For commercial cannabis growers, consistent crop yields are vital to maintaining product profitability, as well as durable profitability. Since cannabis thrives under certain conditions, the more control a cultivator has over those conditions, the easier consistent harvests become.
While factors like humidity, light exposure and water may be easy enough to control in any indoor environment, other influential factors can be more difficult to control, such as mold or other contaminants. Growing in a controlled cleanroom environment ensures healthy, high-quality cannabis by mitigating some harder-to-control threats. For these reasons, growing cannabis in a cleanroom environment is rapidly becoming the gold standard in the industry.
A Closer Look at the Cleanroom Environment
A cleanroom facility is a specially designed room or modular addition designed to support a tightly controlled grow environment for crops. The design of the cleanroom relies on several design features to deter issues with pollutants, such as insects, mold, airborne microbes and dust. Even though cleanroom environments are often affiliated with cultivating certain types of crops, these facilities are also valuable in other industries, such as medicine, biology and pharmaceuticals.
Cleanrooms can be conservatively sized or massive. They can be configured to accommodate different processes, and they can be built to suit a specific grower’s preferences. However, several features are key, such as:
One fundamental requirement of a cleanroom is to control the introduction of contaminants into the space. Contaminants can be carried in on the people who visit the space. Therefore, cleanroom implementation must come along with strict protocols when it comes to employee entry into the room. For example, air showers, special gowns, masks and other measures may be required.
The Benefits of Cleanroom Environments for Cultivators
On the surface level, cleanrooms make it possible to achieve a well-controlled environment for cannabis cultivation. However, while this is undeniably important in terms of consistent crop yields and profitability, cleanrooms pose a number of broader advantages for cultivators and end customers.
Meet Laboratory Testing Guidelines and Protocols
For now, states create product testing regulations for cannabis. Most states that have legalized medical or adult use cannabis have created protocols for lab-testing products for pesticides and microbes. When batches of cannabis product do not meet state lab-testing standards, the product can be recalled or destroyed. In 2016, Steep Hill published an alarming study that showed they detected pesticides in roughly 70% of the samples they received and up to one third of all samples would have failed to meet regulatory standards. Cleanrooms reduce a grower’s reliance on pesticides.
Negate the Risk of Fungal Contamination
Cannabis is prone to certain types of fungal spores that can cause severe illness in end customers. For example, Aspergillus moldspores are common in cannabis and can lead to cases of chronic pulmonary aspergillosis. In large doses, Aspergillus mold spores may even cause liver failure due to the carcinogenic mycotoxins the spores produce in the body. Cleanrooms negate the risk of fungal contamination through proper ventilation, particulate control and positive pressure.
Create a Safer Work Environment for Employees
Employees who work in cultivation facilities in the cannabis industry face various occupational hazards. Many of these hazards are related to being in contact with fungicides, mold spores and chemical fertilizers. The exposure can result in issues such as allergic reactions, respiratory irritation and other physical threats. Cleanrooms and how they function can deter many of these risks. For example, the lack of need for fungicide use automatically lowers the risks due to lacking exposure. Further, because protective gear is required to maintain the integrity of the cleanroom, there is less of a chance an employee’s skin or respiratory system is exposed to irritants.
Cleanrooms: The Potential Future of Cannabis Cultivation
As cannabis becomes a more robust industry and regulations become more clearly defined, growing standards are bound to change. As speculations of national regulations veer closer to reality, growing cannabis industrially may even mean required cultivation facility upgrades. Cleanroom environments give growers firm control over the health of their crops while ensuring clean products for customers. Therefore, these innovative and health-forward implementations could easily become the norm in the cannabis industry in the future.
By Jill Ellsworth MS, RDN, Tess Eidem, Ph.D. No Comments
As an emerging field in cannabis, contaminant testing remains a gray area for many businesses. The vast differences in state-by-state regulations, along with the frequent changes of previously established rules make testing a difficult, time-consuming process. But at its core, the science and reasoning behind why we test cannabis is very clear – consumer safety and quality assurance are key factors in any legal, consumer market. The implications of federal legalization make cannabis testing even more important to the future of the cannabis supply chain. Understanding the types of contaminants, their sources and how to prevent them is essential to avoiding failures, recalls and risking consumer safety.
When talking about cannabis contaminant testing there are four groups of contaminants: pesticides, heavy metals, foreign materials and microbes. The microbes found on cannabis include plant pathogens, post-harvest spoiling microbes, allergens, toxin release and human pathogens. While all of these can be lurking on the surface of cannabis, the specific types that are tested for in each state vary widely. Understanding the full scope of contaminants and looking beyond state-specific compliance requirements, cultivators will be able to prevent these detrimental risks and prepare their business for the future.
Beyond just the health of the plant, both medical patients and adult use consumers can be adversely affected by microbial contaminants. To immunocompromised patients, Aspergillus can be life-threatening and both adult use and medical consumers are susceptible to allergic reactions to moldy flower. But Aspergillus is just one of the many contaminants that are invisible to the human eye and can live on the plant’s surface. Several states have intensive testing regulations when it comes to the full breadth of possible harmful contaminants. Nevada, for example, has strict microbial testing requirements and, in addition to Aspergillus, the state tests for Salmonella, STEC, Enterobacteriaceae, coliforms and total yeast and mold. Over 15 states test for total yeast and mold and the thresholds vary from allowing less than 100,000 colony forming units to allowing less than 1,000 colony forming units. These microbes are not uncommon appearances on cannabis – in fact, they are ever-present – so understanding them as a whole, beyond regulatory standards is a certain way to future-proof a business. With such vast differences in accepted levels of contamination per state, the best preparation for the future and regulations coming down the pipeline is understanding contamination, addressing it at its source and harvesting disease-free cannabis.
