Now that cannabis edibles have been legalized nationally in Canada, many existing and aspiring license holders have been surprised to discover that they must comply with food safety regulations. This became crystal clear when Health Canada published their Good Production Practices Guide For Cannabis in August 2019.
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) based preventative control programs are now the absolute minimum and higher levels of certification (GFSI) should be on everyone’s wish list.
HACCP is a methodology that is all about identifying biological, chemical and physical hazards and determining how they will be controlled to mitigate the risk of injury to humans. Recently, bio-terrorism and food fraud hazards have been added to the list and it is a good idea to address quality hazards as well.
The process of developing a HACCP program involves identifying these hazards with respect to ingredients, materials, packaging, processes and cross-contamination points (explicitly required in Canada only). However, it is a specific ingredient hazard that I’d like to talk about here.
As this market has emerged, I’ve met with many cannabis companies as the onerous levels of knowledge and effort required to build and maintain an effective HACCP program manually has dawned upon the industry. Many are looking for technological solutions to quickly solve this problem. During these discussions, a curious fact has emerged that set off the food safety alarm klaxons around here.
Most people alive today are too young to remember this but, with few exceptions, the standardization of ingredients is a relatively modern phenomenon. It used to be that the fat content of your milk varied from season to season and cow to cow. Over time, the food industry standardized so that, amazingly, you can now choose between milks with either 1% or 2% fat, a level of precision that would border on miraculous to someone born in the early 20th century.
The standardization of ingredients is important in terms of both quality and safety. Take alcohol for example. We know that a shot of spirits generally contains 40% alcohol. Different products may vary from this standard but, if I pour a shot of my favourite Bowmore No.1 single malt in Canada or Tasmania, this year or 10 years from now, I can expect a consistent effect from the 40% alcohol content of the quantity I’ve imbibed.
Imagine a world in which this was not the case, where one shot would be 40% but the next might be 80%. Things could get out of control quite easily at the 80% level so, to avoid this, distillers monitor and blend their product to ensure they achieve the 40% target, which is called the “standardization marker”.
With respect to cannabis, the obvious standardization marker is THC. During the manufacturing process, edibles manufacturers do not normally add cannabis flower directly into their products but instead add a THC concentrate produced during previous production steps. However, we’ve found that the wisdom of standardizing these concentrates has not yet dawned upon many in the industry, which is alarming at best and dangerous at worst.
The reason for this is that, since cannabis is inherently a heterogeneous plant, one cannot precisely achieve a particular marker value so the outcome of the concentration process is variable. The food industry long ago overcame this problem by blending or diluting to achieve a consistent marker concentration, but the cannabis industry has not yet adopted this advance.
The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker.Instead, manufacturers simply keep track of the strength of each batch of concentrate and then adjust the quantity added to their recipes to achieve the desired THC content. This seems logical on the surface but presents a serious risk from the HACCP perspective, namely a chemical hazard, “Excessive psychoactive compound concentrations due to human error at levels that may be injurious to human health”.
The reality is that workers make mistakes, which is why it is imperative to mitigate the risk of human error insomuch as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to standardize to avoid the scenario where a worker, faced with a row of identical containers that are differentiated only by a tiny bit of text, accidentally grabs the wrong bottle. The error isn’t caught until the product has been shipped, consumed, and reports of hospital visits start coming in after the authorities trace the problem back to you. You must bear the costs of the recall, your reputation has been decimated and your company is floundering on the financial rocks.
US-based Drip More, LP recently found this out the hard way after consumers complained that their product tasted bad, bitter and/or harsh. An investigation determined that excessive nicotine content was the source of the problem and a voluntary recall was initiated. Affected product that had already been sold in 26 states. The costs of this recall have not been tallied but they will be staggering.
The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker. This strategy is cheap, easy and you’ll never be sorry.
Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.
And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.
As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.
I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.
We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.
It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.
We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.
Why So Dry?
Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.
The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.
Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.
When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.
Today’s consumers have an appreciation for how premium flower should look, smell and taste. Rehydration cannot put terpenes back in the flower, nor can it re-attach trichomes to the flower, which is why preservation of these elements is so key.
Cannabis Humidity Control
Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.
There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.
In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.
Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.
Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.
Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.
