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FAQs: How Cannabis Businesses Can Avoid TCPA Liability

By Artin Betpera
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As the cannabis industry continues to experience growth in markets across the country, cannabis businesses are becoming an ever-increasing target of plaintiff’s lawyers in Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) lawsuits. Text messaging provides a potent channel of customer engagement, but at the same time is subject to strict regulations under the TCPA, with violators subject to steep statutory penalties of $500-$1,500 per message. While one-off cases won’t typically break the bank, that’s far from the case when many thousands of texts are bundled together in a class action. And this potential for big paydays means plaintiff’s lawyers have a financial incentive to file cases as class actions whenever they can.

Some well-known names in cannabis have been the target of TCPA class action. Cannabis delivery service Eaze has battled some fairly well-publicized TCPA class actions in the past couple of years. There has also been an assortment of dispensaries across several western states that have been the targets of similar lawsuits. Notably, these lawsuits share a common thread: they are based on marketing or promotional text messages sent to consumers.

In this landscape, firing off texts without the proper compliance safeguards is a game of roulette. At some point in time, one or more messages will invariably land in the wrong hands, sparking an expensive, high-stakes class action. In this competitive space, there are far more productive things any cannabis business can be doing than spending the time and resources on this type of lawsuit.

So how can your business avoid being caught in a TCPA trap? The following Q&A will walk you through some of the questions you should be asking if you are currently texting, or planning to text your customer base for marketing purposes. One quick note before starting: the TCPA has different rules for different types of messages (such as informational versus marketing messages). This Q&A will cover the distinction between these types of messages, but focuses on the rules around marketing messages since these are rules cannabis businesses get tripped up in most frequently when sued for TCPA violations.

Question: How do I know if the TCPA applies to me?

Answer: Are you texting your customers? If so, are you using some kind of platform that lets you send multiple texts at once? If you answered yes to both, then the TCPA most likely applies to you.

In short, the TCPA prohibits calling or sending texts to cell phones using an Automatic Telephone Dialing System (ATDS). Without getting into the many nuances of how courts have interpreted the legal definition of that term (and risk boring you to death), you can assume that unless you’re hitting send on each and every single text that goes to your customers, that you’re using an ATDS, and your texts are subject to the TCPA.

Q: So it looks like the TCPA applies to me. What now?

A: If you don’t have a compliance plan in place, now’s the time to implement one. To start, take stock of (a) how you’re sending texts; (b) who you’re texting; (c) where you obtained their phone number; and (d) whether you have their prior express written consent. That last part is key: under the TCPA, if you’re sending any text messages to your customers for “telemarketing” purposes, you’ll need what the TCPA calls “prior express written consent”.

Q: But I’m a cannabis business, not a telemarketer. Why should I worry about the TCPA again?

A: The TCPA’s rules requiring prior express written consent apply when the text is sent for “telemarketing” purposes, defined as “the initiation of a telephone call or message for the purpose of encouraging the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services, which is transmitted to any person.” Put simply, if you are sending texts to market or promote something you sell, then it’s likely the message will be considered “telemarketing” under the law. In contrast, if you’re sending a text for purely information purposes, such as sending a receipt for a transaction, or advising on the status of a delivery, then those message are still regulated by the TCPA, but subject to a more relaxed consent standard (a topic for another article).

Q: What do I need to do to get prior express written consent from my customers?

A: It’s important to know that prior express written consent is a technical, legally defined term that requires the caller be provided a written disclosure containing certain information and disclosures, which they “sign.” There are three key components to prior express written consent:

First, the consent agreement has to be in a signed writing. The law affords some flexibility here, allowing callers to obtain consent digitally through a number of mediums including web-based and electronic forms. If structured properly, consent may even be obtained through a text message flow.

Second, the consent agreement has to say certain things. It must authorize the caller to deliver advertisements or marketing messages using an ATDS, it must specify the phone number to which messages are being authorized, and it must say that the consumer doesn’t have to provide their consent as a condition to receiving goods or services.

Third, the disclosures must be “clear and conspicuous”. There’s no real rocket science here, but this is a very important part of the rule. It’s challenging to enforce an agreement that’s hard for a consumer to find or see, meaning the consent disclosures can’t be hidden away, in imperceptible font, or baked into another legal document (such as terms and conditions).

Q: I have a great customer contact database, but I don’t think I check all the boxes for prior express written consent. Can I still text them with specials and promotions?

A: No. At least not with your usual automated or mass-texting platform. But with some legwork, you can leverage your existing database and obtain consent. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than taking the risk of texting in this situation.

