The QC laboratory has the final say on product release based on adherence to established product specifications. Specifications establish a set of criteria to which a product should conform to be considered acceptable for its intended use. Specifications are proposed, justified and approved as part of an overall strategy to ensure the quality, safety, and consistency of consumer products. Subsequently, the quality of consumer products is determined by design, development, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) controls, product and process validations, and the specifications applied throughout product development and manufacturing. These specifications are specifically the validated test methods and procedures and the established acceptance criteria for product release and throughout shelf life/stability studies.
The Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR Part 211, Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals, provides the minimum requirements for the manufacture of safe products that are consumed by humans or animals. More specifically, 21 CFR Part 211: Subpart I-Laboratory Controls, outlines the requirements and expectations for the quality control laboratory and drug product testing. Additionally, 21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls states that appropriate QC operations must be implemented to ensure food products are safe for consumption and food packing materials and components are safe and fit for purpose. Both food and drug products must be tested against established specifications to verify quality and safety, and laboratory operations must have the appropriate processes and procedures to support and defend testing results.
ISO/IEC 17025, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories is used to develop and implement laboratory management systems. Originally known as ISO/IEC Guide 25, first released in 1978, ISO/IEC 17025 was created with the belief that “third party certification systems [for laboratories] should, to the extent possible, be based on internationally agreed standards and procedures”7. National accreditation bodies are responsible for accrediting laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025. Accreditation bodies are responsible for assessing the quality system and technical aspects of a laboratory’s Quality Management System (QMS) to determine compliance to the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025. ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is pursued by many laboratories as a way to set them apart from competitors. In some cannabis markets accreditation to the standard is mandatory.
The approach to ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is typically summarizing the standard requirements through the use of a checklist. Documentation is requested and reviewed to determine if what is provided satisfies the item listed on the checklist, which correlate directly to the requirements of the standard. ISO/IEC 17025 covers the requirements for both testing and calibration laboratories. Due to the wide range of testing laboratories, the standard cannot and should not be overly specific on how a laboratory would meet defined requirements. The objective of any laboratory seeking accreditation is to demonstrate they have an established QMS. Equally as critical, for product testing laboratories in particular, is the objective to establish GxP, “good practices”, to ensure test methods and laboratory operations verify product safety and quality. ISO/IEC 17025 provides the baseline, but compliance to Good Laboratory Practice (GLP), Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and even Good Safety Practices (GSP) are essential for cannabis testing laboratories to be successful and demonstrate testing data is reliable and accurate.
Where ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation falls short
Adherence to ISO/IEC 17025, and subsequently receiving accreditation, is an excellent way to ensure laboratories have put forth the effort to establish a QMS. However, for product testing laboratories specifically there are a number of “gaps” within the standard and the accreditation process. Below are my “Top Five” that I believe have the greatest impact on a cannabis testing laboratory’s ability to maintain compliance and consistency, verify data integrity and robust testing methods, and ensure the safety of laboratory personnel.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
The understanding of what qualifies as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is often misunderstood by cannabis operators. An SOP is a stand-alone set of step-by-step instructions which allow workers to consistently carry out routine operations, and documented training on SOPs confirms an employee’s comprehension of their job tasks. Although not required per the current version of the standard, many laboratories develop a Quality Manual (QM). A QM defines an organization’s Quality Policy, Quality Objectives, QMS, and the procedures which support the QMS. It is not an uncommon practice for cannabis laboratories to use the QM as the repository for their “procedures”. The intent of a QM is to be a high-level operations policy document. The QM is NOT a step-by-step procedure, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Test Method Transfer (TMT)
Some cannabis laboratories develop their own test methods, but a common practice in many cannabis laboratories is to purchase equipment from vendors that provide “validated” test methods. Laboratories purchase equipment, install equipment with pre-loaded methods and jump in to testing products. There is no formal verification (what is known as a Test Method Transfer (TMT)) by the laboratory to demonstrate the method validated by the vendor on the vendor’s equipment, with the vendor’s technicians, using the vendor’s standards and reagents, performs the same and generates “valid” results when the method is run on their own equipment, with their own technician(s), and using their own standards and reagents. When discrepancies or variances in results are identified (most likely the result of an inadequate TMT), changes to test methods may be made with no justification or data to support the change, and the subsequent method becomes the “validated” method used for final release testing. The standard requires the laboratory to utilize “validated” methods. Most laboratories can easily provide documentation to meet that requirement. However, there is no verification that the process of either validating in house methods or transferring methods from a vendor were developed using any standard guidance on test method validation to confirm the methods are accurate, precise, robust and repeatable. Subsequently, there is no requirement to define, document, and justify changes to test methods. These requirements are mentioned in ISO/IEC 17025, Step 7.2.2, Validation of Methods, but they are written as “Notes” and not as actual necessities for accreditation acceptance.
