It takes a lot to hack it in the wild world of cannabis.
To dip your toes in this game and open your own business, it could cost you between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars after licensure and other start-up expenses – and the battle doesn’t end there. Recent data supports that the turnover rate for the cannabis industry at large is extremely high when compared to other industries, coming in at a whopping 40-60% within the first 2 months.
Oh, and let’s not forget: we’re not living in the easiest of times in general. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that inflation has hit 9.1 percent, the highest ever recorded level of inflation since records began. We know that people are struggling all over the place – and those struggles are even more amplified for cannabis operators and business owners. It’s no secret that amid these struggles, many legacy operators, MSOs and mom-and-pop brands alike are making the tough decision to take on costly loans, seek funding or even ultimately close their doors.
But, in times like these, you have to remember what brought you to the table to begin with. The cannabis industry is still projected to hit a valuation of over $33B by the end of 2022 and despite the blood in the water that we’ve seen lately, operators of all sizes are still getting wins and making a profit. So, do you throw the towel in and give up on your dreams? Should you just accept that all hope is lost?
If you’re a cannabis operator who is struggling, you aren’t alone – and more importantly, you aren’t out of options yet. Not ready to go down with the ship just yet? We didn’t think so.
Here are five, expert-approved tips to create an influx of cash for your cannabis business without significantly increasing spending:
‘Trim the Fat’ of Your Business by Cutting Lean Costs
While it may seem obvious, many cannabis operators forget that “nice to have” is not the same thing as a “must have” when it comes to keeping your doors open and your bottom line healthy. Take an eagle-eyed second look at your budget and cut back as much as possible on areas that aren’t boosting revenue. Reconsider the “extras” – like software solutions, hiring non-essential staff and slow-moving inventory – and focus your attention on the products that contribute the most to your bottom line.
Make Your Customers a Priority
One of the biggest mistakes that cannabis brands make is throwing so much of their marketing budget into getting new customers through the door while neglecting to show existing customers the attention they deserve for their loyalty. In today’s market, cannabis consumers have more options than ever. Why should they keep choosing you? Happy customers are customers that will weather the storm with you. Honing in on targeted ads and marketing efforts geared toward existing customers, in combination with loyalty perks, VIP deals and more is a great way to ensure your business is truly unforgettable in the eyes of the customers that keep your doors open. Looking for an extra leg up? Here’s an insider pro tip: refer-a-friend programs are a great way to get the best of both worlds and help those marketing dollars stretch a little further.
SOS: Save Our Shopping Carts
Shopping cart abandonment is a serious problem for cannabis retailers – and it happens all the time. For mobile users, it can creep as high as 85%. Shopping cart abandonment happens when a potential customer visits your site, builds an order in the cart and then either forgets to check out or chose not to execute the purchase. Every time a customer abandons their cart, your business is leaving money on the table. Fight back against shopping cart abandonment by providing clear calls to action through the shopping and checkout process and targeting customers with emails or SMS messages that include discount offers or reminders to check out.
Pump Up Your Payment Solutions
It’s like Canadian rapper and singer-songwriter, Drake, said in his hit song, “Omerta”, “I don’t carry cash ‘cause the money is digital.”
Let’s be honest, it’s 2022 – not a lot of people love carrying around cash. If your cannabis business is cash-only, you could be missing out on extra revenue from card and mobile payment-loving customers. On average, mobile payment users, on average, spend approximately twice as much through all digital channels as those not using mobile payments. Cash-only retailers also miss out on upsell opportunities by limiting themselves – let’s say a customer comes in with $40 in cash, they won’t be able to pick up that extra pack of cones or the grinder they were eyeing up at the checkout if they’re limited to cash-only transactions.
In addition, retailers who patronize payment solutions via debit card providers or online ACH can benefit from payment kickbacks as an additional stream of income, as these payment providers often give back a portion of transaction fees to business owners.
Don’t Forget About Employee Retention Credit (ERC)
If you haven’t heard of ERC – you could be leaving as much as $26,000 per employee on the table. Many cannabis business owners would be surprised to learn that they can still take advantage of the employee retention credit program that started during the pandemic.
The program was launched in March 2020 as a way to help offset the financial struggles of business owners during COVID-19. But, even this year, cannabis business owners can seek cash relief through ERC – employers can retroactively claim the ERC based on financial struggles they experienced during 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021.
Started your cannabis business after February 2020? You still may qualify under specific ERC provisions that can provide up to $100,000 in refundable credits.
At MJstack, we understand the trials and tribulations that cannabis professionals go through every day because we’re right here working alongside you.
