Automated extraction equipment and technologies are rapidly becoming the standard in the extraction sector of the cannabis industry. Like most evolving industries, manual and operator driven processes are what starts an industry, but with explosive growth, demand for increased safety, efficiency and repeatability grows. Specifically within the cannabis industry, we’re noticing a rising demand for higher quality extracts and a safer, more repeatable environment for cannabinoid extraction. These are all reasons for the industry making a shift towards automated extraction equipment and technologies.
What Automation Looks Like in Cannabis Extraction
Automation in the cannabis industry doesn’t necessarily mean implementing robotics and creating operator-less facilities; It typically refers to automated process control. Traditional, older technologies are manual and operator-driven. This means the equipment operator is in control of all parameters of the process, which leads to inconsistencies throughout the process caused by human error. As the extraction process has many steps: ethanol holding, chilling, extraction agitation, extraction discharge, extraction solvent removal, particle filtration, semi saturated solution storage, and so much more that involves valves, pumps and controls between each piece of the process, it becomes difficult to control such a tedious process manually. When all of these processes are controlled and monitored using proper automation technology, facilities can safely ensure that each batch is run following the same process and parameters accordingly. This is critical for product consistency, a concern for manufacturers and many end-consumers. As the cannabis industry grows, matures and makes its way closer to federal legalization, product safety and consistency become a top-priority for everyone involved.
Greater Quality Control of End-Products
Consistency and repeatability are just as important for cannabis processors as they are for standard food or pharmaceutical processors. Deploying a manual process of equipment operating and monitoring leaves far too much room for human error, and doesn’t provide the level of control needed for the industry as it continues to progress toward stricter product regulations and requirements. On the other hand, an automated extraction process ensures that the same solvent ratios are used batch-to-batch, the same extraction temperatures and recipe parameters are implemented, the same pump and process flow rates are deployed, and all processes are repeatable, predictable and scalable while producing a safe, consistent product.
The benefits of automated extraction are directly tied to establishing greater efficiency in processes. Efficiency can be experienced via less scrap product from unmanaged batches and/or less labor to operate and control the process. Automation means allowing a recipe-driven control system monitor and control the process, eliminating process bottlenecks that have been notorious for destroying productivity in manual extraction operations.
As Cannabis Extraction Processes Become Automated, They Become Safer.
A team is what drives any business forward. The safety of that team needs to be a top priority for any business leader. As cannabis extraction processes become automated, they become safer. With less equipment interaction, the likelihood for human error that could lead to safety hazards significantly decreases. Properly programmed automation can establish advanced system interlocks that check multiple points throughout the process for irregularities, and can halt a machine based on these irregularities it detects. That level of process monitoring and control is only available when automation and PLC logic controls equipment.
Data Collection and Validation
When we tie all the benefits of extraction automation together, it makes for a far more attractive system than traditional,manual processes that we’re used to seeing in the cannabis industry. In addition to the major benefits listed above, automation gives a superior level of data collection for process improvements and process validation which is key in cGMP or EU-GPM facilities. This is the future for every processing facility in the arena of cannabis. As the industry matures, it will continue to become more competitive. Facilities with automation will have the capacity to maximize their process efficiencies, produce a far superior and more consistent end–product and will have a competitive advantage in the extraction sector.
According to a press release published earlier this month, the Bio-Rad iQ-Check Aspergilllus Real-Time PCR Detection Kit has received AOAC International approval. The test covers detection for four different Aspergillus species: A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus.
The detection kit covers those Aspergillus species for testing in cannabis flower and cannabis concentrates, produced with our without solvents. The PCR detection kit was validated through the AOAC Research Institute’s Performance Tested Method Program. They conducted a study that resulted in “no significant difference” between the PCR detection kit and the reference method.
The kit was evaluated on “robustness, product consistency, stability, inclusivity and exclusivity, and matrix studies,” the press release says. Bio-Rad also received approval and validation on the iQ-Check Free DNA Removal Solution, part of the workflow for testing cannabis flower.
The test kit uses gene amplification and real-time PCR detection. Following enrichment and DNA extraction, the test runs their PCR technology, then runs the CFX Manager IDE software to automatically generate and analyze results.
Bio’Rad has also recently received AOAC approval for other microbial testing methods in cannabis, including their iQ-Check Salmonella II, iQ-Check STEC VirX, and iQ-Check STEC SerO II PCR Detection Kits.
Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.
The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.
Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe
The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.
In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.
A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.
Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.
Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.
Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:
Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.
For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.
The culture of the cannabis industry is filled with passion that many envy, and for valid reasons. The roots of the cannabis plant go back thousands of years. As of this writing, there are no documented human deaths that were caused by a phytocannabinoid overdose. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Before breaking ground, fundraising, proper facility design, competitive application and permitting requirements are just the start. Once operating, businesses struggle to stay current with regulations that continue to evolve. Cannabis cultivators struggle to scale while mitigating pest infestations, which is a part of life in the conventional agricultural industry. A lack of consistent products frustrates consumers, while regulators and policy makers continue to struggle on the best way to regulate a commodity that has seemingly endless demand. The reality is dizzying!
However, amidst all of the challenges and opportunities, a continually overlooked tool stands out: a Quality Management System (QMS). Merriam-Webster defines a system as “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole.”
A QMS documents processes, procedures and responsibilities that ultimately direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements as well as continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency. In other words – it steers innovation through the collection of data while ensuring products are safe for the consumer. For further reading, the American Society for Quality (ASQ), now over 70 years old, is an excellent resource and provider of resources and formal training programs that are recognized and revered around the world.
Step 1: Define your stakeholder requirements
This all starts with knowing your stakeholder (e.g., customer, regulatory body) requirements. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with your customer; at a fundamental level, they expect safe, consistent and reliable products that impart a certain experience.
How does that translate into specifications? Let’s look at them one at a time.
What does “safe” mean? For an edible, safe means the product is free of physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Knowing what potential impurities could be in your product requires understanding your raw materials (inputs) and the manufacturing process. To take a deeper dive, some of the aspects of safety and quality, product specifications and testing considerations are discussed in this recent Cannabis Industry Journal article by Dr. Roggen and Mr. Skrinskas here.
What does “consistent” mean? This builds off and complements the safety profile. It could mean a consistent fill level, an acceptable range of cannabinoid concentration, and so on. For example, in the US Pharmacopeia’s peer-reviewed article about quality attributes of cannabis inflorescence (commonly known as flower or bud), they recommend 20% as the acceptable variance in cannabinoid content. For a product labeled as having 25% THC, the product will actually test to between 20% and 30%. This may be surprising, and discomforting for some, but the reality is that products on the market consistently fail to meet label claims.
What does “reliable” mean? That could mean that you always have inventory of certain products on the shelves at your dispensary. Defining “always” as a SMART goal – perhaps it means that you will have your top 3 products in stock at least 90% of the time. Customers need to feel like they can rely on your business to provide them with the products they want. Take the time to capture the data on what your customers want and work to satisfy their needs and you’ll watch your business really accelerate.
Step 2: Build your processes to meet these expectations
This is where your written standard operating procedures (SOPs), forms and records come into play. Your SOPs serve to memorialize your operations for consistency. Most SOPs in the cannabis industry are not written by the actual operators of a process. Rather, they are written by the legal and compliance team without review by the operators to confirm that what they are stating reflects operational reality. The audience needs to be the operators. Without effective SOPs that are utilized by your employees, your business will struggle to meet the established specifications. Cannabis businesses in Colorado, the oldest regulated adult-use cannabis market in the United States, continue to see 1 in 8 of their products fail final product testing! Cannabis businesses that understand their processes, document them in SOPs and have records to prove they follow their SOPs (see Step 3) are able to reduce errors that ultimately lead to costly rework and product failures.
Step 3: Monitor and improve
You have your requirements, you have your process, but how do you know that they are being adhered to? By the time you have results from a third-party lab, it’s too late. Look internally. Records and logs that show preventive maintenance was performed, room and canopy temperature and humidity checks, inventory reports, production records, extraction equipment report and employee training records shouldn’t be filled out only to be filed away. These records are data, which is your most valuable tool. Unfortunately, records are one of the most overlooked assets in today’s cannabis business. A team independent from operations (typically a Quality Unit) should be regularly reviewing these for inconsistencies and trends that can alert you to catastrophic failures before they occur.
