Tag Archives: study

Cannabis Industry Sales Tax Utility Exemptions

By Dennis Anding, CPA, Renee Sorrels, CPA
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A utility study can help cannabis growers, cultivators and processors identify opportunities for sales and use tax savings by exposing potential refunds. Thirty-five states currently allow a sales tax exemption for utilities used in manufacturing or processing activities. Thirty-four states have published guidance that provides for a formal utility study process while one state, Mississippi, does not have formal guidance. For Mississippi, the process is to work with the state contacts to secure the exemption.

Generally, the exemption includes the purchase of electricity, natural gas and water and typically applies to the percentage of electricity, natural gas and water used or consumed within the manufacturing process as defined by state statutes and regulations. However, in some states purchased electricity, natural gas and water might be 100% exempt if certain usage percentages are met or exceeded. Facilities that grow, cultivate and process cannabis generally use significant kilowatt hours of electricity in the manufacturing process, and this exemption can result in sizeable tax savings. Without the proper analysis, unwary taxpayers might unknowingly leave significant utility savings on the table.

How to qualify

To qualify for the exemption, states require eligible taxpayers to perform a utility study to analyze the usage of utilities within the manufacturing process versus the taxable use of utilities (such as in general and administrative and office areas). Some states have a predominant use provision under which if 51% or more of an electric or gas meter is used in manufacturing then 100% of the meter’s tax is exempt, while many other states will exempt only the exact percentage of qualified usage as calculated by the utility study.

Some states require the study to be conducted by a third-party provider. Texas requires that the utility study be performed by a certified professional engineer. Taxpayers that engage a third party to conduct a utility study would be wise to consider completing a cost segregation analysis on their facility at the same time, as the two analyses together could bring extra value and savings.

 

Study process

An energy analysis and comparison should help establish the qualified utility usage percentage used in claiming the sales tax exemption. Once the usage percentage has been calculated in the respective state, it makes sense to review invoices from utility vendors to quantify any sales and use tax overpayment amount.

Refunds for sales and use taxes previously paid can then be requested directly from the state taxing authorities or any vendors retroactively back to the state’s open statute of limitations (typically three to four years). Taxpayers should also establish the exemption prospectively to obtain the benefit of not paying sales and use tax on the amount of manufacturing usage on future invoices. An updated exemption analysis might be needed every three to four years, depending upon the applicable state rules, or when the processing area undergoes a significant update, such as adding new machinery and equipment to the facility or removing machinery and equipment from the facility.

Other sales and use tax refund opportunities

In addition to the exemption on qualified utilities, many states extend the manufacturing exemption to qualified machinery, equipment, and consumables. Generally, to qualify the equipment must cause a physical or chemical change upon the product and be predominantly or directly and exclusively used in the manufacturing process. The exemption may apply to supplies and consumables that are used or consumed in the process as well. Agricultural exemptions are also available for cannabis growers, cultivators, and processors to potentially qualify for.

Qualified organizations only. Independence and regulatory restrictions may apply. Some firm services may not be available to all clients. Given the continued evolution and inconsistency of various state and federal cannabis-related laws, any company should seek competent legal advice relating to its involvement in the cannabis industry, including when considering a potential public offering as a cannabis-related company.

Study Finds Only 7% of CBD Brands Conduct Proper Lab Testing

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Leafreport released the findings from their expansive CBD testing study that revealed some pretty alarming results. According to their study, only 7% of CBD brands they sampled actually conduct legitimate contamination testing for pesticides, heavy metals and microbial contamination.

Leafreport is an Israeli company founded in 2019 that does product reviews, independent testing and provides educational resources for consumers. The company produces studies on CBD products in the market and reports their results on its website. Back in 2020, the watchdog company conducted independent lab testing on 22 different CBD-infused beverages and found a lot of inconsistencies with the actual amount of CBD found in the beverage and what the product’s label claimed.

In this latest study, finalized in late May of 2022, the consumer advocacy group found a lot of inconsistencies throughout the CBD market. For their study, they reviewed 4,384 products from 188 brands, with the goal of looking at overall transparency in the CBD products market. Judging by the results they share, the CBD market is unsurprisingly not very transparent.

Here are some highlights from this most recent study:

  • 20% of the brands reviewed didn’t carry out any purity tests to check for the presence of microbes, pesticides, or heavy metals. In 2021, 25% of the brands Leafreport reviewed didn’t carry out any purity tests.
  • 42% of brands test almost all of their products for potency (90%-100% accurate) and share their third-party lab results with consumers — the same as in 2021.
  • Only 12% of brands had all their products fall within acceptable potency variance limits.
  • 88% of brands that tested their products for potency had at least one product test beyond the 10% variance for potency, in comparison to 84% in 2021.
  • 28% of brands didn’t carry out any testing at all for pesticides (such as glyphosate), 26% didn’t test for the presence of any heavy metals (such as arsenic), and 24% didn’t test for microbes (like bacteria).
  • Two brands carried out no lab testing at all for either purity or potency, compared to 3 brands in 2021.

