Cannabis brands are facing a proverbial fork in the road: determining whether their product evolves into a luxury consumable or affordable agricultural commodity. While it is reasonable to assume the cannabis market space will organically grow into a luxury goods industry such as wine and spirits, the luxury brands that serve as the foundation of these markets were built over years of engagement between consumers, connoisseurs and producers. If cannabis companies want to successfully market their products as luxury items, a concerted effort towards well-defined, consumer-accessible branding is required.
The first step towards evolving a cannabis brand towards luxury is overcoming the fixation on cultivar identity. Unregulated cultivar naming currently impedes creativity and craftsmanship, disrupting brands and salespersons’ abilities to clearly communicate strain aesthetics.
The good news is the alcohol, coffee and consumer packaged food (CPG) industries have done most of the heavy lifting, paving the way with robust sensory science and analytical approaches to product characterization. Cannabis stakeholders need only adapt their tools and apply them to cannabis with similar intention.
Research suggests that aroma is one of the strongest predictors of positive consumption experience. As adult use consumers become familiar with current product offerings and increasingly legal availability, they will seek products that consistently yield the best experience. The most successful brands will be those that most effectively communicate that experience and then deliver it. The status quo – describing aroma using strain names, top terpenes or THC content – is not effective at harmonizing a brand’s promise with consumer experience.
The conventional cannabis product branding approach leaves to be desired a tremendous opportunity to characterize cultivars (Figure 1). Sensory science, the discipline used to evoke, measure, analyze and interpret reactions to materials through human perception, has been used for decades to characterize CPGs from skin lotion to washing machines. Adapting these well-established techniques for use in cannabis can be challenging, but it is certainly worth the investment.
These shifts in the cannabis industry have already begun to occur. I recently was the principle investigator on a white paper that presented a novel cannabis aroma wheel derived from aroma descriptors and a panel of trained sensory experts. In the study, sensory scientists evaluated randomly sampled cannabis flower over a period of several months. The researchers combined qualitative focus panels, literature review and formal blinded sensory tests to develop a comprehensive lexicon that served as a tool for trained evaluators to characterize cannabis aroma. This novel and robust tool (Figure 2) was designed to be used by trained panels to characterize cannabis aroma, is freely available and is just the beginning of a collective development of a data-driven cannabis lexicon.
Much like the World Coffee Research Lexicon referenced here, the Cannabis Aroma Lexicon is a tool with a specific purpose: collecting an objective description of the product aroma. It is a living document that will grow along with the industry. In the future, we may have lexicons to describe more than just aroma. Tactile and appearance sensory attributes of cannabis will gradually be defined by sensory scientists, presenting more opportunities for deep craftsmanship in the cannabis industry.
The role that dispensaries play in adoption of standardized quality metrics is critical. The product features that position cannabis to be a craft product warrant the presence of a third-party expert to translate and guide consumers during the purchasing process. It’s intuitive to ask a waiter to recommend a pairing (i.e., a dry red wine to pair with a seafood dish), given the trust that consumers put in the restaurant to understand the properties of the food they are serving. Dispensaries have thus far filled the service structure role for cannabis, but the vast amount of unknowns regarding the physiological and sensorial effects of cannabis have resulted in inconsistent experiences that leave something to be desired in terms of consumer trust.
Application of sensory science in cannabis is an unparalleled opportunity for brands to build consumer trust and differentiate their products in a sea of strain names and high potency flower. Cultivars that can be established as measurably aromatic in a specific character can leverage that aroma profile to add significant value to the product. For example:
Cultivar name can be aligned with the perceived aroma (e.g., garlic is not bad, but expecting tropical and getting garlic can harm consumer trust).
Product catalog can be consolidated and optimized to avoid sales cannibalization by growing specific products to meet consumer group’s needs.
Guesswork is removed from breeding by measuring when a product is meeting sensory goals and ensuring it doesn’t drift over time.
Demonstrating transparency will win over ethical consumers. Utilizing controlled, blinded studies to profile aromas will add value to ethics-minded consumers.
Becoming a leader in connoisseurship. In the forefront of this shift in branding, one can position a brand to be ahead of the competition.
Elevating the dispensary experience. By utilizing aroma profiling, products can be more easily sold by budtenders and salespeople.
Opening doors to new application types (e.g., seasonal, occasion centered or geographically unique cultivars).
