Just weeks ago, the first voluntary cannabis product recall occurred under California’s new regulations. According to an article on MJBizDaily.com by John Schroyer, the recall for their vaporizer cartridges affects almost 100 dispensaries in California.
Bloom Brands, the company issuing the voluntary recall, mentioned in a press release that batches sold between July 1-19, 2018 were contaminated with the pesticide Myclobutanil and therefore does not meet the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) standards. Below is an excerpt from the press release:
We are working closely with the BCC to remedy this issue and expect clean, compliant products to be back on shelves in three weeks…. At Bloom, we are continuing to work with the BCC and other partners to ensure that the space is properly regulated and safe for all customers. Transparency and safety remain our top concerns and we will provide updates as additional information becomes available. We apologize for any concern or inconvenience this serious misstep has caused. We thank you for your continued trust and confidence in our products.
Then, just days later, Lowell Herb Co. issued a voluntary recall on their pre-rolls. First reported by MJBizDaily.com, it appears the products initially passed multiple lab tests and was cleared for retail sales. Weeks after the batch passed tests, a laboratory reversed its decision, saying the products failed to pass the state’s testing standards. The contaminant in question was not mentioned.
Many seem to think these recalls are a product of the BCC’s unrealistic expectations in their lab testing rules. In a Facebook post days ago, the California Cannabis Industry Association called out the BCC for their unworkable rules. “The BCC has set testing standards that are nearly impossible to meet,” reads the post. “As a result recalls like this will be the norm and the industry will suffer a bottleneck in supply. Testing standards need to be realistic, not impossible.”
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
According to a press release sent out on June 8th, ASTM International and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) announced a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on cannabis standards. The press release says that ASTM International will coordinate the work to develop the standards with all stakeholders involved and AHPA will make technical contributions and regulatory recommendations. AHPA will get recognized for their contributions per the license agreement. ASTM International is a standards development organization that develops voluntary consensus-based standards for industries.
This announcement precedes the first committee meetings for the development of cannabis standards, which began Sunday, June 11th and continue through June 12th. That committee group has now grown to roughly 200 members, including businesses, laboratories, associations, governments and more. “Many of our stakeholders – manufacturers, dispensaries, labs, consultants, and others – have laid the groundwork for guidance on the safe use and legal commerce of cannabis,” says Jane Wilson, director of program development at AHPA. “We are thrilled to now be contributing to standards development through one of the world’s top standards organizations.”
Ralph Paroli, Ph.D., the committee’s new chairman and the director of R&D in measurement science and standards at the National Research Council of Canada, says AHPA is a key organization in providing expertise on cannabis standards. “AHPA’s support for this new committee will help expedite international standards development, identify gaps, prevent duplicative efforts, and more,” says Paroli. The cannabis standards committee, officially designated D37, was formed on March 1st.
Last week, Governor Brown’s Administration released a set of proposed rules for the medical cannabis, attempting to provide some oversight to the once unregulated market. In 2015, the governor signed three bills into law that established a regulatory framework via the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act. That legislation set up the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation inside the Department of Consumer Affairs as the overseeing regulatory agency.
According to the press release, the proposed regulations for manufacturing and cultivation have also been published. “The proposed licensing regulations for medical cannabis are the result of countless hours of research, stakeholder outreach, informational sessions and pre-regulatory meetings all across the state,” says Lori Ajax, chief of the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation. “And while we have done quite a bit of work and heard from thousands of people, there is still so much more to do. In order to make our program successful we still need your feedback.”
According to their website, the legislation divides responsibility for licensing businesses between three regulatory bodies: The CA Department of Food and Agriculture the CA Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, which will be the leading body in charge of licensing. The proposed regulations are not set in stone, but give us an important glimpse into how the state hopes to regulate the market.
Among the proposed rules are a number of regulatory compliance nuances expected to raise prices, but provide extra measures to protect consumer safety. According to the SF Gate, regulators expect prices could climb $524 per pound. But with that price jump comes a lot of regulations that other states have so far successfully implemented. The laboratory testing and traceability stipulations are presumably designed to safeguard public health, preventing things like black market diversion and off-label pesticide use.
