As an experiential marketer that works with a lot of vice-oriented brands, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the rise of spirits in the US – a history marked by ingenuity in the face of heavy restrictions, clashing social norms, crime and political ideals. Since then, those same qualities have emerged in the story of cannabis and how, against all odds, it has recently begun to push its way into the mainstream. But on the path to legalization, cannabis can also learn a lot from the spirits industry about what not to do.
For example, when laws governing the spirits industry were written in the post-Prohibition 1930s, the federal government wanted to create an equitable landscape. So, they created a 3-tier system – manufacturers or importers must sell to wholesalers, wholesalers must then sell to retailers and retailers sell to us. They figured that keeping manufacturing interests separate from wholesale and retail interests would keep any large company from owning an entire supply chain, muscling out smaller competitors.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Imagine the consequences of massive companies like Diageo or AB InBev using their money to pay bars and liquor stores to only stock their brands and not competitors. Add on the Tied House Laws, which basically says an entity in one of the three categories cannot have an ownership stake in any of the others, and you get a seemingly even-handed marketplace.
In truth, it makes it almost impossible to be disruptive or for new brands to break through. Other industries have innovated by cutting out the middleman and selling direct-to-consumer – something that simply cannot happen in alcohol (minus the wineries and distilleries that can sell direct out of their tasting rooms). Also, now distributors are so consolidated that there are only one or two big distribution companies in each state. So, as a company trying to bring a new product to market, you have to get into one of these highly selective and competitive distributors if you are going to be successful – a challenging ask for a small, independent brand.
Now, imagine that same challenge coming to the cannabis space. With legalization around the corner, the adult use (as opposed to medical use) cannabis industry could easily look like alcohol in the rules that will be set up.
Right now, adult use manufacturers can sell their products to dispensaries directly. Some use a distributor, but there is no nationwide mandate to – which is probably for the best. If a distributor isn’t a requirement, it forces brands to offer something new to differentiate themselves. It will spark innovation, rather than add an extra profit margin that will get rolled into the final price – a price that is already higher than it should be due to the murky federal legal status. Adding complexity and cost will only make it harder to compete with the illicit market. For the industry to grow, costs for illicit cannabis can’t be lower than its legal counterpart.
Of course, we are in the nascent stages of legalization here and we’ve come a long way culturally and technologically since the 30s. But remember, the rules governing alcohol were written nearly 100 years ago along with the passage of the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Startlingly, those laws haven’t changed that much since they were written, so any mistakes made now in dealing with the cannabis industry could last for a long time.
A new way forward
What the cannabis industry needs is a new model for the adult use/recreational space, keeping some of what exists in the alcohol industry but without ever mandating use of a distributor – the middle tier. This would mean keeping Tied House Laws in place and applying them to cannabis so that a manufacturer could never hold an interest in a retailer, while still allowing them to sell directly to dispensaries and to consumers. Currently, some states allow for vertical integration, which would change under Tied House Laws.
This should be pretty simple, since most states are already separating licenses by type of activity (manufacturer, retailer, etc.) and it would promote competition while bringing the widest array of products possible to each consumer. Also, it would prevent any behemoths from squeezing out the up and comers.
Of course, some retail license allowances could be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, I would carve out an exception that growers/manufacturers could sell direct to consumers through a single “tasting room” at their brand home. This is similar to the operations of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries. It would encourage education for consumers, and provide great opportunities for brands to show why their products are better or unique.
Given the technology and logistics solutions available to businesses in a 21st century economy, mandated distributors create a sometimes-unnecessary barrier to an already efficient supply chain. If mandated, prices will inflate to cover added margin, thus making it harder to bring consumers over from the legacy market to the legal one. I’m not against the idea of a distributor – they can add tremendous value, but the mandate would seriously curtail industry growth.
Direct-to-retail and direct-to-consumer sales are necessary for the economic health and growth of the industry. Without this, using alcohol as a cautionary tale, at some point the middle tier cannabis brands will inevitably begin to wield an outsized amount of power. We are living at a time where innovation is going to be the key to explosive growth in the cannabis industry, so it’s important to do everything possible to let the market find its way without falling into a century-old trap.
In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.
PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.
We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).
Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?
Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.
We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.
Green: What year was that?
Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?
Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.
In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.
The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.
Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?
Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.
The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.
One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.
Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?
Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.
We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.
Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?
Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.
The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.
In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it. In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.
Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.
Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?
Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.
Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?
Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.
We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.
Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?
Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.
We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.
I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.
Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?
Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.
Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?
Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.
There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.
Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.
One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.
Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.
Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.
Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.
Like any other natural product, the biomass of legal cannabis can be contaminated by several toxic agents such as heavy metals, organic solvents, microbes and pesticides, which significantly influence the safety of the end products.
Let’s just consider the toxicological effects. Since cannabis products are not only administered in edible forms but also smoked and inhaled, unlike most agricultural products, pesticide residue poses an unpredictable risk to consumers. One example is the potential role of myclobutanil in the vape crisis.
Unfortunately, federal and state laws are still conflicted on cannabis-related pesticides. Currently, only ten pesticide products have been registered specifically for hemp by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So, the question arises what has to be done with all pf the high-value, but also contaminated cannabis, keeping in mind that during the extraction processes, not only the phytocannabinoids get concentrated but the pesticides as well, reaching concentrations up to tens or hundreds of parts per million!
Currently, there are three different sets of rules in place in the regulatory areas of Oregon, California and Canada. These regulations detail which pesticides need to be monitored and remediated if a certain limit for each is reached. Because the most extensive and strict regulations are found in Canada, RotaChrom used its regulations as reference in their case study.
To illustrate that reality sometimes goes beyond our imagination, we evaluated the testing results of a THC distillate sample of one of our clients. This sample contained 9 (!) pesticides, of which six levels exceeded the corresponding action limits. The most frightening, however, regarding this sample, is that it contained a huge amount of carbofuran, a category I substance. It is better not to think of the potential toxicological hazard of this material…
The CPC-based purification of CBD is a well-known and straightforward methodology. As the elution profile on the CPC chromatogram of a distillate shows, major and minor cannabinoids can be easily separated from CBD. At RotaChrom, this method has been implemented at industrial-scale in a cost effective and high throughput fashion. In any case, the question arises: where are the pesticides on this chromatogram? To answer this, we set ourselves the goal to fully characterize the pesticide removing capability of our methodologies.
Our results on this topic received an award at the prestigious PREP Conference in 2019. The ease of pesticides removal depends on the desired Compound of Interest.
Here is a quick recap on key functionalities of the partition chromatography.
Separation occurs between two immiscible liquid phases.
The stationary phase is immobilized inside the rotor by a strong centrifugal force.
The mobile phase containing the sample to be purified is fed under pressure into the rotor and pumped through the stationary phase in the form of tiny droplets (percolation).
The chromatographic column in CPC is the rotor: cells interconnected in a series of ducts attached to a large rotor
Simple mechanism: difference in partition
Let’s get into the chemistry a bit:
The partition coefficient is the ratio of concentrations of a compound in a mixture of two immiscible solvents at equilibrium. This ratio is therefore a comparison of the solubilities of the solute in these two liquid phases.
The CPC chromatogram demonstrates the separation of Compounds of Interest based on their unique partition coefficients achieved through a centrifugal partition chromatography system.
CPC can be effectively used for pesticide removal. About 78% of the pesticides around CBD are very easy to remove, which you can see here:
In this illustration, pesticides are in ascending order of Kd from left to right. CBD, marked with blue, elutes in the middle of the chromatogram. The chart illustrates that most polar and most apolar pesticides were easily removed beside CBD. However, some compounds were in coelution with CBD (denoted as “problematic”), and some compounds showed irregular Kd-retention behavior (denoted as “outliers”).
If pesticides need to be removed as part of THC purification, then the pesticides that were problematic around CBD would be easier to remove and some of the easy ones would become problematic.
To simulate real-world production scenarios, an overloading study with CBD was performed, which you can see in the graph:
It is easy to see on the chromatogram that due to the increased concentration injected onto the rotor, the peak of CBD became fronting and the apparent retention shifted to the right. This means that pesticides with higher retention than CBD are more prone to coelution if extreme loading is applied.
