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Spotlight on AOAC: New Leadership, New Initiatives In Cannabis & Food

By Aaron G. Biros
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AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.

Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.

In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.

Dr. Palmer Orlandi is the new Deputy Executive Director and Chief Science Officer at AOAC.

Where It All Began With Cannabis

As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.

According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.

Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official Methods at AOAC

Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”

Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs

Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”

According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.

Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles

The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.

Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program

Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.

While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing

Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.

David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC

“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”

When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.

Food Authenticity & Fraud

One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.

AOAC INTERNATIONAL is working in a large variety of other areas as well. All of these topics will be explored in much greater detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Blockchain Controversies Continue To Rock The Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchained ecosystem that does not use utility tokens, and that is currently going to pilot in Europe designed to eliminate such risks.


As reported here in Cannabis Industry Journal last year in a three part series, there are considerable dangers of utilizing blockchain in the cannabis industry (as well as other industry sectors) that directly affect all commercial operators as well as consumers of both the recreational and medical kind. These remain largely unsolved.

These include regulatory and compliance issues in every direction, starting with banking and securities law, but also include privacy and consumer protections. They also fly in the face of regulations imposed by governments to control inflation, set prices for medications and food, and prevent monopolies.

Beyond that, they also pose considerable if so far unexamined liabilities for businesses operating in this space (including uncontrollable volatility in basic business operations) that very much impact the basic cost of doing business.As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news. 

The Skinny On Paragon
As of November last year, the company was sanctioned by the SEC in a precedent setting case on the issue of whether “utility tokens” are securities or not. In fact, the SEC found that Paragon illegally marketed and distributed digital securities under the false pretension that they were not securities. Paragon, in turn, reached a settlement with the SEC that it would return any funds received by investors prior to October 15, 2017 and pay a fine to the SEC.

As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news. Because of the settlement agreement, it appears that a pump and dump group operating through the exchange YoBit managed to raise the token briefly from about $.10 a token to $10 in an effort to raise the cost of compensation from Paragon. This absurd rally was completely unsustainable, and as a result, fell back to $0.3 per token (albeit tripled the price of the token). But the fact that it happened at all is illustrative of the extreme risk now faced by the industry itself from this kind of tech and financial model.

Why? It means that all users (token holders) of such an ecosystem and for any purpose, would be directly exposed to such risks in the future. And on literally an hour-by-hour basis.

Utility tokens in other words, as defined by all such models (and Paragon is far from the only one), are used not only for investment in such businesses, but then bought downstream, via exchanges, by people who wish to transact in the network itself. And that is the real danger to businesses themselves by adopting such models.

Problem 1 – Utility Tokens Are Securities

The biggest issue at the heart of this conversation is this: Tokens are recognized now as securities, and further still operating in a world where pump and dump on the exchanges is a major liability for all who buy the tokens for any purpose. This means for example, that anyone who must buy a system cybercoin to transact within a blockchained ecosystem (from consumer to business manager overseeing international distribution of their product from the commercial end) would face unprecedented volatility that does not exist by using regulated currencies. Good old dollars and euros for example do not pose this kind of existential risk to businesses themselves.

In the Paragon case directly, for example, owning Paragon crypto means that monthly rent at the incubator would fluctuate in cost based on the unregulated cost of the coin, not a prenegotiated rental agreement in regular currency for space (which is far less volatile). In the current environment, such space just tripled in price.

Beyond that, no consumer in California, for example, would want to have to face the added cost of buying a hyped token (at artificially raised prices) before they can access the newest, coolest strain of bud.

Such systems in other words, are NOT just a fancy form of a digital payment solution (like Paypal). What they do dramatically increases the risk of price volatility in all business operations (also called “cost of goods sold” or COG), andto the end user while also directly exposing all to such risk at every point of production, processing and sales.

Why?Latency issues are also a major issue.

Because the cost of conducting normal, basic business operations would be directly exposed to speculating investors. Even local businesses, in other words, would be completely vulnerable to not just the fluctuations domestically or even internationally caused by doing business in multiple jurisdictions and traditional currency risk, but have direct and unprecedented exposure to a much less regulated and far more volatile price environment globally. And further one that affects literally the entire manufacturing and distribution process.

Problem 2 – Network Congestion

Latency issues are also a major issue. This is a bit more technical and complicated, but is one of the bigger reasons why most blockchain technology and solutions are still incapable of dealing with commercial industry requirements. Much less keep regulated industries in any space, in compliance.

Here is one way to think of the problem. If you have many users on a blockchain network all at once, speed of transaction goes way down and associated costs go way up.

The tokenized asset in other words, has to compete not only with people buying the token as an investment, but those using them to buy goods and services on the commercial side AND the industry processing taking place behind the scenes to fulfil and track product. This has been easy to see with Bitcoin in particular, but is not limited to the same.

Further, prioritization on a network itself (and the costs involved to overcome them, also paid in tokens) then unfairly creates a monopoly environment because of the added costs involved to speed up otherwise normally processed and critical operations. The biggest boys on the block(chain) win. Always. That is antithetical to anti-trust law.

