Back in late September, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), the regulatory body overseeing the Oregon cannabis market, issued an “Order of Immediate License Suspension” for Ecotest Labs, based in Phoenix, Oregon. In a press release, the OLCC says that the licensee, Proper Rental Management, LLC doing business as Ecotest Labs, made a number of violations.
The Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) is the regulatory body that oversees cannabis testing labs in the state. Back in July, they told the OLCC that they suspended Ecotest’s accreditations for failing to meet required procedures and standards.
The OLCC said that “continued operation represents a serious danger to the public health and safety.” ORELAP had suspicions that the lab moved testing instruments to an unlicensed location in Hillsboro, just outside of Portland, where they were conducting unlicensed testing. OLCC then launched an investigation into the lab.
Ecotest Labs told the OLCC they were having problems with their accreditation and thought they had been recertified. In August of this year, Ecotest Labs told the OLCC they were moving products for testing to the Hillsboro location, but said (incorrectly) that ORELAP rules allowed that to happen.
After digging into the METRC accounts for tracking cannabis products, the OLCC found the lab was continuing to move products for testing to the unlicensed location. There was no application submitted for the Hillsboro location.
The OLCC expanded their investigation to include other Oregon regulatory agencies in September. But on or around September 9, Ecotest’s lab was destroyed by the Almeda wildfire. At that point, they no longer had a licensed facility to conduct testing, but were still doing so in that Hillsboro location.
The OLCC says more than 160 cannabis businesses in the state sent products for potency testing through the lab after August 21, which now need to be re-tested. Regulators placed an administrative hold in METRC to prevent products from being distributed that were tested by Ecotest Labs.
While the investigation is still ongoing, Ecotest Labs has the ability to challenge the regulators’ actions and call for an administrative hearing. While the OLCC works with licensees impacted by the wildfires to help them in relocating, they said many of the violations occurred prior to the wildfire destroying their business.
Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.
Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.
Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.
With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.
Not Just an Online Dispensary
For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.
Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.
It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.
The Long Regulatory Road
Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.
The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”
In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.
For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.
As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.
Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.
They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.
Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task
“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.
Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.
On an Upward Trajectory
Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.
But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”
It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”
As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.
Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.
To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.
Anyone with a search engine can piece together how much THC certain strains produce and what their characteristics are. Oh wait- there’s an app for that… or dozens, I lose count these days.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our communityLet’s take one of my favorites, Dutch Treat; relaxing, piney and sweet with a standard production of 18-25% THC, according to three different reviews online. So, did I raise an eyebrow when I saw Dutch Treat on Oregon shelves labeled at 30% THC? Did I take it in to an independent, accredited lab and have it tested for accuracy? You bet your inflated potency results I did! The results? Disappointing.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our community; it is hurting every participant in our industry affected by the trade, commerce and consumption of recreational cannabis.
“I have had labs ask me what I want my potency numbers to look like and make an offer,” says David Todd, owner and operations manager of Glasco Farms, a craft cannabis producer in central Oregon. “It’s insane- I want to stand behind my product and show through scientific fact that I produce a superior flower.”
But without enforcement of lab practice standards, producers are being pressured to play dirty. In her third year cultivating at a two-tier recreational cannabis farm, a producer who wished to remain anonymous sent me an email about the pressures she is up against to produce high THC strains:
“The only sure way to get my product on the shelf at a profitable price is with THC 25% or above. Not a lot of strains have that potential, but the market has plenty with 28% to 32% floating around so I have to go with the same labs as the rest of the independent farmers to get the best numbers I can. The lab I use … return(s) good numbers.”
Those “good numbers,” aka high THC %, are the driving force of sales. A strain tests at 20% THC and it sells for $1,000/lb. Then it tests at 25% THC, and sells for $1300/lb. You produce cannabis for sale- this is your business. And labs are telling you that they can manipulate samples and reports to make you more money. Everyone else is doing it. If you don’t, your product isn’t “good enough” to sell. What do you do?Labs should operate ethically.
It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by lies, lack of enforcement resources, coercion and undereducation. We are all responsible. Yet, ask who the source of the problem is and everyone points fingers across the circle.
The consumers are uneducated about cannabis and only focus on THC. The dispensaries and budtenders should be educating them. Producers should take a stand and use an honest lab. Labs should operate ethically.
I repeat: Oregon, we have a problem.
It’s time to stop living in a land where Dutch Treat is hitting 30% THC. It’s time for everyone to demand auditing and ethics.
Laws have been set forth on how to sample, prep, test and report analyses for cannabis to ensure fair commerce, consumer health and public safety. But there’s a clear need to blind test the different labs, and for unbiased, third-party research and development.
As federal eyes turn to the Oregon to investigate black market activity, regulatory bodies are tightening their grip on licensees to maintain legal validity and avoid shut down.
The time to demand change and integrity is now.The crack-down began on August 23, 2018, when the OLCC investigated several prominent producers’ practices. Black market distribution incurred the harshest penalty; the OLCC revoked their wholesale license due to multiple violations.
