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Politically Motivated Investigations of Legitimate Cannabis Businesses: One More Reason for Cannabis Operators to Return to the Black Market?

By Tracy A. Gallegos
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In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”

John W. Elias, DOJ whistleblower and acting Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General

Notwithstanding the career staff’s determination, Attorney General Barr ordered the Antitrust Division to issue “Second Request” subpoenas. According to Elias’s testimony, a “Second Request” subpoena is a full investigation of a proposed merger. Moreover, Elias stated, “Across the entire American economy, the Antitrust Division performs the full Second Request investigation on around 1-2% of the thousands of mergers filed each year – ordinarily, only the most concerning deals.” Based on the foregoing, Elias testified that Attorney General Barr’s decision to pursue the MedMen/PharmaCann combination was based on his dislike for the cannabis industry rather than any legitimate antitrust concerns.

There are some immediate impacts to Attorney General Barr’s decision – not limited to the MedMen/PharmaCann merger but potentially reaching any cannabis companies considering a merger or similar transaction. For example, a politically motivated probe would more than likely result in a drop of stock prices for publicly trade cannabis companies. Moreover, non-bona fide antitrust investigations of cannabis businesses could result in proposed merger transactions eventually not coming to fruition.

However, Attorney General Barr’s decision could arguably have longer term and more widespread effects on the cannabis space, and could affect situations not involving mergers or other proposed business combinations. In particular, the fact that legitimate cannabis businesses that comply with all applicable laws are still subject to unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny conceivably could lead to something that regulators had hoped would be curbed through the legalization of cannabis for adult use: cannabis operators gravitating towards the omnipresent black market. Despite cannabis being legal in 33 jurisdictions for medicinal use and 11 jurisdictions for adult use, the black market continues to thrive for several reasons, one of them being that the cost of regulatory compliance is so significant. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have created another reason for cannabis operators to abandon their plans to continue operating as or become legitimate businesses and instead revert back to operating in the black market.

Indeed, Attorney General Barr’s decision is a concern for cannabis operators because it shows that, notwithstanding that any particular operator may be compliant with state and/or local regulations, it does not mean that such cannabis operator is going to be permitted to conduct “normal” business that a non-cannabis business would be able to conduct, simply because of the underlying nature of the business. Stated differently, following the rules does not mean that a cannabis business will be left alone by people in charge who simply do not like the cannabis space.

Attorney General William Barr

Cannabis operators are very mindful of being targeted because of the nature of their business, and having regulations in place with which they could and would comply provided them with some level of certainty that they would not be targeted, or so they thought. Particularly in states like California where the regulations are complex, current and aspiring cannabis operators tend to be very concerned about being compliant with cannabis regulations from the inception of their business operations, believing that being compliant will assist them in flying under the proverbial radar and not become targeted unnecessarily simply because they are in the cannabis space. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have taken away or, at the very least, significantly decreased, that level of certainty. His decision to investigate a proposed merger of two legitimate cannabis businesses sends the message that it does not matter if a cannabis business is being compliant, and that there are other, completely subjective reasons why its operations could be investigated. This makes it extremely difficult for current and aspiring cannabis operators to determine what actions they can take to avoid unwelcome investigations or other scrutiny. If a cannabis operator is unable to mitigate scrutiny by complying with rules, this raises the concern that cannabis businesses will go back to black market activity, not only because the cost of compliance is high, but because being compliant does not necessarily protect them.

Attorney General Barr’s decision is likely not the only instance of a decision regarding cannabis businesses that was made notwithstanding existing statutes or regulations that do not support such a decision. In fact, since adult use became legal in certain jurisdictions it is not uncommon to see news discussing applicants for cannabis licenses who were denied licenses, notwithstanding that those applicants complied with all applicable laws and regulations. When applicants were denied even after complying with all rules and regulations, and when no other legitimate reason was cited for the denial, there is an indication that the denial was based on political or other personal feelings concerning the cannabis space. This not only potentially calls into question the integrity of the cannabis space, but again could lead cannabis operators back to the black market.

There are many costs of regulatory compliance for a cannabis operator, including, without limitation, high application and license fees, development and mitigation fees and exorbitant taxes. Other than the fees and taxes assessed on cannabis businesses, there are other expenses, such as the cost to construct a facility, security costs and the general operational costs that all businesses must pay, such as rent or payroll. What incentive does a cannabis operator have to expend significant resources – time, money and otherwise – to become a legitimate, licensed cannabis business if doing so does not provide any type of protection against investigations that are politically motivated or otherwise based on negative personal feelings toward the cannabis space? It may be that Attorney General Barr’s decision has given cannabis operators one more reason to reconsider going back to black market activity.