The risk of contamination is present at every stage of the cultivation process and encompasses agricultural practices, manufacturing processes and their intersection. From cultivation to manufacturing, there are factors that can introduce contamination throughout the supply chain. A quality control infrastructure should be employed in a facility and checkpoints within the process to ensure aseptic operations.
Cultivators should test their raw materials, including growing substrates and nutrient water to ensure it is free of microbial contamination. Air quality plays an important role in the cultivation and post-harvest processes, especially with mold contamination. Environmental controls are essential to monitor and regulate temperature and humidity and ensure unwanted microbes cannot thrive and decrease the value of the product or make it unsafe for worker handling or consumers. Developing SOPs to validate contact surfaces are clean, using proper PPE and optimizing worker flow can all help to prevent cross-contamination and are part of larger quality assurance measures to prevent microbes from spreading across cultivars and harvests.
Methods of microbial examination include air quality surveillance, ATP surface and water monitoring, raw materials testing, and species identification. Keeping control of the environment that product is coming into contact with and employing best practices throughout will minimize the amount of contamination that is present before testing. The solution to avoiding worst case scenarios following an aseptic, quality controlled process is utilizing a safe, post-harvest kill-step, much like the methods used in the food and beverage industries with the oversight of the FDA.
The goal of the grower should be to grow clean and stay clean throughout the shelf life of the product. In order to do this, it is essential to understand the critical control points within the cultivation and post-harvest processes and implement proper kill-steps. However, if a product is heavily bio-burdened, there are methods to recover contaminated product including decontamination, remediation and destroying the product. These measures come with their own strengths and weaknesses and cannot replace the quality assurance programs developed by the manufacturer.
Two decades ago, California became the first state to legalize the medical use of cannabis. In 2021, medical use of cannabis is legal is 36 US states, and 17 states allow adult (‘recreational’) use. This trend of rapid legalization of the cannabis industry, while encouraging for industry growth, attracts more attention from federal regulatory bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Following a number of incidents and near misses, cannabis facilities have been increasingly frequented by OSHA visits, leading to a spike in citations and fines. A review of past OSHA citations reveals that the most common citations in the cannabis industry pertains to the employer’s lack of awareness about the hazardous nature of some operations and materials handled in the facility. This leads to an absence of a formal fire prevention plan, lack of proper hazardous chemical training, deficiency in proper documentation related to workplace injury and limited evaluation of required personal protective equipment (PPE).1
Cannabis industry data suggests that as of today, an incident is often followed by an OSHA inspection. This naturally leads to the facility asking, ‘How do we prepare for an OSHA inspection and prevent future citations?’ The answer is a combination of identifying and mitigating risks in advance to avoid incidents and developing management systems that support the identification and risk mitigation efforts. Recent collaboration between cannabis business owners and organizations that write codes and standards have provided a framework in which to address the industry’s unique safety challenges to help reduce inherent risk to a facility. These codes and standards typically impact building construction/safety features and operation of the facility, however, additional risk mitigation can be drawn from the best practices already in place in process industries with similar hazards. These process industries have embraced process safety management (PSM) programs, which are built around principles flexible enough to be successfully implemented in the cannabis industry. Adopting such programs will serve the dual purpose of improving the overall safety record of the cannabis industry while enhancing company sustainability2 and help avoid events that lead to OSHA citations.
The risk-based process safety (RBPS) approach developed by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS)3 may prove to be the most effective framework to implement PSM programs in the cannabis industry. Unlike the prescriptive regulatory approach provided by OSHA 29 CFR 1910.119, the RBPS methodology recognizes that not all hazards and risks are equal. By assessing risk, an organization can develop an effective management system that will prioritize allocation of limited resources to address the highest risks. Figure 1 shows the four foundational blocks (pillars) of RBPS and the various elements that make up each pillar.
If a cannabis business owner were to develop programs on each of the pillars presented in Figure 1, a comprehensive safety program would be in place that delivers sustainable risk reduction and mitigation. However, as with any industry, the elements can be prioritized and tackled over time, starting with the elements having the most influence on the overall safety of a given facility. For example, a given facility may have great procedures and practices, but may not consistently train or instill employee knowledge or competency. Conversely, a facility may have personnel with great knowledge of hazards and risks, but are less developed with regard to documenting procedures, safe practices or training for new hires. Focusing available resources on the less developed elements will lead to an overall improvement in facility risk, leading to a lower likelihood of an incident and OSHA inspection.
As with any industry, positive and negative public perception is driven by the media, which tends to focus on attention-grabbing headlines. The majority of past incidents reported in the news for the cannabis industry were explosions that occurred during the extraction process. One such extraction explosion, shown in Figure 2, occurred in July 2015 at the New MexiCann Natural Medicine facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With a focus on the ‘hazard identification and risk analysis’ pillar of RBPS, future such events may be mitigated.
Of the twenty RBPS elements, hazard identification and risk analysis (HIRA) stands out as having the highest potential for immediate impact on the cannabis industry’s safety profile.
HIRA is a collection of activities carried out through the life cycle of a facility to ensure that the risks to employees and the public are constantly monitored to be within an organization’s risk tolerance. The four major areas to analyze are:
Hazards – What are the possible deviations from the design intent?
Consequences – What are the worst possible consequences (or severity) if any deviation occurs?
Safeguards – Are there safeguards in the system to reduce the likelihood of this event?
Risk – Is the risk within the tolerable level? If not, what steps are needed to reduce the risk? (Severity X Likelihood = Risk)
Let us consider an example case where the extraction process utilizes propane or butane as the extracting solvent. Figure 3 shows a simplified HIRA flow chart for the extraction process.
