Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.
Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie
Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.
Problems with Potency
Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.
Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.
I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.
These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.
The Pesticide Predicament
Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.
As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.
In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.
An Easy Fix
Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:
Verifying Lab Accuracy
InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.
Labs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.
By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.
For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.
Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:
- “If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
- “I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
- “My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”
If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.
The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.
Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe
The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.
Read more about this in Disposable Gloves: The Unregulated Cannabis Threat, previously published in the Cannabis Industry Journal.
The Cost of Recalls
In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.
A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.
Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.
Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.
Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:
- Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
- GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
- Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.
For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.
As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:
- Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest?
- Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
- Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
- Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
- Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
- Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
- Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
- Poor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
- Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
- Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.
On March 23, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting our annual Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to nine veterans of the cultivation market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of growing cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on growing organically, facility design and planning, hemp farming and integrated pest management.
Back in December during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, the Cultivation Technology episode featured a session titled A Panel Discussion: Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation. Due to a large amount of interest and attendee questions that the panel did not have time to address, we are reprising this panel discussion and bringing it back on March 23.
Speakers for that panel discussion include: Gretchen Schimelpfenig, PE, Technical Director of Resource Innovation; Brandy Keen, Co-Founder & Sr. Technical Advisor at Surna, Inc; Adam Chalasinski, Applications Engineer at Rough Brothers/Nexus Greenhouse Systems/Tetra; David Vaillencourt, Founder & CEO of The GMP Collective, and Kyle Lisabeth, Vice President of Horticulture at Silver Bullet Water.
- Why CBD Companies Should Go Organic
- Brad Kelley, COO of Socati
- The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management
- David Perkins, Founder of Floresco Consulting
- Starting from Scratch: Launching a Hemp Farm in Georgia
- Reginald “Reggie” Reese, Founder & CEO of The Green Toad Hemp Farm
- Dwayne Hirsch, President & Chief of Business Development at The Green Toad Hemp Farm
You can check out the agenda in its entirety and register here. Attendees will have the opportunity to ask speakers questions during the live Q&A session that follows each session. Registration is complimentary. For sponsorship opportunities, contact RJ Palermo at Rj@innovativepublishing.net
Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis.
If you are considering getting involved in California cannabis, imagine the following sentence in ten-foot-tall letters made out of recently ignited $20 bills:
Before you put any money down on property, carefully examine the local cannabis ordinance and tax rates.
This article is written in the form of advice to a newbie cannabis entrepreneur in California, but it will discuss issues that are also of significance to investors, as well as (to various degrees) cannabis entrepreneurs in other states.
Here are seven basic questions that you need to ask about local regulations (in order, except for Number 7).
1. What’s Your Jurisdiction?
If you’re in city limits, it’s the city. If you’re outside city limits, it’s the county.
2. Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
If the answer is yes, go to the next question. If the answer is no, pick another jurisdiction.
3. Where Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
A zoning ordinance will limit where you can set up shop. The limitation will probably vary by license type.
4. How Does the Local Ordinance Affect Facility Costs?
The short answer is: in many ways. Your local ordinance is a Pandora’s box of legal requirements, especially facility-related requirements.1 Read your local cannabis ordinance very carefully.
Generally speaking, the cannabis ordinance will set out two types of requirements – those that are specific to cannabis and those that apply generally to any business.
- Typically incorporate state cannabis laws by reference.
- Have significant overlaps with state cannabis laws. For example, the state requires commercial-grade locks and security cameras everywhere cannabis may be found on a given premises. Local ordinances generally include similar requirements – keep in mind that you will need to comply with a combined standard that satisfies both state and local requirements.2
- Vary greatly according to type of activity. For example, manufacturers will need to comply with Health & Safety Code requirements that can have a major impact on construction costs.
- Vary greatly by jurisdiction when it comes to equity programs.
- Include by reference building and fire codes, which can require very expensive improvements. Note that this means your facility will be inspected by the building department and the fire department.
- Can include anything from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements to city-specific requirements, such as Design Guidelines.
- Will be zealously enforced because you’re a cannabis business.