The standard speaks to identifying “changes” in documents and authorizing changes made to software but the standard, and subsequently the accreditation criteria, is loose on the requirement of a Change Control process and procedure as part of the QMS. The laboratory is not offered any clear instruction of how to manage change control, including specific requirements for making changes to procedures and/or test methods, documented justification of those changes, and the identification of individuals authorized to approve those changes.
Out of Specification (OOS) results
The documentation and management of Out of Specification (OOS) testing results is perhaps one of the most critical liabilities witnessed for cannabis testing laboratories. The standard requires a procedure for “Nonconforming Work”. There is no mention of requiring a root cause investigation, no requirement to document actions, and most importantly there is no requirement to document a retesting plan, including justification for retesting. “Testing into compliance”, as this practice is commonly referred to, was ruled unacceptable by the FDA in the highly publicized 1993 court case United States vs. Barr Laboratories.
Safe laboratory practices are not addressed at all in ISO/IEC 17025. A “Culture of Safety” (as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)) is lacking in most cannabis laboratories. Policies and procedures should be established to define required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the safe handling of hazardous materials and spills, and a posted evacuation plan in the event of an emergency. Gas chromatography (GC) is a common test method utilized in an analytical testing laboratory. GC instrumentation requires the use of compressed gas which is commonly supplied in gas cylinders. Proper handling, operation and storage of gas cylinders must be defined. A Preventative Maintenance (PM) schedule should be established for eye wash stations, safety showers and fire extinguishers. Finally, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) should be printed and maintained as reference for laboratory personnel.
ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation provides an added level of trust, respect and confidence in the eyes of regulators and consumers. However, the current process of accreditation misses the mark on the establishment of GxP, “good practices” into laboratory operations. Based on my experience, there has been some leniency given to cannabis testing laboratories seeking accreditation as they are “new” to standards implementation. In my opinion, this is doing cannabis testing laboratories a disservice and setting them up for failure on future accreditations and potential regulatory inspections. It is essential to provide cannabis testing laboratory owners and operators the proper guidance from the beginning and hold them up to the same rigor and scrutiny as other consumer product testing laboratories. Setting the precedence up front drives uniformity, compliance and standardization into an industry that desperately needs it.
21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 211- Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 117;Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls.
ICH Q7 Good Manufacturing Practice Guidance for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients; Laboratory Controls.
World Health Organization (WHO).
International Building Code (IBC).
International Fire Code (IFC).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Laboratories.
ASTM D8244-21; Standard Guide for Analytical Operations Supporting the Cannabis/Hemp Industry.
What started as a supplement to ISO 17025 for cannabis testing labs to demonstrate a dedication to patient safety, has grown into a more comprehensive certification and consulting program that offers training, business services, company certifications. With the ISO 17065 accreditation, ASA can now deliver PFC certifications that confidently identify reliable and high-quality medical cannabis products, business and services.
Jonathan Fuhrman, program manager at A2LA, says this is a big milestone for ASA’s platform. “ISO/IEC 17065 and product certification can play a decisive role in the evolution of cannabis as medicine,” says Fuhrman. “With its high standards for competence and impartiality, adopting ISO/IEC 17065 represents a major win for healthcare providers and patients.”
