According to a press release published on February 8, a number of associations, advocacy organizations and cannabis businesses launched the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), which they claim is the largest coalition of its kind.
The 501(c)4 nonprofit organization goals are to advance social equity and racial justice, and end federal cannabis prohibition, according to their debut press release. The USCC says it will focus on federal reforms that achieve those goals above as well as promoting a safe and fair cannabis market on a national level.
The USCC’s Interim CEO is Steven Hawkins, who is also the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is one of the founding members of the USCC. “USCC is a unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis,” says Hawkins. “Legalization at both the state and federal level must include provisions ensuring social equity and redress for harms caused to communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
In the press release, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is quoted saying he is looking forward to working with the USCC on Capitol Hill. “As founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, I’ve seen firsthand that our most successful cannabis wins have been secured by a team,” says Rep. Blumenauer. “That’s why I am glad to see this first-of-its-kind alliance. We have a unique opportunity in the 117th Congress to advance cannabis reform, but we must remain united to create the change we know is possible.”
Founding members of the USCC include Acreage Holdings, Akerna Corp, the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp, Canopy Growth, the Cannabis Trade Federation, Cresco Labs, MedMen, Marijuana Policy Project, PharmaCann, Vireo, Wana and much more. For a full list of its founding members, visit their website here.
The culture of the cannabis industry is filled with passion that many envy, and for valid reasons. The roots of the cannabis plant go back thousands of years. As of this writing, there are no documented human deaths that were caused by a phytocannabinoid overdose. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Before breaking ground, fundraising, proper facility design, competitive application and permitting requirements are just the start. Once operating, businesses struggle to stay current with regulations that continue to evolve. Cannabis cultivators struggle to scale while mitigating pest infestations, which is a part of life in the conventional agricultural industry. A lack of consistent products frustrates consumers, while regulators and policy makers continue to struggle on the best way to regulate a commodity that has seemingly endless demand. The reality is dizzying!
However, amidst all of the challenges and opportunities, a continually overlooked tool stands out: a Quality Management System (QMS). Merriam-Webster defines a system as “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole.”
A QMS documents processes, procedures and responsibilities that ultimately direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements as well as continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency. In other words – it steers innovation through the collection of data while ensuring products are safe for the consumer. For further reading, the American Society for Quality (ASQ), now over 70 years old, is an excellent resource and provider of resources and formal training programs that are recognized and revered around the world.
Step 1: Define your stakeholder requirements
This all starts with knowing your stakeholder (e.g., customer, regulatory body) requirements. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with your customer; at a fundamental level, they expect safe, consistent and reliable products that impart a certain experience.
How does that translate into specifications? Let’s look at them one at a time.
What does “safe” mean? For an edible, safe means the product is free of physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Knowing what potential impurities could be in your product requires understanding your raw materials (inputs) and the manufacturing process. To take a deeper dive, some of the aspects of safety and quality, product specifications and testing considerations are discussed in this recent Cannabis Industry Journal article by Dr. Roggen and Mr. Skrinskas here.
What does “consistent” mean? This builds off and complements the safety profile. It could mean a consistent fill level, an acceptable range of cannabinoid concentration, and so on. For example, in the US Pharmacopeia’s peer-reviewed article about quality attributes of cannabis inflorescence (commonly known as flower or bud), they recommend 20% as the acceptable variance in cannabinoid content. For a product labeled as having 25% THC, the product will actually test to between 20% and 30%. This may be surprising, and discomforting for some, but the reality is that products on the market consistently fail to meet label claims.
What does “reliable” mean? That could mean that you always have inventory of certain products on the shelves at your dispensary. Defining “always” as a SMART goal – perhaps it means that you will have your top 3 products in stock at least 90% of the time. Customers need to feel like they can rely on your business to provide them with the products they want. Take the time to capture the data on what your customers want and work to satisfy their needs and you’ll watch your business really accelerate.
Step 2: Build your processes to meet these expectations
This is where your written standard operating procedures (SOPs), forms and records come into play. Your SOPs serve to memorialize your operations for consistency. Most SOPs in the cannabis industry are not written by the actual operators of a process. Rather, they are written by the legal and compliance team without review by the operators to confirm that what they are stating reflects operational reality. The audience needs to be the operators. Without effective SOPs that are utilized by your employees, your business will struggle to meet the established specifications. Cannabis businesses in Colorado, the oldest regulated adult-use cannabis market in the United States, continue to see 1 in 8 of their products fail final product testing! Cannabis businesses that understand their processes, document them in SOPs and have records to prove they follow their SOPs (see Step 3) are able to reduce errors that ultimately lead to costly rework and product failures.
