According to a press release emailed this week, ASTM International’s subcommittee focused on cannabis, D37, is in the midst of developing two new standards surrounding cannabis safety and education.
One standard, WK84667, is designed to “help document engineering controls for air filtration and person protective equipment (PPE) in cannabis processing facilities,” says ASTM member Trevor Morones. The premise of this standard appears to be employee safety; with proper, standardized air filtration and PPE, the standard will help companies keep their workers safe and prevent inhalation of potentially harmful particles, like cannabis dust, stalk fiber, florescence and crystalized dust. “We are working to develop a robust community of cannabis professionals who can share their experiences in workplace and personnel safety,” says Morones.
The other proposed standard, WK84589, seeks to develop a uniform metric for “determining the intoxication level of a cannabinoid.” Initially focusing on delta9-THC, the standard will help raise awareness and promote public health and safety by informing consumers how intoxicating a cannabis product is for the average adult.
ASTM Pamela Epstein says this standard will hopefully develop a form of measurement akin to ABV in alcoholic drinks, allowing consumers to see how potent a certain cannabis product is. “Beyond providing consumers with a complete assessment of a product’s total intoxicating/impairing effects, the proposed standard may provide regulators with a methodology to meaningfully account for public health and safety,” says Epstein. “The specification can unify consumer awareness and can be used across all product types and jurisdictions.”
At first glance, the layout of a grow room and a factory production line might seem to have little in common. But whether a facility is producing plants or parts, adopting good manufacturing practices (GMP) can benefit plant quality, harvest consistency and production economics.
What is GMP?
Simply defined, GMP refers to a production system made up of processes, standards and safeguards designed to consistently meet a defined quality standard. In the grow house, establishing, documenting and implementing GMPs can help guard against problems ranging from plant contamination to inconsistent harvests. GMPs can be organized into five key categories, each which contribute to cultivation:
People: The people working in the grow house understand their responsibilities
Processes: Production processes are clearly documented and consistent across harvests
Procedures: Guidelines are documented and communicated to all employees
Premises: Grow rooms and equipment are clean and maintained
Products: Materials used in cultivation (fertilizers, lighting, growing media, etc.) are assessed
Optimizing each of these five P’s in production can help cultivators protect their business and their margins even as flower prices in both legacy and emerging states continue to trend downward. Below, we look at four GMP insights that can help cultivators coordinate the five Ps to achieve quality, consistency and economic objectives harvest after harvest, without massive investments in capital, even during turbulent market conditions.
#1 Know your numbers and their value
Avoid the temptation to lump production costs into very broad categories, i.e., “cost of goods.” Understanding the exact cost of all inputs that go into a grow is a precedent to cost-effective production. The price of the plant material, energy consumed, labor, nutrients, fertigation and other inputs involved in the grow should be calculated to determine the actual cost of a grow room. If rooms are set up consistently, you can multiply to get an aggregate production cost across the facility.
Look beyond the price tag when calculating costs and consider the value each input brings to the grow. Nutrition is a good example. Understanding the concentration of specific nutrients in a product can be a better way of evaluating its value than simply looking at the cost of the goods. And consider whether added nutrients are actually adding value to the product produced. More isn’t always more. In most cases, simple salts will supply the plant with what it needs to grow.
Growing media is another opportunity to evaluate the cost/benefit of cultivation inputs. How much yield can be achieved with a particular medium compared to a different choice? For example, a bag of coco may initially appear to be the low-cost choice for cultivation. Upon a deeper evaluation, though, the cost per plant of coco is generally higher when you factor in the amount of media used for each plant (and that doesn’t even factor in the labor to fill the pots).
# 2 Reduce time waste
Among the various inputs in each growing cycle, labor represents a significant cost. Are labor hours being put to the best use and not wasted? American industrialist and innovator in mass production Henry Ford stated, “Time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage. The easiest of all wastes and the hardest to correct is the waste of time, because wasted time does not litter the floor like wasted material.”
One way to see the cost of wasted labor dollars is to set up a camera and record a day of activity in the grow room during each step of a grow cycle. Or simply observe the responsibilities that are requiring workers’ time on a typical day. Watching employees’ work in the grow room may reveal how a room’s set-up is contributing to or hindering production. Are employees spending their time on tactics that add value or are they being slowed down by manual processes, such as filling containers, watering and relocating plants in the facility? Are there steps and process that could be automated, such as fertigation? Seeing how employees’ time is being used can identify opportunities to direct efforts toward functions that add value or cut costs. What would be the economic benefit of reducing a half-day of set-up time in the grow house or automating some processes?