Let’s start with the fact that people like to get deals and specials on cannabis products, so there will likely be interest across your customer base for signing up. And with the flexibility afforded by the E-SIGN Act, businesses can try multiple avenues in obtaining prior express written consent from existing customers. This could include a call-to-action campaign, where consumers can initiate a text message consent flow by texting a keyword to a short code. The TCPA does not regulate e-mails, so businesses can consider an e-mail campaign that encourages their customers to follow a link that takes them to a web-based consent form. For businesses with storefronts, customers can be encouraged to sign up for texts on-site by filling out and submitting a form on a tablet device. Bottom line, there’s room for some creativity in designing campaigns to enrich your existing customer database with the necessary consent to send marketing texts.

Q: What happens when a consumer opts out of receiving texts?

A: You should stop all texts to their phone number unless and until they opt back in to receiving texts. Under the TCPA, a consumer has the right to revoke their consent, and any text message sent after an opt-out will violate the TCPA. This means it’s important to have clear opt-out instructions in every message you send (i.e. text stop to stop), and to ensure you have the proper systems in place to automatically suppress any further texts to the consumer’s phone number following an opt out.

Q: If I don’t follow these rules, what are the odds of getting sued for a violation?

A: Pretty high in my opinion. As mentioned, the TCPA is a very lucrative statute for Plaintiff’s lawyers. There are several thousand TCPA cases filed in federal courts each year, and lately cannabis businesses are becoming an increasing share of the defendants named in those suits. Additionally, the TCPA has a four-year statute of limitations, meaning exposure for non-compliant practices has a really long tail. It’s far easier to develop and execute a compliance plan up front, than to take on the risk that comes without one.

Q: Is there anything else I can be doing to protect my business?

Absolutely. Your TCPA compliance policy should be one layer of a holistic approach to legal compliance. Businesses have other tools at their disposal, such as arbitration provisions and class action waivers, that they can build into their consent-gathering process to further protect themselves in the event of a legal dispute.

Q: Any other tips to help keep my business out of the TCPA fracas?

A: Yes. Lots. More than I could fit into just this one article. But my goal here was to get you to think in the right direction when it comes to the TCPA, if you aren’t already. While I tried to make the basics of this as straightforward as possible, there are plenty of grey areas and nuance when it comes to compliance (especially when you inject the real world into the situation). This is where having lawyer experienced in this arena can come in really handy to vet your disclosures, review your compliance processes, and help you implement other risk mitigation strategies.

TCPA claims have become the cost of doing business when contacting consumers on their cell phones. But by being proactive, businesses have ample opportunity to mitigate their risk, and protect themselves in the event the legality of their text message campaigns is challenged.

Integrated Labeling Helps This Ohio Cannabis Company Grow

By Mike Barker
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Since medical cannabis was legalized in Ohio in 2016, companies that cultivate and process medical cannabis, as well as the plants themselves, have been popping up around the state.

Grow Ohio, a dual-licensed Level 1 cultivator and processor, was the first licensed processor in Ohio and the first to successfully bring product to market. From plant material to edibles, tinctures, oils, lotions and capsules, the company seeks to ensure that medical cannabis is cultivated and processed under the same strict standards as any pharmaceutical medication. As first to market, Grow Ohio found themselves navigating a complicated process by themselves.

As their first product was ready to be packaged, Executive Vice President (EVP) Justin Hunt and the team at Grow Ohio were focused on marketing, packaging and distributing their product. With the sheer number of items that required attention, it is easy to see how something like labelling can slip under the radar. With a variety of products and dosages, and the first delivery of the product slated for late April of 2019, Grow Ohio needed a consistent way to ensure their product complied with state law, and also satisfied their own brand standards.

As their April product launch date grew closer, Grow Ohio realized they needed help with executing on Ohio’s labeling requirements for medical cannabis products.

They turned to Adaptive Data Inc., a barcode and labeling systems supplier to provide labels, printers, and software. ADI’s task was to specify the right label materials for their branding and compliance needs and provide software and equipment to print compliance labels on demand. ADI’s proposed solution would slash the waste associated with printing and applying labels and create a lean process.

Compliance

Compliance labels must contain specific information and must be prominently visible and clearly legible. Containers have to be labeled with details including the specific quantity of product, dosage, THC levels, license #, testing lab name and ID #, and other details. Different sizes and shapes are required for the various packaging form factors.

Due to the large amount of content and a relatively small label area, ADI specified 300 dpi printer resolution so that 4 or 5 point fonts would be legible.

Hunt had all the information needed to comply with state regulations, but didn’t have a way to get that information, properly formatted, onto a finished label at the point of packaging. “It’s all about how you get the data from one source to the other in a way that is easily repeatable,” says Hunt. The solution provides the capability to handle all compliance requirements, for all types of product and all sizes/shapes of labels. The system is designed to minimize key entry of data, a typical source of content errors. All of Grow Ohio’s products contain THC and require the red THC compliance logo. Early on this requirement was met using a separate, hand-applied THC logo label, which was very costly. The labels now include the THC logo, all required compliance data, and the capability to include a 2d barcode.