3 Ways IP Security Cameras Can Help Cannabusinesses Comply with COVID-19 Health Requirements

By Jeremy White
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The cannabis industry, like many others, felt the effects of the stay-at-home orders issued in March in response to the COVID-19 healthcare crisis. While medical cannabis companies were considered “essential” in most states, many recreational dispensaries had to close their doors, or pivot to a curbside pickup operations model. According to the State of the Cannabis Industry 2020 report, following a two-week spike in mid-March, as consumers stockpiled product ahead of stay-at-home mandates, sales took a temporary downturn.

The industry rebounded in a big way, however. The report notes that, since April 20, cannabis sales have steadily increased, and are, in fact, up approximately 40% from 2019. But while medical and recreational dispensaries are now open to the public and thriving, it’s far from business as usual.

Like any other retail store, cannabusinesses must follow local- and state-issued health and safety mandates designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Complying with these new requirements can be difficult for business owners and management teams on a normal business day – never mind in today’s climate, where demand for cannabis products continues to soar.

Turning to Technology

With more health regulations to follow than ever before and stores experiencing a consistent increase in daily foot traffic, it’s no longer realistic to expect managers to manually monitor every employee and customer to make sure guidelines are met. For example, it’s difficult to manage social distancing within the store – but there are commonly lines outside of cannabusinesses, where social distancing and mask-wearing precautions also need to be followed. Wouldn’t you rather have managers spend their time on customer service and initiatives that will deliver business value, rather than spending time making sure people are following safety protocols?

Technology can help mitigate these new health compliance challenges – and you may even already have the solution deployed: Internet Protocol (IP) security cameras. Often implemented by businesses as a security tool, IP cameras are now also an effective way to ensure employees and customers are following health and safety protocols.

Most IP cameras are equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) that can analyze information in real-time and make split-second response decisions. In the context of health compliance, they can be trained over time to recognize when requirements are not being followed and immediately alert the appropriate managers. This means managers only need to address violations, rather than observing everyone all the time, and they can resolve compliance gaps as they’re happening. In other words, AI takes on the compliance burden for you. And, as an added bonus, many AI-enabled surveillance systems give managers the ability to pull up live video feeds from their smartphone, so they can conduct compliance checks remotely, at any time. This is especially helpful to managers covering multiple stores (suddenly, they can be in more than one place at a time!).

Here are three specific ways IP security cameras can help dispensaries and other cannabusinesses ensure compliance with COVID-19-prompted health guidelines:

  1. Social distance monitoring

Six-feet social distancing rules are now the norm across the U.S., and IP security cameras are able to measure the space around employees and customers to detect when the six-foot rule is violated. For example, some systems place a ring around each person, and the ring’s color changes when people come within six feet of each other. This capability can be helpful when trying to do things such as supervise the line to get into your store, manage your checkout queue, or monitor the distance between customers browsing in store aisles.You can use IP security cameras to create a healthier and safer work environment

  1. Occupancy management

In many states, organizations must follow orders that restrict occupancy to 50% capacity. Rather than having an employee at your front door tallying the number of people going into and out of your store, IP security cameras can do the counting for you. With this capability, you can control foot traffic and keep the number of shoppers within defined occupancy requirements – without having to allocate personnel to do the task manually.

  1. Face mask detection

AI-enabled IP security cameras can also help businesses comply with mandatory face mask orders. The technology can be trained to detect employees and customers who aren’t wearing face masks or other required personal protective equipment, and then alert appropriate management personnel.

A Dual Purpose – Security and Compliance

IP security cameras now have a dual purpose. Beyond simply helping organizations protect their premises from crime, they now also empower them to ensure compliance with health and safety requirements. You can leverage the technology to remediate compliance issues in real-time and demonstrate to public officials that your business remains in compliance with all health mandates. Most importantly, you can use IP security cameras to create a healthier and safer work environment – and, in these uncertain times, this is a certainty you can count on.

german flag

A Snapshot of The German Cannabis Market: Year 3

By Marguerite Arnold
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german flag

Despite the limitations and privations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s market is “up” in terms of sales and overall insurance approvals. For all the victories however, there are still many kinks along the way. That is of course, not just on the medical front (where flower is yet again in short supply this summer), but also in the CBD space.