5. What is the Enforcement Policy?
It may be that your local jurisdiction will give you temporary local authorization after meeting some, but not all, of the requirements. For example, you may be able to begin operations once you’ve provided your city or county with your cannabis permit application, a zoning clearance and a business permit. In this jurisdiction, you would be able to bring your building up to code sometime after you begin operations.
On the other hand, your local jurisdiction may require you to meet every requirement – from cannabis-specific security requirements to general building code and ADA requirements – before you can begin operations. Depending on the type of cannabis business (and facility condition), this might be inconsequential. Or it might mean that you will have to pay more than a year’s worth of rent (or mortgage) before you can start making money.
6. Can You Choose a Facility That Saves You Time and Money?
Of course, you won’t have to spend much time or money bringing your facility up to code if it’s already up to code. How likely it is that you will find such a facility varies wildly according to the type of cannabis activity in question. In general:
- Service-side activities (delivery retail, storefront retail, distribution) are in many respects similar to their non-cannabis counterparts. From a facilities standpoint, the major differences come from security requirements. So, it may be possible to save time and money by choosing a facility that is already up to code for a similar use.
- Manufacturing activities are trickier, since you will need food-grade facilities and equipment. You may be able to save money by setting up shop in a commercial kitchen.
- Extraction with volatile solvents is a special (and particularly expensive) case, since it is inherently dangerous and requires special facilities.
- Outdoor cultivation may be relatively unproblematic if it has an appropriate water source.
- Indoor cultivation is expensive because of climate-control and lighting requirements. Buildings potentially suitable for large-scale indoor grows frequently come with significant problems. Former warehouses will typically require major power upgrades, while former factories may have inconvenient architecture and/or hidden toxic waste. In all cases, internal reconstruction is likely to be necessary, and will trigger all sorts of building and fire code requirements.
7. What Are the Local Cannabis Taxes?
Cannabis tax rates may be determinative. For example, Oakland imposes a 6.5% gross receipts tax on manufacturers that have gross receipts of less than $5M, and 9.5% on manufacturers that have gross receipts over $5M. In comparison, Santa Rosa only imposes a 1% gross receipts tax on manufacturers.
Local cannabis ordinances and taxes can make or break your business, so you need to understand them before you commit to a location. The seven basic questions listed above are designed to get you started.
This article is the opinion of the author and is not intended to be legal or other advice.
- For example, see Part II of the City of Oakland’s Administrative Regulations and Performance Standards, and The City of Los Angeles’s Rules and Regulations for Cannabis Procedures No. 3 (A)(14).
- For example, compare 16 CCR § 5044 (“Video Surveillance System”) with The City of Los Angeles’s Rules and Regulations for Cannabis Procedures No. 10 (A)(7).
Worth an estimated $54 to $67 billion, the bourgeoning U.S cannabis industry continues to grow at record pace despite conflicting state and federal laws that cause obstacles at every turn.
This conflict remains a source of uncertainty for retailers, cultivators and the general public. And, unfortunately, the palpable tug of war between the states and the federal government will only increase when legalization is introduced at the federal level, putting tax dollars up for grabs.
A tug-of-war between the states and the federal government makes it difficult for cannabis businesses to obtain bank accounts, insurance and investors. It also means additional security and compliance challenges. It is the reason that the cannabis industry is an unsupportive environment for start-ups and employees who face primitive or even dangerous R&D conditions in order to advance the extraction process.
As cannabis companies fight to grow their market share, many lag behind when instituting a proper risk management structure from R&D to daily operations. Cannabis businesses that haven’t incorporated risk management will need to in 2021, especially when seeking to secure funding from PE firms.
As the 8th fastest growing industry in the U.S., maturing at more than 25% annually, adult use and medical cannabis sales are unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Rather, experts predict continued growing pains – and gains – to shape the U.S. cannabis industry in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to increase the growth of the cannabis industry— with a few roadblocks
Deemed “essential businesses,” many retail outlets and dispensaries stayed open throughout the pandemic and adopted new ways of serving customers, from curbside pick-up to drive-through windows and deliveries. At the same time, the pandemic hindered growth for some cannabis operations on the cusp of obtaining a license, as many applications were put on hold when state offices closed their doors for months. In some cases that meant raised capital was pulled and funding ceased. For start-ups who are seeking to apply again in 2021, it’ll be an uphill climb.
