Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.
And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.
That leaves budtenders – point of sale experts – that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis – or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.
But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.
There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.
These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.
Listening and Learning
Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.
A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing – a place where audio platforms can shine.
Old is New
In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.
That’s why time-based content platforms – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others – that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.
Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.
In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.
Testing cannabis and cannabis derived products for microbiological contamination should be a straightforward conversation for testing labs and producers. However, a patchwork of regulations and a wide variety of perspectives on what we should, or should not, be looking for has left much of the cannabis industry searching for reliable answers.
Organizations like the AOAC are taking the first crack at creating standardization in the field but there is still a long way to go. In this conversation, we would like to discuss the general requirements that almost all states share and where we see the industry headed as jurisdictions start to conform to the recommendations of national organizations like AOAC.
We sat down with Anna Klavins and Jessa Youngblood, two cannabis testing experts at Hardy Diagnostics, to get their thoughts on microbiology testing in the current state of the cannabis industry.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing cannabis testing labs when it comes to microbiology?
Anna Klavins & Jessa Youngblood:For microbiology testing, it comes down to a lack of standardization and approved methods for cannabis. In the US, cannabis regulation is written on a state-by-state level. As a result, the rules that govern every aspect of bringing these materials to market is as unique and varied as the jurisdiction writing them. When we are speaking specifically about microbiology, the question always comes back to yeast and mold testing. For some, the challenge will often be centered on the four main Aspergillus species of concern – A. terreus, A. niger, A. fumigatus, and A. flavus. For others, it will be the challenges of total count testing with yeast, mold, and bacteria. These issues become even more troublesome by the lack of recognized standard methodology. Typically, we expect the FDA, USP, or some other agency to provide the guidelines for industry – the rules that define what is safe for consumption. Without federal guidance, however, we are often in a situation where labs are required to figure out how to perform these tests on their own. This becomes a very real hurdle for many programs.
Q: Why is it important to use two different technologies to achieve confirmation?
Klavins & Youngblood: The push for this approach was borne out of the discussions happening within the industry. Scientists and specialists from across disciplines started getting together and creating groups to start to hash out problems which had arisen due to a lack of standardization. In regards to cannabis testing, implementing a single method for obtaining microbiology results could be unreliable. When clients compared results across labs, the inconsistencies became even more problematic and began to erode trust in the industry. As groups discussed the best way to prove the efficacy of their testing protocol, it quickly became apparent that relying on a single testing method was going to be inadequate. When labs use two different technologies for microbiology testing, they are able to eliminate the likelihood of false positives or false negatives, whichever the case may be. In essence, the cannabis testing laboratories would be best off looking into algorithms of detecting organisms of interest. This is the type of laboratory testing modeled in other industries and these models are starting make their way into the cannabis testing space. This approach is common in many food and pharma applications and makes sense for the fledgling cannabis market as well.
About Anna Klavins
Anna Klavins earned a Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S. degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo while playing for the Cal Poly Division I NCAA women’s tennis team. Since joining Hardy Diagnostics in mid-2016, she has gained experience in FDA submissions [510(k)] for class II microbiology in vitro devices. She has worked on 15 projects which led to a microbiology device becoming FDA cleared. She has recently begun participating in the AOAC Performance Tested Methods program.
About Jessa Youngblood
Jessa Youngblood is the Food, Beverage and Cannabis Market Coordinator for Hardy Diagnostics. A specialist in the field of cannabis microbiology for regulatory compliance, she is seated with the AOAC CASP committee working on standard methods for microbiological testing in cannabis and hemp. She also sits on the NCIA Scientific Advisory Council as well as the ASTM Cannabis Council.
As retailers accept the end of in-store shopping as we know it and start adjusting to e-commerce, an improved and more involved customer experience will be imperative for an e-retailer to grow, let alone stay afloat.
Jane recently announced a strategic partnership that combines Jane’s best-in-class product catalog and business tools with Leafly’s consumer marketplace and reach. Together, the companies will build solutions that empower cannabis retailers with fast and simple online shopping experiences that increase consumer purchase behavior. The partnership will seek to help instill consumer trust in the online shopping experience, build stronger customer acquisition tools for retailers, and help dispensaries grow their ecommerce capabilities with consistency and automation.
This strategic partnership comes after a massive year of growth for both Jane and Leafly. In the past year, Jane powered over 17 million orders and $2 billion in cannabis sales, while Leafly has seen more than 4,500 cannabis retailers in North America leverage their platform to bring new customers through the door.