Initially, the additional expenditure and learning curve may make this seem like an added burden, but keep in mind that succeeding in today’s cannabis industry requires long-term customer retention. By biting off one piece at a time, you can slowly implement a QMS that will improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and ensure your brand is a staple for years to come. Remember, quality and compliance is a journey, not a “set it and forget it” situation.
The definition of a Quality Management System includes ‘continuous improvement’. Look forward to a future article which will discuss the importance of tools like a CAPA Program – Corrective Action Preventive Action (which all cannabis license holders in Colorado are required to have in place as of January 1, 2021) and how they complete your QMS, keeping you compliant and mitigating your business risks!
People talk a lot about consistency when it comes to branding; after all, it’s a feature of the world’s most lucrative consumer brands (just ask Apple, Nike and Starbucks). As a result, companies will spend buckets of money on ensuring that their look and sensibility are uniform when marketing materials are out in the wild.
This consistency makes it easier for customers to recognize your brand. But the most important effect of consistent branding isn’t just that customers will recognize you– it’s that they’ll trust you.
Trust is the product of familiarity and consistency, and it’s far easier to be consistent across platforms when you have a strong sense of who you are as a brand. Strong branding helps you stick out in a crowd, and repeated viewing reinforces who you are to consumers. By extension, a consumer’s ability to quickly recognize you means that when they see your brand in public, they’re more focused on your message than picking you out of the crowd. And one way for consumers to recognize you is through archetypes.
What a Character!
Archetypes are typical examples of a person or concept that appear across different fields of literature, art and behavior; in other words, archetypes are familiar concepts that appear in storytelling. An outlaw is an example of an archetype. If an outlaw appears in a story, you may find yourself immediately drawing conclusions about that character’s motivations and sensibility and imagining how the outlaw fits into the story.
This demonstrates how archetypes can serve as a kind of shorthand when you’re telling your own brand story. We’ve created 16 archetypes–brand characters, if you will–for the cannabis industry, such as the Activist, the Doctor and the Stoner, among others. These archetypes all have a specific look and tone that you can use in your communications to keep your messaging consistent and effective so that people are focusing on your message rather than sussing out who you are and what you stand for.
For one thing, this makes your marketing efforts easier on you because you’ll be able to tell what makes sense in the context of your archetype. For example, the Doctor Archetype wouldn’t be sharing a 4/20 playlist, and an Activist Archetype wouldn’t be arguing the merits of different CBD bath bombs. You don’t want consumers scratching their heads, and having an archetype helps to determine what kind of behavior is appropriate for your brand.
Moreover, it helps to establish consistent behavior that your consumers see. Consistency helps to build trust because it helps customers build expectations. When you build expectations and you act in a way that immediately feels familiar to them, they’ll feel more comfortable with you. Imagine your closest friends; you have a strong sense of who they are. You know that your friend will refuse to order their own fries and then pick at your own. But there’s some comfort in this because when a person acts exactly as you expect, it makes you feel as though you know them deeply. And when there aren’t any mysteries, you can focus on what lies ahead in your friendship.
Brands operate the same way. When you see an Apple ad, you don’t have to rack your brains for context before you absorb their message. You know that Apple stands for sleek design and innovation, so when you see an Apple ad, Apple doesn’t have to keep reintroducing those values. Instead, you can focus on the new product or idea being featured, knowing that the sleek design and innovation are already baked in– and it’s because Apple has done decades of legwork making sure that that’s the case.
Archetypes make that legwork even more efficient by giving you those values as part of a character. If you think of your brand as a character, it immediately makes your communication more human. For instance, like Apple, the Scientist Archetype also values innovation. But when you write social posts as a Scientist Archetype rather than a brand, it makes it easier to connect with folks because you’re writing from a particular person’s perspective rather than a bulleted list of company values.
It also grants you more structure in your brand strategy because it allows you to envision a whole person. When you’re writing a post, for example, you can ask yourself, “Would the Scientist say this?” You can envision this Archetype’s mannerisms and sensibility, and being able to do that makes it far easier to know what will feel real to consumers– and by extension, trustworthy.
That ability to build trust is what will ultimately decide how successful your brand is in this burgeoning industry. You’ll be facing more competition than ever and you may eventually find yourself facing companies selling near-identical products. The brands that will win out will be the ones that know how to build trust with consumers with a cohesive brand strategy. With the right strategy, that could be you.