Our team of professionals is familiar with cannabis and what it takes to make the cut in this world. Ready to boost your business and safeguard your investments against whatever comes next? Contact us today to learn more and book your FREE consultation.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.
We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.
Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?
Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.
Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.
Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?
Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.
Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.
Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?
Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.
Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.
Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!
About KindTap: KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly-regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.
About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and payment processors have recently been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions.
We interviewed Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies. Cathy co-founded KindTap after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products.
Aaron Green: Cathy, thanks for taking the time today. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve been in the payments industry for a long time. I was doing some consulting a few years ago for a client in Colorado and that gave me exposure to the issues in cannabis like the fact that you couldn’t have real payments in cannabis. Then, a close family member with health issues turned to medical cannabis when nothing else seemed to work. I was amazed by the difference it made in her life. At that point, I put those two things together and I said, I need to focus on helping this industry get a real cannabis payments solution because I thought it was ridiculous that you had an industry of this size and importance that had been abandoned by the payments industry.
Aaron Green: Can you highlight some of your background prior to entering cannabis?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Throughout my career, I’ve been a banker, I’ve been a payment processing executive and I’ve been a consultant. So, I’ve kind of done it all in the payments and financial services space.
Aaron Green: Why is it that most dispensaries only take cash?
Corby Iannuzzelli: In the US, even though cannabis is legal in many states, it’s still illegal federally. There are big banks and card networks like Visa, MasterCard, etc., who are national, even global companies and frankly, the executives of those companies don’t want to end up in jail for violating national laws. So, they have put cannabis dispensaries on what’s called a “prohibited merchants” list. This means you cannot accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, or similar payments as a cannabis business and so it’s forcing the industry to a cash-based solution.
About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs. But if you think about it, ATMs are machines where the consumer goes and pulls cash out and pays upwards of $5 or more in fees for doing that. They then hand that cash back to the dispensary who then has the costs of having to deal with that cash. The industry is just stuck in a cash-based business until federal legislation changes.
Aaron Green: I’ve been to some dispensaries where they accept credit cards or debit cards. What is going on there?
Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve heard reports of consumers who’ve been able to use a credit card or a debit card in a dispensary. Sometimes the processor who sold that solution to the dispensary says, “Oh, it’s compliant, I guarantee you it’s compliant.” But if you dig in, that’s not the case. And eventually, Visa or MasterCard figures it out and shuts it down. In some cases, it’s outright fraud where the processor who sold the payment terminal to the dispensary is misrepresenting it as say a doctor’s office rather than a dispensary. There’s no merchant category code in the payment networks that says this is for processing dispensary payments, so they pretend it’s something else until they get shut down.
When they do get shut down, I’ve heard of cases in Las Vegas where it was basically 100% Visa or MasterCard one day and 100% cash the next day. It completely disrupted the whole business. It’s not just the retail store, but the inventories and everything else throughout the business.
There have also been some cases where you’ll see something called a cashless ATM. In a store, they call it a debit card transaction. It’s really a cashless ATM where the consumer is making what looks to the ATM network like a cash withdrawal in $10 or $20 increments, but the consumer is getting a receipt instead of cash, and they’re turning around and handing that receipt back to the dispensary who then makes a change because the cashless ATM only dispensed in $10 or $20 increments.
Now ATM networks are looking at these cashless ATM transactions to see if they are compliant. Do consumers know the fees that they’re paying? Are these transactions coming in and looking to the network like real cash when it’s not? Cashless ATM transactions are probably the most common thing you see, but that’s being called into question after the Eaze incident where a large company was misrepresenting its terminals. The federal government stepped in and called it bank fraud and the individuals behind it, the executives, are in jail. Since then, the networks are looking at this and saying, what about these cashless ATMs? Are those transactions within our rules, or is there something funny going on here?
Aaron Green: So, to summarize here: you’ve got federal regulations at the national level that says that cannabis banking is not allowed so major institutions are not offering it. Yet you found a way through the regulations and compliance issues. I’m curious can you pull back the curtains a little bit and tell us how you came up with a solutionhere?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Well, we came up with the solution by stubbornly refusing to believe that cannabis payment processing could not be done in a compliant manner. We just said, “there is a compliant way to do this, let’s figure it out.” We took the same components that are out there for the financial services and payments industry and reassembled them in such a way that we do not violate any rules. We do not use any of the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or Amex rails, we built our own network. We have direct contracts with the merchants and direct contracts with the consumers. We control everything and all the funds flow through regulated financial institutions. So, we designed something that looks and acts to consumers and retailers the way Visa and MasterCard look and act when a consumer goes to make a purchase, but they run on a separate set of payment rails and in compliance with banking regulations and state regulations. When you’re looking at the problem from a different perspective, sometimes you can come up with a better answer.