Problem 4 – Undermining Basic Government Regulations On Cost Of Purchase

Here is the biggest conundrum, particularly facing the international cannabis industry now in the process of exporting across international borders. Governments (particularly in Europe) routinely set prices on medicine (in particular), for large contractual purchases and to insure the continued survival of public healthcare (which in Europe and the UK covers most people). See the German cultivation bid for cannabis as a prime example. The government is forcing the industry to submit prices via competitive bid that are expected to come in somewhere between 1-1.5 euro per gram. This in turn will affect not only domestically grown but imported cannabis – and from all points on the globe as the industry opens up.

That process is impossible in an environment where the cost of production itself would be (in a price volatile blockchained delivery system) inherently unpredictable and unstable because the price of production and distribution is itself a speculated upon commodity that can vary, literally, at the speed of a pump and dumped token, sold on any unregulated exchange, anywhere in the world. And as a result, is also illegal.

Sequoia Analytical Labs Caught Falsifying Results

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last month, Sequoia Analytical Labs admitted that they falsified hundreds of pesticide tests for batches of cannabis products. The Sacramento-based laboratory faked data on 22 different pesticide tests for more than 700 batches over a period of four months.

According to a notice posted on Sequoia’s website, the skewed results were originally found due to a “faulty instrument” but “it was further discovered” that the lab director knew about it and was fraudulently posting the results in order to hand out certificates of analysis. The lab director in question has since been fired and Sequoia voluntarily relinquished their state license.

Joe Devlin, Sacramento’s chief of cannabis enforcement, told KCRA3 News “We’re going to be taking a look at suspending or possibly revoking their permit.” He followed that up with saying that California needs more testing labs. “The shortage of labs has really created a bottleneck in the supply chain across the state,” says Devlin. There are only 43 licensed laboratories in the state of California as of this time, and just three of those are in Sacramento.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the regulatory authority overseeing the cannabis testing market in California, has not commented on this story, but they did reach out to distributors who had sent batches to Sequoia for testing. “Any cannabis goods from these batches, returned by consumers to the retailer, must be destroyed,” reads the BCC letter. “Any cannabis goods returned from a retailer’s inventory or remaining in your inventory may be destroyed, or may be re-sampled and re-tested after obtaining approval from the Bureau. Any cannabis goods from these batches may not be released to a retailer without re-sampling and re-testing.”

Sequoia Analytical Labs posted two notices on their homepage, one was a letter to their clients informing them of the fraud and the other is that BCC letter to distributors doing the same. “Management and ownership were horrified to learn about this severe breach of a very important safety regulation,” reads the notice. “We have voluntarily surrendered our license to do COA testing to the BCC while we make the required corrections. We are already hard at work making the needed changes to the instrument and revamping procedures so that we may get our license reinstated January 1.”

As of today, the lab’s license has not been reinstated.

Aphria Fights Shortseller Allegations Of Insider Double Dealing

By Marguerite Arnold
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Two reports published by short selling stock firm Quintessential Capital Management and forensic investor research firm Hindenburg Research on December 3, charges that Canadian LP Aphria, has bought overinflated assets in Latin America and in Florida from shell companies owned by company insiders. Added to the lingering controversy is the purchase of the German Nuuvera this spring (a company also partly owned by Aphria brass), and the reports went over like a bombshell. Globally.

However, the story has already spread far beyond one company. And the response in the market has rocked the industry for most of December.

Aphria’s shares tanked, and dragged everyone down with them. Several class action law firms in the United States began promptly looking for aggrieved shareholders.

The response by the firm? A promise of an immediate line-by-line rebuttal, due out in the second week of December. So far, however, despite news of an additional Aphria purchase in Paraguay, the rebuttal report has not been issued.

Why Is This So Damaging? Or Is It?

Aphria’s stocks promptly took a dive that halved their value although they began to recover after Aphria management appointed an independent third party firm to review the claims.

Worse, however, the entire industry saw a hit too. This report affected investor confidence across the industry. And although the hit appears to be temporary, the unfolding scenario is a perfect example of why volatility in the market is scaring away not only more conservative female retail investors but larger institutional ones that the industry is now courting assiduously as medical cannabis begins to be integrated into health systems particularly in Europe.

Why?

Bottom line? As the big cannabis companies are listing on the larger, foreign exchanges, including the NYSE and Deutsche Börse, the scrutiny is getting more direct and granular.Despite the stratospheric market caps of all the major Canadian LPs in particular, not to mention enormous expenditures for the last several years (on property and other acquisitions), the revenue picture, as other stock analysts and publications such as the normally neutral Motley Fool recently pointed out, at least so far does not justify the same. Bulk sales to a hospital, establishing a cultivation or processing facility or even getting import licenses may set one up to do business however, but it is not an automatic route to ongoing and expanding sales. And that is the key to high valuations that are rock solid and beyond the scope of such allegations.

For the moment, that pressure, particularly in global medical markets, is falling first on patients if not doctors. Not the industry.

That said, this has been a major building year. Recreational cannabis has just become legal in Canada. And in Europe, reform is still in the process of happening.