The increasing appeal and public acceptance of medical and recreational cannabis has increased the focus on the possible food safety hazards of cannabis-infused products. Foodborne illnesses from edible consumption have become more commonplace, causing auditors to focus on the various stages of the supply chain to ensure that companies are identifying and mitigating risks throughout their operations. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans developed and monitored within a cannabis ERP software solution play an essential role in reducing common hazards in a market currently lacking federal regulation.
What are cannabis-infused products?
Cannabis infusions come in a variety of forms including edibles (food and beverages), tinctures (drops applied in the mouth), sprays (applied under the tongue), powders (dissolved into liquids) and inhalers. Manufacturing of these products resembles farm-to-fork manufacturing processes common in the food and beverage industry, in which best practices for compliance with food safety regulations have been established. Anticipated regulations in the seed-to-sale marketplace and consumer expectations are driving cannabis infused product manufacturers to adopt safety initiatives to address audit concerns.
What are auditors targeting in the cannabis space?
The cannabis auditing landscape encompasses several areas of focus to ensure companies have standard operating procedures (SOP’s) in place. These areas include:
Product development – including risk analysis and release
Accurate labeling – allergen statements and potency
Product sampling – pathogenic indicator and heavy metal testing
Water and air quality – accounting for residual solvents, yeasts and mold
Pest control – pesticides and contamination
In addition, auditors commonly access the reliability of suppliers, quality of ingredients, sanitary handling of materials, cleanliness of facilities, product testing and cross-contamination concerns in the food and beverage industry, making these also important in cannabis manufacturers’ safety plans.
How a HACCP plan can help
Whether you are cultivating, harvesting, extracting or infusing cannabis into edible products, it is important to engage in proactive measures in hazard management, which include a HACCP plan developed by a company’s safety team. A HACCP plan provides effective procedures that protect consumers from hazards inherent in the production and distribution of cannabis-infused products – including biological, chemical and physical dangers. With the lack of federal regulation in the marketplace, it is recommended that companies adopt these best practices to reduce the severity and likelihood of compromised food safety.
Automating processes and documenting critical control points within an ERP solution prevents hazards before food safety is compromised. Parameters determined within the ERP system are utilized for identification of potential hazards before further contamination can occur. Applying best practices historically used by food and beverage manufacturers provides an enhanced level of food safety protocols to ensure quality, consistency and safety of consumables.
Hazards of cannabis products by life-cycle and production stage
Since the identification of hazards is the first step in HACCP plan development, it is important to identify potential issues at each stage. For cannabis-infused products, these include cultivation, harvesting, extraction and edibles production. Auditors expect detailed documentation of HACCP steps taken to mitigate hazards through the entire seed-to-sale process, taking into account transactions of cannabis co-products and finished goods at any stage.
Cultivation– In this stage, pesticides, pest contamination and heavy metals are of concern and should be adequately addressed. Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria can also be introduced during the grow cycle requiring that pathogenic indicator testing be conducted to ensure a bacteria-free environment.
Harvesting– Yeast and mold (aflatoxins) are possible during the drying and curing processes. Due to the fact that a minimal amount of moisture is optimal for prevention, testing for water activity is essential during harvesting.
Extraction – Residual solvents such as butane and ethanol are hazards to be addressed during extraction, as they are byproducts of the process and can be harmful. Each state has different allowable limits and effective testing is a necessity to prevent consumer exposure to dangerous chemical residues.
Edibles– Hazards in cannabis-infused manufacturing are similar to other food and beverage products and should be treated as such. A risk assessment should be completed for every ingredient (i.e. flour, eggs, etc.), with inherent hazards or allergens identified and a plan for addressing approved supplier lists, obtaining quality ingredients, sanitary handling of materials and cross-contamination.
Following and documenting the HACCP plan through all of the stages is essential, including a sampling testing plan that represents the beginning, middle and end of each cannabis infused product. As the last and most important step before products are introduced to the market, finished goods testing is conducted to ensure goods are safe for consumption. All information is recorded efficiently within a streamlined ERP solution that provides real-time data to stakeholders across the organization.
