The NIST is an organization under the U.S. Department of Commerce that promotes innovation through standards, technology and advancing science. The NIST’s CannaQAP platform works with cannabis labs to help improve competence in analytical science and standardization.
The program requires participating labs to conduct exercises that help inform the NIST about current industry standards and capabilities for hemp and cannabis testing. One of the goals of the program is aiding in the design and characterization of cannabis reference materials.
Kaycha Labs took part in two exercises for the CannaQAP study. Exercise 1 included testing for potency with 17 cannabinoids in hemp oil and Exercise 2 included potency, heavy metals and moisture content testing in plant materials.
Chris Martinez, president of Kaycha Labs, says the program can benefit the entire industry when it comes to regulatory compliance testing. “As a leading cannabis lab company with a network of labs in multiple states, it is imperative we demonstrate that our labs apply compliant and consistent testing methodologies,” says Martinez. “Assuring all industry participants, including State and Federal government regulators, that precise and consistent testing data is the norm will benefit the entire industry.”
Kaycha Labs, while based in Fort Lauderdale, actually has cannabis testing labs in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee, making them an ideal candidate for CannaQAP.
Exercise 1 has been completed in its entirety and published here. Exercise 2 has completed the participation and data submission legs of the study and NIST is preparing it for publication. On their website, it says that announcements about their upcoming Exercise 3 are coming soon.
Change control, when it comes to quality management systems in manufacturing, processing and producing products such as cannabis edibles or vape pens, is a process where changes to a product or production line are introduced in a controlled and coordinated manner. The purpose of change control process management is to reduce the possibility of unneeded changes disrupting a system, introducing errors or increasing costs unnecessarily.
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, is developing a new standard guide that will cover change control process management for the cannabis and hemp market. The guide is being developed through the D37 cannabis committee.
The WK77590 guide will establish a standardized method for change control process management for cannabis companies so that they can document and track important decisions in manufacturing and quality systems.
For example, an edibles manufacturer would utilize change control process management if they want to use a different type of processing equipment or introduce a new shape or design of their product. Without change control process management, that edibles producer might switch to a new piece of processing equipment without knowing that it requires more energy or uses different raw materials, thus making production unexpectedly more expensive.
While that’s a very cursory example, the premise is simple: Before you undergo a change to your process, plan it out, analyze it, review it, test it out, implement it and make sure it works.
Change control process management can often be summarized in six steps:
Maribel Colón, quality assurance consultant and vice chair of the ASTM subcommittee on cannabis quality management systems, says producers and testing labs will benefit the most from the guide. “As the cannabis industry grows, the quality, expectations, and control challenges grow within,” says Colón. “The creation and implementation of this standard guide will increase cannabis business efficiency and minimize risk, time, and potential cost of poorly managed changes.”
According to a press release, ASTM International is open to collaboration on this as well. Specifically, they are looking for professionals with change control who might be interested in helping advance and develop this guide.
Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:
Wash (and dry) your hands properly
Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).
Design Your Lab for Separation
Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:
Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.
Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs
High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:
Establish Controls and Monitor Results
It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.
Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.
Continuous Improvement is the Key
Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.
Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.
Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/
Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342
Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.
World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, has proposed a cannabis standard for establishing retail cybersecurity protocols. Their D37 cannabis committee is currently working on the development of the standard.
The standard is designed to establish best practices for protecting critical databases in dispensaries, like inventory data, customer and patient information. The guide, developed by subcommittee D37.05, addresses “the company or government organizational need to mitigate the likelihood of cyberattacks and reduce the extent of potential cyberattacks, which can leave sensitive personal data, corporate information, and critical infrastructure vulnerable to attackers,” reads the scope of the project.
Technical Lead for the subcommittee and president of ezGreen Compliance, Michael Coner, says they hope to provide SOPs for retail operations to protect business data while staying compliant. “Cybersecurity is among the most prevailing issues concerning the cannabis industry as well as the global cannabis economy,” says Coner. “Establishing strong cybersecurity protocols for dispensary retail owners will help ensure the protection of data to maintain the integrity of cannabis consumers’ personal information.”