There is also clearly a drumbeat for more reform afoot in a country which has bested the COVID-19 pandemic like few others in the world. And like France as well as other countries in Europe, the conversation across the region has turned to including cannabis in recovery efforts, and in multiple ways. That includes not only relying on a new crop and industry for economic revitalization, but also of course, on the topic of further reform.

A Brief Overview Of The “Modern” German Cannabis Market
Germany kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in a big way in Europe in the first quarter of 2017. The government got sued by patients and changed the law mandating that public insurers had to reimburse the drug. They also kicked off a cultivation tender bid which promptly became mired in several rounds of lawsuits and squabbles. The first German grown cannabis will hit pharmacies this fall, but it is not clear when, and the unofficial rumour is that the pandemic will delay distribution. The German distribution tender has been delayed three times so far this year.

In the meantime, the German market has developed into the world’s most lucrative target for global exporters, particularly (but not limited) to GMP and other certifiable high-grade cannabis (and in all its forms).

The German Parliament Building

Other Issues, Problems and Wrinkles

Nothing about cannabis legalization is ever going to be easy, and Germany has been no exception.

The first problem on the ground is that the supply chain here has had several major hits, from the beginning. This is even though the supply has come from ostensibly otherwise reliable sources. Companies in Canada and in Holland have all had different kinds of problems with delivery (for different reasons) throughout this period.

Right now, there is a major reorganization afoot in Holland which may also be affecting the recent decision on the Dutch side to reorganize how the government picks (private) German narcotics distributors. Aurora also had product pulled last fall because of labelling and processing issues. But these, no matter how momentous momentarily, are also just waves in a cannabis ocean that is still choppy. Domestic sales continue to expand and foreign producers can still find a foothold in a still fairly open market.

As a result, even with a new dronabinol competitor, Israel, Australia and South Africa as well as multiple European countries now in advanced export schemes, the supply problem is still a thorny one, but not quite as thorny as it used to be.

However, On The CBD Front…

Things have gotten even more complicated since the repeated decisions on Novel Food at the EU level. Namely, last year’s decision that the only CBD extract that is not “Novel” is extracted from seeds, has thrown the entire industry into a major fluff. Especially when such decisions begin to filter down via a federal and regional approach. This has begun to happen. Indeed, the city of Cologne, in Germany’s most populous state just banned all CBD that is not labelled per an EU (although admittedly) non-binding resolution on the issue.

This in turn is leading to a renewed push for the obvious: recreational cannabis.

Where Is the Recreational Discussion Auf Deutschland?
The recreational movement, generally, has been handed several black eyes for the last three years. Namely, that greater reform was not preserved in the first cannabis legalization that passed, albeit unanimously, in the German Parliament in 2017. However, as many recognized, the first, most important hurdle had just been broached. And indeed, that cautious strategy has created a steadily increasing, high quality (at least for the most part) medical market that is unmatched anywhere in the world except perhaps Israel.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Now, however, there are other issues in the room. The CBD discussion is mired in endless hypocrisy and meddling at both the state country level and the EU. There are many Germans who are keen to try cannabis beyond any idea of cannabis as therapy. Remember that Germany has largely managed to contain the outbreak, despite the emergence of several recent but isolated hotspots of late. In Frankfurt, for example, with the exception of more people on kurzarbeit (which is not visible), most street traffic proceeds apace these days with masks on, but with that exception or two, feels pretty much back to “normal.” And of course, economic development in the form of exports is one of Germany’s favorite pastimes.

Beyond that, the needle has absolutely moved across Europe. Several countries, including Greece and Portugal as well as the UK’s Channel Islands, have already jumped on the cannabis economic development bandwagon, and this is only going to encourage the Germans as well as other similar conversations across the region. It has even showed up in France.

And of course, it is not like the implications of Luxembourg and Switzerland as well as recent efforts in Holland to better regulate the recreational industry there, have not been blatantly obvious to those in Europe’s largest medical market.

Look for new shoots and leaves, in other words of the next stage of cannabis reform to take hold auf Deutschland. And soon. It is inevitable.

Communications in Cannabis: The Playbook for Branding Success

By Trisha Larocchia
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Public relations has a role to play in every industry, providing value for companies looking to promote their services, announce a recent fund raise or want to plant a flag in their domain as a leader or subject matter expert. Some industries, however, are writing a new playbook for the way PR is done. The cannabis space is a prime example of how PR can – and has – evolved in such a short amount of time. This industry has been a part of N6A’s DNA since 2017 when we created a cannabis-specific client service group. Since then we’ve seen the ups and downs, rapid changes and overall growth in an industry that, at the time, very few took seriously. We knew the potential was there, but we couldn’t be prepared for how foreign this would be compared to our other specialties like tech, cybersecurity and professional services.

