On June 16, 2021, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted to pass their version of S.B 1201, a bill that legalizes adult use cannabis. Following the House’s approval of the changes, the bill made its way back to the Senate on June 17, where they approved all changes. It now heads to the Governor’s desk, where Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign it into law.
With Gov. Lamont’s signature, Connecticut will become the 19th state in the country to legalize adult use cannabis. The bill is slated to go into effect on July 1, just a couple of weeks away.
Come July 1, adults in Connecticut can legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis in public and up to five ounces at their home. The bill allows for adults to grow at home, just not until 2023 unless you are an existing patient registered in the medical program.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the bill will expunge cannabis records for low-level crimes and puts “the bulk of excise tax revenues into a Social Equity and Innovation Fund, which will be used to promote a diverse cannabis industry and reinvest in hard-hit communities.” Half of the cannabis business licenses issued will go to social equity applicants that can receive funding, workforce training and other types of assistance from the program.
DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel at MPP, says the bill includes provisions to repair harm done by the prohibition of cannabis. “The Connecticut Legislature’s commitment to legalizing cannabis through a justice-centered approach is commendable,” says Ward. “For decades, cannabis prohibition and criminalization has harmed some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. This bill not only ends this failed and unjust policy, but it also includes measures that will work to repair the harm that it has caused. This state will be a model for others to follow.”
The bill includes strong protections for employees, tenants and students by limiting discriminatory actions based on positive drug tests. It also dedicates 25% of tax revenue from cannabis to go toward mental health and substance use treatment.
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. In the press release, the company says they have received ISO accreditation for the panel, although it’s not immediately clear to what standard it has been accredited.
Still, the test panel is one sign of progress in 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.
The word “audit” evokes various emotions depending on your role in an organization and the context of the audit. While most are familiar with and loathe the IRS’s potential for a tax audit, the audits we are going to discuss today are (or should be) welcomed – proactive internal quality audits. A softer term that is also acceptable is “self-assessment.” These are independent assessments conducted to determine how effective an organization’s risk management, processes and general governance is.
“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” – Maya Angelou
Internal quality audits are critical to ensuring the safety of products, workers, consumers and the environment. When planned and performed periodically, these audits provide credible, consistent and objective evidence to inform the organization of its risks, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Ask yourself the question: do your clients/vendors rely on you to produce reliable, consistent and safe products? Assuming the answer is yes, what confidence do you have, and where is the documented evidence to support it?
Compliance units within cannabis businesses are typically responsible for ensuring a business stays legally compliant with state and federal regulations. This level of minimum compliance is critical to prevent fines and ensure licenses are not revoked. However, compliance audits rarely include fundamental components that leave cannabis operators exposed to many unnecessary risks.
As a producer of medical and adult-use products that are ingested, inhaled or consumed in other forms by our friends, family and neighbors, how can you be sure that these products are produced safely and consistently? Are you confident that the legal requirements mandated by your state cannabis control board are sufficient? Judging by the number of recalls and frustrations voiced by the industry regarding the myriad of regulations, I would bet the answer is no.
What questions do internal audits address? Some examples include:
Are you operating as management intends?
How effective is your system in meeting specified objectives? These objectives could include quality metrics of your products, on-time delivery rates and other client/customer satisfaction metrics.
Are there opportunities to improve?
Are you doing what you say you do (in your SOPs), and do you have the recorded evidence (records) to prove it?
Are you meeting the requirements of all applicable government regulations?
There are potential drawbacks to internal audits. For one, as impartiality is essential in internal audits, it may be challenging to identify an impartial internal auditor in a small operation. If your team always feels like it is in firefighting mode, it may feel like a luxury to take the time to pull members out of their day-to-day duties and disrupt ongoing operations for an audit. Some fear that as internal assessments are meant to be more thorough than external assessments, a laundry list of to-do items may be uncovered due to the audit. But, these self-assessments often uncover issues that have resulted in operational efficiencies in the first place. This resulting “laundry list” then affords a proactive tool to implement corrective actions in an organized manner that can prevent the recurrence of major issues, as well as prevent new issues. The benefits of internal audits outweigh the drawbacks; not to mention, conducting internal audits is required by nearly every globally-recognized program, both voluntary (e.g. ISO 9001 or ASTM Internationals’s Cannabis Certification Program) and government required programs such as 21 CFR 211 for Pharmaceuticals.