The ASTM committee is currently inviting stakeholders such as retailers and regulators to help with things like “identifying new data security issues that arise while operating active retail dispensary businesses.”
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.
SC Labs, a cannabis testing company with roots in Santa Cruz, California, announced this week that they have developed a comprehensive hemp testing panel that covers a number of contaminants on a national regulatory level. In the press release, the company says they aim to fill the void of national hemp testing requirements.
The hemp testing panel they have developed purportedly meets testing standards in states that require contaminant levels below a certain action limit. The SC Labs hemp testing panel could theoretically be used for regulatory compliance testing across the country, reaching action limits and analyte levels that meet the strictest state requirements.
The panel tests for pesticides, heavy metals, microbiology, mycotoxins, residual solvents and water activity.
The panel is one sign of progress on the long road to nationally harmonized testing standards. “As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now,” says Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs. “The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act. As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now. The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act.”
SC Labs is headquartered in Santa Cruz, but has licenses in California, Oregon, Texas and Colorado (pending). Their California and Oregon locations are both ISO 17025-accredited and conducting THC-containing cannabis testing, as well as hemp testing.
Editor’s Note: While CIJ typically omits the word “marijuana” where possible due to antiquated nomenclature and prejudicial connotations, we understand the legal distinction between cannabis containing THC and hemp requires the use of the word when referencing federal government policies and legislative language.
Despite the rapid evolution of the cannabis industry, the assurance of safe manufacturing practices remains unclear.Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have imposed significant hurdles for cannabis operators to remain on the “right side of the law.” Therefore, manufacturers of both hemp and marijuana products have been left to figure things out on their own, or choose to ignore existing guidance because the lack of federal oversight allows them to do so. Inconsistent regulation on manufacturing, packaging, labeling and testing of cannabis products offers the potential for unsubstantiated, non-scientific and often times blatantly false claims on product safety and efficacy.
Science vs. Law
Hemp and marijuana are both species of the Cannabis family, Cannabaceae. Genetically they are identical but are arbitrarily defined by the presence of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While science does not differentiate between hemp and marijuana, the law does.
The hemp industry declared a small victory with the passing of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill). Under this bill universities and state agriculture departments were allowed to grow hemp under state law. Additionally, “industrial hemp” was officially defined by establishing the legal limit of THC at 0.3% on a dry weight basis. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill), under the guidance of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), took things a few steps further by authorizing the cultivation of hemp and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the CSA. The bill however provides no language that mandates the safe manufacture of hemp-derived consumer goods. The 2018 version also preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). To the surprise of most, listing cannabidiol (CBD), even hemp-derived, as an ingredient on consumer product labels remains illegal under the bill. Furthermore, CBD product manufacturers are not protected under the current regulations. Since 2015 the FDA has issued warning letters to firms marketing CBD products as dietary supplements and/or foods, and in December 2018, FDA declared it illegal to introduce food containing CBD (or THC) into interstate commerce, regardless if it is derived from hemp. To date, the only FDA approved CBD product is GW Pharmaceutical’s Epidiolex.
Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the CSA. Thirty-six (36) states have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana programs, and now 14 states have approved adult use programs, with New Jersey passing legislation on February 22, 2021. However, the industry has seen minimal movement toward mandating GMP requirements in the marijuana market. Only a handful of medical programs require manufacturers to follow GMP. Furthermore, the requirements are inconsistent between states and the language in the regulations on how to approach GMP implementation is vague and disjointed. This fragmented guidance supports the complexity and difficulty of enforcing a coherent, standardized and reliable approach to safe manufacturing practices.
What is GMP and Why Should You Care?