The topic of sustainability has grown in importance and priority for both consumers and regulators. From reducing emissions to lowering energy and water consumption, cannabis growing facilities face unique challenges when it comes to designing sustainable operations. Moreover, as the cannabis market grows and usage becomes more accepted, regulatory bodies will continue to increase the number of directives to help ensure the safety and quality of cannabis products.
Ubiquitous throughout cannabis grow rooms and greenhouses, flooring can be easily overlooked, yet offers an economical way to create more sustainable facilities. Many of today’s grow rooms are located in old retrofitted warehouses or former industrial buildings that were designed without sustainability or environmental concerns in mind.
Combined with energy efficient lighting and more thoughtful water usage, flooring can help create a more efficient facility that not only improves business operations, but also contributes to a better bottom line.
Sustainability Challenges Facing Cannabis Facilities
Whether in an old warehouse space or a new structure designed from the ground up, cannabis businesses face unique operational challenges when it comes to sustainable best practices.
- Energy Consumption: Like any indoor farm, lighting plays an important role in cannabis growing facilities. Traditional grow lights can utilize a large amount of electricity, putting a strain on the company budget as well as regional energy resources. Switching to highly-efficient LED lighting can help facilities reduce their consumption, while still maximizing crop yield.
- Water Consumption: Among the thirstiest of flora, cannabis plants require consistent and plentiful watering for healthy and fruitful crop production.
- Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Enrichment: In many cases, carbon dioxide is introduced into facilities to help enhance the growth of crops. However, this practice may pose safety and health risks for workers, the surrounding community and the planet at large. CO2 is a greenhouse gas known to contribute to climate change.
In order to head off upcoming regulatory restrictions, as well as to alleviate the mounting safety and health concerns, it behooves cannabis grow room managers and owners to explore alternatives for improving sustainability in their facilities.
Flooring Requirements for More Sustainable Cannabis Facilities
Spanning thousands or even hundreds of thousands of square feet throughout a facility, flooring can be a unique way to introduce and support sustainable practices in any grow room or greenhouse.
When seeking to improve operational efficiency and implementing the use of sustainable practices in cannabis facilities, look for flooring systems with the following characteristics:
- Impervious Surfaces— Fertilizers, fungicides, and other chemicals can infiltrate porous unprotected concrete to leach through the slab matrix and into the soil and groundwater below. Non-porous flooring options, such as industrial-grade, fluid-applied epoxies and urethanes, are impervious in nature, helping to isolate contaminants on the surface, thus enabling proper cleanup and disposal.
- Light-Reflective Finishes— Light-colored white or pastel floor surfaces in glossy finishes can help reduce the amount of energy needed to properly illuminate grow rooms. By mirroring overhead lighting back upward, bright, light-reflective flooring can help minimize facilities’ reliance on expensive ceiling fixtures and electricity usage.
- USDA, FDA, EPA, OSHA and ADA Compliancy— With cannabis industry regulations currently in flux, grow facilities that select food- and pharmaceutical-compliant flooring will be ahead of the game. Governing bodies in some states have already begun expanding the facility requirements of these sectors to the cannabis market.
- Durable and Easy Care— Having to replace flooring every couple of years imposes high costs on businesses as well as the environment. Installation of many traditional types of flooring produces cut-off waste and requires landfill disposal of the old floor material. In contrast, by installing industrial-grade flooring systems that are highly durable and easy-to-maintain, facilities can count on long-term performance and value, while helping to minimize disposal costs and concerns.
Optimal flooring can help cultivation facilities reduce waste, improve the efficacy of existing lighting and lengthen floor replacement cycles for a better bottom line and a healthier environment. Additionally, having the right grow room floor can assist facilities in meeting regulatory requirements, help ensure production of quality products and improve the safety for consumers and staff.
Flooring Benefits for Employees and Consumers
Safety is paramount in any workplace. When it comes to the manufacture of foodstuffs and other consumed products, government oversight can be especially stringent. With the right compliant flooring in place, cultivation facilities can focus on the rest of their business, knowing that what’s underfoot is contributing to the safety of employees and their customers.
- Chemical Resistance— Floors can be exposed to a high concentration of chemicals, acids and alkalis in the form of fertilizers, soil enhancers and other substances. In processing locations, the proper disinfecting and sanitizing of equipment can require harsh solvents, detergents and chemical solutions, which can drip or spill onto the floor, damaging traditional flooring materials. It pays to select cannabis facility flooring with high chemical resistance to help ensure floors can perform as designed over the long term.