We spoke with Socrates Rosenfeld, CEO of Jane to learn more about e-commerce and online marketplaces and how Jane and Leafly came together as partners, rather than competitors. Prior to Jane, Socrates was an Apache helicopter pilot for the US Army later transitioning to consulting with McKinsey.
Aaron Green: Socrates, thanks for taking the time today. What trends are you seeing and following in the industry?
Socrates Rosenfeld: Always happy to chat about the industry. Thanks for having me.
If you were to ask me that question a year ago, I’d say having a digital footprint was something that would give a dispensary or a brand a nice advantage. Today, it’s a must-have for survival. Where it used to be one or the other; online or offline, now we are able to merge the two by replicating a physical store into a digitized form to extend its reach far beyond its walls.
As things become more digitized, information becomes more necessary to run operations. With that we are able to meet the expectations of the consumers who are accustomed to convenience and curation. The omnichannel experience provides the best of both worlds. Access and ease of search with the ability to pick up or have the product delivered the same day from a locally owned and run business.
Reviews are one of the most important aspects of this unification of online and offline. It is something that is lost in solely offline purchases, that we’re now able to collect and organize. This product information allows us to provide customers the purchasing power to make a well-informed decision.
At Jane, we believe it is possible to create wins for the dispensaries, brands and customers – and digitization creates the opportunity for that to happen. I think there’s no better incubator in the world than the cannabis industry to prove that online and offline retail can work in harmony.
Aaron: Jane is the largest e-commerce platform in North American cannabis and Leafly is the largest marketplace in North American cannabis. What’s the difference between an e-commerce platform and a marketplace?
Socrates: Great question. There is definitely some overlap between the two, which is why it makes so much sense for us to collaborate. Ultimately though, our focus and expertise are different. Jane’s ecommerce platform serves as the industry’s digital infrastructure that pushes digital products across various order origination points like a dispensary’s own website, a brand’s own website and now, Leafly’s marketplace. Paired with Leafly’s industry-leading content and market information, together we can complete the entire online cannabis shopping experience – from product discovery through order fulfillment.
Aaron: At first glance, one might think that Jane and Leafly are competitors. How did you see it differently? And how did this partnership come about?
Socrates: Not only is our tech complementary, but we are aligned on mission – to empower consumers, dispensaries and brands with the integrity of the plant in mind.
We want to make it simple for consumers to reach the products that will be most helpful for them. We want to make it possible for dispensaries and brands, regardless of their size, to be able to compete on an even playing field.
It all comes back to being good stewards of the industry. Education and access create a healthy demand for a diverse range of products. That means that the plant stays in the hands of many – safeguarding it from homogenization.
Aaron: How do consumers benefit from the partnership?
Socrates: It really is all about bringing this industry in line with any other retail vertical and meeting the customer where they are. It unlocks more avenues for customers to discover products and access a vast catalog of information and verified customer reviews. Bottom line, this partnership makes shopping for cannabis as simple as shopping online for everything else in the world, while also ensuring the success of the sellers.
Aaron: When you say the sellers, are you talking about the dispensary or the brands?
Socrates: Both, we want to provide value for the entire ecosystem. We can do that directly for dispensaries and brands by enabling an automated ecommerce platform that they can use to power their own website. At Jane, we know that technology can unlock value for everyone, where it is not a zero-sum game and success for one means success for the other. With Jane, both the dispensaries and the brands win.
Aaron: What kind of regulatory challenges do you face through the partnership?
Socrates: There are no real regulatory challenges for the partnership itself. The entire industry operates under regulatory challenges, but it is those regulations that have been the catalyst for innovation. I see the opportunity for legal online payments and national product distribution to play a large role in shaping the industry soon, and a partnership like this will ensure a seamless transition for the industry as things continue to evolve.
Aaron: Final question. What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Socrates: I’ve always been curious about disruptive models. The companies, not just in tech, but any company that has set out to do things differently and has been able to hold true to a vision. That’s what interests me, and I think I will always have something to learn and draw inspiration from.
Aaron: Excellent, that’s the end of the interview, Socrates!
Augmented Reality (AR) used to be something us mere humans only dreamt about. Now, AR is the norm and is seen in thousands of apps that people use every day. In fact, the forecast for the AR market is projected to reach up to $75 billion in revenue by 2023.