Green: On the consumer side, what does that user experience look like?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Our product is completely digital. The consumer experience starts with integration at the online checkout. When it’s an e-commerce shopping cart and somebody is placing an order, they will see a button called “Pay with KindTap.” The first time they click that button they’re automatically brought to our integrated web app where they do a quick and easy application for our digital revolving line of credit product. If approved, they instantly go back to the checkout screen and their first purchase will just happen immediately, with flexible payment options over time. If the consumer decides they don’t want our KindTap credit and would rather have a pay now-product where we pull the funds from their bank account, then the consumer can do so. So, there is no physical card per se, it’s integrated like PayPal or Affirm at the point of checkout online. For the consumers who use KindTap credit, there is a mobile app where they can see their transactions, view statements, pay their bills, etc.
Additionally, there is a loyalty program for all purchases – KindTap credit or through the consumer’s bank, because we feel very strongly that a lot of the reasons consumers choose to pay with one card over another is the points and the rewards that they get. So, we’re providing loyalty rewards with KindTap so that consumers can get rewarded for that spending with KindTap and it’s better for the retailers.
Green: On the retailer side, what does that experience look like and what is your business model?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are not going store by store doing integrations, rather, we’re integrating with various software, delivery and e-commerce providers. That gives us broad reach and ability to expand rapidly in various state markets where cannabis is legal. Once a merchant says “yes, I want to be a member of the KindTap Merchant Network,” then we work to get them set up on our platform in a matter of days. The merchants receive continuous support from our success team, marketing co-investment and a depth of analytics reporting. We made the entire process and ongoing operations streamlined and frictionless for both merchants and consumers.
Aaron Green: What are the benefits of moving from cash to credit type of payments?
Corby Iannuzzelli: On the retail side, there are the obvious benefits of not having all the security, safety and theft issues associated with operating a physical cash business. Consumers very often don’t carry cash anymore, except when they’re making a cannabis purchase. There are a lot of hidden costs to retailers because payments are not just about moving money from the consumer to the business.
“I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out.”Payment options – or lack thereof – can shape where people shop, how much they spend and what they buy. It’s a proven science how consumers make impulse purchases. If you’re a cash-based business in cannabis, and you’re trying to get somebody to make an impulse purchase, and they walked in with $100, then you can’t get them to spend more than $100, no matter how creative your marketing is! The consumer is limited by how much cash they have in their bank account or in their pocket at that point in time. So, it’s really about the upsell that comes with the bigger basket sizes that retailers experience when you move from a cash-based business to credit and suddenly, the merchant doesn’t have to deal with long lines of consumers on payday when the store was beyond slow two days before. Now the consumer can spread purchases with the thinking, “I’d rather not be the one standing in that line on payday. I’m going to go Wednesday [instead of Friday] because I have KindTap credit so I can budget and manage my cash flow throughout the month rather than around my paydays.”
So, we think that the lack of an efficient and effective payment system for cannabis is holding back sales. We all focus on how much the industry is growing. KindTap thinks about how much faster it could be growing if it was supported by a decent payment system.
Aaron Green: What are some other cash-only markets you are looking at?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are laser-focused on the cannabis ecosystem and bringing a compliant credit and loyalty-based digital payments solution to cannabis merchants and customers and rewarding those stakeholders for accepting/using KindTap. Additionally, we are planning to extend the KindTap Merchant Network so that consumers can use/earn our loyalty points with other goods and services they’re purchasing that are adjacent to cannabis or that are important to the cannabis consumer. That’s the direction we’re going.
Aaron Green: Today people can receive gas points for spending with their credit card. Now with KindTap, you can spend to get cannabis points?
Corby Iannuzzelli: That’s exactly right.
Aaron Green: What in either cannabis or your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Personally, I am most interested in seeing breakthrough technologies in climate change. We’re going to need to correct this situation and I’m reading about collecting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it in the earth and things like that. I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of smart people and a lot of investment, but I really look forward to watching them do their stuff and hopefully taking us out of this nightmare situation that we’re heading into if we don’t make some changes.
Aaron Green: Thanks Cathy, that concludes the interview.
Botanical extraction is not specific to cannabis and hemp, and it is anything but new. Rudimentary forms of plant extraction have existed throughout history and evolved with high-tech equipment and scientific procedures for use in pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements and botanicals.
In food production, examples of hydrocarbon extraction processes are commonplace. Nut, olive and vegetable oil production use solvents to extract the oils. Decaffeinated coffee uses hydrocarbon extraction to remediate the caffeine, and making sugar from beets, or beer from hops, also requires solvents.