We had to forget what we knew as media professionals and develop new plays and strategies for an industry in its infancy – all while bearing in mind the plant’s polarizing past and ambiguous future. With so many lessons learned about the way the cannabis and communications industries operate together, here are just a few key takeaways that have shaped our approach and operations in the marketplace.

Build Relationships Across the Board 

It’s often said “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and in cannabis this couldn’t be more true. While the industry is growing rapidly, it’s still considered a tight-knit community where everyone talks to each other, and leaders lean on one another for expertise and guidance. A competitive nature is inherent in any business environment, but what I’ve noticed about those working in cannabis is that everyone is striving for the same goal: to further legitimize an industry plagued with stigma. Whether it’s developing media contacts or a new business prospect, the foundation lies in building relationships with the key players in the space.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

From a PR perspective, this includes working closely with the reporters dedicated to the cannabis beat, whether they write for a trade or mainstream publication. Journalists are shifting between jobs faster than ever before, and this beat favors industry veterans. One day your “friendly” at an obscure cannabis outlet will suddenly be spearheading coverage at The New York Times, Rolling Stone or other iconic publications. For the sake of clients and their desired business outcomes, communications professionals should foster ongoing conversations with any reporter interested in covering cannabis; you never know where it could lead.

Understand the Limitations 

Both public relations and advertising have proven to be instrumental in normalizing cannabis businesses within the mainstream media. However, communication in the space can be a compliance minefield due to strict state and federal regulations. While the industry’s growth is nothing short of explosive, opportunities for advertising are extremely limited as the largest digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned cannabis ads, forcing companies to look for other options.

Paid media has its time and place in every industry, but with so much red tape in cannabis advertising, it provides an opportunity for earned media to take the stage. Aside from a few key trades we all know well, journalists across business, lifestyle, finance and retail verticals are covering the space. Depending on what a business is looking to gain from PR, these initiatives are a great way to get directly in front of the audiences they want to reach without the risk of violating certain advertising guidelines. Companies that are ancillary, and therefore not selling a particular cannabis product, also have a bit more flexibility when it comes to advertising, especially on social media channels. As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well.

Evolve with the Industry 

The cannabis marketplace as it stands today is vastly different than when we began to service clients years ago. For decades, this industry operated in the shadows and outside of the law, but as legalization spreads across the globe, the way that businesses position and talk about their brand has had to change.

Gone are the days of reefer madness as consumers begin to see cannabis as medicine or a wellness supplement. With this comes a significant reduction in the use of words such as “weed,” “stoner,” and even “marijuana,” while words like “cannabis,” “medicinal” and “patients” step into the forefront. Both communications professionals and businesses must be hyper-aware of the verbiage we use if we want to professionalize the industry and fuel worldwide adoption.

As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well. What was once reserved for a younger, male population has now been growing in popularity amongst women, baby boomers, and the elderly. Cannabis businesses are now forced to diversify their messaging to appeal to the masses which often includes taking a minimalistic approach to branding and packaging.

Consumers are no longer looking for the lowest prices, but a brand that they know and trust. Recognition, whether it be locally or nationally, can be gained through a strong communication plan and will become increasingly imperative for long-term success.

Practical Advice on How to Avoid a TCPA Suit

By Paul Gipson
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Texting consumers is a very effective means to drive engagement and ultimately sales. Text messages have outpaced emails when looking at conversion and click-thru rates. In fact, 95% of texts are read in ninety seconds or less! While text messages can be a great way to engage with prospects and customers, the FCC’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is a regulation you need to be mindful of. In fact, the average cost of a TCPA settlement is over $6m dollars, which doesn’t include legal fees or reputational damage.

Over the past few years, there have been about 4,000 TCPA cases filed annually. Take a look at the growth:

Companies are being targeted for various reasons, but there are a few that I’ll cover below along with some advice on how to avoid TCPA suits.

See if you can spot the trend in these cases:

  • Papa Johns: $16.5m settlement due to texting pizza specials to consumers without their consent.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch: $10m settlement due to texting store promotions to consumers without their consent.
  • Rack Room Shoes: $26m settlement for texting their reward program members with various sales without their consent.