These are just some of the ways that aroma characterization will differentiate products and simultaneously contribute to cannabis brands’ ability to communicate craftsmanship and the maturity of the industry as whole. Not only will adoption of robust sensory-based branding improve the consumer experience by providing a means to compare products to one another, it will promote adoption of good manufacturing practices that simultaneously improve the quality and safety of cannabis products. Without consumer-accessible quality metrics, brands have little incentive to produce products of elevated quality and are conversely incentivized to prioritize quantity and meet minimum regulatory requirements.
Importantly, cannabis businesses will use this tool to adapt to an inevitable industry-wide shift towards connoisseurship and application of robust sensory science. While it may be challenging to shake off the “bad habits” that currently plague many brands, cannabis has significant potential as a luxury good. Consumers are eager for a better cannabis experience from purchase to consumption. How will your brand use sensory profiling to expand or evolve product offerings to succeed in a cannabis market full of luxury brands and what steps will you take now to prepare?
Regardless of their size, all consumer package brands spend a significant amount of money and resources on packaging to attract consumers’ attention. We are all very visually oriented and gravitate to items that pique our interests. Cannabis brands are no exception when it comes to branding their products. Packaging plays a big part in carrying their brand forward and standing out on the dispensary shelves. When I was in Las Vegas at a CBD tradeshow in early 2020, I visited a dispensary, and it was beautiful. I remember commenting to a colleague that was with me how spectacular the product packaging was in the glass cases. One had unique artwork on each different product they offered, and it was indeed art. Yes, I did purchase this one that pulled me in.
The cannabis industry in the United States presents a challenge to brands because there is no overall federal guidance for packaging. Each state is controlling the cannabis legislation and, with it, the packaging guidelines. So multi-state operators (MSOs) have to manage each state as a separate entity and abide by the packaging regulations, which is not very efficient and adds a cost burden. As the industry matures and becomes federally legal across the country, packaging regulations will be easier to implement.
Let’s take a look at counterfeit products across all product categories. There is a significant global problem with counterfeits, as articulated by the below statistics.
Fake luxury merchandise accounts for 60% to 70% of that amount, ahead of pharmaceuticals, entertainment products and representing perhaps a quarter of the estimated $1.2 trillion total trade in luxury goods.
Customs and Border Patrol confiscated $1.3 billion worth of counterfeit goods in the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2020. (The value of 2020’s seizures are actually down compared to the $1.5 billion worth of counterfeit goods seized by CBP in 2019).
Unfortunately, the figures above are concerning, and the cannabis industry will face the same counterfeit issues that will add to these stats in the future. What can be done to help fight the problem and alleviate the pain for cannabis brands? Smart technology.
The trend towards “smart technology” varies by sector, but the underlying concept involves building levels of technology systems designed to impede or limit the highly sophisticated counterfeiter from replicating or replacing products. These levels typically include a forensic level control on the product, digital systems to track the material and customer facing systems to articulate the underlying value to the consumer.
Building these levels of smart technology into cannabis-products and packaging allows consumers to authenticate real versus fake, and in the case often in cannabis, legal versus illegal. Molecular technology is one forensic level of control option that can be used as a unique identifier for product authentication. Each brand would get its unique identifier to apply to the raw materials that make up its product, such as oil or an isolate. Then a sample can be tested at the origin point and subsequent nodes in the supply chain using a remote testing device. All the digital data is captured in a secure cloud database for traceability and transparency to the end consumer, to show them the authenticity of the product they are consuming. The same molecular technology can be applied to the ink or varnish for packaging and labels. A great application to help combat counterfeits and product diversion across the globe.
Another engaging platform is called StrainSecure by TruTrace Technologies. Their SAAS platform allows cannabis manufacturers to track all their product batches and SKUs tied to a blockchain. It also facilitates the interaction between the manufacturer and third-party testing facilities to conduct product testing and reporting. The data is captured within the platform, and with easy access dashboard views, it provides the insights to authenticate products at any time.
A company out of Australia called Laava is producing a product called Smart Fingerprints. It’s the next evolution of QR codes. The Smart Fingerprints can be applied to each package, providing a unique identifier that consumers can read with a mobile phone application. The consumer is provided with information concerning the product’s authenticity and any additional information the brand wants to share with the user. Smart Fingerprints are a great example of customer engagement at the point of activity that is secure.