In addition to the medical regulations, the proposed manufacturing regulations set some notable requirements. Those rules are set by the Office of Manufactured Cannabis Safety, established in the Center for Environmental Health of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) after the 2015 legislation was signed into law. Good Manufacturing Practices, food product standards, operational and labeling requirements are included in the provisions, along with a list of licensing tiers, application requirements and fees. They have a handy summary of the proposed regulations for those looking for the key highlights.
Omar Figueroa, an attorney with a cannabis law practice in California, says his clients in the industry are preparing to suggest changes to the proposed regulations and possibly legal challenges. “They are looking at this as overregulation by people that are not in the cannabis industry,” says Figueroa. “These are outsiders with a limited knowledge base creating somewhat uninformed regulations.” He says a good example of this is the potency limit on infused products. “They make perfect sense for [the recreational market] but for the medical market it is simply unacceptable. Patients develop a tolerance to THC and would have to increase their caloric intake and buy more infused products if this proposed regulation becomes final.” He says there are a number of regulations that seem kind of arbitrary. “Like prohibiting cannabis-infused caffeine products; there doesn’t seem to be a necessity in the rulemaking for this,” says Figueroa. “A lot of these regulations are going to be susceptible to challenges because California requires regulations to be necessary and alternatives to be considered.”
Although the lab testing regulations won’t be published for another few days, Figueroa expects them to be a huge disruptor for the market. “Most labs in the state are not ISO 17025-accredited, which means many labs might not be able to issue certificates of analysis when the regulations get enforced,” says Figueroa. He says it is safe to say California regulators are looking at other jurisdictions, like Colorado and Oregon for example, in crafting these rules, but we can expect a sea change in these regulations before they get enforced.
Manufacturers will be required to use a cannabis product symbol with a ‘THC!’ marking on their labels. There is also a 100-milligrams-per-package limit for THC in infused products, which is similar to rules we saw Colorado and Oregon roll out during a preliminary period of legal recreational cannabis.
For those looking to get involved in the regulatory process, there is a 45-day comment period on the proposed rules.
According to a press release published March 1st, ASTM International formed a committee focusing on “creating technical standards and guidance materials for cannabis and its products and processes.” ASTM, founded in 1898, as the American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials, predates other standards organizations such as IEC (1906), ANSI (1918) and ISO (1947). ASTM International is a non-profit organization devoted to the development of international standards. For more than a century, ASTM has served as a leading venue for consumers, industry and regulators to work collaboratively under a balanced and consensus–based process to craft voluntary consensus standards.
ASTM International meets the World Trade Organization (WTO) principles for developing international standards, and maintains the attributes outlined in the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA) for a voluntary consensus standards development organization. ASTM International is known throughout a variety of industries for creating voluntary consensus standards for products, systems, services and materials. ASTM standards are used globally in research and development, product testing, quality systems, commercial transactions, and more.
On January 18th, 2017, the American Public Health Association hosted thirteen industry stakeholders representing state laboratories, standards developers, research institution, academia, cultivation centers, auditors and software compliance providers, according to Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), who is involved and familiar with the process. The planning meeting discussions included a summary of where the request was initiated, why a standards activity was necessary and the results of ASTM’s exploratory efforts. At the conclusion of the planning meeting, it was decided by vote, that ASTM should move forward with the activity.
On February 28th, 2017, roughly 60 stakeholders and cannabis industry representatives met at ASTM International’s headquarters in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The volunteer committee on cannabis, designated D37 by ASTM, is a result of inquiries flooding the company regarding cannabis since 2015, states the press release.
The committee will focus on six technical areas, forming subcommittees:
Indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture,
Quality management systems,
Processing and handling,
Security and transportation, and
Personnel training, assessment, and credentialing.
Dr. Ralph Paroli, immediate past chairman of the board and director of R&D in measurement science and standards at the National Research Council of Canada, was voted to serve as the committee’s first chairman. “With its decades of experience in industries such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, packaging, agriculture, pesticides, and more, ASTM International is the perfect place for standards development for the cannabis industry,” says Paroli.
