Testing cannabis and cannabis derived products for microbiological contamination should be a straightforward conversation for testing labs and producers. However, a patchwork of regulations and a wide variety of perspectives on what we should, or should not, be looking for has left much of the cannabis industry searching for reliable answers.
Organizations like the AOAC are taking the first crack at creating standardization in the field but there is still a long way to go. In this conversation, we would like to discuss the general requirements that almost all states share and where we see the industry headed as jurisdictions start to conform to the recommendations of national organizations like AOAC.
We sat down with Anna Klavins and Jessa Youngblood, two cannabis testing experts at Hardy Diagnostics, to get their thoughts on microbiology testing in the current state of the cannabis industry.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing cannabis testing labs when it comes to microbiology?
Anna Klavins & Jessa Youngblood:For microbiology testing, it comes down to a lack of standardization and approved methods for cannabis. In the US, cannabis regulation is written on a state-by-state level. As a result, the rules that govern every aspect of bringing these materials to market is as unique and varied as the jurisdiction writing them. When we are speaking specifically about microbiology, the question always comes back to yeast and mold testing. For some, the challenge will often be centered on the four main Aspergillus species of concern – A. terreus, A. niger, A. fumigatus, and A. flavus. For others, it will be the challenges of total count testing with yeast, mold, and bacteria. These issues become even more troublesome by the lack of recognized standard methodology. Typically, we expect the FDA, USP, or some other agency to provide the guidelines for industry – the rules that define what is safe for consumption. Without federal guidance, however, we are often in a situation where labs are required to figure out how to perform these tests on their own. This becomes a very real hurdle for many programs.
Q: Why is it important to use two different technologies to achieve confirmation?
Klavins & Youngblood: The push for this approach was borne out of the discussions happening within the industry. Scientists and specialists from across disciplines started getting together and creating groups to start to hash out problems which had arisen due to a lack of standardization. In regards to cannabis testing, implementing a single method for obtaining microbiology results could be unreliable. When clients compared results across labs, the inconsistencies became even more problematic and began to erode trust in the industry. As groups discussed the best way to prove the efficacy of their testing protocol, it quickly became apparent that relying on a single testing method was going to be inadequate. When labs use two different technologies for microbiology testing, they are able to eliminate the likelihood of false positives or false negatives, whichever the case may be. In essence, the cannabis testing laboratories would be best off looking into algorithms of detecting organisms of interest. This is the type of laboratory testing modeled in other industries and these models are starting make their way into the cannabis testing space. This approach is common in many food and pharma applications and makes sense for the fledgling cannabis market as well.
About Anna Klavins
Anna Klavins earned a Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S. degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo while playing for the Cal Poly Division I NCAA women’s tennis team. Since joining Hardy Diagnostics in mid-2016, she has gained experience in FDA submissions [510(k)] for class II microbiology in vitro devices. She has worked on 15 projects which led to a microbiology device becoming FDA cleared. She has recently begun participating in the AOAC Performance Tested Methods program.
About Jessa Youngblood
Jessa Youngblood is the Food, Beverage and Cannabis Market Coordinator for Hardy Diagnostics. A specialist in the field of cannabis microbiology for regulatory compliance, she is seated with the AOAC CASP committee working on standard methods for microbiological testing in cannabis and hemp. She also sits on the NCIA Scientific Advisory Council as well as the ASTM Cannabis Council.
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.
Agilent Technologies just announced a new line of products for cannabis testing labs. Their newest tool, Agilent eMethods, are downloadable, plug-and-play instrument methods that “establish reliable efficient protocols with an end-to-end workflow that addresses the different testing needs, and offers guidance on sample preparation, consumables, and supplies.”
Those eMethods give labs a complete analytical system configuration for automating testing, sample prep, separation and detection, along with data processing and reporting abilities. The tool is designed with startup labs in mind, given how tedious developing new testing methodology can be.
According to Monty Benefiel, vice president at Agilent and general manager of the Mass Spectrometry Division, the new tool should give some labs a head start when it comes to method development. “The fledgling market of cannabis and hemp testing has an urgent need for solutions that help ensure efficiency as well as regulatory compliance,” says Benefiel. “Our new tool—Agilent eMethods—along with the Cannabis and Hemp Potency Kit and Cannabis Pesticide and Mycotoxin Kit gives labs a head start in establishing testing procedures, increasing productivity and profitability, and greatly reducing risk.”
In addition to the new eMethods, the company is also rolling out their newest consumables kits: The Cannabis and Hemp Potency Kit and the Cannabis Pesticide and Mycotoxin Kit. These are designed to help labs set up and simplify analyses for complex matrices. They include all the consumables necessary to perform each test and come with step-by-step instructions.
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.
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.