Research Suggests Cannabis Could Help Treat Covid-19

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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One study published in the Journal of Natural Products two weeks ago proposes using the cannabinoid CBDA in conjunction with vaccines to prevent SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection. The study was conducted in a lab and says that cannabinoid acids (CBGA, THCA-A, CBDA, etc.) can bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, blocking cell entry and effectively prevent infection.

Another study published in Science Advances claims cannabidiol (CBD) inhibits SARS-CoV-2 replication and helps prevent infection by inducing endoplasmic reticulum stress response and innate immune responses. The study was conducted in cells and mice, but also had groups of human patients that tested positive for Covid-19 less after taking CBD. “In matched groups of human patients from the National COVID Cohort Collaborative, CBD (100 mg/ml oral solution per medical records) had a significant negative association with positive SARS-CoV-2 tests,” reads the abstract.

Two studies in Israel, one proof-of-concept study and one early-stage clinical trial, have just launched examining the effects of CBD on patients already infected with Covid-19.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

All of this research already underway does not mean that cannabis prevents Covid-19. In fact, one clinical trial in Brazil that has finished, found no evidence that CBD helped patients with mild Covid-19. Published in the Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research Journal, patients with mild Covid-19 received 300 mg of CBD for 14 days or a placebo. The study suggests that clinical trials should be conducted for the effects of CBD on patients with severe Covid-19, not just mild symptoms.

The clinical trial in Israel that is trying to study the effects of CBD on patients with severe Covid-19 is having trouble finding participants because the newer Omicron variant mainly produces only mild to moderate symptoms.

It is far too early to tell if any of these studies will show evidence of cannabis treating Covid-19, let alone if they mean cannabis products can be used as a treatment or preventative for Covid-19. However, the research is significant and we should keep an eye on any developments that come from those studies.

Statnews.com said it best:

“The latest hubbub is an example of both the promise of cannabinoids — components of cannabis — as potential therapies, but also the hype around them, which can far outpace the evidence that they work. It’s left researchers and consumer advocates scrambling to warn people that patients shouldn’t be turning to over-the-counter products or recreational marijuana in hopes that it might protect them from Covid-19.”

Soapbox

Is There a Place for Perpetual Tele-Monitoring and Clinical Research in the Medical Cannabis Industry?

By Christina DiArcangelo
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As we continue to witness and experience the medical cannabis industry grow and mature, many of us are wondering where the head-to-head clinical studies are, and why aren’t there more clinical research studies taking place?

Cannabis products created with the intention for medicinal use often state that their formulations and products stack up against traditional pharmaceutical treatments. However, without a substantial number of clinical studies being performed, it’s difficult to truthfully make such a claim. It’s one thing to share testimonials from people who use particular products and report what their experiences were like. However, to go head-to-head in a controlled environment where factors such as underlying conditions, height, weight, medication, lifestyle and nutrition habits are taken into account to accurately compare the efficacy of a traditional pharmaceutical product versus a cannabis-derived product are two completely different things.

The Need for More Capital

Wouldn’t you agree that if a company is having tremendous success with a particular product, that they’d reinvest capital into a true clinical study to have data to support their marketing efforts? Investing into proper studies would not only benefit a company working hard to earn market share, it would benefit those who are relying on a particular product to regain a quality life. As we’ve learned over the years from numerous scientists and researchers digging into the cannabis plant at a more granular level, there’s much more to the medicinal benefits than meets the eye. Discovering new information about how cannabinoids such as CBG and CBN combined with CBD and certain terpenes can create specific effects has helped make a greater impact on the medical cannabis community. Bringing these powerful blends of anti-inflammatory, cannabis-derived compounds and other immune boosting nutraceuticals to head-to-head clinical studies could be a huge step forward towards further legitimizing the healing effects that cannabis has to offer.

Measuring Efficacy Goes Beyond COAs & Product Reviews

Determining the efficacy of medical cannabis products should be viewed in the same light as traditional pharmaceutical products. Traditional clinical studies are designed with an Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, subject recruitment, electronic data capture as well as electronic patient reported outcomes. Some companies within the cannabis space have made attempts to conduct surveys with measuring efficacy in mind, but using outdated survey technology that hasn’t been validated only leads to insufficient data collection.