Internal Auditing is a catalyst for improving an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency by providing insight and recommendations based on analyses and assessments of data and business processes. Additional benefits of internal audits include giving your organization the means to:
Ensure compliance to the requirements of internal, international and industry standards as well as regulations and customer requirements
Determine the effectiveness of the implemented system in meeting specified objectives (quality, environmental, financial)
Explore opportunities for improvement
Meet statutory and regulatory requirements
Provide feedback to Top Management
Lower the cost of poor quality
Findings from all audits must be addressed. This is typically done in accordance with a CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) program. To many unfamiliar with Quality Management Systems, this may be a new term. As of Jan 1, 2021, this is now a requirement for all cannabis licensed operators in Colorado. Many other states require a CAPA program or similar. Continuing education units (CEUs) are available through ASTM International’s CAPA training program, which was developed specifically for the cannabis industry.
Examples of common audit findings that require CAPAs include:
Calibration – Production and test equipment must be calibrated to ensure they provide accurate and repeatable results.
Document and record control – Documents and records need to be readily accessible but protected from unintended use.
Supplier management – Most standards have various requirements for supplier management that may include auditing suppliers, monitoring supplier performance, only using suppliers certified to specific standards, etc.
Internal audits – Believe it or not, since internal audits are required by many programs, it’s not uncommon to have a finding related to internal audits! Findings from an internal audit can include not conducting audits on schedule, not addressing audit findings or not having a properly qualified internal auditor. Are you looking for more guidance? Last year, members of ASTM International’s D37 Committee on Cannabis approved a Standard Guide for Cannabis and Hemp Operation Compliance Audits, ASTM D8308-21.
If you are still on the fence about the value of an internal audit, given the option of an inspector uncovering a non-conformance or your own team discovering and then correcting it, which would you prefer? With fines easily exceeding $100,000 by many cannabis enforcement units, the answer should be clear. Internal audits are a valuable tool that should not be feared.
Established in 2019, Kelab Analitica is the first laboratory in Colombia to specialize in cannabis and pharmaceutical testing. In March of 2020, the lab began operating and serving the cannabis market in the South American country.
Then in December of 2020, Kelab Analitica obtained ISO/IEC 17025:2017 through Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, making it the very first cannabis testing lab in Colombia to attain accreditation. The lab was also certified shortly after in Good Laboratory Practices by Colombian health authorities for analysis of pharmaceutical products.
The lab has found that ISO 17025 accreditation has helped with their marketing strategy. “As the industry grows, more producers are beginning to understand the importance of working with an accredited laboratory for quality and consistency of results and to comply with international requirements,” says a team member at Kelab Analitica.
In the future, they plan to expand their reach locally in Colombia and look for opportunities to expand in Latin America. They are also engaged in research in chromatography and instrumentation to develop new cannabis testing methods.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.
Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.
We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.
Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.
Green: Where is Gage currently operating?
Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.
Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?
Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.
Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?
Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.
Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?
Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.
Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?
Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?
Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?
Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.
Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.
Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?
Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.
We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.
On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.
Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?
Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.
Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?
Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.
A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.
Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.
It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.
Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?
Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?
Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..
Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!
On June 29, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to five veterans of the extraction market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of extracting cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on cannabis and hemp extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction, post-processing, risk management, hazards and controls, optimization, closed loop hydrocarbon extraction, machine learning algorithms and more.
Alex Hearding, Chief Risk Management Officer at the National Cannabis Risk Management Association (NCRMA) will kick things off with a session exploring the Hazards and Controls of Extraction with Liquified Petroleum Gases. Dr. Markus Roggen, Founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures, will follow that up with a discussion surrounding the kinetics and thermodynamics of cannabis extraction.
Other talks from the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference include:
The Quest to Discover the Limits of CO2 Extraction
Jeremy Diehl, co-founder & CTO of Green Mill Supercritical
The Future of Cannabis Concentrates: Developments in Hydrocarbon Extraction and Manufacturing
Michelle Sprawls, Laboratory Director at CULTA
Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry
Darwin Millard, Committee ViceChair on ASTM International’s D37.04 on Processing & Handling of Cannabis
Charlotte’s Web Holdings announced a new collaboration with the University of Colorado-Boulder and their Research and Education Addressing Cannabis and Health (REACH) Center. The University’s REACH Center will conduct a preclinical study on how hemp oil can influence sleep quality and anxiety.
The study will use Charlotte’s Web hemp products, including their full spectrum hemp formulations containing CBN, CBD and less than 0.3% THC. Monika Fleshner, PhD, Professor of Integrative Physiology and member of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, will be the project lead and will conduct the study in her Stress Physiology Laboratory. “There is a great need for properly controlled experimental studies that are designed to test the potential neural and physiological impacts of hemp derived phytocannabinoids,” says Dr. Fleshner. “With support from CU REACH and Charlotte’s Web, our research will explore both the efficacy and mechanisms of how these substances can affect complex brain-mediated behavior, such as disturbed sleep.”