Heather Despres, the director of ASA’s Patient Focused Certification program, says she is thrilled to be the first cannabis compliance organization to attain the accreditation. “The PFC program was developed by ASA in an effort to continue our commitment to protect patients, many of whom are medically fragile, and consumers who may be seeking medicine outside of conventional medicinal channels,” says Despres. “There is no other process that can demonstrate that continued commitment more than achieving ISO 17065 accreditation.”
At Raw Garden, we have a ‘Farming First’ philosophy because we understand that the process of farming is the process of managing the plant’s life and the management of the land those plants grow on – this is when the plantgets its chance to thrive but requires that it is properly nurtured in order to provide resources such as high-quality terpenes and cannabinoids.
Our cannabis plants are sun-grown in Santa Barbara county soil just like other California crops. From the seed to the shelf, we are vertically integrated and maintain quality control at every step in the process. We grow our own seeds, farm and harvest our own plants, and process our own products while employing sustainable and regenerative farming practices – only organic and natural fertilizers, soil amendments and pest control methods are used on thefarm.
As farmers we have a responsibility to care for the land and the soil to ensure it is fertile and healthy well into the future. We take care of the soil and it takes care of our plants. The result is premium quality products that our customers love and trust. Our success and commitment to quality is proof that the economics of clean, sustainable operations are achievable. We’re farmers and scientists on a mission to make clean, high quality cannabis that is affordable and accessible.
A few of the sustainable agriculture practices we employ at Raw Garden include:
Clean Green Certification – Since our inception, we have been certified and licensed members of Clean Green, the #1 globally-recognized organic and sustainable cannabis certification program. The program was created in 2004 as a way to standardize legal cannabis products and the result was a program to help farms and brands obtain organic-like certification based on the USDA National Organic program. Clean Green-certified growers and processors regularly win awards for their high-quality products, including our award-winning extracts.
Water Conservation – Our farm team waters at the right time of day to reduce evaporative water loss; we also use drip irrigation and mulch to reduce water waste and runoff. Last year, we used about 8,000 gallons of water per acre on average, which is significantly less than standard outdoor grown crops.
Natural Fertilizer and Pest Control – We apply only organic fertilizers and foliar feeds and we spray only organic pathogen-free inoculants to keep our plants healthy and disease-free, which consistently results in high yields. To naturally deter pests, we recruit beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps, in addition to botanical oils and diatomaceous earth.
Precision Agriculture (PA) and Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM) – We utilize technology to manage crops and increase farm efficiency, such as machine learning for fertilizer optimization and digital sensors in the field to monitor crops.
Soil Health and Terroir – Like grapes for wine, cannabis plants grown in the soil have terroir that affects the flower’s qualities, characteristics, terpene profile, aroma and taste, based on temperature, climate, soil composition and topography, as well as other environmental influences. Micro-climates matter – the same strain of cannabis grown along the coast likely has a different taste and potency than one grown inland. We grow in Santa Barbara wine country for the combination of fertile soil, hot sun, and cool nights which yield an incredibly diverse, potent and flavorful crop of cannabis flowers. Between growing seasons, we employ regenerative agriculture by planting cover crops including oat, beans, peas and buckwheat to add nitrogen and organic matter naturally back in the soil. This method of cover crops also helps reduce pests and soil-borne diseases in preparation for the next growing season. We know that an ideal environment in combination with healthy soil and good land management results in healthier, more vigorous plants, which translates to higher-quality products.
As farmers, it is our responsibility to care of the land with good management decisions today so that we grow the best quality products while better preserving the land for the future. It takes careful planning, knowledge of the land, a commitment to sustainable practices and a desire to put farming first.
The task of preserving privacy for any records platform, especially a cannabis registry, cannot simply be relegated to ones and zeros lurking in some forgotten codebase. This past year taught us many lessons, especially related to the trauma unleashed by vulnerabilities in government domains. We learned time and again that a registrant’s privacy must be the first order of business for the architects of registries.
But the first order of business isn’t the last order of business. That intention and effort to secure privacy must then be communicated and reinforced through real-world reality checks.