- Thermal Shock Resistance— Optimal cannabis facility flooring should be capable of withstanding repeated temperature cycling. Slab-on-grade structures in colder climates may be especially vulnerable to floor damage caused by drastic temperature differences between a freezing cold concrete slab and the tropical grow room above. This extreme contrast can cause certain floor materials to crack, delaminate and curl away from the concrete substrate. The resulting crevices and uneven surfaces present trip and fall hazards to employees and leave the slab unprotected from further degradation. As an alternative, thermal shock-resistant floors, such as urethane mortar systems, furnish long-lived functionality even when regularly exposed to extreme temperature swings.
- Humidity and Moisture Resistance— Traditional floor surfaces tend to break down in ongoing damp, humid environments. Cannabis facility flooring must be capable of withstanding this stress and more.
- Pathogen Resistance— Undesirable microbes, fungi and bacteria can thrive in the moist, warm environments found in grow rooms. Floors with extensive grout lines and gaps provide additional dark, damp locations for pathogen growth. Fluid-applied flooring results in a virtually seamless surface that’s directly bonded to the concrete. Integral floor-to-wall cove bases can further improve wash down and sanitation.
- Proper Slope and Drainage— Where food and/or pharmaceutical facility regulations have already been extended to cannabis operations, flooring is required to slope properly toward a floor drain. This prevents puddling, which can be a slip hazard as well as a microbe breeding ground. Unlike more typical materials, resinous flooring offers an economical solution for correcting floor slope wherever needed.
The Problems Presented by Traditional Flooring Options
Previously, cannabis growers often relied on traditional greenhouse-type flooring, including tamped down dirt floors, gravel or bare concrete. However, current and upcoming regulations are curtailing the use of these simple flooring options.
Growers often compare and contrast the benefits and value of traditional greenhouse flooring with more modern solutions, such as fluid-applied epoxy and urethane floors.
Dirt and gravel flooring offers little opportunity to properly sanitize, thus potentially inviting microorganism and pathogen invasion, contamination and costly damage. Growers who have turned to bare concrete floors face other concerns, including:
- Unprotected concrete is inherently porous and therefore able to quickly absorb spilled liquids and moisture from the air. In addition, organic and synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and chemicals can leach through the concrete floors, contaminating the groundwater, injuring the surrounding environment and wildlife.
- Older slabs often lack an under-slab vapor barrier. Even in new construction, a single nail hole can render an under-slab barrier ineffective. In these situations, moisture from underneath the floor slab can move upward osmotically through the alkaline slab, leading to blistering and damage to standard commercial floor coverings.
- Bare concrete floors can stain easily. These dark stains tend to absorb light instead of reflecting it, contributing to a potential increase in energy usage and cost.
- The mold proliferation encouraged by the warmth and humidity of grow rooms can easily penetrate into the depths of unprotected slab surfaces, eventually damaging its structural integrity and shortening the usable life of the concrete.
While traditional greenhouse flooring options can initially seem less expensive, they frequently present long-term risks to the health of cannabis grow businesses. In addition, the performance of dirt, gravel and bare concrete floors runs counter to the industry’s commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of growing facilities.
Choosing Sustainable Grow Room Flooring
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is undergoing enormous change and faces numerous environmental challenges. Luckily, optimal flooring options are now available to help growers economically increase their eco-friendly practices on many fronts. By focusing on quality resinous flooring, cannabis growers can get closer to meeting their sustainability goals, while simultaneously contributing to improved operation efficiency, enhanced yields and an increased bottom line.
Project Yosemite, a cannabis product innovation and brand development company, announced earlier this month the appointment of Jennifer Raeder-Devens as their new Chief Scientific Officer. Raeder-Devens is a veteran of the MedTech industry, working for companies like Becton Dickinson, Cardinal Health, Medtronic and 3M.
Prior to joining Yosemite, she was the Vice President of Research & Development at Becton, Dickinson, where she oversaw product development and technology strategies to launch infection prevention products including the ChloraPrep first-in-the-US sterile solution patient preoperative topical antiseptic. She was previously the Vice President of R&D, Strategy and Innovation at Cardinal Health. She’s also held roles at Medtronic, 3M Drug Delivery Systems and 3M Skin Health Division and she has a number of patents in drug delivery and medical devices.