The above three solutions show the availability of advanced technologies the cannabis industry can implement on its packaging and products to ensure authentic and safe products are sold to consumers. It provides consumers with vital information and insights about products so they can make informed buying decisions. There is no one silver bullet solution that provides all the answers. As with every high value product, counterfeiters will work to create near duplicate versions of the original until it becomes unsustainable to do so. It will take a technology ecosystem to seamlessly connect and provide actuate and timely information between supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer. As the US works to separate the legal from illegal production for both the adult use and medical supply of cannabis, the looming challenge will be on protecting and communicating authenticity, packaging will be the first step in this.
There is a significant increase in demand for all cannabinoid products across the board—including CBD, THC, CBG and THCV—from recreational users, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies. And the next great race is on for the hottest arrival to scientific cannabis therapeutics: rare cannabinoids.
Research shows rare cannabinoids are poised to be the future of cannabis investing, providing better health benefits in addition to impacting the pharmaceutical, CPG, nutraceuticals, cosmetics and pet care markets significantly. According to recent reports, the biosynthesis of rare cannabinoids will be a $25 billion market by 2025 and $40 billion by 2040.
The companies that will revolutionize this market are ones with the highest quality and lowest prices, which means that biosynthetic cannabinoid companies will be the leaders in investment and capturing market share. We will also see a major consolidation in this market amongst the grow, harvest and extraction companies, increasing efficiencies and driving down costs.
What are rare cannabinoids and why should we care?
Rare cannabinoids such as CBG, CBN, THCV, THCA and others have significantly better and more specific health benefits than just CBD on its own. Biotech companies like ours, Biomedican, which has a patent-pending biosynthesis platform, can produce pharmaceutical grade, non-GMO, bioidentical, synthetic cannabinoids with 0.0% THC at 70-90% less cost. Producing 0.0% THC means that rare cannabinoids can be added into nutraceuticals, CPG and cosmetics/lotions with zero changes in current cannabis regulations. Also, we produce the same exact product every time (not possible through plants), which is extremely important for pharmaceutical companies conducting clinical trials.
Why are rare cannabinoids important?
The human body contains different cannabinoid receptors that help regulate critical processes, including learning, memory, neuronal development, appetite, digestion, inflammation, overall mood, sleep, metabolism and pain perception. This considerable involvement of cannabinoid receptors, critical to many physiological systems, underscores their potential as pharmaceutical targets.
Pharmacological research has uncovered several medical uses for cannabinoids, which bind to cannabinoid receptors. They’ve been shown to help with pathological conditions such as pediatric epilepsies, glaucoma, neuropathic pain, schizophrenia and have anti-tumor effects as well as promote the suppression of chemotherapy-induced nausea. This ongoing research is becoming more prevalent and has the potential to uncover therapeutic uses for an array of cannabinoids.
In addition to the medical field, other prominent sectors have adopted the use of cannabinoids. There is an increasing demand for cannabinoids in inhalables, the food industry and in hygienic and cosmetic products. Veterinary uses for cannabinoids are also coming to light. The use of naturally occurring cannabinoids reduces the need for synthetic alternatives that may produce harmful off-target effects.
So how does this affect the investing market?
Where there is demand, significant and growth investments follow. All the major players from nutraceuticals, CPG, cosmetics and pet care companies are driving the demand for rare cannabinoids. We are seeing a major investment shift from commodity-based prices for cannabis and CBD to the new biosynthesis technology which offers significantly better health benefits and higher profit margins. Those unique qualities of rare cannabinoids open an enormous opportunity to create new drugs and food supplements for treating various medical conditions and improving the quality of life. This creates a massive global opportunity for all companies in these categories differentiating their products from competitors.
There will be big winners and losers in these markets, but at the end of the day, the highest quality and lowest cost producers will capture most of these markets. Biomedican has the highest quality, highest yields and lowest cost of production in the industry. Which we believe will make us the clear leader in the biosynthesis rare cannabinoid markets.
Which rare cannabinoid to invest in first?
Early reports indicate THCV (not to be confused with THC) could contain a variety of health benefits: it may help with appetite suppression/weight loss, possibly treat diabetes as well the potential to reduce tremors and seizures caused by conditions like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
There has been an explosion of interest in THCV due to its potential health benefits. We are seeing major players in the nutraceutical, health food and pharmaceutical industries clamoring to add THCV to their product lines. Companies can now produce THCV through biosynthesis, creating a pharmaceutical-grade, organic, bioidentical compound at 70-90% less than wholesale prices. This is exactly what the largest players in the market want: a pharmaceutical-grade, consistent product at significantly less cost. The current prices and quality have limited THCV production, but new breakthroughs in biosynthesis have solved those issues, so we expect a tsunami of orders for THCV in 2021.