Do any of these campaigns sound like something your company is engaged in?

So, you’ve got someone who has signed up for a rewards program, wants to receive deals, or has provided their number to your company for other purposes, but you are concerned about the TCPA (hopefully). Based on my experience working with hundreds of clients at CompliancePoint, here’s where I think you should start. But first…

Quick assumption: Your company is using an automated system to send both informational and promotional texts. Examples include “blast campaigns” (upcoming sale) or “triggered campaigns” (signed up for rewards).

Quick point: Just because the text message says your store is having a sale but doesn’t ask the consumer to buy anything on the message, you may think it’s not considered “telemarketing”. This is wrong. Any plan to sell now or in the future through direct marketing is telemarketing and subject to the TCPA.

Here are my top 5 things to consider:

  1. Obtain consent. This is not achieved by simply having a number provided by the consumer. Instead, the consumer must affirmatively agree to receive promotional calls/texts by automated means. This is done through a clear disclosure and often accompanied by an unchecked checkbox.
  2. Honor opt-outs. This seems obvious right? Provide instructions on how to opt-out and look for other phrases like “stop/quit/cancel”. Opt-outs should occur immediately with most common texting platforms.
  3. Keep records. If you receive a complaint, you want to be able to respond confidently and records help you do that. The key records to maintain are your texting records (the phone numbers you texted, the date/time of the text, and the content of the text), your consent opt-in forms, and opt-out requests from consumers with dates. Ask yourself: what records do you need to prove you had consent, and what records prove you didn’t text a consumer after they opted out.
  4. Only text consumers between the hours of 8AM and 9PM according to their time zone. I always recommend going off address and not phone number due to cellphone mobility. If you text a California number at 8PM, but the phone owner lives in New York, you might get a few complaints.
  5. Monitor compliance with these items. Another one that seems obvious, yet most companies fail to do so, and you see above what happens. I guarantee you’ll find issues with most audits.

Bonus – here is a more comprehensive checklist on how to achieve a Safe-Harbor defense.

This article is not intended to be a scare tactic. The TCPA legal landscape is rampant and consumers are more aware now than ever of their rights. A quick Google search of “Cannabis TCPA” helps to illustrate the fact that this industry, like most, is not immune. However, with proper compliance parameters in place, your company can enjoy the benefits of texting with consumers with peace of mind.

California Suspends Almost 400 Licenses

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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On November 1st, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) sent notices to 394 businesses in California that their licenses will be suspended until they comply with certain traceability system requirements. This story was first reported by John Schroyer at Marijuana Business Daily.

On Wednesday, November 6th, the number of licenses suspended dropped to a total of 385, including 63 retailers, 61 delivery services, 47 microbusinesses, 185 distributors and 29 transportation licenses. That’s almost 5% of all the cannabis business licenses in California.

According to Alex Traverso, spokesman for the BCC, licensees were given plenty of opportunities to fix their errors. Businesses were given notice that they needed to enroll in Metrc within five days following their provisional licensing. The BCC gave those businesses a reminder roughly three months ago and sent an additional warning in late October regarding the deadline.

It’s a relatively easy fix for those trying to get back in compliance. The rationale behind suspending the licenses is that those businesses need to undergo a mandatory traceability system training so they know how to use Metrc and get credentialed. Enroll in the Metrc system, get credentialed and your license should be restored.

“It’s relatively simple to get your license out of suspension,” Traverso told KPBS News. “These are growing pains. I think we knew it was going to be a process and it was going to take some time, and that it was going to be an adjustment period for a lot of people who have been doing things one way for some time now.”

Traverso added that about 80 businesses enrolled in the Metrc system as soon as they received the notice that their license is suspended. Those licenses should be restored to active shortly, Traverso said.

Aphria, Inc. Implements Quality Management Systems

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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According to a press release published today, Aphria Inc. has implemented Rootstock Software’s cloud Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions and ComplianceQuest’s Enterprise Quality Management System (EQMS). Aphria, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, trades on both the Toronto Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange.

Rootstock’s cloud ERP software includes things like order processing, production management, supply chain management, lot and serial number trackability and traceability, compliance reporting, costing and financial management. ComplianceQuest’s EQMS software provides support for GMP compliance and can help improve efficiencies in operations. The EQMS focuses on quality and risk management across Aphria’s business platforms, from sourcing to manufacturing to supply chain management.