As a result of routine COVID-19 inspections in 2020, state officials uncovered a host of other issues at cannabis operations, including improper labeling, poor health and safety practices, lack of PPE compliance by staff and customers, incorrect counting of cash and more. In extreme cases, these visits resulted in regulatory fines and shutdowns. This led to the need to use seed money for something other than the organization’s original mission. In 2021, these scenarios are likely to turn into lawsuits from shareholders and activate directors & officers (D&O) and employment practices liability (EPL) claims from laid-off workers. These accusations dovetail with another major charge often levied against cannabis businesses —lightning speed growth without the business operations and risk management protocols necessary to support it.
Many cannabis businesses have not procured the necessary liability insurance coverage for the great risk that come with rapid growth. Whether it’s D&O and EPL policies as in the case above, or cyber, property or general liability (GL) policies, it’s critical to think more holistically about insurance coverage. Cannabis operations need to work with an insurance broker who specializes in the cannabis industry and understands different operations and business location, as exposures vary greatly.
R&D extraction dangers lead to unique risks
In 2021, extraction will be a major focus for cannabis organizations. Operations will continue searching for a competitive advantage to increase yield and develop superior products. Cannabis extractors will experiment with new ways to apply existing laboratory methods utilizing ethanol and CO2 as well as innovative cultivation methods adopted from the agriculture industry, using water and light exposure and different nutrients. R&D becomes a potential liability when cannabis extractors modify the use of existing equipment for a different type of extraction. Flammable products are often required, and explosions can occur.
If you are considering experimenting with R&D, engage your insurance broker to ensure the risk is covered within your existing policies and to explore best practices for experimentation and varying equipment use.
Desire for more security both inside and outside the operation
A cannabis operation’s security risk is two-fold. In light of the looting and civil unrest across the U.S. this year, heightened security measures were necessary for cannabis businesses to secure their goods. Additionally, a common risk— employee theft —increased as well.
Cannabis retail operations maintain a large supply of cash and product. As looting occurred, it was impossible to relocate cannabis product away from retail storefronts as a majority of state regulations prohibit cannabis to be removed from retail facilities. Owners and operators who did so risked being fined for non-compliance or losing their license.
The majority of cannabis theft — as high as 90% by some estimates — is employee related. In many cases, employees in cannabis grow facilities and retail storefronts scheme to cheat employers. Part of the challenge is that state regulations require plant and production facility blueprints to be publicly available. Thieves are using these layouts to plot their infiltration. In other scenarios, cannabis operators are recording walk-throughs of their facilities and publishing online documentaries. These also leave operators vulnerable.
Employers can increase security by restricting access exclusively to employee areas, while also investing in better internal access controls. Conduct an audit of your work areas with your cannabis insurance broker who can provide you with a list of best practices and do’s and don’ts for reducing theft.
Complications continue in compliance, banking and financial services
Even though cannabis is legal for medicinal or recreational use in 43 states, businesses still struggle to secure bank accounts, business loans and insurance coverage. Small local banks and savings and loan businesses may be more willing to engage with cannabis businesses in 2021, while large institutions will keep shying away.
At every stop of the supply chain, cannabis business operators need to be proactive when developing strategies to manage risk. That means implementing risk management protocols to protect their business, their workforce as well as securing the proper insurance coverage.
This also includes growing the cannabis business’ safety net by engaging necessary insurance policies, appropriate to the business’ size and exposure, including cyber, environmental liability and crime policies, or applying for emerging loan programs in an effort to secure additional capital.
Evolution of the industry into 2021 and beyond
While the cannabis industry is evolving and changing, much will ultimately remain the same in 2021. Even if the U.S. government takes steps to federally legalize cannabis, a bill would not go into effect until later in the year at best, more likely in 2022 or beyond. Until a bill is passed, cannabis businesses will look to remain viable beyond the state level. For all cannabis businesses, 2021 will be about building on what they’re already doing and preparing for what will hopefully come next.