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the fourth article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this third piece, we talk with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. Stephanie started with Cresco in 2019 after transitioning from an award-winning career in traditional foods CPG. She now heads up product development where she manages R&D for Cresco, a multi-state operation with tremendous SKU variety.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Lisa McClung and Glenn Armstrong from Coda Signature. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Stephanie, how did you get involved at Cresco Labs?
Stephanie Gorecki:A few years ago, CBD became the most talked about ingredient in the food industry. CBD-infused food headlines appeared in most of the trade magazines. I have always been curious about working in the cannabis space, and not just with CBD, but THC and other cannabinoids. I researched technical seminars and came across the cannabis infused edibles short course put on by the Institute of Food Technologists.
I attended the short course in April of 2019. I realized that to be hands-on with cannabis in the near future, I would need to join an organization that was already in the space. The space was highly regulated which meant that research in the mainstream food and beverage space was limited.
Immediately following that seminar, I began to look for opportunities near where I lived. That’s when I came across the Cresco Labs career opportunity. The Director of Food Science position appeared to be a good match. I applied for the position and went through the interview process. Approximately two months after attending that seminar, I joined Cresco Labs.
Aaron: Awesome! It’s a cool story. In your role, how do you think about developing products that differentiate in the market?
Stephanie: There are many opportunities for brand differentiation in cannabis right now. There is a focus on high bioavailability and water solubility and how that translates to onset times once consumed. Many of these technologies utilize ingredient technologies and systems that I have experience with from my past work in the flavor industry.
Gummies and jellies are a great infusion matrix to start with because of their shelf-life stability. There are a variety of formulation techniques that can be used to deliver on product differentiations. There is an abundance of flavor varieties, colors, processing steps and cannabinoid ratios that can be baked into a formula to make that product line unique.
Here in the cannabis space, SKU variety is essential. It’s exciting to be a part of a company where we develop products that appeal to a variety of customer wants and needs.
Aaron: In that vein, what’s your process then for creating a new product?
Stephanie: I’ll start with how we develop an edible. Most of my background is in this type of product development, but the same process is applied to how we develop and extract vape, topical, flower SKU, or ready-to-smoke type products. We follow a similar stage/gate process utilized by most CPG companies.
Marketing typically presents our product development team with a brief on a new concept based on how they’ve read the needs of the market. There are opportunities for us to come to marketing with ideas for innovation, too. The product development team regularly works in our processing facility, so we as a team are aware of the different capabilities of each state and production line. During the briefing phase, we determine what is needed to be achieved and the parameters that the team would like the new product to deliver on.
For edibles, we begin our development work at The Hatchery. The Hatchery is our non-infused product development space that we utilize outside of our processing facility. In this space, we have several pieces of pilot equipment that allow us to scale and create prototypes that are highly representative of what our finished product will look like. For vapes, flower SKUs and RTS (ready-to-smoke) products, development and processing trials happen within our cultivation center.
All infusions are conducted in our licensed processing center. We also conduct stability testing and analytical testing in-house on our products. Our analytical lab is amazing – we have talented chemists and the ability to run GCMS, HPLC, microbiological testing, and many other analytical tests that are important for ensuring consistency and product uniformity.
Aaron: Can you expand on a point about testing? How do you think about testing at the different points in your manufacturing or production process?
Stephanie: Testing comes in several forms. We focus heavily on analytical testing since that does not involve product consumption. Potency uniformity and consistency is critical for edibles. For infused products, we have one shot at hitting our potency – infusion science is extremely important for us. Our gummies and chocolates cannot be re-worked, so hitting our potency range on the first attempt is important. If we miss the target, the product has to be destroyed.
We have methods developed to conduct in-process potency testing where we can. With the processes and infusion methods that we have implemented, we are rarely outside of our targeted potency ranges.
Aaron: Okay, awesome, then, can you walk me through your experience with one of your most recent product launches?
Stephanie: We recently launched Mindy’s Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark, a limited time offering for our Mindy’s chocolate line. There’s a series of commercialization trials that we will conduct prior to launch. We use these trials as an opportunity to train our production teams on the new manufacturing instructions and processes.