As such, the FDA has set guidelines for the amount of residual solvents considered safe for consumers to ingest. Yet, without FDA guidance in cannabis and hemp, many products aren’t being tested against these standards, and consumers will ultimately pay the price.
Understanding solvent remediation technology and processes
If we use ethanol extraction as an example, the extraction process is relatively simple. First, we soak the biomass in denatured or food-grade ethanol, ending up with a final solution that is 90-95% solvent. Then, we perform a bulk removal of the solvents, which takes out most, but not all, of the solvent. The next and final step should be to strip the remaining solvents from the extract entirely.
But, in order to do so effectively, you need the right equipment, and unfortunately, this is where many producers fall short. Many producers use a vacuum oven to apply heat while reducing the headspace pressure to lower the solvent’s boiling point and evaporate it off.
However, it’s a static environment in a vacuum oven, which means the material is stagnant. So, the process may effectively remove the solvents close to the surface, but solvents deep inside the material tend to get trapped without some type of agitation or mixing.
The appropriate final step to complete solvent remediation is wipe-film distillation, which feeds small volumes into a column, which is then wiped into a very thin film and heated under vacuum pressure. Although the equipment necessary is costly, this last step removes any residual solvents from the product to create a safe, effective and consumable product.
Residual solvents present huge risks
As stated, many of the same solvents used in cannabis and hemp extraction have been considered safe in food production for decades. Reviewing chemical data sheets, many of the acceptable limits on solvents were determined for ingestion, which is fine for edibles and tinctures, but many cannabis and hemp products are intended for inhalation or vaporization.
Unfortunately, some solvents can have negative health impacts, especially for those using cannabis or hemp for medical purposes or with compromised immune systems. Plus, as a therapeutic and recreational substance, consumers may be consuming more than the recommended amount, as well as using the products several times a day. Unfortunately, long-term exposure or repeated inhalation of these residual solvents hasn’t been thoroughly researched.
For example, inhaling ethyl alcohol (ethanol) can irritate the nose, throat and lungs. Extended exposure can cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. Repeated exposure can affect the liver and nervous system.
In the food industry, hexane is approved for extracting spices or hops, and this solvent is widely used in cannabis and hemp extraction. However, if used in an inhalable product, chronic exposure to hexane could be detrimental, with symptoms including numbness in the extremities, weakness, vision problems and fatigue.
Consumers deserve transparency
In the industry’s earliest days, companies were tight-lipped about their processes, the chemicals they used and how they removed them. Everyone thought they had the “secret sauce” and didn’t want to share their approach. Today, companies are more open about what they use, how they process it and providing that necessary transparency.
Lack of quality and consistent regulations in these industries creates confusion for the consumers and loopholes for producers. Some producers test for everything under the sun, and some producers know exactly which labs will pass their products, regardless of test results.
While the regulatory bodies are distracted by the amount of THC that might linger in products, getting sick is overshadowed by the risk of getting high. In the meantime, consumers are left to their own devices to determine which products are safe and which are not.
Although testing mandates and regulations will help clean up the industry, until then, consumers need to demand full-panel COAs that not only show cannabinoid potency but also accurately display the test results for residual solvents, pesticides and heavy metals.
Automated extraction equipment and technologies are rapidly becoming the standard in the extraction sector of the cannabis industry. Like most evolving industries, manual and operator driven processes are what starts an industry, but with explosive growth, demand for increased safety, efficiency and repeatability grows. Specifically within the cannabis industry, we’re noticing a rising demand for higher quality extracts and a safer, more repeatable environment for cannabinoid extraction. These are all reasons for the industry making a shift towards automated extraction equipment and technologies.
What Automation Looks Like in Cannabis Extraction
Automation in the cannabis industry doesn’t necessarily mean implementing robotics and creating operator-less facilities; It typically refers to automated process control. Traditional, older technologies are manual and operator-driven. This means the equipment operator is in control of all parameters of the process, which leads to inconsistencies throughout the process caused by human error. As the extraction process has many steps: ethanol holding, chilling, extraction agitation, extraction discharge, extraction solvent removal, particle filtration, semi saturated solution storage, and so much more that involves valves, pumps and controls between each piece of the process, it becomes difficult to control such a tedious process manually. When all of these processes are controlled and monitored using proper automation technology, facilities can safely ensure that each batch is run following the same process and parameters accordingly. This is critical for product consistency, a concern for manufacturers and many end-consumers. As the cannabis industry grows, matures and makes its way closer to federal legalization, product safety and consistency become a top-priority for everyone involved.