It is also a charge if not frustration that has been growing, however, against all the public cannabis companies as valuations shoot into the stratosphere. Forensic and investigative firms, particularly in Europe and the United States have been focusing on the industry for close to a year now. As a result even when firms successfully rebut charges of fraud, they are looking at different valuations from analysts at least in the short term.

Bottom line? As the big cannabis companies are listing on the larger, foreign exchanges, including the NYSE and Deutsche Börse, the scrutiny is getting more direct and granular.

Are “Short Seller” Reports Unbiased?

For all of the focus on short seller reports in this industry, however, no matter the accuracy of some of their claims, here is the next issue:

Short sellers make money by betting against not only individual firms but the industry itself. They benefit financially in other words, from volatility in the market and arbitraging even small changes in price. Even if their reports cause the same.

Such reports as a result are also not “unbiased” as industry coverage in the press is supposed to be, no matter how much more time sometimes goes into the reporting and preparation of the same.

And no matter that this industry is now going into its fifth year, there is still lingering scepticism that, in the case of Aphria, has so far not only fallen on the individual firm in question, but then rebounds across the industry, unfairly hurting all firms in this space.

Kelly O'Connor
Soapbox

Dishonest Potency Testing In Oregon Remains A Problem

By Kelly O’Connor
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Kelly O'Connor

Oregon, we have a problem.

Anyone with a search engine can piece together how much THC certain strains produce and what their characteristics are. Oh wait- there’s an app for that… or dozens, I lose count these days.

Nefarious lab results are rampant in our communityLet’s take one of my favorites, Dutch Treat; relaxing, piney and sweet with a standard production of 18-25% THC, according to three different reviews online. So, did I raise an eyebrow when I saw Dutch Treat on Oregon shelves labeled at 30% THC? Did I take it in to an independent, accredited lab and have it tested for accuracy? You bet your inflated potency results I did! The results? Disappointing.

Nefarious lab results are rampant in our community; it is hurting every participant in our industry affected by the trade, commerce and consumption of recreational cannabis.

“I have had labs ask me what I want my potency numbers to look like and make an offer,” says David Todd, owner and operations manager of Glasco Farms, a craft cannabis producer in central Oregon. “It’s insane- I want to stand behind my product and show through scientific fact that I produce a superior flower.”

But without enforcement of lab practice standards, producers are being pressured to play dirty. In her third year cultivating at a two-tier recreational cannabis farm, a producer who wished to remain anonymous sent me an email about the pressures she is up against to produce high THC strains:

“The only sure way to get my product on the shelf at a profitable price is with THC 25% or above. Not a lot of strains have that potential, but the market has plenty with 28% to 32% floating around so I have to go with the same labs as the rest of the independent farmers to get the best numbers I can. The lab I use … return(s) good numbers.”

Those “good numbers,” aka high THC %, are the driving force of sales. A strain tests at 20% THC and it sells for $1,000/lb. Then it tests at 25% THC, and sells for $1300/lb. You produce cannabis for sale- this is your business. And labs are telling you that they can manipulate samples and reports to make you more money. Everyone else is doing it. If you don’t, your product isn’t “good enough” to sell. What do you do?Labs should operate ethically.

It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by lies, lack of enforcement resources, coercion and undereducation. We are all responsible. Yet, ask who the source of the problem is and everyone points fingers across the circle.

The consumers are uneducated about cannabis and only focus on THC. The dispensaries and budtenders should be educating them. Producers should take a stand and use an honest lab. Labs should operate ethically.

I repeat: Oregon, we have a problem.

It’s time to stop living in a land where Dutch Treat is hitting 30% THC. It’s time for everyone to demand auditing and ethics.

Laws have been set forth on how to sample, prep, test and report analyses for cannabis to ensure fair commerce, consumer health and public safety. But there’s a clear need to blind test the different labs, and for unbiased, third-party research and development.

As federal eyes turn to the Oregon to investigate black market activity, regulatory bodies are tightening their grip on licensees to maintain legal validity and avoid shut down.

The time to demand change and integrity is now.The crack-down began on August 23, 2018, when the OLCC investigated several prominent producers’ practices. Black market distribution incurred the harshest penalty; the OLCC revoked their wholesale license due to multiple violations.

“We want good compliant, law-abiding partners as OLCC marijuana licensees,” says Paul Rosenbaum, OLCC Commission Chair. “We know the cannabis industry is watching what we’re doing, and believe me, we’ve taken notice. We’re going to find a way to strengthen our action against rule breakers, using what we already have on the books, and if need be working with the legislature to tighten things up further.”

Trends in METRC data lay the foundation for truth, and it’s time to put it to use. “The Cannabis Tracking System worked as it should enabling us to uncover this suspicious activity,” says Steven Marks, OLCC Executive Director. “When we detect possible illegal activity, we need to take immediate steps …”

Potency fraud might not be at the top of the list for investigation, but labs and producers are breaking the law, and there will be consequences. ORELAP and OLCC have the right to investigate and revoke licenses of labs that are falsifying data and consumers can file claims with the Department of Justice.

The time to demand change and integrity is now.