“We want good compliant, law-abiding partners as OLCC marijuana licensees,” says Paul Rosenbaum, OLCC Commission Chair. “We know the cannabis industry is watching what we’re doing, and believe me, we’ve taken notice. We’re going to find a way to strengthen our action against rule breakers, using what we already have on the books, and if need be working with the legislature to tighten things up further.”
Trends in METRC data lay the foundation for truth, and it’s time to put it to use. “The Cannabis Tracking System worked as it should enabling us to uncover this suspicious activity,” says Steven Marks, OLCC Executive Director. “When we detect possible illegal activity, we need to take immediate steps …”
Potency fraud might not be at the top of the list for investigation, but labs and producers are breaking the law, and there will be consequences. ORELAP and OLCC have the right to investigate and revoke licenses of labs that are falsifying data and consumers can file claims with the Department of Justice.
Last week, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson published his office’s audit of The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). The audit uncovered a number of inadequacies with the regulatory agency, most notably the problems with their tracking system, designed to prevent cannabis form being sold on the black market.
The report highlights the need for Oregon to implement a more robust tracking system, citing reliance on self-reporting, overall poor data quality and allowing untracked inventory for newly licensed businesses. The audit also found an insufficient number of inspectors and unresolved security issues. According to The Oregonian, the OLCC only has 18 inspectors, roughly one for every 83 licensed businesses.
Auditors also found inadequacies in the application system, saying the OLCC doesn’t monitor third-party service providers and doesn’t have a process in place for reconciling data between the licensing and tracking systems. The audit found there is a risk that decisions made for the program could be based on unreliable data. It also found a risk of unauthorized access to the systems, due to a lack of managing user accounts.
This audit’s publication is very timely. Most notably because U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, who called Oregon’s black market problem “formidable,” convened a summit this week to examine how Oregon can prevent cannabis being exported to other states. According to the Oregonian, Williams said Oregon has an “identifiable and formidable overproduction and diversion problem.” The audit’s findings highlighting security issues are also very timely, given that in the same week, Oregon’s neighbor to the North, Washington, experienced a security breach in its own tracking system.
The problems with the Oregon tracking system’s security features are numerous, the audit says. They found that the OLCC lacks a good security plan, IT assets aren’t tracked well, there are no processes to determine vulnerabilities, servers and workstations not using supported operating systems and a lack of appropriately managing antivirus solutions. “Long-standing information security issues remain unresolved, including insufficient and outdated policies and procedures necessary to safeguard information assets,” reads the report’s summary.
The audit proposes 17 recommendations for the state to bolster its regulatory oversight. Those recommendations intend to address undetected compliance violations, weaknesses in application management, IT security weaknesses and weaknesses in disaster recovery and media backup testing. You can read the full audit here.
On March 18th, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issued its first recall for recreational cannabis products. The recall, according to the press release, occurred because an unnamed wholesaler sent cannabis products to a retailer before the pesticide test results were entered into the OLCC Cannabis Tracking System (CTS).
The cannabis grown at Emerald Wave Estate, LLC is said to fail a test for pyrethrins exceeding the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) action level (the action level for pyrethrins is 1 ppm). Pyrethrins are a class of insecticides derived from the chrysanthemum flower. Their toxicity varies a lot depending on exactly what organic compound was used, but has an acute toxicity level that is cause for concern. When exposed to high levels of pyrethrins, people have reported symptoms similar to asthma. Generally, pyrethrins have a low chronic toxicity for humans.
The retailer, Buds 4 U LLC, located in Mapleton, OR, issued a voluntary recall for 82.5 grams of the strain Blue Magoo sold between March 8th and 10th. After finding the failed test results in the CTS, the retailer immediately contacted the OLCC. According to The Portland Tribune, OLCC spokesman Mark Pettinger says the retailer was very cooperative in immediately notifying the OLCC. “The retailer was great,” says Pettinger. “They get the gold star.” The Portland Tribune also says the wholesaler who shipped the cannabis prior to test results being entered is Cascade Cannabis Distributing of Eugene. That mistake could be a violation of Oregon’s regulations, leading to a 10-day closure and up to a $1,650 fine.
According to the press release, the rest of the nine pounds in the batch is on hold “pending the outcome of an additional pesticide retest.” The OLCC encourages consumers to check if their products have the license and product numbers detailed in the press release. They advise consumers who did purchase the affected cannabis to dispose of the product or return it to the retailer. The press release also mentions that they have not received any reports of illness related to the tainted cannabis.
Oregon cannabis regulators began enforcing new rules over the weekend when the October 1st compliance deadline passed. Compared to the relatively cut-and-dried new Colorado regulations, the Oregon cannabis market faces more complex and changing regulatory compliance issues.
The new rules in Oregon address changes to testing, packaging and labeling regulations along with concentration and serving size limits, according to a bulletin published by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) earlier this week. Most of the new rules are meant to add safeguards for public health and consumer safety, while putting an emphasis on keeping cannabis away from children.
