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Cannabis & COVID: Changes, Advances & Opportunities

By Laura Bianchi
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The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves around the world, and they’re still rippling today. Businesses had to quickly pivot from in-person transactions and services to virtual operations, or close down until stay at home orders and other restrictions eased or lifted. While it varies from state to state, due to statutory and rule based operating requirements, requiring facilities to be open a certain amount of hours per week, many were deemed essential. These circumstances create a huge set of complex challenges for anyone in business to navigate, from workers and their families to management and owners, let alone vendors and ancillary businesses.

The bright side is being in an industry where plot twists are not uncommon. Cannabis is legal and highly regulated state by state, illegal on a federal level, so it’s always full of strategic problems to solve. With so many people, businesses, ever-shifting regulations, and financial interests at stake, the need for strategic legal services are the constant. From a purely business and regulatory standpoint, the pandemic has provided some in the cannabis industry with quantum leaps forward in operations and service, and many of them may likely become the new norm.

For people with anxiety (#everydemographic2020) and other debilitating medical conditions, perception is shifting towards the importance and benefits of cannabis as a medicine and alternative therapeutic treatment option, on pace with a larger global trend towards personal and shared wellness. There’s more freedom for consumers to participate recreationally in states with adult use programs too. Extended families and friends in other states may not have the same access to cannabis. We live in a socially driven world, and the awareness of the medicinal properties of cannabis has rapidly grown nationwide across broad demographics. The gateway drug stereotype and stigma is slowly but surely fading away.

Momentum and shift in consumer behavior, need and the shifting perspective of healthcare providers is affecting more state regulators. They’ve worked with the cannabis industry to modify and adjust operational rules as needed to ensure medicinal access during the ever-changing COVID climate. Although current rules and regulations haven’t been lifted in any way, this is a step in the right direction. However, recreational states are less likely to consider that portion of the cannabis market essential and look for ways to prioritize medical dispensaries over recreational.

Medical Cannabis Businesses Deemed Essential

The most immediate problems to solve in many states were social distancing and waiting areas – where to keep patients/customers? There are state guidelines and regulations for operations during COVID, plus CDC general safety and sanitation considerations for workers and consumers alike. Lawyers and regulators are working to make sure that these stores are open and operating safely, have established safety protocols, number of customers allowed inside the store, minimum hours of operation, and to allow for special elderly hours and accommodating patients with compromised immune systems.

One of the biggest operational changes has been an increase in the facilitation of online ordering and curbside pickup to help keep patients safe. Employees are wearing gloves and PPE as an added precaution. This puts the health of the patients and employees first, while still allowing businesses to operate.

More and more patients are not all that enthusiastic about making in-person appointments that may put them at risk. In every state, people waver between venturing out for necessities so they’re buying larger quantities and stocking up when they can, and cannabis is no different. Cash-paying customers must still pay in-person. As federal regulations continue to hinder additional payment options and protections, demand for change grows on both sides.

Staffing in a Pandemic

Like all employers, it’s easier for larger cannabis companies to accommodate employees who are sick or may have been exposed. It’s often more difficult for smaller operations. For many employees, the decision to go into work sick means rent and food, because the employer can’t offer additional sick pay.

In most states, employees have to have some type of state card to work in a store. It’s hard to find replacements and pay for sick leave. There’s no call for a temp agency solution due to clearance needed by cannabis employees. If the business has to shut down, it might not be able to bounce back. So in some states, cannabis businesses have suffered setbacks, but not to the extent as other industries such as hospitality, food and beverage, and tourism.

Crunching the Numbers

The cannabis industry is also excluded from PPP loans and other federal aid. True plant-touching cannabis companies can’t access those funds, adding extra financial stress to operations. The irony is for the majority of cannabis operations nationwide, the biggest change was not the increased regulatory requirements for social distancing, sanitation and safety, it was handling the incredible increase in product demand under circumstances that include financial and staffing stress.

One Arizona-based dispensary was averaging around $300K a month before COVID-19. Today, business has more than tripled to nearly $1 million a month. In mature legal state Colorado, a record $155 million in recreational product sales for June reflects a six percent increase over the previous month’s sales. The Colorado Department of Revenue collected $33.6 million from the industry in June. Colorado’s medical dispensary sales record was set in May, just shy of $43 million, dropping down to about $40.8 million in June. Both are still setting records for business volume. For 2020, revenue already exceeds $203.3 million, in contrast to roughly $302.5 million in cannabis-related revenue in 2019.

Heightened Supply, Demand & Opportunities

Heightened demand and the search for new market ventures means investors are taking notice. People sheltering or working from home are spending more time online, too. Many are searching for healthcare; others for promising investment opportunities. Legalization has been a long journey, state by state. Everyone inside the cannabis and hemp industries has learned to roll with the punches – expect ongoing legal needs, and to do strategic short- and long-term planning. How to anticipate change and pivot on a dime. It’s a must.

With the healthcare system struggling or strained in many areas of the country, non-essential primary care has shifted to telemedicine. Federally, the DEA granted permission to do so that extends for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The problem? State-level regulations may prohibit the prescription of Schedule III drugs via telemedicine, or limit the amount and refills. For essential healthcare, limited appointments or emergency-only availability remains a concern. Innovative new cannabis products help fill that gap.