This systematic approach helps to understand the hazards and evaluate the associated risk. In addition, this approach highlights operator training as a crucial safeguard that can be credited to lower the overall risk of the extraction facility. Remember, lack of proper safety training (another element!) is one of the most cited OSHA violations in the cannabis industry. Another advantage to the HIRA methodology is that other safeguards that may be present can be identified, their effectiveness evaluated and additional risk reduction measures may be recognized. This will help business owners allocate their limited resources on the critical safeguards that provide the greatest risk reduction. Identifying, analyzing and solving for potential hazards is a key step in safe operation of a facility and avoiding OSHA citations.
While this article discusses only a single RBPS element, this example demonstrates how best practices from process industries can become a powerful tool for use in the cannabis industry. The “hazard identification and risk analysis” element of the RBPS approach is pertinent not only for the extraction process as discussed above, but also directly applicable to other aspects of the industry (e.g., dust explosions in harvesting and processing facilities, toxic impacts from fertilizers, hazards from the CO2 enrichment process in growing facilities, etc.).
Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.
The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.
Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe
The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.
In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.
A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.
Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.
Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.
Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:
Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.
For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.
Worth an estimated $54 to $67 billion, the bourgeoning U.S cannabis industry continues to grow at record pace despite conflicting state and federal laws that cause obstacles at every turn.
This conflict remains a source of uncertainty for retailers, cultivators and the general public. And, unfortunately, the palpable tug of war between the states and the federal government will only increase when legalization is introduced at the federal level, putting tax dollars up for grabs.
A tug-of-war between the states and the federal government makes it difficult for cannabis businesses to obtain bank accounts, insurance and investors. It also means additional security and compliance challenges. It is the reason that the cannabis industry is an unsupportive environment for start-ups and employees who face primitive or even dangerous R&D conditions in order to advance the extraction process.
As cannabis companies fight to grow their market share, many lag behind when instituting a proper risk management structure from R&D to daily operations. Cannabis businesses that haven’t incorporated risk management will need to in 2021, especially when seeking to secure funding from PE firms.
As the 8th fastest growing industry in the U.S., maturing at more than 25% annually, adult use and medical cannabis sales are unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Rather, experts predict continued growing pains – and gains – to shape the U.S. cannabis industry in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to increase the growth of the cannabis industry— with a few roadblocks
Deemed “essential businesses,” many retail outlets and dispensaries stayed open throughout the pandemic and adopted new ways of serving customers, from curbside pick-up to drive-through windows and deliveries. At the same time, the pandemic hindered growth for some cannabis operations on the cusp of obtaining a license, as many applications were put on hold when state offices closed their doors for months. In some cases that meant raised capital was pulled and funding ceased. For start-ups who are seeking to apply again in 2021, it’ll be an uphill climb.
As a result of routine COVID-19 inspections in 2020, state officials uncovered a host of other issues at cannabis operations, including improper labeling, poor health and safety practices, lack of PPE compliance by staff and customers, incorrect counting of cash and more. In extreme cases, these visits resulted in regulatory fines and shutdowns. This led to the need to use seed money for something other than the organization’s original mission. In 2021, these scenarios are likely to turn into lawsuits from shareholders and activate directors & officers (D&O) and employment practices liability (EPL) claims from laid-off workers. These accusations dovetail with another major charge often levied against cannabis businesses —lightning speed growth without the business operations and risk management protocols necessary to support it.
Many cannabis businesses have not procured the necessary liability insurance coverage for the great risk that come with rapid growth. Whether it’s D&O and EPL policies as in the case above, or cyber, property or general liability (GL) policies, it’s critical to think more holistically about insurance coverage. Cannabis operations need to work with an insurance broker who specializes in the cannabis industry and understands different operations and business location, as exposures vary greatly.
R&D extraction dangers lead to unique risks
In 2021, extraction will be a major focus for cannabis organizations. Operations will continue searching for a competitive advantage to increase yield and develop superior products. Cannabis extractors will experiment with new ways to apply existing laboratory methods utilizing ethanol and CO2 as well as innovative cultivation methods adopted from the agriculture industry, using water and light exposure and different nutrients. R&D becomes a potential liability when cannabis extractors modify the use of existing equipment for a different type of extraction. Flammable products are often required, and explosions can occur.
If you are considering experimenting with R&D, engage your insurance broker to ensure the risk is covered within your existing policies and to explore best practices for experimentation and varying equipment use.
Desire for more security both inside and outside the operation
A cannabis operation’s security risk is two-fold. In light of the looting and civil unrest across the U.S. this year, heightened security measures were necessary for cannabis businesses to secure their goods. Additionally, a common risk— employee theft —increased as well.
Cannabis retail operations maintain a large supply of cash and product. As looting occurred, it was impossible to relocate cannabis product away from retail storefronts as a majority of state regulations prohibit cannabis to be removed from retail facilities. Owners and operators who did so risked being fined for non-compliance or losing their license.
The majority of cannabis theft — as high as 90% by some estimates — is employee related. In many cases, employees in cannabis grow facilities and retail storefronts scheme to cheat employers. Part of the challenge is that state regulations require plant and production facility blueprints to be publicly available. Thieves are using these layouts to plot their infiltration. In other scenarios, cannabis operators are recording walk-throughs of their facilities and publishing online documentaries. These also leave operators vulnerable.
Employers can increase security by restricting access exclusively to employee areas, while also investing in better internal access controls. Conduct an audit of your work areas with your cannabis insurance broker who can provide you with a list of best practices and do’s and don’ts for reducing theft.
Complications continue in compliance, banking and financial services
Even though cannabis is legal for medicinal or recreational use in 43 states, businesses still struggle to secure bank accounts, business loans and insurance coverage. Small local banks and savings and loan businesses may be more willing to engage with cannabis businesses in 2021, while large institutions will keep shying away.