To be able to eliminate problematic pesticides without changing the components of the solvent system, which is a typical industrial scenario, the so-called “sweet spot approach” was tested. The general rule of thumb for this approach is that the highest resolution of a given CPC system can be exploited if the Kd value of the target compounds fall in the range of 0.5-2.0. In our case, to get appropriate Kd values for problematic pesticides, the volume ratio of methanol and water was fine-tuned. Ascending mode was used instead of descending mode. For the polar subset of problematic pesticides, this simple modification resulted in an elution profile with significantly improved resolution, however, some coelution still remained.
In the case of apolar pesticides, the less polar solvent system with decreased water content in ascending mode provided satisfactory separation.
Moreover, if we focus on this subset in the three relevant regulatory areas, the outcome is even more favorable. For example, myclobutanil and bifenazate, dominant in all of the three regulatory regions, are fully removable in only one run of the CPC platform.
Based on these results, a generic strategy was created. The workflow starts with a reliable and precise pesticide contamination profile of the cannabis sample, then, if it does not appear to indicate problematic impurity, the material can be purified by the baseline method. However, if coeluting pesticides are present in the input sample, there are two options. First, adjusting the fraction collection of the critical pesticide can be eliminated, however the yield will be compromised in this case. Alternatively, by fine-tuning the solvent system, a second or even a third run of the CPC can solve the problem ultimately. Let me add here, that a third approach, i.e., switching to another solvent system to gain selectivity for problematic pesticides is also feasible in some cases.
In review, RotaChrom has conducted extensive research to analyze the list of pesticides according to the most stringent Canadian requirements. We have found that pesticides can be separated from CBD by utilizing our CPC platform. Most of these pesticides are relatively easy to remove, but RotaChrom has an efficient solution for the problematic pesticides. The methods used at RotaChrom can be easily extended to other input materials and target compounds (e.g., THC, CBG).
Cannabis testing is important for both operators and consumers, but there are some differences in what is important to each group. Obviously, safety and efficacy are important to both. Cannabis is primarily tested for safety reasons to ensure that consumers are receiving a product that is safe to consume and accurately labeled. In addition, consumers may look for a potency they’re used to consuming or a certain terpene profile that gives them a desired effect. Cannabis operators, on the other hand, use testing results to improve their processes and to monitor product quality versus state specific regulatory requirements that could cause their products to pass or fail.
What cannabis operators need to understand about cannabis testing results
Historically, there was an education gap on the side of the operators when it came to interpreting results. The regulated cannabis industry is still quite new and cannabis operators were initially focused on getting products to market. While there was always a focus on regulatory compliance and safety, the same level of quality control that existed in other regulated industries like food production seemed to lag. That has changed as operators have become more sophisticated and are hiring experts skilled in interpreting results and quality control. For a laboratory, hiring scientists with a regulatory background offers the operators the experience needed to ensure they’re getting accurate results that are easy to understand. This has led to more meaningful collaboration between labs and operators who work together to understand what test results mean to their processes and business operations.
A common problem is that some operators see testing as just a speed bump. This doesn’t have to be the case. Third-party testing is an integral part of getting safe products to consumers. Businesses need to find a lab that understands their objectives and knows how to support the manufacturing and production cycles. Establishing a testing protocol with a lab will help ensure that there are no surprises and that products can be tested and sold as quickly as possible.
Now that operators and labs are speaking the same language, the challenge becomes translating that information into a consumer-friendly format. Consumers don’t necessarily need (or want) to explore the minutiae of every tested analyte, but they can easily grasp high level results in the form of charts and graphs. Translating the testing results into an easy-to-digest format allows consumers to better understand the products they are buying.
What are the main components of test results cannabis businesses should look for?
The first and most obvious results to look for is what was tested and if any tests delivered a failing result. A failing result is determined by comparing the tested values against the state requirements. If a product has failed testing in any area, operators will need to work with the lab and their internal teams to determine exactly what the issue is and if it can be rectified. Failing of any state required test (pesticide, microbial, metals, ….) means the product cannot be sold in its current form. Depending on the state, failing results may be required to be confirmed by another lab, processed further to remove the failing contaminants or destroyed. The production cycle to grow, process and manufacture cannabis products can take anywhere from 120 to 160 days with many different processes and handlers. Despite attempts to control all the variables that impact final product quality, failing tests do occur.