Lapses in data security and rising distrust for government institutions block the efficacy of well-intentioned and vital registries. Those states launching new registries in 2021 are at a precarious crossroads as public trust erodes.
But many in the government sector are staring at a once-in-a-generation challenge to launch new registries – those related to cannabis – with privacy top-of-mind from the initial Request For Bid.“The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done.”
Table Stakes for New Cannabis Registries
These suggestions are just the beginning, and I see them as the minimum buy-in to begin the architecture of a new cannabis registry. They include:
End-to-end data encryption while in transit and within the system while the data is at rest.
A solution that is a cloud-native web application which is managed as a service for maximum uptime and strong security posture.
Registries should also leverage algorithms and machine learning to ensure accurate data entry by analyzing incorrect or duplicate data before it is saved within the system.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires privacy and security measures to protect Personal Health Information (PHI). Debate exists on whether compliance is a requirement for all entities transacting in the medicinal cannabis space. While some state registries are exempt from HIPAA, others choose to provide HIPAA compliance not just for the optics, but the known benefit to users’ privacy and confidence. New cannabis registries should commit to HIPAA-compliance to set a trusted new privacy standard for medical patient credentials and legal authorization for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
That’s just the start. Registries should also ensure SOC2 Type II certification, which safeguards security, site availability, confidentiality and privacy through independent third-party auditors.
Connect with Confidence
Registries function as a hub of information in an often-confusing cannabis space. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control displays more than 25 links wired into its top navigation bar alone. Each link sends the curious to new resources. Registries must establish themselves as credible resources, especially when directing users to third-party sites.
One example is for cannabis registries to provide secure access to healthcare professionals who are verified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). These healthcare professionals are licensed to distribute controlled substances including cannabis. Each third-party link should offer the same high-level of scrutiny to enshrine confidence and credibility in the registry.
Next-Generation ID Cards
A cannabis registry card should not just be a document, but a toolset that attests to the identity and the authority of the carrier represented. An illicit counterfeiting market seeks to exploit registry card vulnerabilities. Next generation ID cards present the best defense against counterfeiting and illegal use with robust security measures. That starts with assuring that any credential is mobile ID compatible with iOS Wallet and GooglePay for mobile identification.
ID cards should also include:
The automated modification of the document bearer’s photograph to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards. This critical modification makes the photograph easier to use for ID verification; it also facilitates the detection of photograph substitution.
A two-dimensional barcode compiles information contained in a one-dimensional barcode. It also delivers confirmation of other data shown on the card or in the system such as license authorization and limitations. Adding additional material to the physical document such as holograms, UV image, micro-printing or laser perforations offers another level of protection against illicit use or counterfeiting.
While cannabis registries are the beginning, they’re not the end. Driving efficacy for government registries needed for COVID19 track-and-tracing, cannabis plant track-and-tracing and vaccine distribution require the same attention to privacy, security and ultimate useability. A sea change is required – not just for the sake of those who use the registries but also for those who must implement, deploy and maintain those registries. The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done. I believe the government sector leaders exploring new cannabis registries offer the wisdom and foresight to choose the proactive approach.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. 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 navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Maggie’s Farm is an integrated cannabis company based in Southern Colorado. Maggie’s Farm has seven adult-use and medical dispensaries and cultivates the vast majority of their flower on outdoor farms. All Maggie’s Farm products are sun-grown from seed in soil that is 100% custom-mixed onsite as well as spring-watered, slow-cured and hand-trimmed. Maggie’s Farm does not use any synthetic pesticides or growth hormones in its cultivation. In addition, for the past eight years, Maggie’s Farm has recently obtained Clean Green Certified®, a designation certifying organic standards and testing that mirrors the USDA organic certification. Maggie’s Farm was the first cultivator in Colorado to earn the Clean Green certification.
We spoke with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm to learn more about the benefits of outdoor growing, localism and their Clean Green certification. Bill started Maggie’s Farm in 2010 after growing up on cattle ranches and farms in Colorado.