Around the same time, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) published a bulletin with a new temporary rule that is meant to prevent marketing to children. The OLCC’s temporary rule clarifies “restrictions on product wording commonly associated with products marketed by or to children.” The OLCC reviewed around 500 strain names and found roughly 20 of them that could appeal to children. The OLCC will not approve labels that include strain names like Girl Scout Cookies, Candyland and Charlotte’s Web, among others. This means that breeders and growers have to change strain names on labels like Death Star, Skywalker and Jedi Kush because they contain a reference to the Star Wars franchise, which is marketed to children.
The new testing regulations establish requirements for testing cannabis products for THC and CBD concentrations, water activity, moisture content, pesticides and solvents in concentrates. They also stipulate that ORELAP-accredited laboratories must perform the testing. In the time leading up to the compliance deadline, many lacked confidence that ORELAP would accredit enough laboratories to meet the demand for testing. “We have heard from existing accredited labs that they can meet demand for cannabis product testing,” says Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the OHA. “We don’t yet know how much product requires testing, so we can’t speculate on whether labs will indeed be able to meet demand.” It is still unclear at this time if there are enough laboratories to perform all of the testing for cannabis products in the state.
At this time, 16 laboratories have been accredited for some form of testing, but only four labs have been accredited for pesticide testing. A list of the labs that ORELAP has accredited can be found here. Notably, only one lab is accredited for testing microbiological contaminants, such as E. coli. Testing for microbiological contaminants is not required for all cannabis products sold, rather it is only required upon written request by the OHA or OLCC.
The new labeling and packaging requirements concern testing, consumer education, childproofing and preventing marketing to minors. All cannabis products must contain a label that has been pre-approved by the OLCC. “Cannabis products have to be clearly labeled, showing that is has been tested, or if it has not been tested then it must display ‘does not meet new testing requirements’,” says Modie. “It [the label] must be clear, legible and readable, so they [the consumer] know exactly what it contains, including what cannabis product is inside the package, how much of it, how much THC, and where the product came from.”
According to Modie, it is particularly important that the packaging is not attractive to minors. Cartoons, designs and names that resemble non-cannabis products intended for, or marketed to children, should not be on the packaging or label. “Part of our education to the public and recreational cannabis users focuses on keeping these products out of reach of children in the first place, like storing cannabis in a locked area or an area where a child cannot reach or see,” says Modie. “Our goal is always to protect public health.”
Walking into one of the grow rooms on Adam Jacques’ farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, you will find dozens of cannabis plants and a whiteboard on the wall with the note “Do it for Frank” across the top. This is a reminder of why Jacques and his team are growing medical marijuana: To help people.
Frank Leeds, one of Jacques’ cannabis patients, lost his battle with cancer in early January.
Jacques was working with Frank for the past five years to develop “Frank’s Gift,” a high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain with a slew of potential medical benefits. Deeply saddened by the loss of his patient and close friend, Jacques continues to run his grow operation, Grower’s Guild Gardens, where he and his wife, Debra, work to get high-quality, safe medicine to their patients.
On their farm, strain testing is currently underway for the upcoming changes in the recreational program in Oregon. “With the way the medical laws are now, I have 48 plants for my patients, including multiple high-CBD genetics, and any excess flower will be sold to recreational dispensaries to cover our overhead costs,” says Jacques. When the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) grants them their recreational grow license, he will take some of those trial strains to an outdoor crop estimated to be in the thousands of plants on his 42-acre farm.
Presenting at the Dispensary Next Conference a few weeks ago, Jacques said to a crowded room of industry professionals: “The biggest reward is helping people.” Jacques and his team’s work exemplifies the good that smaller grow operations can do for the industry.
Jacques’ recent work has taken him to help Leni Young, a four-year-old girl originally from Alabama who suffers from debilitating seizures. Her parents became medical refugees when she was not selected for an Alabama study involving cannabis oil. As a result, the Young’s took their daughter to Eugene, where with the help of Jacques and his team, they could get her customized cannabis oil with high doses of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THC-A) that could help treat her seizures.
The cannabis oil that Jacques created has brought Young’s seizures down from multiple occurring every day to just one every six weeks. “One-strain solutions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ are no longer the answer for treating medical conditions,” says Jacques. “We create something custom designed for individual patients, and it is working.” CBD and THC-A, the main active ingredients in Leni’s medicine, are two of the non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis believed to have extraordinary medical benefits.
Less than three weeks ago, a bill was introduced to the Alabama legislature that would decriminalize the possession of and allow patients to get high-CBD oil. The bill is called “Leni’s Law.”
Jacques’ goal in the long term is to get clinical trials with peer-reviewed studies to connect the dots between his patients, cannabis and evidence-based medicine. “I am working with a laboratory in Arizona and a doctor from Israel to perform a peer-reviewed study,” he adds. “Getting peer-reviewed will allow me to provide legitimate scientific evidence for my claims and get the knowledge into the hands of my patients.”
Looking into the immediate future, Jacques is wary of different regulations coming to Oregon. “Once you go recreational with your business, you lose the ability to provide any sort of a medical recommendation,” says Jacques. “I do not want to see the recreational program and the desire for profits push out our ability to help patients.”
Jacques and his team represent the idea that embodies the cannabis legalization movement, which is to help people get the medicine they need. “The money is not really important any more,” says Jacques.
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