At every stop of the supply chain, cannabis business operators need to be proactive when developing strategies to manage risk. That means implementing risk management protocols to protect their business, their workforce as well as securing the proper insurance coverage.
This also includes growing the cannabis business’ safety net by engaging necessary insurance policies, appropriate to the business’ size and exposure, including cyber, environmental liability and crime policies, or applying for emerging loan programs in an effort to secure additional capital.
Evolution of the industry into 2021 and beyond
While the cannabis industry is evolving and changing, much will ultimately remain the same in 2021. Even if the U.S. government takes steps to federally legalize cannabis, a bill would not go into effect until later in the year at best, more likely in 2022 or beyond. Until a bill is passed, cannabis businesses will look to remain viable beyond the state level. For all cannabis businesses, 2021 will be about building on what they’re already doing and preparing for what will hopefully come next.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves around the world, and they’re still rippling today. Businesses had to quickly pivot from in-person transactions and services to virtual operations, or close down until stay at home orders and other restrictions eased or lifted. While it varies from state to state, due to statutory and rule based operating requirements, requiring facilities to be open a certain amount of hours per week, many were deemed essential. These circumstances create a huge set of complex challenges for anyone in business to navigate, from workers and their families to management and owners, let alone vendors and ancillary businesses.
The bright side is being in an industry where plot twists are not uncommon. Cannabis is legal and highly regulated state by state, illegal on a federal level, so it’s always full of strategic problems to solve. With so many people, businesses, ever-shifting regulations, and financial interests at stake, the need for strategic legal services are the constant. From a purely business and regulatory standpoint, the pandemic has provided some in the cannabis industry with quantum leaps forward in operations and service, and many of them may likely become the new norm.
For people with anxiety (#everydemographic2020) and other debilitating medical conditions, perception is shifting towards the importance and benefits of cannabis as a medicine and alternative therapeutic treatment option, on pace with a larger global trend towards personal and shared wellness. There’s more freedom for consumers to participate recreationally in states with adult use programs too. Extended families and friends in other states may not have the same access to cannabis. We live in a socially driven world, and the awareness of the medicinal properties of cannabis has rapidly grown nationwide across broad demographics. The gateway drug stereotype and stigma is slowly but surely fading away.
Momentum and shift in consumer behavior, need and the shifting perspective of healthcare providers is affecting more state regulators. They’ve worked with the cannabis industry to modify and adjust operational rules as needed to ensure medicinal access during the ever-changing COVID climate. Although current rules and regulations haven’t been lifted in any way, this is a step in the right direction. However, recreational states are less likely to consider that portion of the cannabis market essential and look for ways to prioritize medical dispensaries over recreational.
Medical Cannabis Businesses Deemed Essential
The most immediate problems to solve in many states were social distancing and waiting areas – where to keep patients/customers? There are state guidelines and regulations for operations during COVID, plus CDC general safety and sanitation considerations for workers and consumers alike. Lawyers and regulators are working to make sure that these stores are open and operating safely, have established safety protocols, number of customers allowed inside the store, minimum hours of operation, and to allow for special elderly hours and accommodating patients with compromised immune systems.
One of the biggest operational changes has been an increase in the facilitation of online ordering and curbside pickup to help keep patients safe. Employees are wearing gloves and PPE as an added precaution. This puts the health of the patients and employees first, while still allowing businesses to operate.
More and more patients are not all that enthusiastic about making in-person appointments that may put them at risk. In every state, people waver between venturing out for necessities so they’re buying larger quantities and stocking up when they can, and cannabis is no different. Cash-paying customers must still pay in-person. As federal regulations continue to hinder additional payment options and protections, demand for change grows on both sides.
Staffing in a Pandemic
Like all employers, it’s easier for larger cannabis companies to accommodate employees who are sick or may have been exposed. It’s often more difficult for smaller operations. For many employees, the decision to go into work sick means rent and food, because the employer can’t offer additional sick pay.
In most states, employees have to have some type of state card to work in a store. It’s hard to find replacements and pay for sick leave. There’s no call for a temp agency solution due to clearance needed by cannabis employees. If the business has to shut down, it might not be able to bounce back. So in some states, cannabis businesses have suffered setbacks, but not to the extent as other industries such as hospitality, food and beverage, and tourism.
Crunching the Numbers
The cannabis industry is also excluded from PPP loans and other federal aid. True plant-touching cannabis companies can’t access those funds, adding extra financial stress to operations. The irony is for the majority of cannabis operations nationwide, the biggest change was not the increased regulatory requirements for social distancing, sanitation and safety, it was handling the incredible increase in product demand under circumstances that include financial and staffing stress.
One Arizona-based dispensary was averaging around $300K a month before COVID-19. Today, business has more than tripled to nearly $1 million a month. In mature legal state Colorado, a record $155 million in recreational product sales for June reflects a six percent increase over the previous month’s sales. The Colorado Department of Revenue collected $33.6 million from the industry in June. Colorado’s medical dispensary sales record was set in May, just shy of $43 million, dropping down to about $40.8 million in June. Both are still setting records for business volume. For 2020, revenue already exceeds $203.3 million, in contrast to roughly $302.5 million in cannabis-related revenue in 2019.
Heightened Supply, Demand & Opportunities
Heightened demand and the search for new market ventures means investors are taking notice. People sheltering or working from home are spending more time online, too. Many are searching for healthcare; others for promising investment opportunities. Legalization has been a long journey, state by state. Everyone inside the cannabis and hemp industries has learned to roll with the punches – expect ongoing legal needs, and to do strategic short- and long-term planning. How to anticipate change and pivot on a dime. It’s a must.