As legalization of cannabis products from hemp to medical cannabis takes root across the U.S., there’s a growing need to understand and build good security practices. While many think of security as safeguarding assets like facilities and product, effective security does much more. It protects a business’ workers, providing them secure workplaces and incomes. Ideally, it reaches from supply chain to customers by ensuring consistently safe products.
To truly understand the value of this for a brand or for the industry as a whole, consider the opposite: the destructive effect – on a brand and on the industry at large – of unsafe or tampered product reaching customers, or of crimes occurring, just as the industry seeks to demonstrate its validity and benefits. Security is vital not only to individual farmers, processors or customers but to all who value what the industry brings to those who rely on CBD or medical cannabis products for their wellbeing.
Know the Threats.
Part of the learning process involves understanding the value of the product.Security is all about anticipating and reducing risks. These can include physical threats from natural sources – think flood, fire, tornado or crop fail – or from human threats. Human threats can arise from organized criminals, hackers, amateur thieves, vandals – or insiders.
As regulated industries, hemp and cannabis businesses also face risk of losses, which can be significant, from penalties ranging from fines to being shut down for non-compliance. While rules vary from state to state and continue to change, a disciplined approach to security is foundational to reducing risk at many levels. Rigorous operational processes must incorporate security that addresses risks at multiple points of access, transport and sale of products.
Learn the Rules.
In a rapidly evolving industry, one of the most important things producers can do is to learn. Security requirements vary by region and providers need to be aware of what is available. Get to know your state, local and federal resources for your operating area. California law, for example, specifies use of high-resolution video surveillance in dispensaries, while others do not.
Part of the learning process involves understanding the value of the product. With medicinal cannabis, it’s helpful to grasp both its commodity value and the street value that could make it attractive to thieves. In “Why Marijuana Plant Value is So Important for Adjusters,” Canadian Underwriter Magazine gave examples that indicate the size of losses that may occur in growing and processing operations:
“In the medical marijuana space, ClaimsPro has already seen losses primarily between $150,000 and $750,000. These losses, mostly on Vancouver Island, were for fire and water damage, as well as boiler machinery issues, physical damage to buildings and specialized greenhouse equipment, as well as extra expense and business interruption.”
The same article notes a claim over $20 million at another single flower greenhouse. Security needs to reflect what’s present on our premises.
Educating the community can reduce risk as well. Producers of industrial hemp may need to inform would-be thieves that what they are looking at is not street-valued product. To protect the crops, which are generally grown outdoors and do not require a full security detail, a best practice is simply posting signs on the property that say explicitly “No THC.”
Begin with a Risk Assessment.
Security begins with a professional evaluation of site vulnerabilities, examining key weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers. These include:
Monitoring access to the site is a foundational principle of security.
Design limited access points into the facility as well as prepare for possible facility breaches with perimeter access control, technological redundancies and ballistic glass for defensive architecture measures.
Look at route vulnerabilities as well.
Hedge site risk by not limiting your operation to a single site where one incident could wipe out an entire year’s crop.
The nature of threats is always changing. A 2018 Newsweek article described the struggles of legal cannabis farmers against illegal and potentially cartel-backed and violent operations in California. While a 2020 Business Insider report described indications that legalization was prompting some cartels to leave cannabis alone and move on to fentanyl and meth. “While Mexican drug cartels made their money predominantly from marijuana in past decades, the market has somewhat dissipated with the state-level legalization of cannabis in dozens of states across the US.”
Define Levels of Risk and Access.
The best security matches spending to risk in a commonsense way. Are you more at risk from the occasional smash and grab incident or is there reason to anticipate an organized assault? As in many industries, the greatest risk often comes from employee fraud or theft. Hiring carefully, paying fairly and training staff well are important to long term security.
How will the product be moved around within the facility and beyond it – and what staff are responsible for each part of the journey? Who can enter the cultivation areas and what protocols must they follow? On site staff should be trained on what to look for if they observe a security breach. Consider biometrics such as retinal scans, fingerprint scans or similar.
In cases where valuable product or cash is present, guards can play an important role. Harvest Connect uses only high-level former military or police officers in these roles, an approach recognized by many. Hunter Garth of Iron Protection Group notes they have “the ability to de-escalate a potentially harmful situation and the fortitude to see a mission through to completion, no matter what external circumstances may arise.”
Inventory and Transaction Controls
Inside threats from sloppy processes can be just as insidious as attacks. Poor tracking of inventory by Oregon’s legal cannabis producers made headlines in 2018 as The Oregonian reported, “U.S. Attorney Billy Williams told a large gathering that included Gov. Kate Brown, law enforcement officials and representatives of the cannabis industry that Oregon has an ‘identifiable and formidable overproduction and diversion problem.’’ Discipline, applied by state pressure but carried out by producers themselves, has begun to reduce the diversion of untracked product into the black market a year later.