In November of 2018, Project Yosemite launched their first product, OLO, which is an infused, controlled-release sublingual strip. Part of Raeder-Devens’ new role at the company is the continued development and expansion of the OLO sublingual strip technology platform. Andrew Mack, CEO and founder of Project Yosemite, says he’s thrilled to have Raeder-Devens on the team. “Jennifer is an extremely accomplished scientist and engineer with extensive experience driving innovation and R&D in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries,” says Mack.
We caught up with Jennifer over the phone to talk about her background in the MedTech space, why she decided to jump ship to join the cannabis industry and what she’s excited to work on now.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Can you tell us about your background, including your work with 3M and Medtronic?
Jennifer Raeder-Devens: I’m coming directly from Becton Dickinson, a global med tech company, where I supervised the development of drug-device combination products for topical antiseptics. I spent about 10 years there, mostly in topical drug and combination product development. Prior to that, I was at 3M and Medtronic working in drug-device combination products. At 3M, I was supervising a team of technology developers for the 3M Drug Delivery Systems business. I had experience working with designing and manufacturing transdermal, nasal, buccal and inhalation drug delivery mechanisms for pharmaceutical partners.
I worked on implantable drug delivery systems at Medtronic, which included working on the biocompatibility of things like pacemakers and drug infusion pumps and optimizing them to reduce infection and enhance healing after the implantation procedure.
CIJ: What made you consider joining the cannabis industry?
Jennifer: With my work in topicals, transdermal and inhalation drug delivery, I had an easy understanding of the different routes of administration we see today in the cannabis industry. And so, from the technology standpoint, I thought this was a place I could contribute to immediately. And then what got me really excited about it was thinking about cannabis, and just like any other drug, with oral drug delivery, you’ve got first class metabolism and side effects from the 11-Hydroxy-THC that are undesirable and you’d rather not have delivered through the gut.
I got excited when I saw the development of things like sublingual strips that were focusing on alternatives to smoking that would preserve that relatively fast onset and mitigate some of the side effects of edibles.
The other thing I really like about the cannabis industry: Previously I have been very focused on known drugs that are already approved and repurposing them into a new delivery system. What really interests me about the cannabis industry is the active cannabinoids and terpenes are somewhat known and somewhat unknown, so there is this really interesting challenge there of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of producing therapeutic effects.
It is a really interesting space where the indications of certain molecules are evolving along with the delivery technology. So, it is a really exciting and eye-opening way to take the next step in my career and have this wide-open space in front of me, both in terms of the different cannabinoids, their effects and the delivery systems we can use.
CIJ: How might you be prepared, given your background, for some of the challenges in the cannabis space?
Jennifer: I think the challenges in cannabis delivery are not different from the challenges in pharmaceutical drug delivery. It’s just that we have this additional complexity of the entourage effect. We can be engineering not just the main ingredient of THC, but also all the other cannabinoids and terpenes. So, for example, with my background in infection prevention, we build a product that we know reduces the risk of infection, but we are really challenged to actually prove it reduces the risk of infection. We have a similar situation in the cannabis industry, where we can get the THC, or CBG or CBN where we want it to go, but then we are really challenged to figure out how we can find, what we call in the pharmaceutical industry, a surrogate end point for efficacy, so that we can test that product and really believe that when we put the product on the market, even though we haven’t tested thousands of users or conducted large randomized clinical trials, that the effect will be shown. We are networking and partnering with a good scientific community to build the right product and do some testing at a small scale that really demonstrates the product achieves the effect that we are really looking for.
CIJ: Can you tell us a little about your new role with Project Yosemite?
Jennifer: My job description falls into three buckets: The first part is that we are forming a scientific advisory board and we are working with some of the leading cannabinoid researchers around the country and around the world. These are the people identifying whether or not certain cannabinoids could reduce cancer cell metabolism or whether cannabinoids contribute to weight loss or diabetes control and other things of that nature. We are trying to reach as far upstream as we can to grasp the emerging understanding of the performance of cannabinoids and terpenes in the endocannabinoid system. So, part of my job is to chair that scientific advisory board, get the thought leaders together in the room and have them bring their knowledge and explore with our own knowledge what cannabis can really do.
I have worked in topical, transdermal, buccal, nasal, inhalation drug delivery. In the second bucket of my job, we are trying to understand a given indication or experience that our users want to have, what would be the right route for them. We are challenging our sublingual delivery mechanism to see how fast of an onset we can really get. Right now, we are at 10 minutes for drug delivery in sublingual and we are still trying to get an even faster onset time for the sublingual strip.