Once businesses have passed the state-required testing, the remaining tests are focused on product characteristics including potency and terpene profile. The potency of a product measures the levels of cannabinoids and influences both production and marketing decisions. Lower potency flower may be extracted for distillate products while higher potency flower will demand a higher price and will most likely be sold as flower or processed into concentrate products. Cannabinoid profiles go well beyond just CBD and THC. Understanding the full cannabinoid profile of a product is an important factor in how it can be marketed, and how it will be used.
The terpene profile of a product is also quickly becoming just as important to medical and adult use consumers. Terpenes play a major role in the effects that consumers experience with cannabis products. In the past, consumers relied heavily on strain names to purchase products that they believed would give them the effects that they were looking to achieve. Moving forward, we believe that consumers will be more interested in a product’s terpene profile given the strong influence that terpenes have on effects. In states like Nevada, cannabis businesses put terpene profiles on their product labels and cannabis consumers are starting to select products based on terpenes rather than raw potency numbers.
What is the most important factor in cannabis testing results?
Trust is the most important factor when testing cannabis. Operators need to trust that their lab is providing consistent, accurate and timely results. Consumers need to be able to trust what they read on the certificate of analysis, and they ultimately need to trust that the products they buy will deliver the effects that they expect.
The easiest way for businesses to increase trust in their products and testing results is transparency. When there is transparency from the testing lab to the business and customers, it will help build trust and establish a brand for the long term.
Another important aspect of this process is ensuring businesses share the right information with consumers and educate them as to what it means to them. Information overload, without explanation, will only lead to confusion. It’s important to educate employees, especially those interfacing with customers, on how to interpret and explain test results in a way that consumers can understand.
It can be challenging to translate highly technical test results into consumer-friendly language but being able to do so will enable businesses to build a stronger relationship with customers. This isn’t something that businesses need to figure out by themselves. Rely on your trusted lab partners to help design and deliver easy to understand, consumer friendly certificates of analysis. Consumers want to be educated and understand what is in their products, and how the products will work for them. Trust, transparency and education will help cannabis operators strengthen relationships and continue to grow their business.
No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.
Let’s consider the following situations:
Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’
Document the issue?
Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?
Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:
You don’t document the issue
I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.
“It’s not a big deal”
“It was a one off”
“The glasses probably broke in transit”
“They are cheap and easily replaceable”
“It’s not worth the time”
In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.
Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?
You perform an investigation
Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?
Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.
Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.
For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.
Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.
What does a CAPA program do?
The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:
An effective tool for investigating the true root cause
First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.
System for continuous improvement
Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.
This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!
Key inputs in a CAPA system
If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs.
Information that feeds into your CAPA system:
Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.
This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…
Laboratory test results
This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.
Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.
Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.
Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?
One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.
Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, has proposed a cannabis standard for establishing retail cybersecurity protocols. Their D37 cannabis committee is currently working on the development of the standard.
The standard is designed to establish best practices for protecting critical databases in dispensaries, like inventory data, customer and patient information. The guide, developed by subcommittee D37.05, addresses “the company or government organizational need to mitigate the likelihood of cyberattacks and reduce the extent of potential cyberattacks, which can leave sensitive personal data, corporate information, and critical infrastructure vulnerable to attackers,” reads the scope of the project.
Technical Lead for the subcommittee and president of ezGreen Compliance, Michael Coner, says they hope to provide SOPs for retail operations to protect business data while staying compliant. “Cybersecurity is among the most prevailing issues concerning the cannabis industry as well as the global cannabis economy,” says Coner. “Establishing strong cybersecurity protocols for dispensary retail owners will help ensure the protection of data to maintain the integrity of cannabis consumers’ personal information.”
The ASTM committee is currently inviting stakeholders such as retailers and regulators to help with things like “identifying new data security issues that arise while operating active retail dispensary businesses.”
Growing awareness and public support for medical cannabis around the world has pushed regulatory authorities to consider the legalization of medical cannabis, which remains the major factor driving growth for the medical market. Cannabis-based medication has conventionally been used and studied to be an effective therapeutic solution for various disorders. Increasing R&D activities for the development of novel solutions and applications has led to various formulations being approved by The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA). For instance, in 2020, the FDA had approved application of Epidiolex for treating seizures related to tuberous sclerosis complex in patients aged one year and above. On account of shifting interest towards the benefits of medical cannabis and significant technological advancements, application of medical cannabis is increasing rapidly, which is positively impacting the overall business space.