Cannabis businesses need a professional approach to monitoring all product and money that moves through its systems. These operational processes can include time, date and attendance stamps on all inventory. Similarly, accounting systems and software must follow the highest professional standards. Lastly, when breaches occur, it is essential that fraud and theft are caught, eliminated and prosecuted as appropriate.
Nurturing an Emerging Industry
Security resources are an integral part of maintaining the integrity of a business’ supply chain. As the product moves from the fields to processing centers to consumers, purity assurance becomes an operational objective. Ultimately, protecting the product through secure and professional practices is the optimal way to serve customers, build a brand, and sustain the industry.
While it is still early to say what the impact of COVID-19 will be on dispensary sales into April, it is clear that the cannabis industry’s position as an ‘essential business’ is likely to help. States like Massachusetts are just allowing medical use businesses to remain open while states like California and Washington are allowing cultivators, producers and dispensaries to remain open. Meanwhile, according to Locate.AI’s analysis of retail traffic, the rest of the retail sector is down between 44% and 99% recently, depending on the category.
On March 24, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board declared cannabis an essential industry including producers, processors and retailers. For dispensaries, they are now allowing curbside pick-ups for all adult customers. Colorado has gone further to restrict adult sales to curbside pick-ups only for recreational cannabis. Medical customers are still allowed to enter stores, but must practice social distancing. Across the states, dispensaries are offering curbside and in-store pick-up. In addition, at some dispensaries, delivery fees are being waived for larger purchases.
The International Chamber of Commerce recently published “Coronavirus Guidelines for Business,” summarizing actions businesses can take to reduce risks for operations and employees. Going further, The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) recently published practical business safety guidelines detailing how these essential businesses can stay open and ensure safety. The guidelines, which are typically one to two pages and easily readable, are applicable to dispensaries. Certain suggestions, such as avoiding crowded spaces and maintaining 6ft distance will be familiar. Other suggestions go beyond common advice offering sensible recommendations to reduce risk of transmission as much as possible, such as the following:
“Consider setting up one or more ‘necessities only’ sections that enable a short shopping trip for most of the customers. Setting up such short shopping areas outside when weather permits, or at remote locations, can dramatically reduce the shopping density inside the store.” or
“Use floor markings or other visual system to indicate a one-way loop (with short cuts, but no back way) inside the store to promote a dominant walking direction and avoid customers crossing paths or crowding.”
While many cannabis businesses have already gone beyond recommendations from the local health authorities, there are some that would still benefit from adopting the NECSI Guidelines to further protect their customers and employees. The guidelines are written for laypeople and are easy to print and share.
NECSI’s coronavirus guidelines can be found on the group’s volunteer website endcoronavirus.org.
endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.
The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) is an independent academic research and educational institution with students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. In addition to the in-house research team, NECSI has co-faculty, students and affiliates from MIT, Harvard, Brandeis and other universities nationally and internationally.
The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
Secretary Perdue made the announcement in a YouTube video titled “USDA’s Hemp Policy.” Later in the week, an interim final rule formalizing the program will be published in the Federal Register, according to the USDA’s website. “The rule includes provisions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve hemp production plans developed by states and Indian tribes including: requirements for maintaining information on the land where hemp is produced; testing the levels of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol; disposing of plants not meeting necessary requirements; and licensing requirements,” reads the press release. “It also establishes a federal plan for hemp producers in states or territories of Indian tribes that do not have their own approved hemp production plan.” The interim final rule will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register, which should be by the end of this week.
You can watch the YouTube video and read the announcement he made below:
Hello everyone, as I travel across this great country of ours, I hear a lot about a strong interest in a new economic opportunity for America’s farmers: the production of hemp. Which is why today I am pleased to announce the USDA has published the rule establishing the US domestic hemp production program. We said we’d get it done in time for producers to make planning decisions for 2020 and we followed through. We have had teams operating with all hands-on-deck to develop a regulatory framework that meets Congressional intent while seeking to provide a fair, consistent and science-based process for states, tribes, and individual producers who want to participate in this program. As mandated by Congress, our program requires all hemp growers to be licensed and includes testing protocols to ensure that hemp grown under this program is hemp and nothing else. The USDA has also worked to provide licensed growers access to loans and risk management products available for other crops. As the interim final rule, the rule becomes effective immediately upon publication in the federal register. But we still want to hear from you. Help us make sure the regulations meet your needs. That’s why the publication of the interim final rule also includes a public comment period continuing a full and transparent rulemaking process that started with a hemp listening session all the way back in March 2019. At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets. And I encourage all producers to take the time to fully educate themselves on the processes, requirements and risk that come with any market or product before entering this new frontier. The Agricultural Marketing Service will be providing additional information, resources and educational opportunities on the new program. And I encourage you to visit the USDA hemp website for more information. As always, we thank you for your patience and input during this process.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.