Step 3: Monitor and improve
You have your requirements, you have your process, but how do you know that they are being adhered to? By the time you have results from a third-party lab, it’s too late. Look internally. Records and logs that show preventive maintenance was performed, room and canopy temperature and humidity checks, inventory reports, production records, extraction equipment report and employee training records shouldn’t be filled out only to be filed away. These records are data, which is your most valuable tool. Unfortunately, records are one of the most overlooked assets in today’s cannabis business. A team independent from operations (typically a Quality Unit) should be regularly reviewing these for inconsistencies and trends that can alert you to catastrophic failures before they occur.
Initially, the additional expenditure and learning curve may make this seem like an added burden, but keep in mind that succeeding in today’s cannabis industry requires long-term customer retention. By biting off one piece at a time, you can slowly implement a QMS that will improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and ensure your brand is a staple for years to come. Remember, quality and compliance is a journey, not a “set it and forget it” situation.
The definition of a Quality Management System includes ‘continuous improvement’. Look forward to a future article which will discuss the importance of tools like a CAPA Program – Corrective Action Preventive Action (which all cannabis license holders in Colorado are required to have in place as of January 1, 2021) and how they complete your QMS, keeping you compliant and mitigating your business risks!
Anyone owning and operating a cannabis business should know the value of proactive compliance management to operate successfully. For consumers, the view into the world “behind the budtending counter” is limited to the cool looking packaging, test results and the overall “vibe” of products they may want to try.
In our experience, as the oldest cannabis compliance firm, we’ve audited and visited hundreds of facilities and have seen the proverbial “Wizard behind the curtain”. We know “how the sausage is made.” And, as one can expect, it’s not always as glamorous in the back of the house as it appears on the shelf.
As markets expand and people buy into existing or new cannabis businesses, amid a world of thousands of competing companies and products, consumers need to ask themselves: “What do I know about the companies and products I consume?”
More and more, the question of consistent quality keeps coming up in the cannabis industry. Recalls are still ongoing in the news as products continually fail testing for potency and contamination.
Colorado, for example, is considered the shining jewel of the US industry in terms of experience, quality and integrity. However, consumers may be shocked to learn that a majority of dispensaries in the state do not operate by stringent SOPs, nor do they verify packaging and labeling for compliance, or review test results of products coming in and going out of their shops.
Starting January 1, 2021, these retailers finally have to develop and implement recall procedures in the event of contaminated products or cannabis that is causing adverse side effects. Later this year, vape pens will finally have their vapor tested instead of just the concentrate therein.
These liabilities or lack of compliance infrastructure may very well be a ticking time bomb no consumer in their right mind would want to deal with.
Bad Product/Brand Experience
Non-compliance and inconsistency on the part of operators translates directly into negative experiences for consumers. Whether its consuming a product that tastes like chlorophyll or enjoying a product the first time only to find a completely different experience the next time around, consumers experience the cost of non-compliance the most.
Beyond products, most consumers recognize their brand experience when shopping for products. Since the invention of Weedmaps, customers have always expressed their like or dislike for particular dispensaries and delivery services. Operators know these reviews from a customer’s experience can make or break their business and brand.
We always tell cannabis operators that a brand is a double-edged sword. As easily as it can strike through competitors, it can just as easily damage one’s own business.
Examples include SweetLeaf and Kushy Punch whose brands, once well-known and popular, are now synonymous with the worst of the worst given their histories of non-compliance and shut downs.
For consumers, finding consistent, quality products at a fair price is often the most important consideration to avoid the cost of a bad experience with cannabis. For visitors or first-time consumers, this could mean the difference between trying cannabis again or deciding it’s simply not for them.
Contamination & Illness
The worst-case scenario for consumers, especially patients, is the cost of consuming contaminated products or otherwise having adverse effects from the use of cannabis. While cannabis itself is one of the least harmful substances known to man, contaminated cannabis can be dangerous or deadly.
In the early days of the industry and in many emerging markets with poor to no oversight, these lessons are learned most severely. From the use of non-commercial washing machines being used for water-based extracts that tested positive for E. coli to recalled products ladened with Eagle 20 (which contains the harmful pesticide known as Myclobutanil), the industry has been reactive to safety measures and complying with best practices.
Still, some states persist with limited to no testing and simply label products with a warning to consumers that they are using cannabis at their own risk without testing for safety or efficacy.
Most consumers may be shocked to know that most cannabis companies do not adhere to good agricultural practices or good manufacturing practices (GAP/GMP) to ensure consistent quality and safety standards in similar industries such as nutraceuticals and food manufacturing.