Pending ASTM International board of directors’ approval (anticipated late April 2017), a shift of standards development efforts has been made from FOCUS to the ASTM International technical committee D37 on cannabis and its products and processes.
“FOCUS could not be more pleased by ASTM’s decision to further the development of internationally harmonized cannabis standards,” says Engelking. “This is desperately needed, and an enormous step in the right direction of legitimizing the cannabis industry. We are thrilled FOCUS standards will be included, and honored to be a part of this exciting process.” During this transition period, interested stakeholders can get directly involved through the FOCUS website and then follow directions provided by FOCUS.
According to Engelking, third-party, cannabis-specific certifications for cultivation, retail, extraction, infused products and laboratories are provided by FOCUS for cannabis businesses committed to providing safe, consistent and quality products. FOCUS certification helps businesses decrease liability and risks, maximize efficiency, reduce costs and differentiate their brands.
“FOCUS encourage all stakeholders to participate in this important process,” says Engelking. “ASTM has an incredible standards development system in place that allows for many different levels of participation.” During 2017, ASTM is offering free temporary memberships. After 2017, stakeholders will need to join as a participating member.
Lezli Engelking founded the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) in 2014 to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry through the use of standards. Standards are an agreed upon way of doing things and specify guidelines or requirements for producing goods or providing services, according to FOCUS.
Standards can take the form of a “reference document, which may include specifications, guidelines, conditions or requirements for products, operations, services, methods, personnel and systems on how to design, operate, manufacture or manage something.” Peter Maguire, VP of System Applications for Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions and committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation standard, joined the organization wanting to make a positive impact on the industry that is in line with protecting people and medical patients. He sees so much variability in the industry and the need to homogenize standard operating procedures (SOPs). “I have worked with multiple cultivation facilities and a few of them have operating procedures in place but having them in place is only half the solution- it’s critical to have the right ones in place,” says Maguire. He has twenty years of experience in contamination control in manufacturing, before entering the cannabis industry.
The FOCUS cultivation standard was created by experts who have years of experience in both cannabis cultivation, good agricultural practices and in the tightly regulated pharmaceutical industry. “FOCUS created these guidelines as a sort of roadmap for success in business; You need to keep your employees healthy and your products safe to survive in the long term,” says Maguire. We sit down with Lezli Engelking to find out how the standards are created, what makes them significant and what businesses can gain by working with them.
CannabisIndustryJournal: Why are standards important?
Lezli: Standards are the international language for trade – they exist in every industry. “The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that standards and conformity assessment impact more than 80% of global commodity trade.” FOCUS is not reinventing the wheel with what we are doing. We are simply adapting a business model the federal government already uses. In the 80s, when the heroin epidemic swept across the US, methadone clinics popped up in every state in the country within two years. The clinics were all operating under different state, city and county regulations – much like the cannabis industry is today. The federal government took a look at the situation and decided they needed a way to regulate these clinics in order to protect public health and safety. They released a Request For Proposal (RFP) looking for an organization to create voluntary-consensus standards and a third-party certification system for the methadone clinics. Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) is the organization that answered and won that RFP. CARF continues to work with Health and Human Services to maintain the standards and provide third-party certification to the clinics today. FOCUS develops international, voluntary consensus standards and a third party certification program for the global cannabis industry based on the CARF model. This is extremely important, because of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, (Public Law 104-115), signed into law March 7, 1996 by President Clinton. The act requires that all federal agencies use standards developed by voluntary-consensus standards bodies, instead of government-unique standards wherever possible. Perhaps even more importantly, the Act includes provisions that encourage federal agencies to partner with the private sector in the development of standards that not only help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but also strengthen the U.S. position in the global marketplace.
CIJ: What exactly goes into developing a voluntary-consensus standard?