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are a system for ensuring that products are consistently manufactured and controlled according to quality standards and regulatory guidelines. The implementation of a GMP compliant program ensures consumer health and safety, allows manufacturers to understand the intended use of their products, allows manufacturers to defend product specifications as being appropriate, considers the risks to vulnerable populations and minimizes overall business risk. In a nutshell, GMP equals product safety and quality, and defines the responsibilities of the manufacturer to ensure consumers are protected from the distribution of unsafe and ineffective products. Currently, the GMP “landscape” in the cannabis space is complicated. The various “flavors” (food, dietary supplements, cosmetics and drugs/devices) of GMP leave many confused and frustrated when making the decision to implement GMP. Confusion is a result of unclear regulatory requirements as well as operators not fully understanding how to classify or designate the end use of their product(s). Implementing an effective GMP program requires proper planning (both short and long term), financial commitment and qualified resources.
Where Should You Start?
As the regulatory landscape continues to evolve and mature in the cannabis space, your business model must consider GMP implementation if you wish to remain successful and sustainable.
Before you can implement GMP you must first understand what GMP regulations apply to the intended use of your product(s). Are you manufacturing food, beverages or dietary supplements? Get acquainted with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) on GMP.
Conduct a Gap Assessment
A gap assessment allows you to determine your deficiencies in relation to GMP compliance. The assessment should include, but is not limited to facility design, equipment design, supply chain, risk management and employee training.
Develop an Action Plan
Once the gap assessment is complete a comprehensive action plan will be developed to map out the steps required to achieve GMP compliance. The action plan should follow the SMART Goal principles:
Specific (simple, well-defined)
Attainable (achievable, agreed upon)
Relevant (resource-based, reasonable and realistic)
Timely (time-based, defined due dates)
The plan will include prioritized deliverables, due dates and allocated resources in order to strategically plan and execute and complete the required tasks.
Schedule a Mock GMP Inspection
A mock inspection verifies that the action plan was adequately executed. Hire an experienced resource familiar with related GMPs and QMS to conduct the inspection. A successful mock inspection is a perfect litmus test if the end goal is to achieve GMP certification.
Cannabis manufacturers that ignore the obvious progression toward an FDA-like industry will not survive the long game. Those that embrace the momentum and properly plan to mitigate product and business risk – those who demonstrate integrity and are truly in this space to ensure safe, effective and quality products to consumers will come out on top, gain credibility and secure brand recognition.
21 CFR Part 111, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packaging, Labeling, or Holding Operations for Dietary Supplements.
21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
21 CFR Part 210, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Processing, Packing, or Holding of Drugs; General.
21 CFR Part 211, Current Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
21 CFR Part 700, Subchapter G-Cosmetics.
21 CFR Part 820, Subchapter H-Medical Devices; Quality System Regulation
Congressional Research Service, FDA Regulation of Cannabidiol (CBD) Products, June 12, 2019.
United States Food and Drug Administration-Warning Letters, Current Content as of 02/19/2021.
Due to quick progressions in legalization, today’s cannabis industry bears little resemblance to the industry of five years ago. As the cannabis space gains mainstream acceptance, it resembles more “traditional” industries closely. In turn, how we consume cannabis has changed dramatically within this novel legal framework.
A brief visit to a cannabis dispensary quickly illuminates just how much the industry has changed in the past few years.
Within the dynamic of modern cannabis, perhaps no vertical has seen the same advancements as cannabis extracts. It’s precisely the growth of the concentrate category that has given rise to the many branded products that define the legal market.
To give a clear picture of how advancements in extraction have stimulated the concentrate category’s growth, we put together this brief exploration.
Standards & Technology
Before legalization, the production of cannabis extracts was a shady affair done in clandestine and often dangerous ways. Especially concerning BHO (Butane Hash Oil), home-based laboratories have long since been notorious fire hazards. Even more, with a total lack of regulation, black-market extracts are infamous for containing harmful impurities.
In the few short years that cannabis has been legal in Nevada, Washington and other states, extract producers have adopted standards and technology from more professional arenas. By borrowing from the food and pharmaceutical industries, concentrate companies have achieved excellence undreamed of a decade ago.
Good Manufacturing Practices
One of the essential elements in the extracts vertical advancements is the adoption of good manufacturing practices. According to the World Health Organization website, “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is that part of quality assurance which ensures that products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use.”