According to Global Market Insights, Inc., the medical cannabis market size was valued at USD 22.4 billion in 2020 and will record exceptional growth numbers in the coming years, considering the emergence of the following trends:
Development of new products by key market players
Prominent players operating in the medical cannabis industry such as Canopy Growth Corporation, Aurora Cannabis Inc., Aphria Inc., GW Pharmaceuticals, ABcann Medicinals Inc., The Supreme Cannabis Company, etc. are focusing on strategies pertaining to product development and acquisitions in order to gain a strong market presence. Citing an instance in 2018, GW pharmaceuticals, announced that it had received an FDA clearance for its first plant-based pharmaceutical cannabidiol for treating rare pediatric epilepsies. Apparently, the approval helped the company expand its portfolio while giving it the innovator’s advantage in cannabis-based treatments.
Rising demand for treating nausea conditions
Medical cannabis is finding extensive usage in the treatment of nausea conditions especially for the patients undergoing chemotherapy, as a part of cancer treatment. Numerous tetrahydrocannabinol- and cannabidiol-based medications have been approved for treating the symptoms of nausea. The rising incidences of cancer and nausea segments across medical cannabis markets is anticipated to register a substantial CAGR of 18.4% through 2027.
Increasing preference for topical route of administration
Topical administration of medical cannabis is gaining prominence as topical solutions such as lotions and creams can be directly applied to the skin for the treatment of an injury. They are also replacing opioids for injury-related pain management as these have shown several side effects. Topical products also allow for self-administration that’s minimally invasive, while exhibiting limited side effects. With increasing adoption of topical route of administration, the segment is estimated to register an appreciable valuation of $5 billion by 2027.
Higher sales through dispensaries
Dispensaries have become a prime distribution channel globally. Considering the stringent regulatory scenario around medical cannabis, its consumption and sales are highly monitored by authorities in order to avoid any abuse or instances that lead to addiction. It is relatively easy for both suppliers and consumers to engage in a conventional brick and mortar store model under a regional medical cannabis program. Given that, dispensaries are anticipated to retain dominance in the market over the coming years. In 2020, the segment had held a sizeable market share of 58.4%.
Rising consumption of medical cannabis in Latin America
South American countries like Argentina and Chile are the major consumers of medical cannabis in the region. While Argentina has legalized the domestic cultivation of cannabis, Chile is known to have a history of medical cannabis with various clinical trials being performed since 2014. The country is one of the leaders in the LATAM medical cannabis industry wherein the regulatory authorities keep on simplifying the laws time and again. With favorable regulatory scenarios, the regional market is projected to expand significantly by recording a CAGR of 20.9% through 2027.
Attendees registering for this complimentary webinar will see Toby Astill, Ph.D., cannabis testing expert and global market manager for Cannabis & Hemp at PerkinElmer present on pesticide testing and automation. He is available for a live Q&A at the end of the event. In addition to getting the opportunity to chat with Toby Astill on August 25, a recording of the presentation will be made available to all who register.
This virtual event will help attendees better understand how an innovative automation hardware and software workflow allows cannabis & CBD laboratories to complete their pesticide and mycotoxin assays more efficiently and confidently.
Data will be presented to show the workflow suitability for cannabis flower, the benefit of adding an autonomous sample preparation platform and software solutions to integrate multiple data streams into one compliance framework. References will show that having a validatable protocol and SOP for the cannabis testing industry is key in ensuring the highest quality of cannabis reaches the consumer.
During a press conference held today, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden and Senator Cory Booker introduced the preliminary draft for the Cannabis Administration And Opportunity Act, a bill that would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances.
“This is the first time in American history that the majority leader of the United States Senate is leading the call to end prohibition of marijuana,” Sen. Booker said toward the end of their remarks. Sen. Wyden stressed the history of the failed war on drugs, the successes of his state’s legalization and the need to include minority-owned small businesses in the new legislation.
Sen. Schumer emphasized the need for revisions to the bill, bipartisanship and cooperation as they present the preliminary draft to their colleagues. “The waste of human resources because of the historic overcriminalization has been one of the great historical wrongs for the last decades and we are going to change it,” Sen. Schumer said.