With the healthcare system struggling or strained in many areas of the country, non-essential primary care has shifted to telemedicine. Federally, the DEA granted permission to do so that extends for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The problem? State-level regulations may prohibit the prescription of Schedule III drugs via telemedicine, or limit the amount and refills. For essential healthcare, limited appointments or emergency-only availability remains a concern. Innovative new cannabis products help fill that gap.
There will be more challenges as elections approach and beyond. For those in cannabis, we’re used to being ready for anything. Stay tuned.
The cannabis industry, like many others, felt the effects of the stay-at-home orders issued in March in response to the COVID-19 healthcare crisis. While medical cannabis companies were considered “essential” in most states, many recreational dispensaries had to close their doors, or pivot to a curbside pickup operations model. According to the State of the Cannabis Industry 2020 report, following a two-week spike in mid-March, as consumers stockpiled product ahead of stay-at-home mandates, sales took a temporary downturn.
The industry rebounded in a big way, however. The report notes that, since April 20, cannabis sales have steadily increased, and are, in fact, up approximately 40% from 2019. But while medical and recreational dispensaries are now open to the public and thriving, it’s far from business as usual.
Like any other retail store, cannabusinesses must follow local- and state-issued health and safety mandates designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Complying with these new requirements can be difficult for business owners and management teams on a normal business day – never mind in today’s climate, where demand for cannabis products continues to soar.
Turning to Technology
With more health regulations to follow than ever before and stores experiencing a consistent increase in daily foot traffic, it’s no longer realistic to expect managers to manually monitor every employee and customer to make sure guidelines are met. For example, it’s difficult to manage social distancing within the store – but there are commonly lines outside of cannabusinesses, where social distancing and mask-wearing precautions also need to be followed. Wouldn’t you rather have managers spend their time on customer service and initiatives that will deliver business value, rather than spending time making sure people are following safety protocols?
Technology can help mitigate these new health compliance challenges – and you may even already have the solution deployed: Internet Protocol (IP) security cameras. Often implemented by businesses as a security tool, IP cameras are now also an effective way to ensure employees and customers are following health and safety protocols.
Most IP cameras are equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) that can analyze information in real-time and make split-second response decisions. In the context of health compliance, they can be trained over time to recognize when requirements are not being followed and immediately alert the appropriate managers. This means managers only need to address violations, rather than observing everyone all the time, and they can resolve compliance gaps as they’re happening. In other words, AI takes on the compliance burden for you. And, as an added bonus, many AI-enabled surveillance systems give managers the ability to pull up live video feeds from their smartphone, so they can conduct compliance checks remotely, at any time. This is especially helpful to managers covering multiple stores (suddenly, they can be in more than one place at a time!).
Here are three specific ways IP security cameras can help dispensaries and other cannabusinesses ensure compliance with COVID-19-prompted health guidelines:
Social distance monitoring
Six-feet social distancing rules are now the norm across the U.S., and IP security cameras are able to measure the space around employees and customers to detect when the six-foot rule is violated. For example, some systems place a ring around each person, and the ring’s color changes when people come within six feet of each other. This capability can be helpful when trying to do things such as supervise the line to get into your store, manage your checkout queue, or monitor the distance between customers browsing in store aisles.You can use IP security cameras to create a healthier and safer work environment
In many states, organizations must follow orders that restrict occupancy to 50% capacity. Rather than having an employee at your front door tallying the number of people going into and out of your store, IP security cameras can do the counting for you. With this capability, you can control foot traffic and keep the number of shoppers within defined occupancy requirements – without having to allocate personnel to do the task manually.
Face mask detection
AI-enabled IP security cameras can also help businesses comply with mandatory face mask orders. The technology can be trained to detect employees and customers who aren’t wearing face masks or other required personal protective equipment, and then alert appropriate management personnel.
A Dual Purpose – Security and Compliance
IP security cameras now have a dual purpose. Beyond simply helping organizations protect their premises from crime, they now also empower them to ensure compliance with health and safety requirements. You can leverage the technology to remediate compliance issues in real-time and demonstrate to public officials that your business remains in compliance with all health mandates. Most importantly, you can use IP security cameras to create a healthier and safer work environment – and, in these uncertain times, this is a certainty you can count on.
Before jumping into what cannabis businesses can do amid this pandemic, it is crucial to explore the specifics behind how the virus impacted the industry as a whole. From a surface level, it seems obvious what happened: dispensaries had to implement social distancing protocols, require both customers and employees to wear masks and limited the number of customers that can be present on the point-of-sale floor room. But COVID-19 did not merely make shopping experiences a tab bit inconvenient.
Cannabis producers, and especially those involved in manufacturing cannabis goods, experienced an apparent disruption in their production schedules. If the metals and plastics were sourced from Wuhan, Shenzhen or any other dense industrial area in China, supplies suddenly stopped coming, and producers were left with limited production options. Businesses did not consider the value of having various vendors and instead put all their stock in one source. A disruption in production inherently impacts dispensaries.
COVID-19 impacted more than just supply chains, however. For instance, investors are now less likely than before the pandemic to invest in early-stage cannabis companies. Competition for capital now far outweighs the supply for cannabis companies, and we have seen (and will continue to see) a drop in company valuations. Indeed, COVID-19 is affecting more than just currently existing operators but those yet struggling to create cannabis businesses of their own.
Vendors & Supplies
A broad survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) between February 22, 2020 and March 5, 2020 found that 75% of U.S. companies had experienced supply chain disruption as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. An estimated 90-95% of all components utilized in cannabis vaporizer pens were sourced from manufacturers in Shenzhen, China. In contrast, very few companies used domestic manufacturers. While this is just one example, it is equally important to note that cannabis-specific equipment and supply shortages were not the only factors that disrupted cannabis businesses. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) presented challenges for cannabis dispensaries, producers and manufacturers that continued to operate during the “shelter in place” orders.