When it comes to launching products, our technical teams are very hands on with new product introductions. Since we cannot manufacture product in one state and ship it to another state, we have to build processing centers and secure the proper licenses in every state that we’d like to operate in. When we have a new product ready to launch in a new state, our team works with Operations on the tech transfer piece. We’re there on-site during launches to oversee and train on the entire process until our teams are comfortable with manufacturing and packaging the new SKUs.
We monitor launches carefully to ensure product looks as it should before and after leaving our facility for sale in licensed dispensaries across the state. When there are opportunities to optimize a process post-launch, we will do what we can to make the process work as well as possible for the teams producing our products.
Aaron: Okay, so next question is, how do you go about sourcing ingredients for your infused products?
Stephanie: We manufacture our oils and extracts in house, and then source other ingredients externally. We have a supplier quality assurance process for new supplier approval, and we have documentation needs that we need each supplier to be able to deliver on.
Several of our suppliers have invested in research and development of products that will help us to meet our deliverables in the cannabis industry. Our suppliers, at times, have provided applications support in order to help with our speed to market and early phase prototyping. These types of partnerships are essential to us being able to make quick modifications and decisions on ingredients such as flavors and colors.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? This could be a business challenge or a cannabis-related challenge.
“I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions.”Stephanie: A big challenge for us and other multi-state cannabis operators are the variations in compliance regulations state-to-state. We have compliance managers in every state who work to ensure we are meeting all of the state regulations. Our packaging reviews are in-depth because of all the language that needs to be included on our packaging.
Each state needs its own packaging with proper compliance labeling. Some states require a cannabis warning symbol of a certain type. If we sell Mindy’s Gummies in 8 flavors and THC mg SKUs in four states, that is 32 different pieces of artwork that need to be managed and cross-checked for accuracy. We have 32 separate pieces of packaging for this one line of products. We have many lines of products with multiples strains (flower and vapes) and flavors (edibles).
Aaron: You mentioned packaging, do you do all of your packaging in house?
Stephanie: We design our packaging artwork in-house. We have a creative team who works on our product artwork, and then a team of cross-functional members tasked with packaging editing and review. Packaging reviews go through multiple rounds before being released for printing. We source a variety of packaging depending on the needs of the product going into the packaging. For edibles, our packaging has to be opaque. Product cannot be seen through the packaging in most states. This is great for our products that are made with natural colors that may be light sensitive.
All of our packaging needs to be child resistant. This limits the amount of packaging variety that we have, but this is a big opportunity for packaging developers. We want and need more sustainable forms of packaging that are differentiated from other packaging forms currently on the market.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry personally?
Stephanie: Cannabis trends that are of interest to me personally are fast-onset and water solubility technology. There have also been many discussions surrounding minor cannabinoids and how those can be blended together to drive customer experience.
There are traditional food trends that also impact how we formulate. Our Mindy’s Edibles line is flavor forward. The flavors are sophisticated. In the Mindy’s line, you won’t find a generic orange or grape flavor. Instead, you’ll find a Lush Black Cherry or Cool Key Lime Kiwi Flavor. This flavor development work starts with Mindy Segal, who is the face and talented James Beard award-winning chef behind our Mindy’s Edibles line of products.
Aaron: Okay, so the last question I have for you is, what are you interested in learning more about?
Stephanie: I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions. People use cannabis for many reasons: to relax, to ease aches or pains, etc. It’s exciting to lead part of our technical team during a period of time where cannabis is rapidly growing and is of great interest and increasing acceptance across our country and in the world.
Aaron: Okay. So that’s it. That’s the end of the interview!
As of this writing, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GW Pharma’s CBD drug Epidiolex for treating profound refractory pediatric epilepsy syndromes (Dravet syndrome and Lennox Gastaut syndrome) as well as for treating seizures associated with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) in patients one year of age or older. The product is a very simple, orally-administered formulation comprised of 100mg/ml cannabidiol (CBD), dehydrated alcohol, sesame seed oil, strawberry flavor and sucralose – basically, an alcohol-based solution with sesame seed oil to help solubilize the CBD oil, flavoring and sweetener.