Patients already weakened by disease states – including auto-immune disorders – are most at risk and understand all too well the costs of hospitalization, medical bills and loss of quality of life. For the average adult user, these risks are the same and there is often little to no recourse with the dispensary or product manufacturers if the product slips through contamination testing because of the non-compliance of product validation on flower or infused products.
For companies, outdated and inaccurate SOPs as well as production batches are the only line of defense to protect the company from product liability lawsuits filed by consumers in the event of contamination and illness. Most cannabis companies do not manage this aspect of their business effectively and simply assume they are sufficiently compliant without proactively measuring such compliance and adjusting operations as necessary.
Consumers would do well to remember that the modern industry is infantile in its development compared to other heavily regulated industries. Cannabis companies are babies learning to crawl while major food and beverage, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, and alcohol and tobacco industries are far ahead of the game. The US industry, is arguably, already behind the compliance curve comparative to other nations already placing stricter regulations and standards on licensees.
For customers, this can be a confusing experience given that no two batches of flowers will taste the same let alone give a consumer exactly the same effect.
Already, customers are learning Sativa and Indica are imaginary cultural terms to describe generalized characteristics of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain which produces a variety of effects – despite state limitations on labeling these active ingredients.
Vape pens are under increasing scrutiny as regulators discover long-term effects of vape use from the tobacco industry causing EVALI in consumers and being deemed as dangerous. As with anything new, the data and science simply aren’t there to truly tell customers what the effects may be over the long run. It has taken decades for tobacco, as an example, to go from doctor-recommended to carcinogenic.
Similarly, Big Cannabis of the future may be facing similar concerns that aren’t being warned about currently on their products and consumers could face unknown long-term consequences. In no way is this a condemnation of cannabis and early research shows cannabis is much safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
The point is to emphasize that over the long run, compliance is key to tracking the consistency and safety of products to avoid long-term liability and costs on consumers. Consumers would be wise to gravitate towards compliant brands and companies that focus on consistent quality and safety to minimize potential long-term negative impacts and costs.
Accountability & Transparency
Customers must first understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what as it applies to cannabis and the cannabis products they consume. This can vary between states from vertically integrated models to horizontal models which allow for independent businesses to buy and sell cannabis between each other.
In the case of cannabis, the restrictions on METRC and other state “seed to sale” tracking systems make it nearly impossible for customers to return products and unclear on how to file complaints.
METRC and other seed to sale systems dictate that dispensaries must be able to track originating sources of cannabis back to another licensed facility. As such, once the consumer buys a faulty vape pen, for example, it’s gone from the dispensary inventory. Bringing it back in physically creates non-compliance issues for the dispensary as they cannot virtually account for the physical addition back into inventory.
No one ever said making sausage was a pretty or easy process. That’s why most consumers don’t want to think about how it’s done.
This example is a simple one to showcase the importance of compliance in the cannabis business and the complexities businesses must go through to operate. What is more applicable and important for consumers to understand is how non-compliance and inconsistency can affect them negatively – beyond messy fingers from leaky vape carts.
These types of unexpected issues represent significant costs for cannabis operators in recalls, fines, lawsuits and fees which is what most people think the “costs of non-compliance” mean.
However, and in addition to the literal cost mandated by regulation, there are the costs owners don’t think about: in the time and fees charged by the professionals to solve these issues, the time and stress spent on production, the increase or decrease in supply, mitigating product liability, and brand recognition and damage due to poor quality or recalls.
All of these factors simply drive up the costs of products for consumers and decrease the reliability of finding consistent, quality products and brands that customers can count on.
As we always say at iComply:
“It is always more cost-effective to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to operational cannabis compliance management.”
Consumers would be wise to recognize which companies are proactive in managing their compliance. And companies would be wise to get ahead of these customer costs by being the proactively compliant companies that consumers want and need.
CannaSafe was allegedly the first to break the news about vaping health issues caused by EVALI, the lung condition responsible for the 2019 vape crisis. According to the press release, they provided testing data that proved black market vapes contained dangerous chemicals, likely including vitamin E acetate, the chemical that the CDC says is linked to EVALI.
CannaSafe say they have plans to expand into a number of states beyond California. They are also planning to build a facility dedicated to CBD testing to meet market needs in the near future.
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.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain.
On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.
The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.
It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.
According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”
In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”
The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.
The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.
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.