Besides hazards that are specific to each stage in the manufacturing of cannabis-infused products, there are recurring common procedures throughout the seed-to-sale process that can be addressed using current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP’s). cGMPs provide preventative measures for clean work environments, training, establishing SOPs, detecting product deviations and maintaining reliable testing. Ensuring that employees are knowledgeable of potential hazards throughout the stages is essential.Lacking, inadequate or undocumented training in these areas are red flags for auditors who subscribe to the philosophy of “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Training, re-training (if necessary) and documented information contained within cannabis ERP ensures that companies are audit-ready.
The importance of proper labeling in the cannabis space cannot be understated as it is a key issue related to product inconsistency in the marketplace. Similar to the food and beverage industry, accurate package labeling, including ingredient and allergen statements, should reflect the product’s contents. Adequate labeling to identify cannabis products and detailed dosing information is essential as unintentional ingestion is a reportable foodborne illness. Integrating an ERP solution with quality control checks and following best practices ensures product labeling remains compliant and transparent in the marketplace.
Due to the inherent hazards of cannabis-infused products, it’s necessary for savvy cannabis companies to employ the proper tools to keep their products and consumers safe. Utilizing an ERP solution that effectively manages HACCP plans meets auditing requirements and helps to keep cannabis operations one step ahead of the competition.
Unlike the food industry, the cannabis industry is still in its infancy. Which means there is not a push from retailers demanding cannabis farmers, extractors or manufacturers to get third-party audits. In fact, most grow operations supply into their own dispensaries. So why should a cannabis farmer, extractor or manufacturer get a third-party audit? Third-party audits are crucial to maintaining product safety and quality by providing a third set of eyes to verify what is working and what is not. Besides regulatory requirements and customers requiring your facility to get a third-party audit, there are numerous other benefits to receiving an audit. Some of these benefits include:
Improvement to product safety
Improvement to product quality and consistency
Meeting regulatory compliance
Eliminating potential risks and possible recalls
Marketing advantages over competitors who are not audited by a third-party
Improvement to consumer confidence and an increase to brand loyalty
How to Prepare for a Third-Party Audit
Working for a certification body, I am in the unique position to see numerous sites go through the certification process. In this position I have seen both extremes: Sites that spend 6-8 months and a lot of resources preparing for an audit, as well as sites that wait until the day before to even look at the audit standard. Unfortunately, the latter is almost always going to fail the audit. Here are seven steps for preparing for your next third-party audit.“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”– Benjamin Franklin
Start Preparing Early
Think of your third-party audit as a college exam one month away. You could start studying for the exam now and get a real understanding of the material or you could wait until the day before to start your no-sleep, energy drink-fueled, 24-hour cram session. We all know which preparation method will get a better score on the exam. Now let’s apply that same strategy to your third-party audit. Once you have decided what audit is best for your site and have those specific standards in your hand, the clock starts ticking and you should already be preparing for the audit, whether it is one month or six months away.
Get Management Commitment
It is essential to the entire cannabis safety and quality system to have commitment from top down. Without this, the site will not get the resources (people, equipment, money, time, etc.) they need to pass a third-party audit. Management commitment is so important that it is often seen as its own section in most modern audit standards. It is very easy for third-party auditors to identify when there is a lack of management commitment in a site. Therefore, if you don’t get management commitment, then you are already starting off the audit on a bad note.
Create a To-Do-List
Think of the entire audit checklist or standard as your long to-do list. Some things, like attaining a certificate of analysis (COA) from a supplier, may only need to be done annually. While other things, such as ensuring employees are following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), will need to be done continuously throughout day to day operations. Go through the audit checklist and separate what needs to be done annually, semiannually, quarterly, monthly and continuously throughout day to day operations. This will give you a list with all of the frequencies of each different requirement.
Teamwork“Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.” – John C. Maxwell
The preparation of an audit should never rest on the shoulders of one person. Yet this is something I tend to see too often in both food and cannabis facilities alike. Your site should establish a cannabis safety and quality team of multidiscipline personnel that have an impact on product safety and quality. Once the team is established, various tasks from the to-do-list can be disbursed among all the members of the team. Collaboration is key to successfully preparing for a third-party audit, especially when the timelines are very stringent.
Training is essential to preparing for your third-party audit. This is what closes the gaps between what the safety and quality department have developed and what your front-line employees are applying. All employees should know what part of the audit standard applies to them. Additionally, employees should be trained on interview questions that the auditor might ask them during the audit. Helping them prepare for these types of questions will help ease their nerves and allow them to answer the questions with self-assurance when it comes time to the actual audit.