The cannabis industry is growing and evolving at an unprecedented pace and regulators, consumers and businesses continually struggle to keep up.
Cannabis businesses: How do you maintain an edge on the market, avoid costly mistakes?
Case Study: Costly Facility Build Out Oversights
David Vaillencourt will be joining a panel discussion, Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation, on December 22 during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference. Click here to register. A vertically integrated multi-state operator wants to produce edibles. The state requires adherence to food safety practices (side note – even if the state did not, adherence to food safety practices should be considered as a major facility and operational requirement). They are already successfully producing flower, tinctures and other oil derivatives. Their architect and MEP firm works with them to design a commercial kitchen for the production of safe edibles. The layout is confirmed, the equipment is specified – everything from storage racks, an oven and exhaust hoods, to food-grade tables. The concrete is poured and walls are constructed. The local health authority comes in to inspect the construction progress, who happens to have a background in industrial food-grade facilities (think General Mills). They remind the company that they must have three-compartment sinks with hot running water for effective cleaning and sanitation, known as clean-out-of-place (COP). The result? Partial demolition of the floor to run pipeline, and a retrofit to make room for the larger sinks, including redoing electrical work and a contentious team debate about the size of the existing equipment that was designed to fit ‘just right.’
Unfortunately, this is just one more common story our team recently witnessed. In this article, I outline a few recommendations and a process (Quality by Design) that could have reduced this and many other issues. For some, following the process may just be the difference between being profitable or going out of business in 2021.
The benefits of Quality by Design are tangible and measurable:
- Reduce mistakes that lead to costly re-work
- Mitigate inefficient operational flow
- Reduce the risk of cross-contamination and product mix-ups. It happens all the time without carefully laid out processes.
- Eliminate bottlenecks in your production process
- Mitigate the risk of a major recall.
The solution is in the process
Regardless of whether you fall in the category of a food producer, manufacturer of infused products (MIP), food producers, re-packager or even a cultivator, consider the following and ask these questions as a team.
For every process, who is performing it? This may be a single individual or the role of specific people as defined in a job description.
Does the individual(s) performing the process have sufficient education and training? Do you have a diverse team that can provide different perspectives? World class operations are not developed in a vacuum, but rather with a team. Encourage healthy discourse and dialogue.
Is the process defined? Perhaps in a standard operating procedure (SOP) or work instruction (WI). This is not the general guidance an equipment vendor provided you with, this is your process.
How well do you know your process? Does your SOP or WI specify (with numbers) how long to run the piece of equipment, the specification of the raw materials used (or not used) during the process, and what defines a successful output?
Do you have a system in place for when things deviate from the process? Processes are not foolproof. Do not get hung up on deviations from the process, but don’t turn a blind eye to them. Record and monitor them. In time, they will show you clear opportunities for improvement, preventing major catastrophes.
What are the raw materials being used? Where are they coming from (who is your supplier and how did you qualify them)?
Start with the raw materials that create your product or touch your product at all stages of the process. We have seen many cases where cannabis oils fail for heavy metals, specifically lead. Extractors are quick to blame the cultivator and their nutrients, as cannabis is a very effective phytoremediator (it uptakes heavy metals and toxins from soil substrate). The more likely culprit – your glassware! Storing cannabis oil, both work in process or final product in glass jars, while preferred over plastic, requires due diligence on the provider of your glassware. If they change the factory in which it is produced, will you be notified? Stipulate this in your contract. Don’t find yourself in the next cannabis lead recall that gets the attention of the FDA.
Savings is gained through simple control of your raw materials. Variability in your raw material going into the extractor is inevitable, but the more you can do to standardize the quality of your inputs, the less work re-formulating needs to be done downstream. Eliminate the constant need to troubleshoot why yields are lower than expected, or worst case, having to rerun or throw an entire batch out because it was “hot” (either too much THC in the hemp/CBD space or pesticides/heavy metals). These all add up to significant downstream bottlenecks – underutilized equipment, inefficient staff (increase in labor cost) all because of a lack of upstream controls. Use your current process as a starting point, but implement a quality system to drive improvement in operational efficiency and watch your top line grow while your bottom-line decreases.