Discovering new information about how cannabinoids can create specific effects has helped make a greater impact on the medical cannabis community.
Image: Peggy Greb, USDA

There is nothing wrong with adult-use cannabis. However, for the medical cannabis space to be taken more seriously, it is time for organizations to step up their efforts and take note of certain practices from traditional biotech organizations when it comes to clinical research and collecting data to correctly quantify efficacy of certain products. Well-thought-out studies designed with clinical endpoints and validated questionnaires is a strategic way for the industry to take big steps towards doing what is right for patients.

Patients Are Asking For More Research

After speaking with patients who are interested in pursuing a treatment that includes the responsible use of medicinal cannabis, the one thing they all have in common is the desire for more information that they can rely on to make better decisions. Is it time for patients to push the envelope and not purchase products from companies that are not willing to perform the clinical studies?  If companies suffered a loss in sales as a result, would they reconsider their stance on reinvesting capital into clinical trials with their products?

Equally as important as proper research is perpetual tele-monitoring. The value in perpetual tele-monitoring is the data. We can showcase miraculous, life-changing stories of how medical cannabis has helped people turn their lives around. However, when seeking greater buy-in from groups like the FDA, data is key. Qualitative data can go only go so far. It’s the quantitative data that will help move the medical cannabis community forward. The ability to be able to review data on an ongoing basis would enable medical cannabis companies to evaluate how products are working based on the electronic data capture, along with questions that a company may develop to ascertain individualized product feedback.

Imagine having the ability to see patients’ data based on real-time, daily, through something as convenient as a wearable device. Understanding test results and correspondence with doctors for patients would significantly improve.

CU Boulder, Charlotte’s Web Begin Sleep & Anxiety Studies

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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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.

Charlotte’s Web and University of Colorado-Boulder Collaborative Study to Assess CBD and CBN’s Potential to Support Improved Sleep (CNW Group/Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc.)

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.

Bio-Rad Aspergillus PCR Test Gets AOAC Approval

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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According to a press release published earlier this month, the Bio-Rad iQ-Check Aspergilllus Real-Time PCR Detection Kit has received AOAC International approval. The test covers detection for four different Aspergillus species: A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus.

The detection kit covers those Aspergillus species for testing in cannabis flower and cannabis concentrates, produced with our without solvents. The PCR detection kit was validated through the AOAC Research Institute’s Performance Tested Method Program. They conducted a study that resulted in “no significant difference” between the PCR detection kit and the reference method.

The iQ-Check Aspergillus Real-Time PCR Kit detects Aspergillus flavus, fumigatus, niger, and terreus in cannabis flower and cannabis concentrates.

The kit was evaluated on “robustness, product consistency, stability, inclusivity and exclusivity, and matrix studies,” the press release says. Bio-Rad also received approval and validation on the iQ-Check Free DNA Removal Solution, part of the workflow for testing cannabis flower.

The test kit uses gene amplification and real-time PCR detection. Following enrichment and DNA extraction, the test runs their PCR technology, then runs the CFX Manager IDE software to automatically generate and analyze results.

Bio’Rad has also recently received AOAC approval for other microbial testing methods in cannabis, including their iQ-Check Salmonella II, iQ-Check STEC VirX, and iQ-Check STEC SerO II PCR Detection Kits.

Designing Precision Cannabis Facilities: A Case Study

By Phil Gibson
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With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.

Background

Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.

Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.

Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.

Precision, Quality & Consistency

“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”

At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.

Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.

The Onyx Vision

Andrew Lange, Ascendant Management

Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.

“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”

Her Path to Leadership

Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”

Bailee Syrek, director of operations at Onyx Agronomics

Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.

A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.

What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”

This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.

“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.

At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.

Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe

Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.

Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.

Certified Efficiency is the Message

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.

Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.

The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.

Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant

From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.

Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).

That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.

Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.

Always Finish with People

Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”

“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.

Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”

How Private-Sector-Led Information Sharing Can Transform Cybersecurity in the Cannabis Industry.

By Andy Jabbour, Ben Taylor
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The cannabis industry’s advancement towards legalization continues to dominate national headlines, from the stance of incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland to deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s continued advocacy, to the recent passing of legislation in New York, New Mexico and Virginia (the first in the South) to authorize adult-use cannabis. While these updates are likely to intrigue customers and investors alike, they are also sure to draw the attention of cyber criminals who could look at the relative youth of the industry, as well as its rapid growth, as a prime target of opportunity for nefarious acts.

In order to understand risk mitigation best practices across a wide spectrum of private sector industries, this article will first identify the current security environment in order to understand the threats, briefly highlight specific case studies and assess the risks and identify methods that individual organizations, as well as the cannabis industry as a whole, can take action to enhance security and preparedness and to develop resiliency against future attacks.