Lezli: Voluntary-Consensus refers to the type of standard and how it is developed. Everyone who participates in the development of voluntary-consensus standards does so on a voluntary basis. Committee members must come to a consensus on every point within the standard- down to every comma or semicolon. Once the development process is complete, the standards must undergo a 30-day public review period. The process for developing voluntary-consensus standards is designated by International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO has member agencies in 163 countries that participate in the development of standards. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the American body for ISO. FOCUS follows all ISO/ANSI guidelines in the standards development process. This is extremely important because it means FOCUS standards are suitable for accreditation and adoption into regulations according to the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act. All voluntary-consensus standards are developed under the principles of:
Openness| Participation in the standard development process is open to individuals with a stake in the standard who bring useful expertise along with the spirit and willingness to participate.
Balance| Focus stakeholder groups involve all stakeholder groups: industry, regulatory, quality assurance, medical, law enforcement, business, research, consumers, patients and the general public.
Voluntary-Consensus| Individual subcommittees of volunteers develop each area of the standard, offering their unique expertise to form a consensus. They are not paid for their participation.
Lack of Dominance| No party has dominant representation, or influence to the exclusion of fair and equitable consideration of other viewpoints.
CIJ: More specifically, how are the FOCUS standards developed?
Lezli: To create a baseline standard, FOCUS utilized World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for pharmaceutical GMPs, nutraceutical GMPs, food safety standards, OSHA and HACCP. From there, applicable cannabis regulations from around the world were added. All of this information was compiled into auditor-style checklists. Each committee member was provided time to go edit, remove or add to items in the checklist on their own. Over the next two years, each of the eight committees had monthly meetings, going through and coming to a consensus on each line item of the standard. Once the committees completed development, the standards were open for a 30-day Public Review to collect comments and feedback. The first eight FOCUS standards, completed and ready for use, cover Cultivation, Retail, Extraction, Infused Products, Laboratory, Security, Sustainability and Packaging & Labeling.
FOCUS is currently recruiting committee members to begin development of five new cannabis standards later this year: Advertising/Marketing, Insurance, Banking/Finance, Patient Care and Research. Committees will receive a list of proposed suggestions for what should be considered in developing the standards. Each committee member will develop a list to select criteria they think should be included into the standard. FOCUS will compile the lists, then committees will go through the monthly standards development/vetting process for each line item in the standard.
CIJ: So what does a business have to gain by adopting a FOCUS standard?
Lezli: Compliance becomes easily manageable with the FOCUS software platform, integrating standards, training and SOPs into the everyday operations of the business. FOCUS certified clients could expect to reduce costs, reduce risk and reduce liability by assuring they are producing safe, quality and consistent products. FOCUS certification allows a business to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and prove to their patients and customers they can trust their products. Certification also allows businesses to access reasonable insurance rates and drives interest from investors.
FOCUS is here to partner with cannabis businesses. We are there to hold their hand, by providing guidance and assistance along every step of the way. Unlike state mandated audits that delineate what a business is doing right or wrong, FOCUS is an on-going compliance management system. We are here to make sure a business runs as efficiently as possible and take the guesswork out of compliance. Under FOCUS certification, a business receives ongoing consulting, customized SOPs, employee training and a documentation management software system to track and prove compliance.
CIJ: Can you give us an update on FOCUS’ progress in 2016?
Lezli: A large milestone for FOCUS this year, aside from completing version one of the standards, is choosing an appropriate software platform, (Power DMS) to house the standards and provide an ongoing compliance management system for our clients. Power DMS also houses regulatory standards for law enforcement; health care, federal aviation and fire departments, so most agencies in public health are already familiar with it. The familiarity and access to this platform is a huge benefit on the regulatory side. It allows first responders to access the schematics of a FOCUS certified client in the event of an emergency. This is crucial in the event of an explosion from extraction equipment, or a fire in a cultivation facility, as without first identifying where the hazards are, they will not access the facility. The FOCUS software platform allows first responders access to all pertinent information through computers in police cars, ambulances, or fire trucks.
For the industry, the FOCUS software platform is equally as impressive. Not only does the platform house the standards and all SOPs, it is also complete compliance management system. FOCUS certified clients have a simple management tool that houses all training and documentation, assuring all required compliance documentation can be easily accessed at any time. The platform also allows FOCUS certified clients to provide access to governing bodies in advance of state audits –streamlining the process and minimizing time and interruption caused by state audits. The FOCUS platform tracks all changes to required documents, provides real time updates on employee training, creates appropriate traceability logs, and provides updates on regulatory changes, including which SOPs need to be changed to maintain compliance. The platform allows FOCUS to be way more than an auditing company. FOCUS is a partnership in compliance for cannabis companies wanting to maintain good business practices and stay compliant with regulations.