Have you tested and confirmed the quality of your raw material? This isn’t just does it have THC and is it cannabis, but is it a certain particle size, moisture level, etc.? Again, define the quality of your raw materials (specifications) and test for it.
Remember – ranges are your friend. It is much better to say 9-13% moisture than “about 10%”. For your most diligent extractor, 11% will be unacceptable, but for a guy that just wants to get the job done, 13% just may do!
Test your final product AFTER the process. Again, how does it stack up against your specifications? You may need to have multiple specifications based on different types of raw material. Perhaps one strain with a certain range of cannabinoids and terpenes can be expected for production.
Review the data and trend it. Are you getting lower yields than normal? This may be due to an issue with the equipment, maybe a blockage has formed somewhere, a valve is loose, and simple preventive maintenance will get you back up and running. Or, it could be that the raw biomass quality has changed. Either way, having that data available for review and analysis will allow you to identify the root cause and prevent a surprise failure of your equipment. Murphy’s law applies to the cannabis industry too.
- You are able to predict and prevent most failures before they occur
- You increase the longevity of your equipment
- You are able to predict with a level of confidence – imagine estimating how much product you will product next month and hitting that target – every time!
- Business risks are significantly mitigated – a process that spews out metal, concentrates heavy metals or does not kill microbes that were in the raw material is an expensive mistake.
- Your employees don’t feel like they are running around with their hair on fire all the time. It’s expensive to train new employees. Reduce your turnover with a less stressed-out team.
Maintaining a competitive edge in the cannabis industry is not easy, but it can be made easier with the right team, tools and data. Our recommendations boil down to a few simple steps:
- Make sure you have a chemical or mechanical engineer to understand, optimize and standardize your process (you should have one of these on staff permanently!)
- Implement a testing program for all raw materials
- Test your raw materials – cannabis flower, solvents, additives, etc. before using. Work with your team to understand what you should and should not test for, and the frequency for doing so. Some materials/vendors are likely more consistent or reliable than others. Test the less reliable ones more frequently (or even every time!)
- Test your final product after you extract it – Just because your local regulatory body does not require a certain test, it does not mean you should not look for it. Anything that you specified wanting the product to achieve needs to be tested at an established frequency (and this does not necessarily need to be every batch).
- Repeat, and record all of your extraction parameters.
- Review, approve and set a system in place for monitoring any changes.
Congratulations, you have just gone through the process of validating your operation. You may now begin to realize the benefits of validating your operation, from your personnel to your equipment and processes.
ImEPIK is a research-based online training company that is known for digital safety training in the food industry, offering courses on things like preventive controls. The company announced last week that they are launching their first class dedicated to the cannabis industry.
The two-part Cannabis Edibles Safety Course is designed to help edibles manufacturers put the quality and safety of their products above all. Part I, “GMPs and the Pyramid of Edible Safety” is now live and includes three modules covering cannabis edibles production under a food industry framework. The course gets into prerequisite programs, the principles of hazard analysis and provides an intro to the company’s “Pyramid of Edible Safety.”
The course is intended for employees that are new to the production of cannabis-infused products, those who are on the front lines of a production facility, or for those who might need a refresher on the basics.
“Part I of the Cannabis Edibles Safety Course prepares cannabis employees to support the sanitation, production and QA managers and the facility’s compliance with regulatory and safety goals,” says Kathryn Birmingham, Ph.D. ImEPIK’s chief operating officer. “The course reflects not only the ‘tried and true’ practices from the food industry, but the nuances of cannabis edibles production are also accounted for in ImEPIK’s course.” Birmingham says the course is designed for employees who work at both large and small facilities.
“ImEPIK has a reputation for providing engaging food safety training that gives production employees the technical knowledge they need to make safe products,” says Jill Droge, ImEPIK’s chief creative and business development officer. “It’s more difficult than ever to make time for training, yet it is one of the most impactful things that manufacturers can do to ensure that their products are safe and will be well received by the market.”
Part II is expected to launch in early November and is designed for supervisors and managers. Keep an eye on imepikcannabissafety.com for the latest course releases.