Aphria is using the entire EQMS platform, which includes software to handle documents, training, changes, inspections, nonconformance, corrective actions (CAPA) and customer complaints which integrates to Rootstock’s ERP. According to the press release, the company is currently working to roll-out audit, equipment, incident and supplier management functions and will be fully live with the entire quality system in the next few months.

According to Tim Purdie, chief information officer & chief information security officer of Aphria Inc., both platforms delivered on their implementation. “Grounded in the scalability of the force.com platform, CQ transformed our quality management operating capabilities overnight and we are delighted at the fully integrated partnership result,” says Purdie. “We now have fully digital real-time informatics and ability to implement change in a highly transparent manner to meet the demands of our high growth business.”

Adding that Rootstock ERP will help facilitate their company’s production, inventory and supply chain management, Purdie says both platforms will enable Aphria to be increasingly responsive to market needs. “Aphria is setting the standard as a worldwide leader in the cannabis industry through a diversified approach to innovation, corporate citizenship, strategic partnerships and global expansion,” Purdie says. “With these system implementations, we’re now technologically equipped to take our competitive advantage to new levels of market leadership.”

Integrated Labeling Helps This Ohio Cannabis Company Grow

By Mike Barker
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Since medical cannabis was legalized in Ohio in 2016, companies that cultivate and process medical cannabis, as well as the plants themselves, have been popping up around the state.

Grow Ohio, a dual-licensed Level 1 cultivator and processor, was the first licensed processor in Ohio and the first to successfully bring product to market. From plant material to edibles, tinctures, oils, lotions and capsules, the company seeks to ensure that medical cannabis is cultivated and processed under the same strict standards as any pharmaceutical medication. As first to market, Grow Ohio found themselves navigating a complicated process by themselves.

As their first product was ready to be packaged, Executive Vice President (EVP) Justin Hunt and the team at Grow Ohio were focused on marketing, packaging and distributing their product. With the sheer number of items that required attention, it is easy to see how something like labelling can slip under the radar. With a variety of products and dosages, and the first delivery of the product slated for late April of 2019, Grow Ohio needed a consistent way to ensure their product complied with state law, and also satisfied their own brand standards.

As their April product launch date grew closer, Grow Ohio realized they needed help with executing on Ohio’s labeling requirements for medical cannabis products.

They turned to Adaptive Data Inc., a barcode and labeling systems supplier to provide labels, printers, and software. ADI’s task was to specify the right label materials for their branding and compliance needs and provide software and equipment to print compliance labels on demand. ADI’s proposed solution would slash the waste associated with printing and applying labels and create a lean process.

Compliance

Compliance labels must contain specific information and must be prominently visible and clearly legible. Containers have to be labeled with details including the specific quantity of product, dosage, THC levels, license #, testing lab name and ID #, and other details. Different sizes and shapes are required for the various packaging form factors.

Due to the large amount of content and a relatively small label area, ADI specified 300 dpi printer resolution so that 4 or 5 point fonts would be legible.

Hunt had all the information needed to comply with state regulations, but didn’t have a way to get that information, properly formatted, onto a finished label at the point of packaging. “It’s all about how you get the data from one source to the other in a way that is easily repeatable,” says Hunt. The solution provides the capability to handle all compliance requirements, for all types of product and all sizes/shapes of labels. The system is designed to minimize key entry of data, a typical source of content errors. All of Grow Ohio’s products contain THC and require the red THC compliance logo. Early on this requirement was met using a separate, hand-applied THC logo label, which was very costly. The labels now include the THC logo, all required compliance data, and the capability to include a 2d barcode.

At the time the products are packaged all compliance information is printed on demand with label printers. As retail expansion continues, the barcode on the plant material compliance label can be used with the POS systems of the dispensaries, to keep their systems fast and accurate.

Until the system is ready to receive data automatically from METRC, the State approved inventory system which tracks all medical cannabis plants and products grown or produced in Ohio, they used user interfaces that reduce the amount of data that is key entered to an absolute minimum. Using drop down lists, date pickers and calculated results, means that Grow Ohio only enters data in 5-10 fields, depending on product line. As the system evolves the next step will be to take data for compliance details automatically from METRC.

Branding

As the first to enter the medical marijuana market, Grow Ohio leadership knew that their brand image is as important to their success as the quality of their products. Their logo, color choice, and inclusion of the THC logo had to be consistent in appearance across all products, regardless of production method.  They used full color branded product labels and blank labels that have the Grow Ohio and THC logo pre-printed. (Compliance data is added to the blank labels on demand.)