We have about 140 new committee members that will assist existing committees with standards updates and participate in the development of the next set of FOCUS standards for advertising/marketing, banking/finance, research, patient care and insurance. All committees will convene before 2017.
In the first part of this series, I presented some issues with perpetual harvest models for cultivation with respect to inefficiencies in technology and environmental monitoring. I made the case for compartmentalizing cultivation facilities to not only increase energy efficiency, but also to mitigate contamination and control risks for pest incursions. In the second part of this series, I will elaborate on how compartmentalizing your facility can help you stay compliant with pesticide use regulations and promote worker safety.
Problems with Pesticide Use and Worker Safety Regulations
Where there are pests there are pesticides, whether they are low-toxicity materials derived from natural sources or chemical products that are illegal to use on cannabis. Even in the case of growers that are following current pesticide guidelines and using only products approved by their state department of agriculture, perpetual harvest models present issues in ensuring that the workplace is safe for employees and compliant with pesticide use regulations.
One obvious difficulty is the impossibility of containing drift from pesticides applied as foliar sprays. At this point, due to the lack of research performed on pesticides and cannabis, there are currently no defined pre-harvest intervals (PHI), even for products allowed for use on cannabis. A pesticide’s PHI is the number of days that must pass between the time of the last application of a pesticide and when the crop is cut for harvest. While no official, research-based PHIs have been outlined for pesticide use on cannabis, most conscientious cultivators refrain from spraying their crops with anything once flowers have emerged, as the resinous, sticky buds and their many crevices would presumably retain a great amount of any material applied to them. However, flowers do not generally emerge fully until the third week of the flowering process, and many growers apply preventative applications in the first two weeks of flower. In a perpetual harvest facility, what is to stop drift from applications made early in flower from contacting plants close to harvest? One could simply not spray in flower at all, but eliminating early-flower preventative treatments could increase the chances of a pest incursion, which, as discussed above, can be seemingly intractable in this type of facility.
It is important to consider the restricted entry interval (REI) when dealing with pesticide use. The REI of a pesticide is the period of time after an area is treated during which restrictions on entry are in effect to protect people from exposure to hazardous levels of pesticide residues. Most of the products and materials approved for use on cannabis in Colorado have no REI or a relatively short one. At the time I left my former facility, the longest REI for any product in use was twelve hours (for Evergreen Pyrethrum Concentrate), though most had REIs of four hours or less. This issue could be avoided in a perpetual harvest facility by simply always scheduling pesticide applications at the end of the workday; if a product is sprayed at 6 PM, for example, then the treated area should be safe for entry by the following morning when employees arrive. However, what is to be done if a pest incursion is discovered in the middle of the day and an immediate treatment is necessary to prevent its spread? Would the management or ownership of such a facility be willing to clear out the entire perpetual harvest area for 4-12 hours, potentially leaving other tasks unperformed or incomplete, so that a few plants could be sprayed? Even if operators went to such lengths to observe REIs properly, instances such as the hypothetical described above would create massive interruptions in daily workflows and scheduled tasks that are highly undesirable in a well-managed commercial setting. Compartmentalization allows for essential tasks in a single room that might need an emergency treatment to be completed in a timely manner, and cordoned off after the pesticide application to observe the REI.
A final point concerning this topic is that perpetual harvest facility designs make it difficult to observe certain requirements of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). WPS is administered by the EPA (but is enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) in that state) and consists of training intended to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. WPS training is required for all agricultural workers and pesticide handlers, including those in the legal cannabis industry. One requirement of WPS is that employers provide decontamination supplies for their employees in case of accidental pesticide exposure or poisoning. Sandra McDonald is a pesticide safety expert and owner of Mountain West PEST, which provides WPS and other training to farmers of all crops in Colorado. She states that decontamination supplies cannot be stored in areas that are to be or have been treated by pesticides (such as perpetual harvest rooms, for the purposes of this discussion), as the applications could possibly contaminate the decontamination supplies with pesticide residues, making them useless or even dangerous.