Aaron Green: Bill, thanks for taking the time today. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Bill Conkling: I am a native of southern Colorado. I was a medical caregiver back in the early days of legalization, and I saw an opportunity to vertically align after my first legal crop in 2010. I opened up the store in 2011. I’ve been a lifelong proponent of medical, recreational and adult use of marijuana.
I come from a background of farmers and I had worked on cattle ranches and farms throughout childhood. As soon as I graduated from college, I went back to work on a large cattle ranch in the four corners area [of southern Colorado]. That’s where I started to incorporate my indoor cultivation experience and skills with outdoor.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Bill: I was one of the first medical operators to support legalization, so I have certainly followed legalization trends. I’ve looked at some other states in our region in terms of growth and legalization.
We’re trying to stay a regional supplier and producer so that we are locally grown. We believe the southwest of Colorado is optimal for outdoor cannabis cultivation.
At Maggie’s Farm, we have followed an organic trend from the beginning and I think that’s becoming more of a trend now. We recently received Clean Green certification to that effect. Our goal is to try to provide the healthiest product at a good value to the market.
I believe that all of the products that are made in the cannabis world come from the flower. Downstream products are only as good as their ingredients. It all starts with the flower. So, we focus on producing a clean, top-shelf quality flower that is produced outdoors.
Aaron: How do you define local?
Bill: Local is staying in the climate that is optimal with the least amount of carbon footprint to the earth. That also means trying to operate so that we’re not moving a lot of product across long distances.
We’re trying to set up farms that are in optimal climates. There is a two or three-state region that I believe is the optimal climate for outdoor marijuana cultivation in our country.
Aaron: What states are those specifically?
Bill: I think Colorado and New Mexico, primarily.
Aaron: What geographies is Maggie’s farm currently in?
Bill: We’re in southern Colorado. We don’t go into the plains of Colorado.
Aaron: So Colorado state only right now?
Bill: Yes. The wet mountain range is one of the mountain ranges that we are in. I’ve also cultivated in the La Plata mountain range.
Aaron: What specifically is it about that region that makes it conducive to cannabis growing?
Bill: I think if you get the right elevation and the right microclimates within those elevations, and you have the number of sunny days that Colorado offers in those areas – the intensity of the sunlight, and the cool nights – all those things are factors that coincide in these areas that we like to cultivate in.
Aaron: We’ve been talking about outdoor growth. Does Maggie’s do any indoor?
Bill: No. We’re essentially an outdoor farm. We do a little bit of breeding and we’ve got starter houses, greenhouses and hoop houses for that purpose. We’ve got one greenhouse that we use for some wholesale, but we are primarily outdoors.
Aaron: How do you go about selecting the genetics or evolving the genetics to meet your local environment, given that you’re growing outdoors?
Bill: A lot of it is honestly through testing and experimentation, historically. You just cultivate and harvest and see how the genetics performed, you know? You test, you take test inputs, you take customer reviews, and blind test results from the team and from the customers and you consider all those facts.
Aaron: Do you produce and use your own seeds or are you purchasing those?
Bill: We have done both. I think I’ve probably created somewhere north of 800 different strains at this point. So, we’ve got a huge seed bank. We do also buy from vendors and experiment with some of those genetics as well.
Aaron: Do you market your seeds in Colorado?“I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors.”
Bill: We do not.
Aaron: How did you settle on outdoor-only as the strategy for Maggie’s?
Bill: I believe outdoor is a premium flower. I think it has less impact on the earth. I think that there is a lot less pest mitigation than there is indoors, which makes it a healthier, cleaner product. You don’t have to mitigate the concentration of pests that you get in temperate climates of stagnant corners of greenhouses and buildings that you cultivate indoors. Therefore, you never get into the situations as often or as intensely, where you might have to really work hard at mitigating your pests. You can use the natural predator insects you can introduce and oftentimes they survive and they create their own climates and it’s a more natural, healthier product.
I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors. You just don’t have the value of the sun, which nothing compares to. You can hold up as many high wattage bulbs as you want and you don’t even pale to the sun and the effect that the sun has on the flower.