Greater Quality Control of End-Products
Consistency and repeatability are just as important for cannabis processors as they are for standard food or pharmaceutical processors. Deploying a manual process of equipment operating and monitoring leaves far too much room for human error, and doesn’t provide the level of control needed for the industry as it continues to progress toward stricter product regulations and requirements. On the other hand, an automated extraction process ensures that the same solvent ratios are used batch-to-batch, the same extraction temperatures and recipe parameters are implemented, the same pump and process flow rates are deployed, and all processes are repeatable, predictable and scalable while producing a safe, consistent product.
The benefits of automated extraction are directly tied to establishing greater efficiency in processes. Efficiency can be experienced via less scrap product from unmanaged batches and/or less labor to operate and control the process. Automation means allowing a recipe-driven control system monitor and control the process, eliminating process bottlenecks that have been notorious for destroying productivity in manual extraction operations.
As Cannabis Extraction Processes Become Automated, They Become Safer.
A team is what drives any business forward. The safety of that team needs to be a top priority for any business leader. As cannabis extraction processes become automated, they become safer. With less equipment interaction, the likelihood for human error that could lead to safety hazards significantly decreases. Properly programmed automation can establish advanced system interlocks that check multiple points throughout the process for irregularities, and can halt a machine based on these irregularities it detects. That level of process monitoring and control is only available when automation and PLC logic controls equipment.
Data Collection and Validation
When we tie all the benefits of extraction automation together, it makes for a far more attractive system than traditional,manual processes that we’re used to seeing in the cannabis industry. In addition to the major benefits listed above, automation gives a superior level of data collection for process improvements and process validation which is key in cGMP or EU-GPM facilities. This is the future for every processing facility in the arena of cannabis. As the industry matures, it will continue to become more competitive. Facilities with automation will have the capacity to maximize their process efficiencies, produce a far superior and more consistent end–product and will have a competitive advantage in the extraction sector.
For the uninitiated, delta-8 THC is a cannabinoid that can be synthesized from cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp. It is an isomer of delta-9 THC, the more commonly known psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. Delta-8 THC does produce psychoactive effects, though not quite as much as its better-known cousin, delta-9 THC.
Due to loopholes in federal and state laws, namely the 2018 Farm Bill specifying that hemp must contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is technically legal across the country. It grew in popularity across the United States very quickly over the past year, largely due to online sales.
Following the surge in sales, a number of states including Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have implemented some form of regulation or outright ban on products containing delta-8 THC. Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, told Chemical & Engineering News that he has a lot of safety concerns about the whole delta-8 THC craze. Hudalla says he’s more concerned about the processing involved to produce it in large quantities. “These are pretty aggressive synthetic conditions that use strong acids,” Hudalla says. “They might be using strong bases to neutralize. They can use metal catalysts. I hear different people doing it different ways.”
The FDA shares similar concerns. Their fourth point in the consumer update mentions that delta-8 THC products “often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals” in its production. They even claim that some manufacturers might be using unsafe household chemicals to synthesize delta-8 THC. “The final delta-8 THC product may have potentially harmful by-products (contaminants) due to the chemicals used in the process, and there is uncertainty with respect to other potential contaminants that may be present or produced depending on the composition of the starting raw material,” reads the FDA report.
In their consumer update, they note that between December 2020 and July 2021, they received 22 adverse event reports. Of the 22 reports, 14 were hospitalized following ingesting a delta-8 THC product. Notably, those reports included reactions consistent with symptoms from overconsumption of delta-9 THC, such as vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness.
The FDA says that national poison control centers received 661 cases of delta-8 THC products, with 41% being unintentional exposure, 39% involved pediatric patients and 18% required hospitalization.
In the consumer update, they tell the public that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated by the FDA and that they “may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.” This includes marketing it as a hemp product, which it is. Still though, many consumers associate hemp products with somewhat innocuous things, like CBD oil, which is mostly harmless.
The FDA also mentions in the update that delta-8 THC does have psychoactive and intoxicating effects. The FDA says they are notifying the public about the delta-8 THC due to an uptick in adverse event reports, marketing that is appealing to children and concerns regarding manufacturing with unsafe chemicals and contaminants.
Let’s just say it. There is an undeniable chaos in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big or small operator, it’s likely that you don’t have a documented system for creating and managing ever-changing SOPs or for consistently training all employees on the most current versions of those SOPs. This chaos is often the result of rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, and the ever-present turnover in our industry. When department leadership changes, and it often does, established policies and procedures are often left behind. In some cases, this is a positive sign of growth. As a company outgrows SOPs and as it develops more sophisticated ways to cultivate, extract, process, manufacture, package and sell cannabis and cannabis products, inevitably, the old ways of doing business need to be replaced. For those operators who have prioritized operational excellence, whether they want to position their company for new investment, merger or acquisition, or just want to create a consistent and standardized, branded product, it’s critical to get control of SOPs, training and documentation.