Operators must establish a resilient supply chain. Do not simply limit your options to one specific region, as this can be a costly mistake. Operators must cultivate an in-depth understanding of their supply chain beyond critical suppliers and their stress points; they need to develop and follow a systematic supply process that takes potential disruptions and stress points into account. When vetting potential vendors, always ask detailed questions that elicit evidence-backed responses. Ask vendors where they source their materials from, whether they have any history of experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and what kind of setbacks they have suffered as a result of COVID-19.
Investing in Your Core Business
In light of COVID-19, operators must invest in solutions that increase efficiency and improve the customer’s experience. This entails ensuring your customer safely enters and leaves your dispensary with a product they are satisfied with—the essence of any retail operation. Your operation should focus on enhancing customer flow as opposed to encouraging aimless roaming. Having an open-space, Apple store style dispensaries might have been a popular option before, but times have changed, and dispensaries must adapt.
Guided purchases offer not just more efficient transactions, but also serve to ensure that your waiting room isn’t backed up with an endless stream of unmanageable customers. Depending on your locally-mandated COVID-19 protocols, your dispensary will likely not be permitted to hold a high number of customers in the store, nor should it during this pandemic. Each customer service representative must be active as opposed to passive, directly asking customers what they are interested in, offering product or strain choices when customers seem unsure and answering questions as thoroughly as possible to avoid confusion and inherently delays. Be sure to emphasize the value of guided purchases to your employees and how they can promote the safety of both themselves and their customers.
The uncertainty of COVID-19 and its impact on the general economy has left many individuals “clocked out.” Simply put, many people feel that they should wait until things go back to normal before making any critical decisions. As essential businesses, cannabis operators cannot afford to make this same mistake. Now is not the time to sit back, reflect and wait for the vaccine. Instead, operators must work to precisely assess how COVID-19 impacted their business and execute a clear plan of action to address foreseeable problems.
Execution is far more important than perfection; you’ll need to make changes on a dime and avoid spending excessive hours obsessing over debating specific actions rather than taking them. It is far more essential to get tasks done versus ensuring they are perfect. If something is not working in your business, it must be readdressed or removed entirely from the protocol. It is far better to make necessary changes now amid the pandemic as opposed to reactively waiting and seeing what may come next following it.
Stay nimble by cutting out any factors that may be slowing down your company’s efficiency. Is your point-of-sale system causing issues? Can you use a better payment processing tool? Are any employees underperforming? Are there any internal policies that may be hindering your employees’ ability to work as optimally as possible? These are some of the many factors that must be considered to ensure your business stays agile and adaptable. Determine what is working against you and execute a plan of action to address. Do not wait and do not take shortcuts around regulations.
Understanding the Shift in Purchasing Behavior
Regardless of whether or not a vaccine for COVID-19 is completed anytime soon, operators must know that there is no “returning to normal.” People’s habits and behaviors have changed due to this virus, whereas slow browsing of items might have been preferable for some individuals before COVID-19; this is likely not the case today. Furthermore, research groups like Accenture have found that most customers expect their shopping habits to change permanently.
In the study mentioned above, shopping more consciously is one of the two top priorities for customers during this pandemic. According to Accenture, “[c]onsumers are more mindful of what they’re buying. They are striving to limit food waste, shop more cost consciously and buy more sustainable options. Brands will need to make this a key part of their offer (e.g., by exploring new business models).” Furthermore, customers are now more likely to shop locally; this is why community engagement would be especially important to ensure you develop transparency and trust between your brand and your customers. Understanding this shift in purchasing behavior will remain one of the more crucial tasks of any cannabis operator.
Expanding Sales Avenues
More and more customers are now relying on online and curbside purchases than ever before. Dispensaries must look to their current sales avenues and determine where key focuses should be made. Use your sales data to determine where customers are making their purchases the most, be it through third-party delivery services such as Eaze, standard home delivery, online ordering or curbside pickup. Focus on identifying friction and streamlining the user experience on all customer-facing platforms and services. Equally, consider which platform your customers are using the most to make purchases; are they making more online purchases, or do most still prefer direct shopping at the store? Remember that having more products doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue. You must also identify which products are performing well and which have low margins.
These considerations can help strengthen your highest performing platform while working to fix any more inferior performing platforms. As stated before, stay nimble; if something is not working out, cut it out from your business model, and move forward. Do not be afraid to cut poor-performing platforms to hone your focus on the successful ones. Since post-COVID-19 shopping behavior is likely to stay permanent, these changes may still be applicable following a slowdown or cessation of the virus.
Delighting Your Customers
Virus or not, customer satisfaction remains one of the most crucially defining points for the future of your business. Your customers must be safe and must be happy with their purchase. To ensure this outcome, you need to maintain adequate safety policies while equally promoting streamlined purchases. Although a limited number of individuals may be annoyed with over-the-top safety precautions, most customers will enjoy the heightened security that comes alongside these types of measures.
Contactless service, such as having customers scan their identification upon entry or encouraging more credit card versus cash transactions, can increase customer satisfaction, as they will feel a stronger sense of security when shopping at your dispensary. Focus on streamlining curbside pickup. Things such as requiring vehicle descriptions (e.g., license plate numbers, color, make) for curbside pickup purchases can go a long way in helping employees quickly identify customers.