Conduct Internal Audits
Conducting internal audits is not only a great way to prepare for your third-party audit, it’s a requirement. You should always use the audit checklist to observe your documents and facility to see where there are gaps. If possible, the person or team conducting the internal audit should never review their own work. Additionally, all issues or non-conformances should be noted, evaluated, corrected and closed out.
Third-Party Pre-Assessment or Mock Audit (Optional)
A third-party pre-assessment or mock audit is the closest thing you can get to an actual audit. This is where a company would come in and evaluate your site to the specific standards and give a formal report over any deficiencies found during the assessment and how to fix them. This is a great way to test your preparedness before the actual audit.
Jason Neely founded Stratos in 2014, when he and a small group of people left the pharmaceutical industry in search of a new endeavor in the cannabis marketplace. The concept was straightforward: Apply pharmaceutical methodologyof production to cannabis products. Back then, Stratos offered a range of THC-infused tabletsin the Colorado market.
Brenda Verghese, vice president of research & development, was one of five people on staff when Stratos launched. Now they have about 30 team members. Consumers were looking for a cannabis product that would be consistent and reliable every time, taking the guesswork out of infused products dosage. That’s where Brenda Verghese found her skillset useful.
Transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry right out of college, Verghese started her career as a chemist and worked her way up to the R&D business development sector. “I specializedin formulations and taking a product from concept to commercialization in the pharmaceutical space,” says Verghese. “Jason Neely approached me with the idea of a cannabis company and focusing on making products as effective and consistent as possible, so really bringing pharmaceutical science into the cannabis space. In the matter of 4 years we grew substantially, mainly focusing on the efficacy of products.”
Soon after the success of their THC products became apparent, Stratos launched a CBD line, quickly growing their portfolio to include things like tinctures and topicals as well. According to Verghese, they are hoping that what’s been established on the THC side of their business as far as reproducibility and consistency is something that consumers will also experience on the CBD side. “Quality and consistency have definitely driven our growth,” says Verghese. “That is what consumers appreciate most- the fact that every tablet, tincture or swipe of a topical product is going to be consistent and the same dose every time.” This is what speaks to their background in the pharmaceutical sciences, FDA regulation has taught the Stratos team to create really robust and consistent formulations.
Quality in manufacturing starts at the source for Stratos: their suppliers. They take a hard look at their supply of raw materials and active ingredients, making sure it meets their standards. “The supplier needs to allow us to do an initial audit and periodic audits,” says Verghese. “We require documentation to verify the purity and quality of oil. We also do internal testing upon receipt of the materials, verifying that the COAs [certificates of analysis] match their claims.”
Verghese says maintaining that attention to detail as their company grows is crucial. They implement robust SOPs and in-process quality checks in addition to process testing. They test their products 5-6 times within one production batch. Much of that is thanks to Amy Davison, director of operations and compliance, and her 15 years of experience in quality and regulatory compliance in the pharmaceutical industry.
Product testing alone cannot assess quality for an entire lot or batch of product; therefore, each step of the manufacturing process must be controlled through Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Process validation is an aspect of GMPs used by the pharmaceutical industry to create consistency in a product’s quality, safety and efficacy. There are three main stages to process validation: process design, process qualification and continued process verification. Implementing these stages ensures that quality, including dosing accuracy, is maintained for each manufactured batch of product.
Fast forward to today and Stratos is looking at expanding their CBD products line significantly. While their THC-infused products might have a stronger brand presence in Colorado, the CBD line offers substantial growth potential, given their ability to ship nationwide as well as online ordering. “We are always evaluating different markets and looking for what suits Stratos and our consumer base,”says Verghese.
According to a press release, Beleave Inc. announced recently that their subsidiary, Beleave Kannabis Corporation, received the ISO 9001:2015 certification. The facility that received the certification, based in Hamilton, Ontario, was certified “for the research, development, and production of cannabis products for medicinal and recreational purposes,” reads the press release.
Beleave is a vertically-integrated cannabis business headquartered in Oakville, Ontario that cultivates cannabis as well as producing oils and extracts. The company operates in both medical and recreational sectors of the market. They have been working on developing cannabis food and beverage products, such as infused powders and sugars, expecting that the recreational cannabis market in Canada will soon open its doors to infused products in 2019.