On April 6th, 2020 GW Pharma performed a regulatory miracle when they succeeded in convincing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to deschedule Epidiolex (i.e., remove it from the Schedule 1 and Schedule 5 lists of substances that the agency regulates due to concerns regarding safety, potential for abuse or both) for all indications – including indications for which it has not yet been approved by the FDA.1 The benefit to GW of having their product descheduled is incalculable. This status change removed potential barriers to insurance reimbursement and made the need to set up and administer an expensive REMS2 drug safety program less likely. In part because of this regulatory coup d’état, the drug recently posted yearly earnings of nearly $300 million.
It is important to note that the DEA descheduled the Epidiolex formulation and not cannabis-derived CBD itself. Thus, GW Pharma is now in the enviable position of being the only company that can legally sell cannabis-derived CBD. More importantly, because the DEA descheduled the formulation and not the active ingredient, other companies who wish to market cannabis-derived CBD pharmaceutical formulations will have to repeat whatever it is that GW did to get Epidiolex descheduled.3 The DEA effectively gave the company a huge head start with respect to competitors who are developing other cannabis-derived CBD formulations that would compete with Epidiolex. That advantage will remain in place unless and until cannabis-derived CBD itself is descheduled or cannabis is legalized at the federal level.
GW Pharma’s attorneys demonstrated considerable virtuosity in devising this approach. However, there is another aspect of the GW Pharma story – one that could have profound implications for the exploding CBD consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act4 (FFDCA) prohibits the introduction into interstate commerce of any food to which has been added an approved drug or a drug for which substantial clinical investigations have been instituted and made public.5 Because CBD was and is still the subject of clinical trials run by GW Pharma and others, even hemp-derived CBD is currently illegal to use as a food additive or dietary supplement under the FDCA
The FDA has recently re-started the public commentary stage of a long process that will hopefully result in the creation of a regulatory pathway for CBD to be used as a food additive – something that would seemingly be a straightforward matter given the copious amounts of safety data being generated from all of GW Pharma’s clinical trials. However, as long as the FDA continues to drag its feet in providing a regulatory pathway for CBD CPG products, CBD, regardless of its source, will remain illegal to use as a food additive or supplement under either the CSA or the FFDCA despite the existence of safety data obtained through the Epidiolex clinical trials. If, as many people in the industry anticipate, the agency decides to begin enforcement action, this could have a hugely negative impact on the industry.
In addition to the potentially disastrous effect that federal law could have on an important new industry, the federal regulatory scheme introduces unnecessary regulatory complexity and cost by imposing two different regulatory schemes depending on the source of the CBD. CBD derived from hemp is chemically identical to CBD derived from cannabis. Despite that identity, the 2018 Farm Bill nonsensically exempts only hemp-derived CBD from the Controlled Substances Act. If a regulatory pathway is created for hemp-derived CBD, but the DEA insists on maintaining cannabis-derived CBD as a schedule 1 substance, then the same molecule will be subject to two different regulatory schemes. This scenario would require tracking and certifying CBD sources and thereby impose regulatory and economic burdens that are entirely unnecessary from a public health point of view.
An alternative, economically disastrous scenario: given the pharmaceutical industry’s formidable lobbying power, it is entirely possible that the FDA could decide to limit the use of CBD exclusively in prescription drug formulations. This could kill the entire US hemp CBD CPG industry, currently estimated to reach $22 billion by 2022.6
Overall, the current state of affairs is unfair, expensive, uncertain and entirely unworkable over the long term. The CSA must be amended, ideally to deschedule both hemp and cannabis entirely, but at least in the short term, to deschedule CBD and preferably all non-THC cannabinoids regardless of their source. Further, the FDA must provide a regulatory pathway to allow the use of low doses of cannabinoids shown to be safe, either by existing clinical trial data or future testing pursuant to the NDIN submission process.
A 2019 Gallup poll found that 14% of Americans – 1 in 7 – use CBD products.7 The demand is there, the industry is thriving, and adequate safety data exists to justify a regulatory system that allows low-dose over the counter CBD products provided those products are produced using Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) for food and dietary supplement manufacturing prescribed by the FDA and that such products undergo regular testing that demonstrates they are safe, unadulterated and accurately labeled. It is time for the industry to collectively fund a New Dietary Ingredient Notification (NDIN) submission that would provide safety data sufficiently compelling to force the FDA to either recognize CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids as being GRAS substances regardless of their source, or in the alternative create a regulatory path for CPG products containing low-doses of CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of its author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Cannabis Industry Journal, its editorial staff or its employees.