For other indications, like chronic pain, we may want to think about a sustained release, so sort of aligning the different indications with which different cannabinoids and terpenes will work for it and see which delivery platform will work for what we are trying to accomplish in each indication. So, we do not plan to remain solely a sublingual strip company, but will build out additional delivery platforms as we develop new indications.
Right now, we are working upstream with the growers and the processors to get cannabis oil and extracts. Some of the growers are working on different genetics in their cultivars to grow plants that have different ratios of different cannabinoids that we know from the emerging research will have an impact on people’s experience. Now we are working with growers to really get ahead of the curve on how to formulate products with various cannabinoids.
We have an R&D team in house that I supervise. We are always working with our production team to make small improvements such as the faster onset and the dissolution rate and things like flavors, which covers a downstream focus as well.
There is certainly, in retrospect, much to be proud about in Canada – home of one of the most disruptive international cannabis industries in the world. And certainly an early mover.
That starts with having the national mojo to begin this journey in the first place, not to mention pivot and even admit faults along the way. For all the complaints and whinges, however on the ground, most Canadians are proud that they tackled the canna question at a federal level.
As the industry now does a bit of an annual review and revisit, what are some of the largest accomplishments, takeaways (and let’s be honest, major f*ckups) so far? And where is this all headed as the industry at least tries to gear up for another year, if not quite Cannabis 2.0?
The Big Bravos
Launching in the first place. Yes Full Monty Recreational was scary, and delayed a few months last year. And even though there have been many problems (retail outlets, online sales, privacy, supply chain issues in every direction, ex im, foreign markets and etc.), it is up and running.
In comparison, the Brits have been haranguing over Brexit for the last three years and are still not really there.
Further, it is also apparent that the agencies in charge of the new industry are themselves giving a bit of a shake after CannaTitanic (CannTrust). That was embarrassing for them too, although of course, while a bit of a negative compliment, the recall system seems to work.
Even if it needs a few jump starts via whistleblowing.
That in and of itself is a fact that is still in the room, although perhaps the pancaking of the stock price of most of the public industry of late was also another much needed wakeup call.
The Devil In The Details
Domestic Requirements. Health Canada is getting hip to the fact that the industry needs a bit more of a heavy hand. See the book thrown at CannTrust. No matter what, Canadians are demanding to know where their cannabis comes from, and further are also demanding that it be at least free of pesticides that can harm them.
Licensing. Many cannapreneuers are complaining, still, about the delays in licensing, particularly for retail outlets in the provinces who are taking the cannabull by the horns. That said, there are still lots of enterprises who are perfectly happy to dodge the requirements all together and sell to the black or gray market. No licensing fees, and no taxes is a wonderful dream, but that is not exactly how regulated democratic capitalism works – at least at this level.
Supply Chain Logistics and Related Technologies. Canadians are struggling to implement a regulated industry in a country where patient home grow is constitutionally protected, and in an environment where who can sell what, and to whom including online, is still evolving. Predictably, no matter how groovy the solution works at home, (or the U.S.), no it will not fly in Europe. See GDPR regs, for starters.
Seed Culture (Aka Strain Protection). No matter how much the lawyers in the colonies are gearing up to sue each other over Huey’s Half Baked, in Europe, there are tomato and pepper farmers who are laughing, literally, all the way to the bank on this one. While hip to be a “strain defender,” the reality in a medical market looking for cheap cannabinoids is rather different. Effective, clean product, which can be reproduced reliably and cheaply, is the name of the game. Girl Scout Cookies, and such ilks will be a long time in coming as anything but highly expensive, niche products you can find in a Dutch Coffee Shop.
Domestic Requirements Vs International Export. Canadian standards, so far, have been widely divergent in an environment where exports to Europe in particular are part of the story for the biggest companies. That said, GMP, and in particular EU GMP, has become at least a buzzword if not a standard to live up to.
Privacy. California might be considering its own form of GDPR (European privacy legislation) but so far, the industry has largely failed to protect consumers (from themselves). Ideas about owning huge data troves on cannabis users for someone else’s profit are still very much in the room. After all, data is the new oil, whether people know their data is being harvested or not. And just like big oil has done for most of its existence, those in the driver’s seat so far show little compunction about harvesting personal information, to become in the words of the now departed CEO of Canopy Growth Bruce Linton, “the Google of Cannabis.” Won’t happen. Starting with the fact that in not just Europe but now even California, people, far beyond pot users are tired of a world where privacy is a second class right.