Beyond better allocation of human capital, understanding how time is used in the growing operation can suggest changes to materials used in the grow. For example, selecting a growing media that comes in plugs and blocks with pre-drilled holes for efficiently dropping in new plants can reduce time spent filling pots or configuring containers. Automating functions like fertigation and watering can not only reduce labor time but increase the precision of delivery when it comes to water and nutrients.
#3 Introduce incremental improvements
Many manufacturers rely on pilot plants to mitigate risk before process scale-up takes place across an enterprise. The same approach can benefit the grow house. Resist the temptation to overhaul the system and instead focus on introducing one change at a time. This disciplined approach will allow you to evaluate if a change is actually delivering value and should be applied more broadly. The wisdom of a cautious approach to improvements is reflected in a quote by innovation magnate Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Observing that not every innovation will be a win, Jobs stated, “Sometimes when you innovate you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”
When introducing a new element into the grow, pilot it in one “sample” area before adding it to the entire operation. Then give the innovation time to be evaluated before deploying it more widely. This measured approach can help reduce the risk that accompanies making a change to processes and will allow you to evaluate the relative benefit of any change or innovation. And as changes are introduced one at a time, it is easier to determine which changes are contributing value.
#4 Satisfy the market, not just the spec
Regulatory bodies set the compliance criteria for purity or quality standards in manufacturing, but the ultimate mark of approval is awarded by customers in the marketplace. A harvest may meet all of the quality specs, but if customers don’t want to buy it, achieving GMP metrics is a moot effort. The marketplace will always have the final say on a product’s commercial viability.
Understand what the market wants and be able to replicate it consistently harvest after harvest. Manufacturing a product that meets the market’s desired performance attributes is essential to sustaining and growing operations. Production quality is only as good as the last harvest and any degradation in product quality will diminish buyers’ trust. History shows that the challenge of achieving consistent production quality and reliability isn’t just a problem for cultivators. Among several factors that doomed the short-lived Edsel sedan introduced in 1957 were problems arising from assembly workers having to use different tools and techniques. A lack of consistency in producing cars or cultivars can turn off customers and profitability.
A tension exists between achieving production consistency and the opportunity to introduce changes that improve the grow. By integrating improvements into the production system one measured change at a time, cultivators can assess which improvements to continue and what needs to be tweaked. But as manufacturing has long demonstrated, continuous improvement is an ongoing journey.
As cultivators consider the 5 Ps of people, processes, procedures, premises and products, applying these four GMP insights can help growers in emerging and legacy markets navigate changing market conditions and drive continuous improvement.
The word “audit” evokes various emotions depending on your role in an organization and the context of the audit. While most are familiar with and loathe the IRS’s potential for a tax audit, the audits we are going to discuss today are (or should be) welcomed – proactive internal quality audits. A softer term that is also acceptable is “self-assessment.” These are independent assessments conducted to determine how effective an organization’s risk management, processes and general governance is.
“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” – Maya Angelou
Internal quality audits are critical to ensuring the safety of products, workers, consumers and the environment. When planned and performed periodically, these audits provide credible, consistent and objective evidence to inform the organization of its risks, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Ask yourself the question: do your clients/vendors rely on you to produce reliable, consistent and safe products? Assuming the answer is yes, what confidence do you have, and where is the documented evidence to support it?
Compliance units within cannabis businesses are typically responsible for ensuring a business stays legally compliant with state and federal regulations. This level of minimum compliance is critical to prevent fines and ensure licenses are not revoked. However, compliance audits rarely include fundamental components that leave cannabis operators exposed to many unnecessary risks.
As a producer of medical and adult-use products that are ingested, inhaled or consumed in other forms by our friends, family and neighbors, how can you be sure that these products are produced safely and consistently? Are you confident that the legal requirements mandated by your state cannabis control board are sufficient? Judging by the number of recalls and frustrations voiced by the industry regarding the myriad of regulations, I would bet the answer is no.
What questions do internal audits address? Some examples include:
Are you operating as management intends?
How effective is your system in meeting specified objectives? These objectives could include quality metrics of your products, on-time delivery rates and other client/customer satisfaction metrics.
Are there opportunities to improve?
Are you doing what you say you do (in your SOPs), and do you have the recorded evidence (records) to prove it?
Are you meeting the requirements of all applicable government regulations?
There are potential drawbacks to internal audits. For one, as impartiality is essential in internal audits, it may be challenging to identify an impartial internal auditor in a small operation. If your team always feels like it is in firefighting mode, it may feel like a luxury to take the time to pull members out of their day-to-day duties and disrupt ongoing operations for an audit. Some fear that as internal assessments are meant to be more thorough than external assessments, a laundry list of to-do items may be uncovered due to the audit. But, these self-assessments often uncover issues that have resulted in operational efficiencies in the first place. This resulting “laundry list” then affords a proactive tool to implement corrective actions in an organized manner that can prevent the recurrence of major issues, as well as prevent new issues. The benefits of internal audits outweigh the drawbacks; not to mention, conducting internal audits is required by nearly every globally-recognized program, both voluntary (e.g. ISO 9001 or ASTM Internationals’s Cannabis Certification Program) and government required programs such as 21 CFR 211 for Pharmaceuticals.