ISO 9001:2015 is an international standard that stipulates requirements for a quality management system (QMS), showing that a facility can provide products that meet customer and regulatory requirements. ISO 9001:2015 is the most up-to-date version for the standard, which can help show a company’s commitment to quality, efficiency and consistency. The 2015 version uses criteria with an emphasis on risk-based thinking to aid in the application of the process approach, improved applicability for services and increased leadership requirements.
“We continue to develop international partnerships and plan to enter global markets”The company’s facility was certified by Bureau Veritas Certification Holding SAS in late January of 2019. According to Roger Ferreira, chief science officer at Beleave, the process of certification was no easy undertaking. “After many months of hard work and preparation, we are extremely proud to be one of the few licensed producers of cannabis to have received ISO 9001:2015 accreditation,” says Ferreira. “This certification reflects Beleave’s ongoing commitment to quality across key elements of our business, which includes research, innovation, and production of cannabis products.”
Going beyond Canada, Ferreira says they are building the foundation of a company preparing to expand internationally. “Further, this internationally recognized certification for our quality management system positions us well as we continue to develop international partnerships and plan to enter global markets,” says Ferreira. Through their ownership in Procannmed S.A.S., they are licensed to cultivate and produce medical cannabis products out of Colombia, with the goal to export products to the Latin American market. They have also partnered with Canymed GmbH, based in Germany, to further explore opportunities in the European medical cannabis market.
Imagine this: you are taking medication for cancer pain. One day, it works perfectly. The next, you feel no relief. On some days, you need to take three doses just to get the same effect as one. Your doctor can’t be completely positive how much active ingredient each dose contains, so you decide for yourself how much medication to take.
Doesn’t seem safe, right? It is crucial that doctors know exactly what they are prescribing to their patients. They must know that their patients are receiving the exact same dose of medication in their prescription each time they take it, and that their medication contains only the intended ingredients.
consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.In the cannabis industry, lack of certainty on these important factors is a major problem for drug manufacturers as they attempt to incorporate cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in cannabis that has no psychoactive effects but many medical benefits, into pharmaceutical drugs.
When using these compounds as medications, purity is essential. Cannabis contains a wide variety of compounds. Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known compound and its main psychoactive one1. Safety regulations dictate that consumers know exactly what they are getting when they take a medication. For example, their CBD-based medications should not contain traces of THC.
The cannabis industry greatly needs a tool to ensure the consistent extraction and isolation of compounds. In 2017, the cannabis industry was worth nearly $10 billion, and it is expected to grow $57 billion more in the next decade2. As legalization of medical cannabis expands, interest in CBD pharmaceuticals is likely to grow.
If compounds such as CBD are going to be used in pharmaceutical drugs, consistency is key to creating products that are safe for consumers.
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound that makes up 40 percent of cannabis extracts1. It is great for medical applications because it does not interfere with motor or psychological function. Researchers have found it particularly effective for managing cancer pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and specific forms of epilepsy3.
Other compounds derived from cannabis, such as cannabichromene (CBC) and cannabigerol (CBG), may also be beneficial compounds with medical applications. CBC is known to block pain and inflammation, and CBG is known for its use as a potential anti-cancer agent1.
Along with these compounds that provide medical benefits, there are psychoactive compounds that are used recreationally, such as THC.
“It will definitely be an advantage to have cannabis-based medications with clearly defined and constant contents of cannabinoids,” says Kirsten Müller-Vahl, a neurologist and psychiatrist at Hannover Medical School in Germany.
Creating a Standard Through Centrifugal Partition Chromatography
To obtain purified compounds from cannabis, researchers need to use technology that will extract the compounds from the plant.
Many manufacturers use some sort of chromatography technique to isolate compounds. Two popular methods are high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and flash chromatography. These methods have their places in the field, but they cannot be effectively and cost-efficiently scaled to isolate compounds. Instead, HPLC and flash chromatography may be better suited as analytical tools for studying the characteristics of the plant or extract. As cannabis has more than 400 chemical entities4, compound isolation is an important application.
This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery.Although molecules such as CBD can be synthesized in the lab, many companies would rather extract the compounds directly from the plant. Synthesized molecules do not result in a completely pure compound. The result, “is still a mixture of whatever cannabinoids are coming from a particular marijuana strain, which is highly variable,” says Brian Reid, chief scientific officer of ebbu, a company in Colorado that specializes in cannabis purification.