Clincialtrials.gov lists 256 different clinical trials in which Epidiolex has been, is being or will be tested for a wide variety of other indications, including but not limited to opioid use disorder, several types of prostate cancer, alcohol use disorder, musculoskeletal pain, and a host of others.
REMS – risk evaluation and mitigation strategy – are drug safety programs that the FDA requires in cases where mediations pose serious safety concerns with respect to potential abuse and other adverse effects.
Exactly what they did isn’t clear, and won’t be for a long while given the snail’s pace at which FOIA requests are filled.
Title 21 United States Code Chapter 9
Title 21 United States Cod Chapter 9, Sections 331(ll), 342(a)(1) and Section 342(d)(f)(1)
“Exclusive: New Report Predicts CBD Market Will Hit $22 Billion by 2022” Rolling Stone Magazine, September 11, 2018, citing cannabis industry analysis from the Brightfield Group.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.
Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!
Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.
Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?
Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!
Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?
Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.
When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.
Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?
Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.
Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?
Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.
I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on. I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.
Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.
When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.
I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.
So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?
Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?
Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.
Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?
Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”
So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.
Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.
Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?
Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.
I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.
I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.
Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?
Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”
Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?
Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.
Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?
Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.
Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.
Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!
Georgia doesn’t have a hemp market yet, but that is about to change. In 2019, the Georgia state legislature passed two bills: HB 213, the Georgia Hemp Farming Act and HB 324, the Hope Act, which legalized low-THC oil. While the regulatory framework for the program is still being decided, the market in the state is now beginning to materialize.
Kevin Quirk, CEO of Harvest Connect LLC, wants to be a pioneer for the hemp industry in the Southeast. With a strong focus on local economic growth, Quirk is moving quickly to corner the market and establish a thriving enterprise. His background is in consumer packaged goods (CPG). He’s worked for Anheuser-Busch, Coca Cola and Minute Maid before becoming an entrepreneur in the CPG space. He started White Hat Brands, a children’s health and wellness company, where they worked with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to co-develop wellness brands for children.
During that time, he saw two major trends unfolding in the CPG arena: organic health and wellness products and hemp-derived CBD products. “Every year we’d see more and more CBD products on the market,” says Quirk. “Almost a year ago, we decided to get into the hemp space coinciding with Georgia’s push around the hemp and medical cannabis market.” That’s when Georgia’s state legislature introduced those two bills.
In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael wiped out an entire season of crops for Georgia farmers, an almost $3 billion hit to the local agricultural economy. Farmers in Georgia were devastated, taking massive losses. “That put momentum behind the hemp program and gave Governor Kemp the impetus to move forward right after the 2018 Farm Bill passed,” says Quirk. With the launch of his newest venture, Harvest Connect LLC, a Georgia-based hemp-derived CBD extraction and retail company, he saw a way to help some farmers get back on their feet.
Quirk says he expects the state will have applications ready for submittal in the next 60-90 days. The state is going to issue permits to processors and farmers. For farmers, the barriers to entry are pretty low- just $50 per acre for a hemp farming permit with a $5 thousand dollar cap. For a processing permit, the barriers are higher and include an application fee, a surety bond and a minimum of at least five Georgia farmers committed to process in a permitted facility. According to Quirk, it is also critical to understand how to manufacture quality products in a highly regulated environment. Quirk has experience in building and running food-grade USDA and FDA manufacturing facilities and already has a number of farmers signed up to process with them once the program gets off the ground. Many of them are tobacco and cotton farmers hit hard in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Harvest Connect, through its subsidiary Graceleaf, is planning to launch a series of retail CBD stores throughout the state. “This will help us meet the demand in Georgia, which will help patients in Georgia and which will then help farmers in Georgia,” says Quirk. Georgia hasn’t launched a new agricultural product in decades at least, so for Quirk and Harvest Connect, this is about putting Georgia farmers first. “We plan to work very closely with our growers as partners to make sure everyone succeeds,” he added.
Quirk predicts the Southeast will be a leading producer of hemp for years to come. “I think it’s going to be huge,” says Quirk. “With just the pure amount of agricultural land mass that we have, plus the ideal climate, we’ll be able to turn 2-3 crops a year in the southern parts of Georgia. We actually think Georgia could be one of the most significant producers of hemp in the country.”
While the state is working on promulgating the rules, establishing the licensing process and rolling out the hemp program, Quirk is working to iron out the details of his business so they are ready as soon as the time comes. “We expect to be up and running with our processing facility by Q2 of 2020.”
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