This is largely in part due to the fact that many smartphone apps now use AR as their default engagement method. And, with more people than ever using their smartphones to shop, the opportunity to engage through AR is easier than ever.
To give you a better idea of just how regularly we engage with AR, think about the popular apps Snapchat and Waze. Both apps utilize AR in some way – Snapchat uses AR to create the app’s infamous filters, and Waze uses AR to offer pop-up coupons and other promos based on the user’s location.
Another popular type of AR is marker-based AR. This form of AR is when a mobile app lets users scan the “marker” or image for a rendered interaction. Marker-based AR can be especially useful to cannabis businesses and offers a relatively low price point and easy execution.
Here are just a few ways marker-based AR can revamp your cannabis business and take you to the next level.
The canna-curious are becoming one of the largest audiences in relation to the sustained growth of the cannabis industry, and it’s more important than ever to provide valuable information to this demographic to encourage their purchasing decision. Considering the fact that 65% of the world is comprised of visual learners, showing a video will have a far greater impact compared to talking them through a product.
By utilizing marker-based AR, a budtender can quickly activate video content from packaging or marketing material to demonstrate how a product works and its most important features. This provides an easy and effective way to quickly educate customers and entice them to make a purchase.
Connecting with customers is more important than ever thanks to the fragmented distribution system in the cannabis industry. Capturing customer information and building relationships is crucial to a brand’s longevity.
AR can support two aspects of the customer journey: in-store and post purchase. Fifty-five percent of shoppers use online videos while they’re in the store making a purchase, and eight out of ten people are more likely to purchase after viewing a brand video.
An AR app that provides customers with support during and after their purchases not only encourages sales but also provides brands with the opportunity to engage with push-notifications and direct marketing, which ultimately encourages additional product purchases. With more people than ever using their smartphones to shop, the opportunity to engage through AR is easier than ever.
The experience a consumer has with your brand can make or break their brand loyalty. As the Chief Marketing Officer for Philter Labs, Inc., I’m constantly looking for authentic ways to connect with our customers.
We recently partnered with Daily High Club, a monthly subscription box that offers custom glass pieces and must-have smoking accessories inspired by cannabis influencers. For June, Daily High Club featured two fan-favorite influencers: MacDizzle420 and Koala Puffs.
Using marker-based AR, we activated a video montage featuring the influencers that could be viewed directly from their custom piece of glassware. Subscribers were able to engage with the influencers while enjoying the glassware which added a new element to the experience that was both engaging and immersive in a way that was never possible before.
At PHILTER, we’re committed to continue using AR to supplement our marketing strategies. As a proponent of the technology, I truly believe that as brands work to differentiate themselves in the space, leaving a lasting impression will be the catalyst for brands to thrive and grow in an increasingly competitive market while also directly impacting a customer’s lifetime value.
Gen Z is currently at about 40% of consumers, and this segment will be rapidly growing in the coming years. Most researchers and media define this generation as those who were born between the mid to late 1990s and early 2010s. In the United States alone, Gen Z consumers have an estimated $143 billion in buying power. Businesses that aren’t putting enough marketing strategies toward Gen Z need to reevaluate and switch gears, stat! Start laying the groundwork for your company’s success in the coming years. Kickstart your targeted Gen Z marketing strategies now. Every industry is different, but there are a few key do’s and don’ts to follow when communicating with Gen Z buyers. In the cannabis field, it is especially important to only market to those who can legally indulge.
Do Make Genuine Connections Online
Gen Z is our first truly digital generation. They’ve grown up using social media and the internet. As digital natives, they’re quick to recognize inauthentic communication methods. Whether it’s unnatural comments or trying to cover up negative testimonials, the younger crowd can always spot brands trying to be something they are not. Instead, practice total transparency with followers and friends to ensure that there is never a lack of brand accountability and authenticity. Within the cannabis industry, businesses can use their social media platforms to educate, build relationships and easily refute longstanding cannabis stereotypes that are so common in older generations.
Don’t Try Too Hard to Be Relatable
One way to make genuine connections is to engage with, create and share memes and other trends on social media. Although this is an excellent method for increased interactions, there is also plenty of room for error, so caution is the guiding principle. If not executed correctly, a post about a meme could easily make brands look unprofessional, or behind the times as they’ve missed the actual joke. These techniques can make business accounts seem like they are trying too hard to fit in, and will ultimately cause Gen Z to hit the “unfollow” button. Instead, focus on topics that closely align with the brand’s image and find creative ways to make content relate to exciting and funny trending ideas about cannabis.