While the issue first hit in Canada on the recreational side, the reality is that companies know who their clients and patients are in a way that is not only disturbing but increasingly being challenged.
Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.
The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.
It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.
Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.
There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.
If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.
Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.
He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.
The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.
The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.
The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.
Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.
i. Holmes M, Vyas JM, Steinbach W, McPartland J. 2015. Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis. Cannabis Safety Institute. http://cannabissafetyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Microbiological-Safety-Testing-of-Cannabis.pdf
ii. Jill Ellsworth, June 2019, Eliminating Microbials in Marijuana, Willow Industries, https://willowindustries.com/eliminating-microbials-in-marijuana/#
iii. Ketch DeGabrielle, April 2018, Largest U.S. Cannabis Farm Shares Two Years of Mold Remediation Research, Analytical Cannabis, https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/largest-us-cannabis-farm-shares-two-years-of-mold-remediation-research-299842
On August 29, 2019, Health Canada finally published a guidance document on the official interpretation of Part 5 of the Cannabis Regulations concerning “Good Production Practices” that comes into force just seven weeks later on October 17, 2019. For those watching with the experience of the food industry, it is safe to say that few license holders fully appreciate the magnitude of the new requirements and fewer yet are prepared for what will be required in less than two weeks.
An Uncertain Road to Cannabis Compliance
Since Canada legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018, there has been considerable uncertainty about the road to compliance in this totally new legal market. Health Canada faced the daunting challenge of defining the requirements for a whole new industry, and so they were understandably silent on the issue of Part 5 until this guide was published in August.
Many larger companies eager to get their foot in the door of the multi-billion dollar industry tried to be proactive in anticipating impending government regulations by seeking Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certifications. This would likely have been fine under the previous regulations, which were myopically focused on ensuring that product wasn’t diverted from or to the black market. With the legalization of edibles only one year away, however, it was obvious to those in the food industry that GMP was just not going to be enough. Gentle prodding at various speaking engagements on our part wasn’t enough to convince these companies to seek higher levels of certification or at least to proactively develop the organizational culture required to support a higher-level program.
The Inevitable Necessity of Food Safety
It was clear to us that since edibles are essentially a food product, safety necessarily had to become a primary focus. This reality has, in fact, materialized in section 5 of the new guide, which outlines prescriptive requirements that are very well developed and require that companies develop a complete set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for sanitation, employee hygiene, testing, inventory, pest control and more. Furthermore, cannabis companies must be able to produce documentation that proves they are actually following these procedures.
There are many, many other requirements that also apply, but the really interesting ones are those related to hazard analysis (5.2.13) and preventive control plans (5.2.14): manufacturers who produce extracts or edibles must undertake hazard analyses on each input, processing step and traffic flow. The language will be familiar to those who have been exposed to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) methodology. HACCP is the standard in the food industry and goes far beyond simple GMP.
Very much like HACCP, license holders will be required to analyze each biological, chemical and physical hazard, determine controls, identify critical control point, along will all the validation, reassessment, verification and deviation protocols required. Interestingly, the fraud and bioterrorism hazard types that have recently been introduced for the food industry have been omitted, presumably an oversight that will be rectified in future versions.
How to Catch Up Fast with Tech
Satisfying these regulations using traditional manual methods takes months or even years in some cases. Today in Canada, license holders have only weeks to get their facilities to compliance, and the government is quick to crack down on any mistakes. The only way to possibly meet this deadline is to start yesterday and use the best tools you can find to expedite the process.
Those who have been busy implementing GMP programs are going to have to look far beyond their current objectives. Those just starting out should build with these requirements front of mind, both to satisfy inspectors and auditors and also to avoid the pain of the organizational change required to move to a higher level of quality and safety.
Ultimately, these changes will be of benefit to society and provide a competitive advantage to those who can move the fastest, especially when major retail chains become the dominant wholesale market. My advice is to start working on your HACCP-based compliance program immediately and, if you’re in Canada, seek a high-level certification like SQF as soon as possible.
It’s fair to say that the food industry’s recent experiences with more stringent regulations clearly foreshadow what will be required for the cannabis industry. Right now – when the margin of error is razor thin – is the time for companies to make the decisive move and focus on their success – and survival.