So, in a perpetual harvest facility, where does one store decontamination materials? Again, while there are solutions to this question, they are not ideal. The materials would of course have to be located outside the perpetual harvest room, the entirety of which is a “treated area” at one time or another. But, in facilities the size of the ones under discussion, it could be difficult for an employee who has been exposed to pesticides to reach an eyewash station if he or she has to navigate the expansive perpetual harvest room, as well as a doorway or two, in order to gain access to safety supplies located somewhere that pesticide contamination is not a risk. McDonald notes that most of the products approved for use on cannabis by the CDA would not require immediate decontamination. However, as not to downplay the very real risks posed by some approved products, she also points out that first aid statements on the labels of such pesticides recommend at least 15-20 minutes of continuous rinsing in the case of a worker getting pesticides in his or her eyes, and treatment that takes place sooner rather than later is obviously preferable. Additionally, there are some approved materials with high pH levels that could be immediately damaging if a worker splashed them in his or her eyes.
The issues raised by perpetual harvest designs in respect to pesticide use and worker safety are amplified greatly if businesses operating perpetual harvest facilities employ or have employed chemical pesticides that are illegal for use on cannabis. Unfortunately, the illegal application of restricted-use pesticides has revealed itself to be widespread, as examples from Colorado and Washington illustrate. One of the most commonly used illegal products, Eagle 20EW, carries with it a 24 hour REI. This means that to properly observe this safety measure, employees would be required to keep clear of the treated area for a full day, which I find unlikely to be enforced considering the daily requirements of a cultivation facility. Drift again poses a problem, but a much more serious one compared to the products on the CDA’s approved list.
It should be obvious by now that, when considering facility or site design, compartmentalization is desirable and necessary. This goes for greenhouse and outdoor production, as well as indoor. In fact, some outdoor farmers in the Emerald Triangle area of northern California work multiple, separate parcels to hedge against the threat of crop loss wiping out their entire year’s efforts. Though the discussion above focused mostly on flowering plants; propagation, vegetative, and mother areas should be separate as well, as they effectively contain all future harvests and are therefore of paramount importance.
The appropriate amount of compartmentalization will vary depending on the operation. In most agricultural businesses, some amount of loss is expected and incorporated into plans and budgets. In terms of areas for flowering plants, they should be compartmentalized to an extent that, should a severe infestation or systems failure occur, the loss of expected revenue from one or more rooms or areas will not cripple the business. Such loss should not happen often in a well-run, well-equipped facility. However, I have seen the drastic damage that russet mites can cause, in addition to experiencing the dread that permeates an entirely darkened warehouse after a transformer explosion, and would advise that cash flow projections take into account the possible loss of a harvest or two from a single room per year, just to be safe.
In cannabis farming, as in all agriculture, we must plan for the worst and hope for the best. Compartmentalization is a fundamental and effective safeguard against small pest incursions becoming widespread infestations, while allowing for grow areas to be fully sterilized and decontaminated after a harvest without completely interrupting all operations. It also allows for the observance of REIs, PHIs (even self-imposed ones), and certain WPS guidelines much more easily than perpetual harvest models. Finally, while costing more up front, ongoing operational expenses can be lessened, with a greater return on the energy that is used. While the benefits of wide-open spaces are frequently touted in a variety of contexts, cannabis cultivation is one where being boxed in is preferable to ensure that your employees, plants, and investment are protected.
Last week’s Pittcon, the world’s leading conference and expo for laboratory science, brought together thousands of laboratory equipment companies, scientists and laboratory professionals in Atlanta. This year’s meeting made history, as it featured Pittcon’s first cannabis conference.
Generating quite a bit of buzz at the show in Atlanta, the inaugural Cannabis Labs Conference brought Pittcon attendees, cannabis industry leaders and scientists together to discuss the changing landscape of cannabis testing, the need for standards and cannabis laboratory methods. The improvement of quality standards, outside industry expertise and noting the industry still has a long way to go were some of the themes that came out of the talks.