Do Care About Social Issues and Responsibility
Focus on creating high quality, exciting videos and vibrant pictures that highlight cannabisResearch has shown that Gen Z sincerely cares about social issues and responsibilities. These beliefs don’t only apply just to their personal lives, but also to their buying habits and which businesses they want to support. These beliefs provide an excellent opportunity for brands to stake out common ground with Gen Z and support a variety of causes at the same time. Many of these consumers seem to care about topics like the environment, equality, hunger and homelessness. Do note that it’s essential to review and analyze these issues before making statements or posting about them on social media. For the cannabis industry, many businesses tend to raise awareness about medical matters, social equity and community-oriented programs.
Don’t Post the Same Content Repeatedly
After getting into the social media game, it can be tough to figure out how often to post. As much as those aspects do play an essential role in overall engagements, it’s also crucial to pay attention to the type of content that makes it into followers’ feeds. All photos and videos should be related, yet unique. Posting the same marketing content over and over is going to bore Gen Z, and make business accounts look less aesthetically pleasing. Instead, focus on creating high quality, exciting videos and vibrant pictures that highlight cannabis, and then vary your post types.
Navigating Gen Z communication and marketing tactics are going to be pivotal in just a few years, making it critical for businesses to rework their marketing strategies as soon as possible. If cannabis brands can capture the essence of authenticity and social responsibility in their communication methods, while avoiding posting repetitive content, they should be able to reach legal Gen Z-ers seamlessly.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has halted many normal business practices, that doesn’t mean that high brand engagement rates have to come to a close. In many states, the cannabis industry has been deemed an essential business. This designation as ‘essential’ opens up a prime opportunity for social media accounts to achieve positive gains and educate people about the valuable benefits of cannabis, especially with so many people staying online for longer periods of time.
It’s been clear for years that social media marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways for a business to reach customers and prospects. However, when it comes to cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, serious social media challenges are everyday occurrences. So how are you supposed to effectively market your business when you can’t promote your products and services? As a marketing professional, I know it’s a tall order, but with some smart strategic moves, it can be done.
There are a few ground rules that cannabis businesses should follow during this ongoing crisis to keep their social media engagement metrics as high as their loyal customers, while remaining in compliance with the strict rules for cannabis marketing. While the laws vary from state to state, that pesky federal illegality and Schedule I designator the DEA is dragging its feet on means that you must pay careful attention to even the smallest details. When it comes to CBD products, the FDA has been outspoken on what not to do as well. Slip up, and mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Facebook can and will restrict or even remove your brand pages. Losing all your followers and posts and having to start from scratch is not fun.
You’ll also need to get creative with your posts. Remember, never promote products, or encourage your audience to get in contact with your business, so always review and proof carefully before posting anything to your feeds. Make these simple mistakes, and your business could be seen by the platform as directly or indirectly soliciting use of an illegal substance. Cannabis businesses already have enough headaches to contend with right now without inadvertently adding to them.
So what should you post and how often? Now is the time to double down on educational and lifestyle related content, and for sharing how your business is addressing the ongoing COVID-19 threat. Share any new procedures and precautions to underscore that your business is dedicated to safety for staff and consumers. Post often, but don’t overdo it. Your posting frequency will be a matter of trial and error, but aim for 3-4 times per week per channel, and be sure to tailor your posts for the platform it will appear on.
Educational content doesn’t automatically mean boring! Keep your content easy to read, and choose a single topical focus or benefit. Use a variety of formats – from publishing informative blogs and podcasts that you can share to your social media accounts to direct posts of how-to and behind-the-scenes videos and rich lifestyle imagery (no product photos, please). Posting these types of media with smart captions can help gain the attention of your audience and are easy for viewers to share with their friends and followers. Speaking of which…
Embrace earned media opportunities and social media influencers who can promote your brand. If you’re not familiar with the term, earned media is the bucket we use to describe content that’s being shared and talked about by users, or even created by them. That organic exposure to a wider audience is the highly desirable side-effect of having great content – positive attention that gets shared by others.