Tim Orr, senior vice president of Charlotte’s Web and president of its CW Labs division, is currently working on more than twelve scientific research studies with the company. “Charlotte’s Web is committed to advancing science on the benefits and safety of CBD and other hemp phytocannabinoids through rigorous scientific investigations such as this sleep and anxiety study,” says Orr. “We’re honored to team up with CU’s REACH Center to explore the potential impacts of full-spectrum hemp extract with CBD and CBN on anxiety and sleep quality.”
Long term, Charlotte’s Web expects this study will help build the foundation for future clinical studies to “better understand how specific ratios of cannabinoids and different delivery formats are effective at supporting improved sleep quality and instilling healthier sleep architecture in humans,” reads the press release.
Clark first touted changes to their “Time off Task” policy, a way to measure employee’s time spent logged in to company software. The changes basically boil down to averaging over a longer period of time to better gauge how employees spend their time.
The second company policy change is why the blog post made headlines in the cannabis community. Clark says in the blog that Amazon will adjust its drug testing policy and no longer test for cannabis use in their drug screening program. “We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation, and will instead treat it the same as alcohol use,” says Clark.
The new drug testing policy change is big news for such a large and influential employer to make the shift in the United States, where surely other companies will follow. But even more influential is their backing of federal legalization. “And because we know that this issue is bigger than Amazon, our public policy team will be actively supporting The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act)—federal legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and invest in impacted communities,” says Clark. “We hope that other employers will join us, and that policymakers will act swiftly to pass this law.”
Given Amazon’s extremely large influence in American business and policy, the company backing federal legalization is sure to lead other large companies down a similar path. The show of support for the MORE Act represents the growing normalization of cannabis use and brings us another step closer to federal legalization.
HUB International, a leading insurance brokerage serving the cannabis industry, just announced today their new U.S. cannabis specialty leader. Bradley Rutt, senior vice president at HUB and Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, will now take the lead on cannabis insurance for the brokerage.
Rutt will work alongside Jay Virdi, another frequent CIJ contributor and chief sales officer of cannabis specialty at HUB to support the practice strategy on a national level. Rutt’s role will put him in charge of expanding HUB’s growth in the cannabis space as well as “enhancing cannabis insurance solutions and risk services, further developing cutting-edge resources for clients to support their needs, and attracting and retaining talent to deepen knowledge and expertise to help cannabis clients thrive.”
Rutt’s role as senior vice president has been to specialize in cannabis executive liability, working with public and private management services organizations to develop insurance and risk management programs. “Brad is an industry leader, and his diverse experience and deep understanding of the cannabis industry to insure its unique risks will play a critical role in continuing to strengthen our practice,” says Jay Virdi. “More importantly, we continue our commitment as trusted advisors to our clients to provide them with relevant support and solutions to help them continue to grow.”
There are many factors that can lead to the challenges people face when scaling up their processes. These challenges are not unique to the cannabis/hemp industry, but they are exacerbated by the consequences generated from decades of Reefer Madness. In my time operating in the cannabis/hemp space, 15+ years, I have seen established equipment vendors and sellers of laboratory supplies, like Sigma-Aldrich (now Millipore-Sigma), Fisher-Scientific, Cerilliant, Agilent, and others, go from reporting individuals inquiring about certified reference materials to setting up entire divisions of their companies to service the needs of the industry. Progress. But we are still a fledgling marketplace facing many challenges. Let’s look at a few specific to process scale up.
Darwin Millard will deliver a presentation on this topic during the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29. Click here to learn more.Equipment Availability: Lack of available equipment at larger and larger process scales can severely impact project timelines. Making not only equipment acquisition difficult, but also limiting the number of reputable equipment manufacturers you can work with.
Non-Linear Expansion: NEVER assume your process scales linearly. Perhaps one of the most avoidable mistakes during process scale up. You will quickly find that for many processes you cannot just put in a larger unit and expect a proportional increase in output. This is because as process equipment increases so to must utilities and other supporting infrastructure, but not only that, process vessel geometry, proportions, and design are contributing factors to process efficiency as your scale of operations increases.