At the time the products are packaged all compliance information is printed on demand with label printers. As retail expansion continues, the barcode on the plant material compliance label can be used with the POS systems of the dispensaries, to keep their systems fast and accurate.

Until the system is ready to receive data automatically from METRC, the State approved inventory system which tracks all medical cannabis plants and products grown or produced in Ohio, they used user interfaces that reduce the amount of data that is key entered to an absolute minimum. Using drop down lists, date pickers and calculated results, means that Grow Ohio only enters data in 5-10 fields, depending on product line. As the system evolves the next step will be to take data for compliance details automatically from METRC.

Branding

As the first to enter the medical marijuana market, Grow Ohio leadership knew that their brand image is as important to their success as the quality of their products. Their logo, color choice, and inclusion of the THC logo had to be consistent in appearance across all products, regardless of production method.  They used full color branded product labels and blank labels that have the Grow Ohio and THC logo pre-printed. (Compliance data is added to the blank labels on demand.)

Label Application – Automatic, Semi-automatic and Manual

Grow Ohio packages in metal cans, glass bottles and in boxes. Each packaging type has specific requirements.

Metal Cans: Grow Ohio uses an automated packaging line for plant material in cans. That line includes two automatic apply-only machines (for brand labels). The compliance label is printed and dispensed and placed on the can as it is boxed.

Bottles: Cylindrical containers can be difficult to label. Grow Ohio originally packaged tinctures and oils in glass bottles which were pre-printed with their logo. The printed logo looked nice, but printing on the glass was expensive. This made placing the compliance label on the bottle more difficult, since the logo could not be covered. Positioning and straightness was critical for readability as well as aesthetics. Manual placement was time consuming (15 – 30 seconds per bottle).

Now, bottles are being processed with the help of a semi-automatic print-apply machine. The print-apply machine can label 18-20 bottles per minute.

By using plain bottles and pre-printing the blue Grow Ohio logo and red THC logo on the label, they were able to streamline the process. The semi-automatic print-apply machine adds the compliance data to the label and applies the label to the bottle.

The result is a lower total cost of the product. Plain bottles cost less without the logo and the labor to manually apply the labels has been greatly reduced. In addition, with the logos on the label instead of the bottle, orientation and spacing are no longer an issue. The label maintains the natural brand feel, which was important to Hunt.

Boxes: Only compliance labels are required for boxes as the branding information is pre-printed on the box. Compliance labels for boxes include a pre-printed, red THC logo. The printer prints the compliance data and presents the label with the liner removed, ready to be manually applied to the box.

Summary

With a broad product line, Grow Ohio’s label requirements are quite diverse. By specifying and sourcing the right hardware, software and label materials,

Adaptative Data provided an efficient, repeatable, cost-effective way to do brand and compliance labeling for Grow Ohio’s diverse product offering.  

Hunt now understands the magnitude of work that goes into coming up with a compliant, cost-friendly compliance labeling approach – an appreciation he did not have at the outset. He is not alone in this regard as many companies come to this understanding late in the start-up process.

Hunt isn’t sure how fast the market will grow, but he is not worried. As the market expands and demand grows, he knows his systems can handle it.

Why Comply: A Closer Look At Traceability For California’s Cannabis Businesses

By Scott Hinerfeld
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Compliance should be top of mind for California’s cannabis operators. As the state works to implement regulations in the rapidly-growing cannabis industry, business owners need to be aware of what’s required to stay in good standing. As of January 1, 2019, that means reporting data to the state’s new track-and-trace system, Metrc.

What Is Track-and-Trace?

Track-and-Trace programs enable government oversight of commercial cannabis throughout its lifecycle—from “seed-to-sale.” Regulators can track a product’s journey from grower to processor to distributor to consumer, through data points captured at each step of the supply chain. Track-and-trace systems are practical for a number of reasons:

  • Taxation: ensure businesses pay their share of owed taxes
  • Quality assurance & safety: ensure cannabis products are safe to consume, coordinate product recalls
  • Account for cannabis grown vs. cannabis sold: curb inventory disappearing to the black market
  • Helps government get a macro view of the cannabis industry

The California Cannabis Track-and-Trace system (CCTT) gives state officials the ability to supervise and regulate the burgeoning cannabis industry in the golden state.

What Is Metrc?

Metrc is the platform California cannabis operators must use to record, track and maintain detailed information about their product for reporting. Metrc compiles this data and pushes it to the state.