Label Application – Automatic, Semi-automatic and Manual

Grow Ohio packages in metal cans, glass bottles and in boxes. Each packaging type has specific requirements.

Metal Cans: Grow Ohio uses an automated packaging line for plant material in cans. That line includes two automatic apply-only machines (for brand labels). The compliance label is printed and dispensed and placed on the can as it is boxed.

Bottles: Cylindrical containers can be difficult to label. Grow Ohio originally packaged tinctures and oils in glass bottles which were pre-printed with their logo. The printed logo looked nice, but printing on the glass was expensive. This made placing the compliance label on the bottle more difficult, since the logo could not be covered. Positioning and straightness was critical for readability as well as aesthetics. Manual placement was time consuming (15 – 30 seconds per bottle).

Now, bottles are being processed with the help of a semi-automatic print-apply machine. The print-apply machine can label 18-20 bottles per minute.

By using plain bottles and pre-printing the blue Grow Ohio logo and red THC logo on the label, they were able to streamline the process. The semi-automatic print-apply machine adds the compliance data to the label and applies the label to the bottle.

The result is a lower total cost of the product. Plain bottles cost less without the logo and the labor to manually apply the labels has been greatly reduced. In addition, with the logos on the label instead of the bottle, orientation and spacing are no longer an issue. The label maintains the natural brand feel, which was important to Hunt.

Boxes: Only compliance labels are required for boxes as the branding information is pre-printed on the box. Compliance labels for boxes include a pre-printed, red THC logo. The printer prints the compliance data and presents the label with the liner removed, ready to be manually applied to the box.

Summary

With a broad product line, Grow Ohio’s label requirements are quite diverse. By specifying and sourcing the right hardware, software and label materials,

Adaptative Data provided an efficient, repeatable, cost-effective way to do brand and compliance labeling for Grow Ohio’s diverse product offering.  

Hunt now understands the magnitude of work that goes into coming up with a compliant, cost-friendly compliance labeling approach – an appreciation he did not have at the outset. He is not alone in this regard as many companies come to this understanding late in the start-up process.

Hunt isn’t sure how fast the market will grow, but he is not worried. As the market expands and demand grows, he knows his systems can handle it.

CannTrust Faces Alberta Product Return

By Marguerite Arnold
3 Comments

The negativity keeps on coming for the embattled CannTrust. As of late September, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC) decided to return $1.3 million of the company’s products – or almost all inventory already ordered by the commission.

The AGLC operates independently of Health Canada, and the regulator has not ordered a recall of any of CannTrust’s products even though they suspended the company’s license. However, the AGLC has a contractual relationship with the company, which allows it to return company products on CannTrust’s expense.

The Ontario government has already announced that it would be returning about $2.9 million in products to CannTrust.

In The Regulatory Weed(s)

Why are so many recreational market Canadian authorities doing the same thing that Danish authorities initiated July 9, when the news about CannTrust hit Europe?

Beyond all the illegal growing, there are other problems that have now come to light that essentially invalidate if not put into question the legitimacy of CannTrust’s entire grow operation – and for both the medical and recreational market.

As Bloomberg first reported, CannTrust employees brought black market seeds into their unlicensed growing rooms at the facility in Pelham Ontario and even relabelled them to look like brands they were supposed to be carrying. It is unknown how many of these plants were actually sold, but over 1,000 plants were grown and flowered by CannTrust with murky origins. If that is not enough to make Canadian authorities go nuts, it certainly has stirred waves of anger in Europe where seed control is a huge issue, far beyond the medical market. See Novel Food and the huge angst of the developing CBD market.

It is hard to understand exactly, in retrospect, therefore, what CannTrust executives, or even employees thought they were doing exactly.

One thing, however is for sure. CannTrust is not “just” the meltdown of one company in Canada. The entire industry, globally, is paying attention. Particularly those in parts of the world now looking at the opening map of cannabis ex-im.

A Brave New World On The High Seas

As Peter Homberg, one of the top global legal experts at Denton’s law firm pointed out in September in Berlin during a high-level medical cannabis conference, the world is indeed changing fast on the cannabis ex-im front. Producers from Malta, Greece, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Australia as well as latest market entrant Columbia right now are lining up to import into Germany if not Europe beyond that.

why did this company deliberately go so astray?This is a world governed by several international treaties, national law and regional tolerance.

It is complicated. But in Europe at least, while in the throws of now finding some standard equivalency tests, there is a universal standard – namely good manufacturing practices – to adhere to that is “international” even if just within the EU and for those firms interested in entering the market here.