Aaron: What are some of the challenges of growing outdoors that you see frequently?
Bill: You have to be nimble. You can’t rely completely on a schedule. You’ve got to be able to shift around in your planting days and your harvest dates.
You’ve obviously got to be on your toes all the time for weather changes. Higher humidity years can tend to bring more insects or pests. Some years you’ve got higher winds than other years. This year, we had a snowstorm on September 9, which left nine inches of heavy wet snow on one of our farms. So, you’ve got to be nimble, very proactive and ready for those kinds of weather events that happen in very short notice.
Aaron: We mentioned Clean Green Certified® briefly. Can you explain more about the Clean Green certification and why that’s an important thing for you at Maggie’s?
Bill: The choice to become Clean Green Certified® was really an effort to validate the organic process that we have. We vetted out what we believe was and still is the premier, organic criteria certification endorsement in the market for cannabis. To this day, they really do an ethical, vetting-out process whereby if you fail the parts of any of the soils that are sent to federal-licensed labs, you do not get your endorsement. The owner of Clean Green also had a mother company that was an endorser of other agricultural products such as coffee, wheat and dairy.
Aaron: How would you compare Clean Green Certified® to USDA Organic?
Bill: Identical. When the federal government legalizes, we are poised to automatically convert to a USDA Organic certification and endorsement. The processes the founder and owner of Clean Green uses to test cannabis is the same process used to test other agricultural industries. For plants, he takes random samples of soils throughout a cultivation field and sends them to a federal-licensed lab where they test for impurities.
Aaron: Did you decide to get your Clean Green certification due to pulling from the market, or is this more something you decided to do internally as Maggie’s Farm?
Bill: I decided to do this internally. I wanted to be recognized for all of our organic efforts and I wanted to let people know that we have a safe product that doesn’t have synthetics in it. Even to this day, a lot of people in Colorado unlike the coastal states like maybe California are still pretty unaware of a Clean Green certification or even the fact that there is an organic process for cannabis or marijuana. So, it’s really just to let our customers know that there is value in a safe, healthy choice for them.
Aaron: What kind of products do you create at Maggie’s farm?
Bill: We grow flower. We are also a big producer of a very high-quality pre-roll. We are developing promoted products as well.
Aaron: Do you do fresh frozen?
Bill: We do some, yes.
Aaron: Are you selling direct to the dispensary or to manufacturers?
Bill: We finally had produced some excess. So, we started wholesaling flower this year and lots of high-quality shake for concentrates to concentrate makers. Our customer is typically a little more of a mature customer. I don’t want to say necessarily older, but I think we probably do hit a little bit of a higher, more experienced, health-conscious, connoisseur customer.
Aaron: Can you give me an idea of some of the regulatory challenges in Colorado that you’ve faced in the past or are facing today?
Bill: The perpetual change of regulation has been a challenge. Being a competent operator in cannabis means getting used to the change and having the resources to be nimble with compliance. We haven’t had common problems such as metals, mold or mildew issues. However, we have had some hardware issues, which required us to change cameras along with other technical intricacies.
Aaron: How many acres do you have?
Bill: We have about 30 acres of secured premise cultivation.
Aaron: Is that all managed in-house or sublet?
Bill: It’s all managed and operated exclusively by Maggie’s Farm.
Aaron: What’s next for Maggie’s Farm? What are you excited about?
Bill: We want to continue to put a higher scale of a very healthy, quality, value flower out there and to be able to offer that to more states initially states that are within our region and eventually states across the US. Also, we will continue to do our best to meet the growing demand for healthier choices in general.
Aaron: Lastly, what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Bill: How we can continue to be as earth-conscious as we can be? How we can continue to look for ways to give back to our communities? How we can continue to operate as a view of made in the USA and to try to just support local regional and national products and vendors? Just how to be more aware and always look for opportunities for self-improvement.
Aaron: That concludes the interview, thank you Bill!