As with most big goals, to obtain operational excellence, you need to break the goal into manageable steps. Assuming you have accessible quality policies and procedures in place, properly training employees when they first start work and on an ongoing basis as policies and procedures change is the number one key to successful operations. When employees know how to do their job and understand what is expected of them, they are positioned for success. When employees are successful, it follows that the company will also be successful. Documenting operations is a second important step in obtaining operational excellence. While training and documentation appear to be different, in best-practice organizations, they are inextricably linked.
One Set of SOPs
Those of us who have been in the cannabis industry for a while have experienced firsthand or heard stories of facility staff working off of two sets of SOPs. There’s the set of SOPs that are printed or digitally available for the regulators, let’s call them the “ideal” set, and then there are the SOPs that actually get implemented on a day-to-day basis. While this is common, it’s risky and undermines the foundation of operational excellence. Employees often know there are two sets of SOPs. Whether they express it or not, many are uncomfortable with the intentional or unintentional deception. When regulators arrive, will they have to bend the truth or even lie about daily operations? Taking the time to establish and implement one set of approved SOPs that is compliant with both external regulations and internal standards is good for employee morale, productivity and ultimately, profits.
What’s the best way to get control of a facility’s SOPs? Again, break it into manageable steps:
First, task someone with reviewing all SOPs that are floating around. Determine if any are non-compliant, which ones need to be tossed and which ones need to be revised so they work for the company as well as outside regulatory authorities.
At a minimum, establish a two-person team to draft, review, publish and distribute the final SOPs. Ensure that at least one member of the team has management level authority. Assign that employee the responsibility of reviewing the SOPs before “publication” and distribution.
Archive, delete, or actually throw away outdated or non-compliant SOPs
Revise or create new best-practice SOPs that are in compliance with external regulations and internal standards
Establish a system to update SOPs when external regulations and internal standards change
Use a naming convention that distinguishes draft SOPs from final SOPs, for example, “Post-Harvest Procedure, FINAL”
Inform employees that they will be retrained on the new SOPs and that approved SOPs will always have the word “Final” in the title
Store the final SOPs in an easily accessible location and give employees access, not only during training, but on an ongoing basis
Centralized Repository for Final SOPs
Storing final, approved SOPs in one easily accessible, centralized location and giving employees access sounds simple, but again, this is the cannabis industry, so this often doesn’t happen. Many of us have or are currently working for an organization that stores SOPs in multiple places. Each department may have its own way of updating, disseminating and storing SOPs. Some SOPs are stored in a printed binder stuffed in a drawer or left on a bottom shelf. Others are stored digitally. Some use both systems, which creates confusion. Who knows if the digital versions or the printed versions are the most current? Surely someone knows, but often the front-line staff do not.“Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees.”
Establishing a centralized repository for final, approved SOPs is the foundation of operational excellence. It lets employees know that operations are organized and controlled, and it reassures regulatory authorities and external stakeholders—think insurers, bankers, investors—that the company prioritizes compliance and organization. And external stakeholders who believe that an organization is proactive and well-run tend to be more forgiving when the inevitable missteps occur. Companies that are organized, have effective training systems, regularly conduct internal audits to identify potential issues and take identifiable action steps when necessary to remediate issues, receive fewer deficiency notices, violations and fines than their less organized competitors.
Many states require cannabis operators to provide a specific number of training hours prior to an employee beginning work, and a specific number of continuing and refresher training hours annually. Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees. To do so, set clear expectations and decide who is responsible for what. Is the HR manager responsible for initial onboarding and training? Are department managers responsible for ongoing and annual training? Create a training responsibility chart that works best for your company; write it down and share with all stakeholders.
The next step is to figure out how to train your employees. Individuals have different learning styles, so ideally, you’ll offer multiple ways for them to master the requirements of their position. Assign written materials and if possible, attach short videos showing the best way to complete a task. Follow up with a quiz to determine comprehension and a conversation with a department lead or manager to answer questions and review the key take-aways. Ideally, the department manager or lead employee will work with the employee until they are competent and comfortable taking on new assigned tasks and responsibilities.
Sum It Up
Operational excellence begins with:
Knowledge of and access to current external rules and regulations and internal standards
One set of approved and easily accessible policies and SOPs that comply with both external and internal standards
An initial training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
An ongoing training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
Test knowledge before employees begin unsupervised work
Stay up-to-date with all changes to external rules and regulations and internal standards
Control policy and SOP revision process
Inform all stakeholders when policies and SOPs change
Test that employees understand new standards
Document all key areas of operation on a recurring basis
Address deficiencies and evaluate whether SOP revisions are warranted
Document and implement necessary remediation when necessary
For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking you don’t have time for this, ask yourself, “Can you afford not to?”