That is one of the reasons that the Canadian government is in the hot seat to prove to the world that internal regs are up to snuff.

What Impact Will This Have On The U.S?

As CannTrust was not importing across the U.S.-Canadian border, there is no product recall to be had. However, other issues, including investor lawsuits, loom.

On top of this, the regulatory issues faced by the Canadian government in a fully recreational market are, of course, not invisible to those just “south of the border.” Notably, California. Of any state in the union right now, the state is the most advanced on the cannabis regulations front – even if more complicated and nuanced than in any other U.S. state jurisdiction. Of course, they still have generations of unlicensed grower networks to contend with.

None of this was ever going to be easy.

The question in the room, however, post-CannTrust, certainly, is that given the opportunity to go on the straight and narrow, why did this company deliberately go so astray?

Four Payroll Best Practices for Cannabis Companies

By Michelle Lanter Smith
5 Comments

Among the myriad business challenges facing cannabis companies, processing payroll ranks right up there. On top of the industry’s overarching banking and regulatory hurdles—not to mention prohibitive tax liability—its varied, sometimes unconventional pay models can fall outside the scope of traditional payroll processing.

Obviously, despite the many business issues clamoring for attention, the cannabis industry is powered by people—and for a business to succeed, employees must be paid accurately, legally, and on time.

While the industry is still evolving in many respects, there are steps cannabis businesses can take right now to ensure payroll is processed correctly and compliantly—including these four best practices.

1. Implement Foolproof Tracking Processes for Each Pay Model

In addition to salaried and hourly employees—who can be difficult to time-track, depending how they’re distributed—some growers pay bud trimmers by the ounce or pound of trimmed, manicured product. While such productivity-based compensation may make absolute sense for your business, most conventional time and attendance and payroll software isn’t equipped to administer this pay model.

As a result, some companies may resort to manual tracking—but that can create regulatory recordkeeping challenges of their own. The answer: flexible time and attendance software that allows companies to track employees’ time and/or productivity using a variety of data collection methods for different elements of the workforce. It may mean using conventional biometric time clocks at processing facilities and retail dispensaries…mobile time-tracking apps for gardeners and growers in the field…and versatile apps that track employee output by work order or piece rate, however your business chooses to define it.

Furthermore, regardless of how it’s collected, all that data needs to flow seamlessly into your payroll processing system, ensuring pay is calculated correctly for every pay model. The HR payroll software is out there, but you may need to look for it.

2. Verify that Your Payroll Provider Is Cannabis-Friendly

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories of cannabis companies getting abruptly dropped by their software providers with a mere 30-days’ notice. Some leading HR payroll software companies have made seemingly overnight decisions to withdraw from servicing the cannabis industry, leaving employers struggling to pay their people. Who can implement new HR payroll software in 30 days?

Make sure your payroll provider is committed to serving the cannabis industry for the long haul. If the commitment isn’t there, start looking elsewhere. Beyond avoiding potentially damaging business disruptions, partnering with a software provider that actively services the cannabis industry will offer unique capabilities you may not find elsewhere.

3. Become an Expert on IRS Code 280e (COGS)

Thanks to section 280e of Internal Revenue code, state-compliant cannabis business cannot deduct business expenses except for the cost of goods sold (COGS).

The saving grace here for growers and processors: labor costs that are inventorial in nature are considered cost of goods sold. That includes the cleaning, trimming and curing of product, as well as packaging and inventory labor.

Therefore, for tax purposes, it’s critical to assign each employee a specific title and role within your operation. This is particularly important for vertically-integrated companies whose employees wear more than one hat.

Say, an employee works part time in cultivation and part time in your retail dispensary. You need to be able to track their work time and compensation separately—i.e., you need a time and attendance system that can track split shifts—and keep detailed records of what labor costs are and aren’t deductible.

 4. Consider Integrated HR Payroll Software

Because of payroll challenges, many cannabis businesses are still piecing together disparate HR systems, such as applicant tracking, time and attendance, payroll and benefits. But when their integration isn’t flawless it can create the need for duplicate inputting and elaborate manual workarounds.

Furthermore, a patchwork software can stop businesses from accessing reports and analytics that inform decision-making and better position the company for growth—while also ensuring the company is in a position to provide whatever regulatory information may be required.

The answer: choose a payroll provider that offers complete, integrated HR payroll software—one that that can demonstrate its long-term commitment to serving the state-licensed cannabis industry.