In a press release published in December of 2020, CSQ announced they have added a new licensed certification body to the program: QIMA/WQS, which is a provider of independent third-party certification, inspection, and training services for the food industry.
The CSQ program is marketed as the world’s first cannabis certification to meet GFSI criteria, which is expected to get benchmarked in 2022.
The CSQ scheme is built on four standards:
Growing and Cultivation of Cannabis Plants
Manufacturing and Extraction of Cannabis
Manufacturing and Infusion of Cannabis into Food & Beverage Products
Manufacturing of Cannabis Dietary Supplements
The first CSQ certifications are expected to be awarded this month. Being a licensed certification body for the CSQ program means QIMA/WQS will conduct document evaluations as well as on-site inspections to ensure companies are meeting the CSQ standards prior to certification.
“At QIMA WQS, we see an enormous potential to support and provide quality certification to the entire cannabis supply chain. Joining CSQ and its innovative approach is an exciting step into the diversification of our services and growth,” says Mario Berard, CEO of QIMA/WQS.
Private labelling, or white labelling, is a popular option for brands looking to enter the CBD space. This practice is where a product is manufactured by one company but branded, marketed and sold by another.
There are several companies that specialize in manufacturing end-to-end finished CBD products. They commonly provide third-party test results, certificates and data to verify the purity and potency of products created. Technically, all new brands need to do is place their label on the package and start selling! However with any new venture, establishing a successful private label CBD brand will inevitably mean various challenges need to be overcome.
Securing Quality Sources of CBD
Finding the right partners to work with is a must. The best way to source credible and trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers is to look for certifications and audits from third-party agencies. These include the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Safe Quality Food (SQF), the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification program and others.
The USDA organic certification program is a rigorous multi-step audit process to increase supply chain sustainability. Organic certification is a form of elective, self-regulation for manufacturers which consumers have eagerly welcomed into the marketplace. Look for the USDA organic seal to help identify which manufacturers are trustworthy and can produce a range of organic products.
From a consumer perspective, certifying your products as organic is an additional way to provide both supply chain transparency and increase confidence when trying new CBD products. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency they provide with pure and natural ingredients.
Creating a Unique Product
Innovation and creativity will continue to be important differentiators due to the highly competitive nature of the CBD marketplace. New ingredient innovations such as water dispersible materials are big game-changers. From chewing gum to energy drinks, the opportunities for new and unique CBD products under your own private label are limitless.
There are only a handful of CBD brands who are willing, or even able, to be certified organic today. USDA certification is an opportunity for brands looking to adapt to changing consumer preferences, diversify their product offerings and invest in supply chain transparency.
In the past, product differentiators involved third-party lab testing or providing COAs — today that’s just industry standard. The USDA organic seal is becoming one of the hemp industry’s most coveted certifications because it is a product differentiator.
Trustworthiness, transparency and traceability are important factors for consumers to consider when shopping for products. These factors should also be considered when producing products and while vetting vendors, partners, stakeholders and supply chain suppliers.
Credible certifications allow consumers to make informed decisions while feeling confident that they are purchasing products from reputable sources. Research has shown that today’s CBD market lacks credibility while consumers are desperately seeking comfort and are eager to purchase from trustworthy brands.
Last week, Allay Consulting announced a new hire, a previous cannabis regulator for the city of Denver. Kara Lavaux has earned her Certified Professional-Food Safety (CP-FS) certification and supervised the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment’s cannabis program before joining Allay Consulting.
“Demand is increasing for compliance assistance in the industry,” says Kim Stuck, CEO and founder of Allay Consulting. “Kara brings a robust background as a pioneer for cannabis public health regulations. With the hemp market gearing up for federal regulation, this was the ideal time to expand our team.”
“As one of the first Marijuana Specialists in the nation, I wanted to stay in the cannabis industry,” says Lavaux. “Joining the Allay team allows me to utilize my regulatory knowledge to support hemp and cannabis companies and help them thrive.”
Lavaux brings more than 14 years of experiences as a regulator in Colorado, with six years of experience overseeing the cannabis program.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.