For those of you committed to operational excellence and doing what it takes to get there, congratulations on being a visionary leader. Your efforts will pay dividends for your own company and will help the cannabis industry grow into a well-respected, profitable industry that improves lives.
Change control, when it comes to quality management systems in manufacturing, processing and producing products such as cannabis edibles or vape pens, is a process where changes to a product or production line are introduced in a controlled and coordinated manner. The purpose of change control process management is to reduce the possibility of unneeded changes disrupting a system, introducing errors or increasing costs unnecessarily.
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, is developing a new standard guide that will cover change control process management for the cannabis and hemp market. The guide is being developed through the D37 cannabis committee.
The WK77590 guide will establish a standardized method for change control process management for cannabis companies so that they can document and track important decisions in manufacturing and quality systems.
For example, an edibles manufacturer would utilize change control process management if they want to use a different type of processing equipment or introduce a new shape or design of their product. Without change control process management, that edibles producer might switch to a new piece of processing equipment without knowing that it requires more energy or uses different raw materials, thus making production unexpectedly more expensive.
While that’s a very cursory example, the premise is simple: Before you undergo a change to your process, plan it out, analyze it, review it, test it out, implement it and make sure it works.
Change control process management can often be summarized in six steps:
Maribel Colón, quality assurance consultant and vice chair of the ASTM subcommittee on cannabis quality management systems, says producers and testing labs will benefit the most from the guide. “As the cannabis industry grows, the quality, expectations, and control challenges grow within,” says Colón. “The creation and implementation of this standard guide will increase cannabis business efficiency and minimize risk, time, and potential cost of poorly managed changes.”
According to a press release, ASTM International is open to collaboration on this as well. Specifically, they are looking for professionals with change control who might be interested in helping advance and develop this guide.
On June 29, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to five veterans of the extraction market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of extracting cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on cannabis and hemp extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction, post-processing, risk management, hazards and controls, optimization, closed loop hydrocarbon extraction, machine learning algorithms and more.
Alex Hearding, Chief Risk Management Officer at the National Cannabis Risk Management Association (NCRMA) will kick things off with a session exploring the Hazards and Controls of Extraction with Liquified Petroleum Gases. Dr. Markus Roggen, Founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures, will follow that up with a discussion surrounding the kinetics and thermodynamics of cannabis extraction.
Other talks from the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference include:
The Quest to Discover the Limits of CO2 Extraction
Jeremy Diehl, co-founder & CTO of Green Mill Supercritical
The Future of Cannabis Concentrates: Developments in Hydrocarbon Extraction and Manufacturing
Michelle Sprawls, Laboratory Director at CULTA
Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry
Darwin Millard, Committee ViceChair on ASTM International’s D37.04 on Processing & Handling of Cannabis
There are many factors that can lead to the challenges people face when scaling up their processes. These challenges are not unique to the cannabis/hemp industry, but they are exacerbated by the consequences generated from decades of Reefer Madness. In my time operating in the cannabis/hemp space, 15+ years, I have seen established equipment vendors and sellers of laboratory supplies, like Sigma-Aldrich (now Millipore-Sigma), Fisher-Scientific, Cerilliant, Agilent, and others, go from reporting individuals inquiring about certified reference materials to setting up entire divisions of their companies to service the needs of the industry. Progress. But we are still a fledgling marketplace facing many challenges. Let’s look at a few specific to process scale up.
Darwin Millard will deliver a presentation on this topic during the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29. Click here to learn more.Equipment Availability: Lack of available equipment at larger and larger process scales can severely impact project timelines. Making not only equipment acquisition difficult, but also limiting the number of reputable equipment manufacturers you can work with.
Non-Linear Expansion: NEVER assume your process scales linearly. Perhaps one of the most avoidable mistakes during process scale up. You will quickly find that for many processes you cannot just put in a larger unit and expect a proportional increase in output. This is because as process equipment increases so to must utilities and other supporting infrastructure, but not only that, process vessel geometry, proportions, and design are contributing factors to process efficiency as your scale of operations increases.