Nic Easley, chief executive officer of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), delivered the keynote, addressing concerns over consumer safety and lab testing standards in such a fast-paced market. “What we need now are outside industry experts to help guide this industry with standards and proper analytics,” he said. “With increased efficiencies and competition in the cannabis marketplace, our ethics need to be called into question as the industry reaps its profits.”
Other highlights included the sharing of new validation methods. Scott Radcliffe, technical support scientist at Romer Labs, Inc., presented his findings on the validation of immunoassays for the detection of pathogens and mycotoxins in cannabis. Amanda Rigdon, applications chemist at Restek, Inc., also led a discussion on the opportunities and challenges for method validation in the evolving cannabis industry.
Rigdon provided a glimpse into the amount of work it takes for method validation. “You can have all of the regulations in the world but that does not guarantee that you will produce good data,” Rigdon said. “We need good science, which is lacking currently in the industry.”
“We need to show proficiency with a standardized method and that comes through full validation which, requires a lot of money, time and work,” Rigdon added. These components of validation include accuracy, precision, recovery, selectivity, specificity and proper instrument calibration. “The bottom line is labs need a method that is reproducible and robust,” she said. Rigdon also shared her data from recent methods validation at a cannabis laboratory in Spokane, Washington.
Nic Easley, chief executive officer at Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), delivered the keynote address at the first annual Cannabis Labs Conference, co-located with Pittcon. Easley set the tone of the conference early on by identifying safety and quality concerns in the current cannabis marketplace. “We can choose to do business as usual or we can create a new model with outside industry expertise to help guide this industry forward responsibly,” says Easley. Noting the existing comprehensive standards in food and agriculture, Easley emphasized the value of the Cannabis Labs Conference in bringing that expertise to the cannabis space. “We have the guidance and expertise in this room alone to help move the cannabis industry forward out of the closet and into the sunlight,” adds Easley.
The numbers are in and Colorado’s retail sales increased 42 percent in 2015. This increase in sales reflects a very vibrant industry in Colorado, the state that is leading the way in legal cannabis through sensible rules and regulations.
While the federal government has yet to consider cannabis’ legal status, savvy cannabis companies are striving to be exceptional business leaders and meet those federal regulations that pertain to product, environmental protection, and employee health and safety. Colorado’s cannabis business owners, including Good Chemistry, strive to lead the industry by developing best business practices, processes and guidelines that provide the foundation for the industry’s continued success and sustainability.
The cannabis industry in Colorado and other states is heavily regulated at many levels from cultivation to sale. As the industry grows and matures, companies are looking to federal standards and practices that may not immediately apply to their state’s industry, but that have been in place for years to provide for public safety. As the cannabis industry continues to grow, it is critical that industry leaders demonstrate that, through their practices and adherence to public safety standards, their products are safe for the consumer.
This vision has led cannabis companies to seek out compliance experts and build compliance departments. Hiring compliance experts is a major trend in this fledging industry, and more than that, it is a critical element to maintaining employee morale and providing for public safety. Compliance provides a roadmap for employees, offering guidance and resources to assist them with job performance. It is a basic building block for employee retention.
Internally, employees must be aware of what regulations can affect their specific position and job responsibilities. It is crucial that all staff employed by a cannabis business are aware of current and pending regulations. If the employees are well versed on the regulations that impact their duties in the company, there is less of a chance for error.
Externally, cannabis companies should strive for the highest level of compliance, and much can be gleaned from other, more established industries. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should be developed to detail critical work flow areas of the business, including cultivation practices, sales protocols, and more.
Compliance can help to create a more sustainable business. In an industry that has grabbed headlines for energy, water and resource usage, compliance is at the core of a sustainable business model.
Overall, compliance is about working towards creating a sound, respected and sustainable industry. It is essential that the company places a high value on education and regulatory compliance from the chief executive officer to the budtender. Industry leaders must continue to advocate for sensible and practicable regulations for the industry. Cannabis business leaders play a critical role in building an entirely new industry from the ground up, which includes understanding, utilizing and anticipating regulations for the cannabis industry.
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