If you missed the Cannabis Industry Journal’s 3rd Annual Infused Products Virtual Conference last week, one of the speakers, Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food presented on Food Safety Culture in the Cannabis Industry. An overview of the information in the presentation can be found here, Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace. Below are answers to some of the post-presentation questions we received, but were unable to answer during the Q&A session. To get your additional questions answered or for a complimentary consultation for your company, specially provided to readers of Cannabis Industry Journal, contact Ellice Ogle at Ellice@tndmfood.com.
Question: What are some recommended digital programs for internal auditing?
Ellice Ogle: Before looking at the tools for conducting an internal audit, understand the goal of the internal audit. One key aspect of internal auditing is knowing which standard(s) to audit against. For example, regulatory audits for cGMP certification are different than optional third-party certifications such as any GFSI scheme (SQF, BRC, PrimusGFS, etc). While the standards ultimately have the same goal of food safety with varying focuses, it is important to have an experienced food safety specialist conduct the audit as realistically as possible. The experienced specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate tool for internal auditing moving forward, whether it is software such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, Safefood 360°, among many others, or simply providing a template of the audit checklist. Overall, the risk of foodborne illnesses can be minimal, but it takes persistence and commitment to achieve a successful food safety culture. Metrics can assist in assessing the commitment to food safety and, as a result of these efforts, you will minimize the risk of compromising the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business. If you want a specific example, I’d like to direct you to a case study in partnership with Heylo LLC in Washington state, posted on the Tandem Food website.
Q: What are examples of ways to share environmental monitoring results to enhance a good edible safety culture?
Ellice: In the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods: Guidance for Industry Draft Guidance (2017), the FDA states that “a well-designed environmental monitoring program promotes knowledge and awareness of the environmental conditions that could result in product contamination and is a more effective program than product testing alone.” In other words, environmental monitoring programs and results can identify environmental conditions within a facility that could cause potential contamination. Publishing these findings, for example in the form of a case study or sharing the details of the practice, can enhance the food safety culture in the specific niche industry. For example, to borrow from the meat industry, Tyson Foods, Inc developed and shared environmental monitoring programs that are used by their peers, promoting a unified food safety culture, rather than competitive, guarded secrecy.
Q: Are the food safety requirements the same for retail and manufacturing?
Ellice: The food safety requirements are not exactly the same for retailers and manufacturers. The difference is inherent that retailers are working with finished product while manufacturers are working with raw ingredients and the manufacturing process to develop the finished product. Let’s take a closer look at cannabis regulation in Washington state. Chapter 314-55-104(12) states “Processors creating marijuana extracts must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and a training plan prior to producing extracts for the marketplace.” Compare this to the requirements for retailers, 314-55-105(11) which states “A marijuana producer, processor or retailer licensed by the WSLCB must conduct the production, processing, storage, and sale of marijuana-infused products using sanitary practices.” While SOPs and GMPs are not explicitly mentioned for retailers as they are for manufacturers, sanitary practices could be documented as Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Proper storage practices can also be an overlapping food safety concern with respect to temperature control or pest management systems. Overall, food safety should remain a top priority in maintaining the integrity of the products throughout the supply chain.
Q: To your knowledge, has there been a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product?
Ellice: One possible cannabis-related death investigated in 2017 uncovered deadly pathogens in medical cannabis. However, to my knowledge, I have not seen a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product. There might be any number of reasons that this is so, for example, possibly because a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product might not have had a large impact to make headlines. Although, with the cannabis industry already misunderstood and a stigma so prevalent to even promote fake news, it is better to prevent an outbreak from ever occurring. One thing to note is that ultimately cannabis is just another ingredient in existing products, of course with special properties. So, the common food safety offenders are present: listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, among others. On the plant, cannabis food product manufacturers must minimize the risk of mycotoxins produced by molds, pest contamination, and pesticide contamination. For products that contain cannabis infusions or extractions as an ingredient, there is the possibility of the growth of Botulism toxin. Many of these pathogens can be minimized by appropriate heat treatment or maintenance of refrigeration, testing, and by practicing preventive measures. Arguably, the largest potential for pathogenic contamination is due to improper employee handling. To refer to what we discussed earlier, employee training is key, as well as proper enforcement. Having a strong food safety culture ensures that people have the knowledge of food safety risks and the knowledge of preventing outbreaks.
Q: Do any of the panelists know of any efforts to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry?
Ellice: Yes, Tandem Food LLC is positioned to consult on cGMP certification for manufacturing facilities in the cannabis industry. First, a gap assessment can be conducted to obtain useful actionable data for you, rather than be an intimidating experience. Working from the identified baseline, Tandem Food will work with you to create and implement all related documentation and programs, providing training as necessary. Overall, with the right commitment, cGMP certification can take 6-12 months.
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