If you’re considering working social media influencers, look for those that are already engaged with members of your target audience or that would have appeal to your customers. Be sure they can demonstrate real ROI and that they understand the importance of remaining compliant with FTC and platform specific guidelines for posting, including compensation disclosures – before signing them. Many marketing and PR agencies provide vetting of influencers, and can even negotiate contracts, often at better rates. Before deciding if influencers are right for your brand, you may want to consult with a reputable agency that has experience with hiring (and firing) social influencers.
Finally, if you haven’t yet done so, consider establishing a profile on one or more of the rapidly growing cannabis-friendly social media platforms. These include sites such as Weedable, duby, and CannaSOS. There are also a number of social media platforms focused specifically on cannabis businesses and professionals, such as Leafwire and MJLink (formerly WeedCircles). If you’re still not sure or cannot tackle this yourself, consult with an experienced marketing agency. Now get out there (safely, of course) and conquer those social media platforms the right way! Stay the course, and by the time this crisis is over, your brand could achieve a more solid position on social media, and more engaged followers.
The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on the California brand, PlugPlay:
PlugPlay – Executing on Social Media
This company is about three years old and based in Los Angeles. PlugPlay distributes proprietary vaporizers and cartridges to more than 150 dispensaries throughout California.
The company’s brand identity is a bit different from the traditional California cannabis company image. They trade the typical beach, yoga and plant imagery for a more modern, contemporary and sleek theme. Furthermore, the brand ambassadors featured throughout PlugPlay’s social media and communications reflect the diversity of its market.
The demographic they target in social media is increasingly tech-savvy and on the younger side. PlugPlay uses a few very smart tactics to engage with this demographic: They experiment with bold and creative content formats, some being a bit more refined than others. They engage in the comments section with their followers in an unabashed, genuine manner. Lastly, they share information with their followers on current events effectively, whether it be the vaping crisis back in 2019 or the current coronavirus pandemic.
All of these marketing tactics have worked tremendously in their favor. In March, PlugPlay’s social media earned them the #1 spot on the Pioneer Index, up from #10 in February.
Cannabis Industry Journal is pleased to announce our partnership with Pioneer Intelligence on this new series of articles. This is the first installment of The Brand Marketing Byte.
Pioneer Intelligence uses data to benchmark marketing performance of consumer-facing cannabis brands across three areas: social media, earned media and web-related activities. At present, Pioneer takes in over 60,000 data points each week. The company’s team of marketers and data scientists share findings through weekly generated Performance Scorecard reports as well as Brand Marketing Snapshots. Pioneer Intelligence offers reports on more than 500 U.S. cannabis brands. Ben Walters, founder of Pioneer Intelligence, says their mission is “to help cannabis industry stakeholders better understand how marketing strategies & tactics resonate with audiences.”
The Brand Marketing Byte will showcase highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies. We hope this column can serve as a resource for readers interested in branding and marketing.
In terms of scoring methodology, Pioneer Intelligence’s reporting favors “heat” over “strength” as the company prioritizes “relative change” above “absolute position.” This means that, for example when talking about social media audience size, they don’t just score brands based on the number of followers, but they also score audience growth. In fact, Pioneer’s algorithms put more value in growth figures than actual number of followers. For more insight on their methodology, along with a weekly updated index of the hottest brands, visit their website here.
Without further ado, here is a data-led, shallow dive on the California brand, Legion of Bloom:
Legion of Bloom – Content Strategy
Legion of Bloom (LOB) was founded in Northern California in 2015 when five independent growers joined forces. As one of the more widely recognizable brands in the region, they produce craft, high-quality cannabis products and are well known for their vape cartridges. The company has superior genetics and sustainable practices, which they capitalize on in their marketing efforts.
LOB has invested heavily in generating content, which appears to be fruitful. Their website has an in-depth introduction to terpenes for consumers and they utilize their blog section well with a high volume of quality content throughout the second half of 2019. It’s worth mentioning their website features full laboratory test results for all of their products, highlighting their commitment to transparency, consumer trust and brand recognition. Through looking at a few key metrics like indexed keywords, site strength and visit duration, it is apparent that LOB has increased their audience engagement significantly.
All of those factors combined, LOB has used a variety of content tools to grow their website consistently and sustainably, earning them #38 spot on last week’s Pioneer Index, a ranking of the hottest U.S. cannabis brands.
Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.
And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.
As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.
I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.
We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.
It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.
We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.
Why So Dry?
Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.
The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.
Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.
When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.
Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.
There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.
In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.
Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.
Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.
Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
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