While the bill is still in the early stages of its draft, the promising new legislation offers a few provisions that cannabis industry advocates and stakeholders have been hoping to see. Firstly, it would completely remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. It sets up a framework for states to establish their own policies around cannabis, much like the current state of affairs in the industry and also akin to how the federal government treats alcohol.
Speaking to the social equity matters that Sen. Wyden emphasized, the bill would immediately expunge all federal records of non-violent cannabis crimes as well as establish a small business grant program for funding equity applicants, those impacted by the drug war and funding for state-level social equity programs.
Cannabis has long been considered a green industry by the masses.
As a standalone item, the cannabis plant is very environmentally friendly. This is particularly true when it comes to hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant with a huge range of environmental benefits. An extremely versatile and robust crop, hemp uses far less land and water than other common crops and even captures carbon dioxide and regenerates soil. Approximately 20,000 products can be made from its seed, fiber and flower, from biodegradable plastics to food supplements, meaning all in all – it is an environmentally and economically sustainable crop
Yet as with most things, when cultivated in mass, the cannabis plant isn’t quite so green anymore. With its high demand for water, land and artificial lighting, cannabis cultivation can actually leave a large environmental footprint (this does however, pale in comparison to the food industry).
What’s more, many firms do not properly understand how to correctly treat and apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use a machine gun approach to growing their crops. This can result in unnecessary bleed waste, which in turn can kill micro-organisms and contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. Packaging has also been cited as particularly environmentally unfriendly in the cannabis industry, with several organizations using single use plastic for their products, due to the strict guidelines attached to packaging products of a medical or pharmaceutical nature.
So as the CBD, medical and even adult use cannabis industries become increasingly commercialized across the globe, there is risk cannabis might start moving in the wrong direction when it comes to sustainability.
Still relatively new, the cannabis sector is nascent and exciting, with the global cannabis market size valued at $10.60 billion in 2018 and projected to reach $97.35 billion by the end of 2026. Yet as the industry grows, so too will its footprint.
I’ve seen it first-hand. The industry being hugely competitive, so for companies vying for precious investment and fighting for a spot on the stock market, often, sustainability is the last thing on their minds. In my opinion, this is wrong. Not only morally – we all play a part in looking after our planet – but it’s also a poorly calculated business decision.
It’s no secret sustainability and ESG have become a hot topic when it comes to investing. Just yesterday, Credit Suisse told CNBC that the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards sustainable investments. The bank has even introduced an exclusion strategy whereby those investing can actively exclude controversial sectors.
So with the environment firmly on investors’ minds, cannabis firms need to realize that actually, if they want to secure the support of forward-thinking shareholders, they need to consider more than just the bottom line and truly take the sustainability of their operations into account.
Luckily, there are practices which cannabis cultivators can take on board to reduce their environmental footprint. To start with – growing outdoors. This enables cannabis farmers to harness the sun’s natural power, saving them money on electricity bills and increasing energy efficiency. With cannabis being a rather thirsty plant, water use is also a major concern – although this is nothing compared to the amount of water used by cotton plants. However, it is in fact possible to design indoor operations which recycle close to 100% of the water use, including capturing the perspiration from plants – at AltoVerde this is something we are looking to implement in our upcoming Macedonian sites.
Firms keen to improve on sustainability should also cultivate in a way in which soil is fully replenished and repaired after use – this is called regenerative farming, and it’s extremely effective for maintaining and improving soil quality, biodiversity and crop yields. Another interesting concept is the use of hemp. Some farmers have started using hempcrete – a concrete-like material made from harvested cannabis plants. As if the recycling aspect wasn’t good enough, hempcrete is actually carbon negative, meaning the production of hemp for hempcrete removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.
It’s been incredibly exciting to be a part of the cannabis industry and I am excited to watch its growth in the years to come. It’s taken hard work for the sector to improve its traditionally poor image and to be accepted across the globe, so now, cultivators must lead by example and stop industry from being branded as one which pollutes. By transitioning to more environmentally sustainable practices, firms will be doing their bit for the planet, attracting the investors of tomorrow and ensuring their own success for years to come.
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