When adult-use cannabis was legalized in markets such as Colorado, cannabis companies were able to come out of the shadows and discuss GMPs with legit businesses. In doing so, they implemented professional controls on extract manufacturing in accordance with “quality standards” of state regulatory agencies.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
As cannabis businesses adopted GMP from other industries, extract producers also embraced more sophisticated technology. Of these, supercritical CO2 has pushed the cannabis concentrates vertical into the future.
According to the equipment manufacturer Apeks Supercritical, “CO2 is considered to be a safer method of extraction because the solvent is non-volatile. The extract is purer because no trace of the solvent is left behind. It is also versatile and helps protect sensitive terpenes, by allowing cold separation.” By deriving methods from food production, supercritical equipment manufacturers have given cannabis companies a viable option for the commercial production of extracts.
Supercritical technology has helped push the concentrates vertical forward by providing a clean and efficient way to produce cannabis extracts. Nonetheless, supercritical CO2 equipment is highly sophisticated and carries a hefty price tag. Producers can expect to pay well over $100,000 for commercial supercritical CO2 extraction setup.
Just as standards and technology have evolved in the cannabis extracts vertical, we have also seen products rapidly mature. Notably, the legal environment has allowed manufacturers to exchange ideas and methods for the first time. In turn, this dialogue has led to the development of new products, like isolates and live resin.
Just as the name implies, isolates are concentrates made from a singular, pure cannabinoid. In today’s market, CBD isolates have grown increasingly popular because people can consume pure CBD without ingesting other cannabinoids or plant materials, including the legal 0.3% THC found in hemp.
Isolates are made by further purifying cannabis extracts in the process of purification, filtration and crystallization. As seen with other concentrates, isolates are used as the base for many cannabis products, such as gummies.
There is also growing interest in CBG isolate, which is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid when consumed orally.
The cannabis concentrate live resin has taken the industry by storm over the past few years. Live resin is a form of extract that is originally sourced from freshly harvested and frozen cannabis plants. The primary selling point behind this extract is the fact that fresh flowers produce much more vibrant aromas and flavors than dried cannabis. Interestingly, this pungency is tied to the preservation of terpenes in live resin.
To make live resin, producers “flash freeze” fresh cannabis plants immediately after harvest. Valuable cannabinoids and terpenes are then extracted from the fresh, frozen plant material using hydrocarbon solvents. This whole process is done at extremely cold temperatures, ensuring no thermal degradation to the precious and volatile terpenes.
In lieu of these intricate steps to preserve the flower and extracts, live resin has continuously gained popularity. Namely because vaping with live resin is the best way to sample fresh cannabis terpene profiles in its most authentic fashion
It is amazing to see how much cannabis extracts have grown and progressed with legalization. Due to such amazing advancements in standards, technology, and products, the concentrates category has exploded on the dispensary scene. In today’s market, flowers have been largely sidelined in favor of concentrate-based products like gummies. These products now adorn dispensary shelves in beautiful packaging replete with purity and testing specifications.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that the purity standards of the legal extracts have made reliable cannabis brands possible in the first place. You cannot develop a cannabis brand without consistent products that customers can rely on; all things considered, it can be said that advancements in extraction have not only stimulated the concentrate category but the entire industry as we know it today.
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.
As more nations across the globe embrace the benefits of legal cannabis, to say the business is booming is an understatement. But with cannabis going corporate in a big way and marketing standards still hit or miss, the reality of unethical marketing practices that manipulate consumers and run roughshod over small businesses threatens to do harm if not brought under control.
Enter Cresco Labs, a major player in the international cannabis industry. Contrary to what you might expect, and bringing in a breath of fresh air, this giant is pushing to install marketing standards that protect the ethical interests of all cannabis businesses.
In this article, we will take a look at some key elements of ethical advertising in the cannabis industry and explore the Cresco Labs proposal.
The Power of Advertising
Advertising is a powerful medium for rebranding and influencing public perception. The messages conveyed by ads reflect the changing moral, ethical, and consumer opinions of society – and often create them in the first place. For cannabis, an industry rife with stereotypes, ads present a strong opportunity to change the popular face and perception of cannabis as nothing more than a vehicle to get high.