Equally, be sure there is hand sanitizer available near the entrance of your dispensary. This adds a further sense of security for your shoppers. Delivery should be consistent; delays and setbacks must be minimal to win the confidence of your customers. Take the extra steps to ensure your dispensary is clean and products hygienic. All these factors work to increase customer satisfaction while maintaining their safety, and more importantly, impact the level of trust your customers have in association with your brand.
Scaling Operations Taking Advantage of Limited Competition in Emerging Markets
As stated before, several individuals—including existing and emerging cannabis businesses—are clocked out following COVID-19. This mindset is not only detrimental for operations but can also impact how you scale your business. New markets are coming online and will continue to do so as regulators are increasingly incentivized to replenish government coffers. Riverside County in California, for instance, is now allowing for capless licenses for all cannabis business types. However, what remains the key focus for regulators is expanding the number of delivery and distribution operators. In Massachusetts, delivery endorsements for dispensaries are available without a set deadline to social equity applicants and do not have a defined cap. In Illinois, the cap for transporters was equally removed, and each applicant who scores above 75% will receive a license.
These types of licenses are now more valuable than ever before for two reasons. The first reason is that regulators are keener to award delivery and transporter licenses than other types. Secondly, customers now prefer home delivery over shopping in stores due to COVID-19. With more people clocked out during these times, you have far more opportunities and far fewer competitors during application processes. Use this time to truly develop a strategy for expansion, as the chance might not come so quickly again.
As a final point, be sure to expand your online presence during this time. Although you may not have the capacity to reflect your company’s personality and value through quick in-store transactions, you can use social media to encourage product reviews, social interactions, and recommendations. Invest in marketing through social media platforms. Platforms such as TikTok have helped form communities of like-minded individuals. Use platforms such as that to highlight your company’s personality and values, avoid being “salesy” and focus more on being funny, entertaining and just alive. Character adds value to your business.
People want to laugh, to feel safe and they want to live. Create social interactions and immersion and always prioritize being honest and transparent with your customers. This final point stands as equally as important as the rest of the considerations highlighted throughout this article. Stay nimble, stay active and stay alert! Do not view the chaos behind this pandemic as a pit, and instead see it as a ladder. Track down opportunities, do not be afraid of change, and, more importantly, do not wait for an answer to COVID-19, be the answer.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most testing laboratories have been classified as relevant for the system or as carrying out essential activities for national governments. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain activities and optimally assess the changes that are occurring, framed within the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Analytica Alimentaria GmbH, a testing laboratory with its headquarters in Berlin, Germany and a branch office in Almeria, Spain, decided to focus its management on the analysis of events and the options available, at the legal and employment level, to ensure continuity of activities and reducing, as much as possible, the damage for the parties involved: employees and company. Accredited by the International Accreditation Service (IAS) to ISO/IEC 17025:2017, Analytica Alimentaria GmbH is required to implement risk-based thinking to identify, assess and treat risks and opportunities for the laboratory. Since March 12, 2020 a crisis committee was established, formed by the six members of the company’s management, covering general management, human resources, direction of production, finance and IT. The committee meets every day and it intends to:
Minimize the risks of contagion
Be able to continue providing the service required by our clients
ensure that the company as a whole will survive the economic impact of the crisis
Take measures that are within the legality of both countries where the laboratory operates (Spain and Germany),
Manage internal and external communication related to the crisis
To achieve correct decision making, daily meetings of the committee were established, to review the situations that were presented day after day and the actions that should be carried out. Each decision was analysed in a prioritized, objective, collaborative and global way.
The basis of the lab’s action plan was a well-developed risk assessment. In addition to the risk of getting a droplet or smear/contact infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (risk I) by contact with other people, psychological stress caused by changing working conditions (home office), contact options and information channels were also identified (risk II).
As a result of the risk assessment, the conclusion was that a mix of various measures is the best form of prevention:
Avoid “super spreader” events
Regular communication between managers and personnel about the current situation and possible scenarios
The risk assessment took both areas into account. The following assessment was developed together with an external specialist and focused on risk I:
Protective measures / hygiene plan
Working hours and break arrangements
Limit the gathering of people and ensure a minimum distance:
Relocated work, break and mealtimes
Create fixed groups of shift-working staff
Time gap of 20 min. between the shifts
Enable home office wherever it is possible
Third party access
Few but “well-known” visitors:
Reduce the number of visits and keep internal contacts to a minimum
Ensure the contact chain
Inform visitors about the internal rules and obtain written consent
Isolation and immediate leave of the company:
Contactless fever measurement (in case of typical symptoms)
Leave the company or stay at home
If the infection is confirmed, find contact persons (including customers or visitors) and inform them about a possible risk of infection
Contact with other persons
Traffic route from home to work
Avoid public transportation:
Take a car, bicycle or go by foot
Enable mobile work and teleworking
Always keep a sufficient distance of 2.0 m from people:
If minimum distances cannot be maintained, wear protective masks or install physical barriers (acrylic glass)
Organize traffic routes so that minimum distances can be maintained (one-way routes, floor markings indicating a distance of 2 m)
Use digital meetings instead of physical ones
Remove virus-loaded droplet as often as possible:
Provide skin-friendly liquid soaps and towel dispensers
Shorten or intensify cleaning intervals
Hang out instructions for washing hands at the sink
Include instructions for proper hand-disinfection
Canteens, tea kitchens and break rooms
One person per 10 m² = minimum:
Reduce the number of chairs per table
Informative signs in every room, indicating the maximum number of permitted persons
Diluting or removing bioaerosols (1 µm virus-droplets):
Leave as many doors open as possible
Regular and documented shock ventilation every 30 minutes or more frequently, depending on the size of window
Operate ventilation and air-conditioning systems, since the transmission risk is classified as low here
Use of work equipment
Use tools and work equipment for personal use:
Regular cleaning with changing use (PC, hand tools, coffee machine, …)
If possible, use gloves when using equipment for a larger number of users
Use of protective masks as an additional measure, indicating that this does not replace keeping distance
Recommend wearing masks in commonly used areas and explain that they do not protect yourself, but help to protect others
Give clear instructions (written and oral) on how to use a mask correctly and explain the use and purpose of different mask-types
Distribute masks freely
A number of guidelines and concrete measures addressing the risks related to health issues are already in place. Those health issues in risk group II are more closely related to the psychological effects of the crisis, however, are also more complex to mitigate. The key strategy is communication and, in particular, actively listening to all employees of the company.