Hazardous Material Quantities: Just as important to the process as the equipment are the solvents and reagents used. As your scale of operations increases so does your demand and production of hazardous materials; solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol, and liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like Butane and Propane are obvious hazards, but so too are the refrigerants used in the chillers, fuels used to power generators, steam created to heat critical systems, and effluents and wastewater discharged from the process and supporting systems. Not every municipality wants thousands of gallons of flammable substances and hazardous waste being generated in their backyard…
Contractor/Vendor Misrepresentation: Finding out in the middle of you project that your contractor or equipment vendor has never set up a system at this scale before is never a good feeling. Unfortunately, contractor and vendor misrepresentation of qualifications is a common occurrence in the cannabis/hemp space.
If all this was not bad enough, all too often the consequences of improper planning and execution are not felt until your project is delayed or jeopardized due to misallocation of funds or undercapitalization. This is especially true when scaling up your production capacity. Now let’s look at some ways to avoid these mistakes.
The Rule of 10
When scaling up your process, NEVER assume that a simple linear expansion of your process train will be sufficient. It is often the case that process scale up is non-linear. Using the Rule of 10 is one way of scaling up your process through a stepwise iterative approach. The Rule of 10 is best explained through an example: Say you are performing a bench-top extraction of a few grams and want to scale that up to a few thousand kilograms. Before jumping all the way to your final process scale, start by taking a smaller jump and only increase your bench-top process by a factor of 10 at a time. So, if you were happy and confident with your results at the tens of grams scale, perform the same process at the hundreds of grams scale, then the thousands of grams scale, tens of kilograms scale, and so forth until you have validated your process at the scale of operations you want to achieve. By using the Rule of 10 you can be assured that your process will achieve the same yields/results at larger and larger scales of operation.
Scaling up your process through an iterative approach allows you to identify process issues that otherwise would not have been identified. These can include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list) improper heat transfer as process vessels increase in size, the inability to maintain process parameters due to inadequately sized utilities and/or supporting infrastructure, and lower yields than expected even though previous iterations were successful. However, this type of approach can be expensive, especially when considering custom process equipment, and not every processor in the cannabis/hemp space is going to be in the position to use tools like the Rule of 10 and instead must rely on claims made by the equipment vendor or manufacture when scaling up their process.
The Cannabis/Hemp Specific Process Equipment Trap
How many times have you heard this one before: “We have a piece of process equipment tailor-made to perform X,Y,Z task.”? If you have been around as long as I have in the cannabis/hemp space, probably quite a few times. A huge red flag when considering equipment for your expansion project!
Unless the equipment manufacturer is directly working with cannabis/hemp raw materials, or with partners who process these items, during product development, there is no way they could have verified the equipment will work for its purported use.
A good example of this are ethanol evaporation systems. Most manufacturers of evaporators do not work with the volumes of ethanol they claim their systems can recover. So how did they come up with the evaporation rate? Short answer – Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Mechanics. They modeled it. This much surface area, plus this much heat/energy, with this much pressure (or lack thereof), using this type of fluid, moving through this type of material, at this rate of speed, gets you a 1000-gal/hr evaporator or some other theoretical value. But what is the real rate once an ethanol and cannabis/hemp solution is running through the system?
For a straight ethanol system, the theoretical models and experimental models are pretty similar – namely because humans like alcohol – extensive real-world data for ethanol systems exist for reference in designing ethanol evaporators (more accurately described as distillation systems, i.e. stills). The same cannot be said for ethanol and cannabis/hemp extract systems. While it is true that many botanical and ethanol systems have been modeled, both theoretically and experimentally, due to prohibition, data for cannabis/hemp and ethanol systems are lacking and the data that do exist are primarily limited to bench-top and laboratory scale scenarios.
So, will that 1000-gal/hr evaporator hit 1000-gal/hr once it is running under load? That’s the real question and why utilizing equipment with established performance qualifications is critical to a successful process scale up when having to rely on the claims of a vendor or equipment manufacturer. Except this is yet another “catch 22”, since the installation, operational, and performance qualification process is an expensive endeavor only a few equipment manufacturers servicing the cannabis/hemp market have done. I am not saying there aren’t any reputable equipment vendors out there; there are, but always ask for data validating their claims and perform a vendor qualification before you drop seven figures on a piece of process equipment on the word of a salesperson.
Improper design and insufficient data regarding process efficiencies on larger and larger scales of manufacturing can lead to costly mistakes which can prevent projects from ever getting off the ground.
Each aspect of the manufacturing process must be considered individually when scaling your process train because each element will contribute to the system’s output, either in a limiting or expansive capacity.
I go further into this topic in my presentation: Challenges with Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry, later this month during Cannabis Industry Journal’s Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29th, 2021. Here I will provide real-world examples of the consequences of improper process scale up and the significance of equipment specifications, certifications, and inspections, and the importance of vendor qualifications and the true cost of improper design specifications. I hope to see you all there.
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