Internal Auditing is a catalyst for improving an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency by providing insight and recommendations based on analyses and assessments of data and business processes. Additional benefits of internal audits include giving your organization the means to:
Ensure compliance to the requirements of internal, international and industry standards as well as regulations and customer requirements
Determine the effectiveness of the implemented system in meeting specified objectives (quality, environmental, financial)
Explore opportunities for improvement
Meet statutory and regulatory requirements
Provide feedback to Top Management
Lower the cost of poor quality
Findings from all audits must be addressed. This is typically done in accordance with a CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) program. To many unfamiliar with Quality Management Systems, this may be a new term. As of Jan 1, 2021, this is now a requirement for all cannabis licensed operators in Colorado. Many other states require a CAPA program or similar. Continuing education units (CEUs) are available through ASTM International’s CAPA training program, which was developed specifically for the cannabis industry.
Examples of common audit findings that require CAPAs include:
Calibration – Production and test equipment must be calibrated to ensure they provide accurate and repeatable results.
Document and record control – Documents and records need to be readily accessible but protected from unintended use.
Supplier management – Most standards have various requirements for supplier management that may include auditing suppliers, monitoring supplier performance, only using suppliers certified to specific standards, etc.
Internal audits – Believe it or not, since internal audits are required by many programs, it’s not uncommon to have a finding related to internal audits! Findings from an internal audit can include not conducting audits on schedule, not addressing audit findings or not having a properly qualified internal auditor. Are you looking for more guidance? Last year, members of ASTM International’s D37 Committee on Cannabis approved a Standard Guide for Cannabis and Hemp Operation Compliance Audits, ASTM D8308-21.
If you are still on the fence about the value of an internal audit, given the option of an inspector uncovering a non-conformance or your own team discovering and then correcting it, which would you prefer? With fines easily exceeding $100,000 by many cannabis enforcement units, the answer should be clear. Internal audits are a valuable tool that should not be feared.
Cannabis Industry Journal is pleased to announce our partnership with Pioneer Intelligence on this new series of articles. This is the first installment of The Brand Marketing Byte.
Pioneer Intelligence uses data to benchmark marketing performance of consumer-facing cannabis brands across three areas: social media, earned media and web-related activities. At present, Pioneer takes in over 60,000 data points each week. The company’s team of marketers and data scientists share findings through weekly generated Performance Scorecard reports as well as Brand Marketing Snapshots. Pioneer Intelligence offers reports on more than 500 U.S. cannabis brands. Ben Walters, founder of Pioneer Intelligence, says their mission is “to help cannabis industry stakeholders better understand how marketing strategies & tactics resonate with audiences.”
The Brand Marketing Byte will showcase highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies. We hope this column can serve as a resource for readers interested in branding and marketing.
In terms of scoring methodology, Pioneer Intelligence’s reporting favors “heat” over “strength” as the company prioritizes “relative change” above “absolute position.” This means that, for example when talking about social media audience size, they don’t just score brands based on the number of followers, but they also score audience growth. In fact, Pioneer’s algorithms put more value in growth figures than actual number of followers. For more insight on their methodology, along with a weekly updated index of the hottest brands, visit their website here.
Without further ado, here is a data-led, shallow dive on the California brand, Legion of Bloom:
Legion of Bloom – Content Strategy
Legion of Bloom (LOB) was founded in Northern California in 2015 when five independent growers joined forces. As one of the more widely recognizable brands in the region, they produce craft, high-quality cannabis products and are well known for their vape cartridges. The company has superior genetics and sustainable practices, which they capitalize on in their marketing efforts.
LOB has invested heavily in generating content, which appears to be fruitful. Their website has an in-depth introduction to terpenes for consumers and they utilize their blog section well with a high volume of quality content throughout the second half of 2019. It’s worth mentioning their website features full laboratory test results for all of their products, highlighting their commitment to transparency, consumer trust and brand recognition. Through looking at a few key metrics like indexed keywords, site strength and visit duration, it is apparent that LOB has increased their audience engagement significantly.
All of those factors combined, LOB has used a variety of content tools to grow their website consistently and sustainably, earning them #38 spot on last week’s Pioneer Index, a ranking of the hottest U.S. cannabis brands.
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