Analytica’s robust company culture, based on values established in coordination with the whole staff, has been of significant help during the crisis. The some 150 staff members are organized by over 22 team coordinators. During the crisis, active communication has been intensified significantly. The crisis management team set up regular alignment meetings with all the coordinators and with individual persons with particular situations. This way, not only was it possible to explain the development of the crisis and the subsequent measures, the conversations with coordinators were also the most important source of information enabling the appropriate decisions. The coordinators, closely aligned and in sync with management, were then able to communicate with their team members with a high degree of confidence. One outcome of the communication was a measure that proved very effective in fortifying trust within the company: all measures and evaluations, as well as a chronological review, are published in a dynamic internal report and are made available, with full transparency, to all staff members. Besides the many individual and group alignment meetings (usually held by video conference), this has been a key measure to establish confidence and security within the company.
On the other hand, the company made a great effort to balance the effect of the general closure of kindergartens and schools in Spain and Germany. Each case where staff members were required to care for children at home was studied individually and agreements were established, adapting shifts and making use of time accounts, to allow childcare at home without significant loss of income.
The success of the measures is shown by the continuous work of both laboratories during the crisis. Besides the personal tragedy of a possible infection, the identified risk to the company has the consequence of a (partial) quarantine due to an infected person in contact with the staff and the consequent loss of work-power which might lead, in extreme cases, to a closure of the laboratory. According to the governmental regulation in Germany, if an infection occurs (confirmed by the health department), contact persons cat. 1 (more than 15 min. contact face to face) are identified and sent to quarantine. Other contact persons, e.g. contact persons cat. 2 (same room without face to face) must be identified quickly with the collaboration of the infected person and notified and, if necessary, sent in quarantine. In this case, there is a confirmed emergency plan that maintains the laboratory’s ability to work, defining replacements and alternative work-flow strategies.
It has been part of our strategy to validate all our measures with the relevant guidance documents made available by the official competent institutions. The German Federal Office for Public Safety and Civil Protection (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe) has published a guide, “Crisis Management in Companies, 9-point Checklist” especially for critical infrastructure companies in the CoVid-19 crisis.
Having been classified as a core business enterprise (Spain) and “relevant to the system” (Germany), we consider it important to use them as a reference to confirm our level of alignment with your proposal for crisis management.
An important effect, relevant to any leader in times of crisis, is that the confirmation of all points of such a checklist provides certain peace of mind regarding the question: Have we done everything we could?
Unlike their retail neighbors who have been forced to move inventory online to survive, many cannabis businesses are considered essential and remain open during the current pandemic. With that, though, comes a tremendous responsibility to maintain optimal protocol for safe operations and customer shopping.
Whether you run a retail or production operation, allow only essential vendors (i.e. delivery, service companies) into the facility and have non-essential staff telecommute, when possible. Some businesses may want to consider splitting shifts for the management team as well.
Each state and local municipality will have their own rules when it comes to protocols for open retail establishments. Where those are more stringent than the following recommendations, adhere to the more stringent rule.
Cannabis Production Facility Best Practices
While not being face-to-face with cannabis customers on a daily basis, production facilities are the first and possibly only ones to handle the raw product the customer will eventually consume. For this reason, it’s important to conduct a refresh training session on sanitation procedures and new COVID-19 protocol for all production employees. Consider the following critical procedures for cannabis production facilities:
Review current production sanitation procedures and adjust accordingly, focusing on high touch points and potentially contaminated surfaces. Include office items such as keyboard, phones, and kitchen areas.
Review the business’ call-in sick policy and make sure employees know they can – and should – do so if they’re under the weather.
Sanitize high touch points every 30 minutes or less.
Instruct employees to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, going to the bathroom, before eating and when touching any communal surface, including door handles and surfaces. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while working with raw product, including gloves and masks.
If an employee coughs or sneezes in a production area, instruct them to do so into the elbow of their outer garment, and immediately change following proper donning techniques. Instruct them to avoid touching their face.
Cannabis Retail Facility Best Practices
Retail cannabis establishments must realize first and foremost that those with compromised immune systems may be frequenting their store to purchase medical cannabis. Consider, evaluate and appropriately publicize protocol relative to employee interactions with customers, including:
Enable mobile or order-ahead features along with curbside pickup and contact-less delivery, when possible. Where this isn’t an option, limit the number of customers in the store at a time.
Consider moving to appointment-only operations, or restricted hours for those over 65.
Reduce store visits by recommending patients order their prescription for the maximum allowable 60 days.
Designate an employee to champion personal sanitation and social distancing. Create an entry sanitation station and require all customers to use it upon entry. Maintain social distance of 6-ft. minimum between customers. Place markings on the floor to designate this.
Limit sales to only sealed products.
Sanitize high touch points twice an hour, including ID check booths, display cases, phones, keyboards, etc. and provide adequate PPE for all, including gloves, masks, etc.
Install separation barriers, like thick plastic or plexiglass at each cashier station.
The requirements of keeping an essential business open will vary by location and will likely change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Regularly check for changes to the rules of your local jurisdiction and adapt accordingly.
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