Today’s numbers tell a different story with a full 19% using it for pain relief and another 37% to relax. Even one successful ad campaign can change the mind of a skeptical consumer. So how to ethically harness this power?
Cannabis rebranding generally works best when it draws on four main elements:
Emphasize health and wellness benefits. Most new customers who are interested in cannabis these days are attracted by the inspiring health and wellness possibilities that cannabis products present. By redefining cannabis as a medical product suitable for families, the elderly and patients suffering from various ailments, and not simply as a way to get high, cannabis companies can target the audiences that will most benefit from their products.
Replace typical “juvenile” imagery with sophisticated graphic design approaches. With so many options for how to use and consume cannabis these days, it is no wonder that brands are embracing trendy, sophisticated, contemporary design techniques. Logos featuring minimalist and elegant fonts more accurately express the narrative behind products such as cannabis teas, cannabis-infused oils and edibles.
Highlight the science behind the products. For those naysayers still determined to limit cannabis to its recreational usages only, to the exclusion of its many health benefits, exploring the science is vital. By citing legitimate research studies and findings, and explaining the scientific processes at play when using cannabis, ads can debunk false myths while educating the public.
Tell a compelling, relatable story. Like all good advertising, the narrative is key to engaging audiences. Framing cannabis within the powerful context of a compelling story is a strong approach to making a memorable impact on consumers.
Wild West Advertising
Because cannabis is such a new industry, only recently becoming legal in many states (and countries), advertising agencies have been reticent to sign on with these companies. The lack of regular advertising standards means that cannabis advertising has been compared to the “wild west,” where anything goes. While some companies struggle to promote a more wholesome, consumer-friendly image of cannabis, marketing to broad audiences, other companies embrace stoner stereotypes and industry myths, often resulting in ads that depict unethical content.
Unofficial social media ads may target underage customers, with slogans featuring symbols like Santa Clause, or presenting underage people in their ads next to cannabis products, as in a recent Instagram ad from one brand, Dogwalkers. The ad shows a person holding a pre-rolled joint on the beach with a caption that reads “let the good times (pre) roll.” The image also features young-looking surfers in the background, an implied invitation to underage consumers to sample these products.
Without regulation, businesses are also free to create advertisements rife with false claims. Vulnerable people, patients with chronic illnesses, senior citizens and others may be susceptible to the claims presented in these ads. The FDA has recently begun to crack down on this spread of misinformation, but putting in place industry-wide advertising standards would also have a strong effect.
Operating in nine states in the U.S., Cresco Labs is a vertically integrated, publicly traded company that has recently released a proposal for establishing marketing rules for the cannabis industry. The proposal, entitled “Responsible Advertising and Marketing Standards for the U.S. Cannabis Industry” outlines a vision to hold the U.S. cannabis industry to a higher professional and ethical standard than is the current norm, thus legitimizing the industry.
Some specific rules in the proposal stipulate that ads depicting over-consumption as a fun or desirable outcome should violate industry standards. Additionally, the widespread adoption of this proposal would ban any marketing approaches that target underage consumers, ensuring that companies are better able to enforce legal age restrictions.
The company, alongside other large cannabis organizations, has released this proposal as part of an attempt to normalize the industry, allowing it to bring in top ad companies to help promote their brands. While cannabis retains the pop culture imagery of stoner culture and its associations with reckless behavior and teenage cannabis usage, regular advertising sources will remain skeptical about getting involved.
As the industry continues to evolve and expand, more regulation will be useful in terms of establishing dominant narratives to help redefine how cannabis appears in the popular imagination and what kind of clientele is attracted to cannabis products. But by redefining the acceptable standards of advertising, there is also a risk that cannabis will lose some of the intrigue and novelty that currently makes it a popular, trending topic.
Still, if rebranding campaigns can shift the story so that cannabis appeals to the masses, then everyone in the cannabis industry ultimately benefits.
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.