Who Is Required To Use Metrc?

Starting January 1, 2019, all California state cannabis licensees are required to use Metrc. This includes licenses for cannabis: Proper tagging ensures that regulators can quickly trace inventory back to a particular plant or place of origin.

  • Cultivation
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail
  • Distribution
  • Testing labs
  • Microbusinesses

How Does Metrc Work?

Metrc uses a system of tagging and unique ID numbers to categorize and track cannabis from seed to sale. Tagged inventory in Metrc is sorted into 2 categories: plants and packages. Plants are further categorized as either immature or flowering. All plants are required to enter Metrc through immature plant lots of up to 100/plants per lot. Each lot is assigned a lot unique ID (UID), and each plant in the lot gets a unique Identifier plant tag. Immature plants are labeled with the lot UID, while flowering plants get a plant tag. Metrc generates these ID numbers and they cannot be reused. In addition to the UID, tags include a facility name, facility license number, application identifier (medical or recreational), and order dates for the tag. Proper tagging ensures that regulators can quickly trace inventory back to a particular plant or place of origin.

Packages are formed from immature plants, harvest batches, or other packages. Package tags are important for tracking inventory through processing, as the product changes form and changes hands. Each package receives a UID package tag, and as packages are refined and/or combined, they receive a new ID number, which holds all the other ID numbers in it and tells that package’s unique story.

Do I Have To Enter Data Into Metrc Manually?

You certainly can enter data into Metrc manually, but you probably won’t want to, and thankfully, you don’t have to. Metrc’s API allows for seamless communication between the system and many of your company’s existing tracking and reporting tools used for inventory, production, POS, invoices, orders, etc. These integrations automate the data entry process in many areas.As California operators work to get their ducks in a row, some ambiguity and confusion around Metrc’s roll out remains. 

Adopting and implementing cannabis ERP software is another way operators can automate compliance. These platforms combine software for point of sale, cultivation, distribution, processing and ecommerce into one unified system, which tracks everything and pushes it automatically to Metrc via the API. Since they’ve been developed specifically for the cannabis industry, they’re designed with cannabis supply chain and regulatory demands in mind.

As California operators work to get their ducks in a row, some ambiguity and confusion around Metrc’s roll out remains. Only businesses with full annual licenses are required to comply, leaving some temporary licensees unsure of how to proceed. Others are simply reluctant to transition from an off-the-grid, off-the-cuff model to digitally tracking and reporting everything down to the gram. But the stakes of non-compliance are high— the prospect of fines or loss of business is causing fear and concern for many. Integrated cannabis ERP software can simplify operations and offer continual, automated compliance, which should give operators peace of mind.

Washington Lab Conducts Transparency Study

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this week Capitol Analysis Group, a cannabis-testing laboratory based in Lacey, Washington, announced they are conducting a “data-driven Lab Transparency Project, an effort to improve accuracy of cannabis testing results in the state through transparency and a new third-party auditing process,” according to a press release. They plan to look through the state’s traceability data to find patterns of deviations and possible foul play.

The project launch comes after Straightline Analytics, a Washington cannabis industry data company, released a report indicating they found rampant laboratory shopping to be present in the state. Lab shopping is a less-than-ethical business practice where cannabis producers look for the lab that will give them the most favorable results, particularly with respect to higher potency figures and lower contamination fail rates.“Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,”

According to the press release, their report “shows that businesses that pay for the highest number of lab tests achieve, on average, reported potency levels 2.71% higher than do those that pay for the lowest number of lab tests.” They also found labs that provide higher potency figures tend to have the largest market share.

The Lab Transparency Project logo
The Lab Transparency Project logo

The goal of The Lab Transparency Project is to provide summaries of lab data across the state, shining a light in particular on which labs provide the highest potency results. “Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,” says Jeff Doughty, president of Capitol Analysis. “We already have standards that should prevent variations in lab results and proficiency testing that shows that the labs are capable of doing the testing.” The other piece to this project is independent third party auditing, where they hope other labs will collaborate in the name of transparency and honesty. “Problems arise when the auditors aren’t looking,” says Doughty. “Therefore, we’re creating the Lab Transparency Project to contribute to honesty and transparency in the testing industry.”

Dr. Jim McRae, founder of Straightline Analytics, and the author of that inflammatory report, has been a vocal critic of the Washington cannabis testing industry for years now. “I applaud Capitol Analysis for committing to this effort,” says McRae. “With the state’s new traceability system up and running following a 4-month breakdown, the time for openness and transparency is now.” Dr. McRae will be contributing to the summaries of lab data as part of the project.

According to Doughty, the project is designed to be a largely collaborative effort with other labs, dedicated to improving lab standards and transparency in the industry.