There will be more challenges as elections approach and beyond. For those in cannabis, we’re used to being ready for anything. Stay tuned.

The Dawn of Delivery: How This Oregon Company Launched During a Pandemic

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.

Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.

Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.

With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.

Not Just an Online Dispensary

For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.

The Pot Mates logo

Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.

It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.

The Long Regulatory Road

Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.

Hakon Khajavei, Chief Marketing Officer

The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”

In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.

For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.

As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.

Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

Chief Technology Officer, Jason Hinson

Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.

They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.

They still need to keep their team safe though. The Pot Mates team began 3D printing washable and reusable face masks, getting more gloves for delivery drivers, cleaning their warehouse thoroughly, cleaning vehicles and making sure employees maintained distancing. Pot Mates is even 3D printing enough masks and donating them to local organizations that need access to masks. “As a cannabis company, we always have to handle things with gloves here and take necessary safety precautions anyway, so our response is more about how we can help than what we need to change.”

Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task

“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.

Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.

On an Upward Trajectory

Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.

Founder & CEO of Pot Mates, Hammond Potter

But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”

It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”

As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.

Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.

To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.

Disposable Gloves: The Unregulated Cannabis Threat

By Lynda Ronaldson
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Today in the states where medical and recreational cannabis is legal, cannabis products purchased from licensed facilities are required to have undergone testing by accredited labs. The compliance testing verifies advertised potency levels and checks for microbial contamination, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and the presence of mold and mildew, among other potential contaminants.

Until recently, little attention has been given to disposable gloves and their possible involvement in the contamination of the products they handle.  What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?

Disposable Gloves Facts

Disposable gloves, like cannabis products, are not made of equal quality. There are several different types of disposable gloves on the market, and huge variations in glove quality and chemical compositions exist between and within each glove type.

Recent scientific studies have revealed how gloves produced in factories with poor manufacturing standards and raw material ingredients can contaminate the products they handle. High-level toxins in disposable gloves were found to affect lab results, toxins in gloves contaminated the food they touched, and pathogen contamination of unused disposable gloves has been proven. Should the cannabis industry take more interest in the disposable gloves they are using? With so much at stake if compliance test results are compromised, we think so!

Glove Procurement: Factors to Consider

What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?

  1. Industrial grade gloves- There is no such thing as an industrial grade glove certification, although it does give an incorrect impression that gloves are strong and resilient. Industrial grade means they have not been subjected to inspection nor have passed any specific testing requirements.
  2. Food contact gloves are certified under FDA Title 21 CFR Part 177, which states the components of the glove comply with the FDA regulations and the gloves consist of “substances generally recognized as safe for use in food or food packaging.” Few controls exist for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials and manufacturing processes, and costs can be reduced with the use of cheap, toxic materials.
  3. Medical grade gloves have to pass a series of technical tests in order to meet the safety requirements specified by the FDA. Gloves are tested for puncture and abrasion resistance, must meet tension and elongation tests and are also tested for chemical substance resistance. Manufacturers of these gloves must receive 510k certification. As this study shows, even medical gloves can contain high levels of toxic ingredients, affecting laboratory test results.
  4. The Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) refers to a quality standard for measuring pinhole defects- the lower the AQL, the less defects the gloves have. There are no AQL requirements for food grade or industrial grade gloves, meaning there are no guidelines for the number of failures per box. Medical grade gloves must have an AQL of 2.5 or less, meaning 2.5 failed gloves per 100 gloves is an acceptable level.
  5. For Californian cannabis companies, are your disposable gloves Prop. 65 compliant? Accelerator chemicals, such as 2-Mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT) found in some nitrile gloves, have recently been added to the Prop. 65 chemicals known to cause cancer.

How Gloves Can Contaminate Products

Physical, chemical and microbiological hazards have been identified in disposable glove supply chains. Gloves of any grade are not tested for cleanliness (microbial and bioburden levels), raw material toxicity and chemical composition, or pathogen contamination.

100% of glove factories supplying the United States are based in Southeast Asia. These factories are generally self­-regulated, with FDA compliance required for a rough outline of the ingredients of the gloves rather than the final product. Few controls are required for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance or conditions. A clear opportunity exists for accidental or intentional contamination within the glove-making process, especially to reduce costs.

In order to safeguard their customers from product contamination, a selection of tests and certifications, some of which are unique within the glove industry, are being implemented by glove supplier Eagle Protect. These tests make sure Eagle’s gloves coming into the United States are made in clean, well run factories, free of any type of contamination and are consistent in material makeup to original food safe specifications. This glove Fingerprint testing program, consists of a number of proprietary risk reduction steps and targeted third-party testing methods, includes gas chromatography combined with mass spectroscopy (GC/MS); surface free energy determination; in vitro cytotoxicity analysis; and microbial viability-linked metagenomic analysis.

With a great deal of faith placed on a glove supplier’s ability to deliver disposable gloves sight unseen, we believe these tests are essential to further reduce risks or pathogen contamination associated with them, keeping your cannabis products safe.