Currently, there is only one method available to researchers that completely allows them to isolate individual compounds: centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC).
The principle of CPC is similar to other liquid chromatography methods. It separates the chemical substances as the compounds in the mobile phase flow through and differentially interact with the stationary phase.
Where CPC and standard liquid chromatography differs is the nature of the stationary phase. In traditional chromatography methods, the stationary phase is made of silica or other solid particles, and the mobile phase is made of liquid. During CPC, the stationary phase is a liquid that is spun around or centrifuged to stay in place while the other liquid (mobile phase) moves through the disc. The two liquid phases, like oil and water, don’t mix. This method is highly effective for achieving both high purity and recovery. Chemists can isolate chemical components at 99 percent or higher purity with a 95 percent recovery rate5.
“CPC is ideal for ripping a single active ingredient out of a pretty complex mixture,” says Reid. “It’s the only chromatographic technique that does that well.”
The Need for Pure Compounds
High levels of purity and isolation are necessary for cannabis to be of true value in the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine relying on a medication to decrease your seizures, and it has a different effect every time. Sometimes there may be traces of psychoactive compounds. Sometimes there are too much or too little of the compound that halts your seizures. This is not a safe practice for consumers who rely on medications.“It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
Researchers working with cannabis desperately need a technology that can extract compounds with high purity rates. It is hard to run a study without knowing the precise amounts of compounds used. Reid uses a Gilson CPC 1000 system at ebbu for his cannabinoid research. With this technology, he can purify cannabinoids for his research and create reliable formulations. “Now that we have this methodology dialed in we can make various formulations —whether they’re water-soluble, sublingual, inhaled, you name it —with very precise ratios of cannabinoids and precise amounts of cannabinoids at the milligram level,” says Reid.
Kyle Geary, an internist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is currently running a placebo-controlled trial of CBD capsules for Crohn’s disease. This consistent isolation is helpful for his research, as well. “Ideally, the perfect study would use something that is 100 percent CBD,” says Geary. “It’s hard to do studies on things you can’t control very well.”
The State of the Industry
While CBD is not considered a safe drug compound under federal law in the United States6, 17 states have recently passed laws that allow people to consume CBD for medical reasons7. Half of medicinal CBD users solely use the substance for treatment, a recent survey found8. As the industry quickly grows, it is crucial that consumer safety protocol keeps pace.
In June, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug that contains a purified drug substance from cannabis, Epidiolex9. Made from CBD, it is designed to treat Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two rare forms of epilepsy. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the news release that although the FDA will work to support the development of high-quality cannabis-based products moving forward, “We are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
The industry should be prepared to implement protocols to ensure the quality of their CBD-based products. The FDA has issued warnings in recent years that some cannabinoid products it has tested do not contain the CBD levels their makers claim, and consumers should be wary of such products10. It’s hard to know when or if the FDA will begin regulating CBD-based pharmaceuticals. However, for pharma companies serious about their reputation, there is only one isolation method that creates reliable product quality: CPC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015, June 24). The Biology and Potential Therapeutic Effects of Cannabidiol. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/biology-potential-therapeutic-effects-cannabidiol
Atakan, Z. (2012). Cannabis, a complex plant: Different compounds and different effects on individuals. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology,2(6), 241-254. doi:10.1177/2045125312457586
Gilson. (n.d.). Centrifugal Partition Chromatography (CPC) Systems. Retrieved from http://www.gilson.com/en/AI/Products/80.320#.WzVB2lMvyMI
Mead, A. (2017). The legal status of cannabis (marijuana) and cannabidiol (CBD) under US law. Epilepsy & Behavior, 70, 288-291.
ProCon.org. (2018, May 8). 17 States with Laws Specifically about Legal Cannabidiol (CBD) – Medical Marijuana – ProCon.org. Retrieved from https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006473
Borchardt, D. (2017, August 03). Survey: Nearly Half Of People Who Use Cannabidiol Products Stop Taking Traditional Medicines. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/debraborchardt/2017/08/02/people-who-use-cannabis-cbd-products-stop-taking-traditional-medicines/#43889c942817
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2017). Public Health Focus – Warning Letters and Test Results for Cannabidiol-Related Products. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm484109.htm
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