Hazardous Material Quantities: Just as important to the process as the equipment are the solvents and reagents used. As your scale of operations increases so does your demand and production of hazardous materials; solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol, and liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like Butane and Propane are obvious hazards, but so too are the refrigerants used in the chillers, fuels used to power generators, steam created to heat critical systems, and effluents and wastewater discharged from the process and supporting systems. Not every municipality wants thousands of gallons of flammable substances and hazardous waste being generated in their backyard…
Contractor/Vendor Misrepresentation: Finding out in the middle of you project that your contractor or equipment vendor has never set up a system at this scale before is never a good feeling. Unfortunately, contractor and vendor misrepresentation of qualifications is a common occurrence in the cannabis/hemp space.
If all this was not bad enough, all too often the consequences of improper planning and execution are not felt until your project is delayed or jeopardized due to misallocation of funds or undercapitalization. This is especially true when scaling up your production capacity. Now let’s look at some ways to avoid these mistakes.
The Rule of 10
When scaling up your process, NEVER assume that a simple linear expansion of your process train will be sufficient. It is often the case that process scale up is non-linear. Using the Rule of 10 is one way of scaling up your process through a stepwise iterative approach. The Rule of 10 is best explained through an example: Say you are performing a bench-top extraction of a few grams and want to scale that up to a few thousand kilograms. Before jumping all the way to your final process scale, start by taking a smaller jump and only increase your bench-top process by a factor of 10 at a time. So, if you were happy and confident with your results at the tens of grams scale, perform the same process at the hundreds of grams scale, then the thousands of grams scale, tens of kilograms scale, and so forth until you have validated your process at the scale of operations you want to achieve. By using the Rule of 10 you can be assured that your process will achieve the same yields/results at larger and larger scales of operation.
Scaling up your process through an iterative approach allows you to identify process issues that otherwise would not have been identified. These can include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list) improper heat transfer as process vessels increase in size, the inability to maintain process parameters due to inadequately sized utilities and/or supporting infrastructure, and lower yields than expected even though previous iterations were successful. However, this type of approach can be expensive, especially when considering custom process equipment, and not every processor in the cannabis/hemp space is going to be in the position to use tools like the Rule of 10 and instead must rely on claims made by the equipment vendor or manufacture when scaling up their process.
The Cannabis/Hemp Specific Process Equipment Trap
How many times have you heard this one before: “We have a piece of process equipment tailor-made to perform X,Y,Z task.”? If you have been around as long as I have in the cannabis/hemp space, probably quite a few times. A huge red flag when considering equipment for your expansion project!
Unless the equipment manufacturer is directly working with cannabis/hemp raw materials, or with partners who process these items, during product development, there is no way they could have verified the equipment will work for its purported use.
A good example of this are ethanol evaporation systems. Most manufacturers of evaporators do not work with the volumes of ethanol they claim their systems can recover. So how did they come up with the evaporation rate? Short answer – Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Mechanics. They modeled it. This much surface area, plus this much heat/energy, with this much pressure (or lack thereof), using this type of fluid, moving through this type of material, at this rate of speed, gets you a 1000-gal/hr evaporator or some other theoretical value. But what is the real rate once an ethanol and cannabis/hemp solution is running through the system?
For a straight ethanol system, the theoretical models and experimental models are pretty similar – namely because humans like alcohol – extensive real-world data for ethanol systems exist for reference in designing ethanol evaporators (more accurately described as distillation systems, i.e. stills). The same cannot be said for ethanol and cannabis/hemp extract systems. While it is true that many botanical and ethanol systems have been modeled, both theoretically and experimentally, due to prohibition, data for cannabis/hemp and ethanol systems are lacking and the data that do exist are primarily limited to bench-top and laboratory scale scenarios.
So, will that 1000-gal/hr evaporator hit 1000-gal/hr once it is running under load? That’s the real question and why utilizing equipment with established performance qualifications is critical to a successful process scale up when having to rely on the claims of a vendor or equipment manufacturer. Except this is yet another “catch 22”, since the installation, operational, and performance qualification process is an expensive endeavor only a few equipment manufacturers servicing the cannabis/hemp market have done. I am not saying there aren’t any reputable equipment vendors out there; there are, but always ask for data validating their claims and perform a vendor qualification before you drop seven figures on a piece of process equipment on the word of a salesperson.
Improper design and insufficient data regarding process efficiencies on larger and larger scales of manufacturing can lead to costly mistakes which can prevent projects from ever getting off the ground.
Each aspect of the manufacturing process must be considered individually when scaling your process train because each element will contribute to the system’s output, either in a limiting or expansive capacity.
I go further into this topic in my presentation: Challenges with Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry, later this month during Cannabis Industry Journal’s Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29th, 2021. Here I will provide real-world examples of the consequences of improper process scale up and the significance of equipment specifications, certifications, and inspections, and the importance of vendor qualifications and the true cost of improper design specifications. I hope to see you all there.
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