Understanding the Threats

For an industry that has operated in a largely cash-based system for much of its existence, the idea of security is not foreign. Typically, these concerns focused on physical security implementation. The topic has received plenty of coverage, including a recent article in this journal articulating Important Security Considerations When Designing Cannabis Facilities. While an audit of physical security measures is a valuable part to any all-hazards threat assessment, securing a growing online network – from email to online finances to connected devices within cannabis facilities – can pose more unfamiliar challenges. When consulted for this article, Patten Wood, a former VP of marketing for a prominent west-coast cannabis retail brand noted: “While the topic of cybersecurity is critically important to customers, businesses, and the industry at large, it isn’t top of mind for many of the cannabis companies that I’ve experienced.” Understanding what risks are present is the first step to mitigating them, so we must first discuss several common cyber threats for the cannabis industry.

  • Phishing: Phishing happens when cybercriminals impersonate a trusted individual or entity, typically through email. The goal in this instance is to get the target to share confidential information or download software that can allow unauthorized access into an organization’s network. Phishing is one of the most common types of cyberattacks as it is relatively easy to conduct and surprisingly effective.
  • Ransomware Attacks: Ransomware attacks are used to gain access to a computer network and then lock and encrypt either the entire system or certain sets of high-value files, which can compromise important business information, and impact client and vendor privacy. A ransom is then demanded for restoring access, but paying the ransom comes with its own risk as it doesn’t guarantee the files will be restored. 
  • Cyber Extortion: Similar to ransomware attacks in their design, cyber extortion typically deals with a threat of leaking personal information and will generally demand payment in cryptocurrency in order to maintain their anonymity. 
  • Lumu: 2020 Ransomware Flashcard

    Remote Access Threats: As 2020 has forced organizations to rethink how they conduct business and shift to more remote operations than they had in the past, it can open up several new threats. According to a survey by IT social network SpiceWorks.com, six out of every ten organizations allow their employees to connect their company-issued devices to public Wi-Fi networks. Utilizing unsecured Wi-Fi networks opens the user up to man-in-the-middle attacks, allowing hackers to intercept company data. Unsecure Wi-Fi also brings the threat of malware distribution. An additional consideration with remote workers is the uptick in cyber attacks against remote access software referred to as remote desktop protocol (RDP) attacks. According to Atlas VPN, RDP attacks skyrocketed 241% in 2020 and we’ve seen numerous RDP attacks against critical infrastructure throughout the pandemic and across all industries.

  • Internet of Things (IoT) Leaks: With IoT devices running everything from security systems to automated growing operations, the convenience has been a huge boost for the industry. Unfortunately, many IoT devices don’t have sophisticated built-in security. Another common problem is the tendency of users to keep default passwords upon installation, which can make devices easy for cyber criminals to access. Once they are inside the system, malware can easily be installed, and the actors can move laterally throughout the network.
  • Personal and Medical Record Security: Many cyberattacks expose some level of personal data, whether that be customer, employee or vendor information. An extra consideration for retail operations that either treat medical patients, or medical and adult-use customers, is the additional information they must store about their clients. Medical facilities will maintain protected health information (PHI), which are much more valuable on the dark web than personally identifiable information (PII). But even adult use facilities may keep government-issued ID or other additional information above that of a typical retailer, which makes the potential value of their information much more intriguing for a cybercriminal.

Assessing the Risks

Depending on where your organization lies in the seed to sale chain, you will have different levels of risk for various types of attacks. We briefly discussed ransomware attacks earlier. Ransoms can range widely depending on the size of the organization that is attacked, but the ransom alone isn’t the only risk consideration. Businesses must also factor in the cost of downtime (an average of 18 days in 2020) caused by the ransomware when evaluating the impact to business operations, as well as reputation. While small – medium businesses are absolutely at risk, especially given their relative lack of cybersecurity resources and sophistication, a recent trend involves “Big Game Hunting” where cybercriminals are targeting larger organizations with the potential for bigger paydays. Criminals understand that big business can rarely afford major delays, and may be more able and willing to pay, and pay big, for a return to normal operations.

Group-IB: Ransomware Uncovered

Below are several examples of attacks which have either directly impacted the cannabis industry, or have valuable lessons the industry can learn from.

GrowDiaries: In October 2020 researcher Bob Diachenko discovered that 3.4 million records including passwords, posts, emails and IP addresses were exposed after two open-source application Kibana apps were left exposed online. As a platform for cannabis growers around the world (who are not all growing legally), this type of exposure puts the community at great risk, and can lower user confidence in the product, as well as putting them at personal risk of harm or legal ramifications. The applications being left open is a prime example of either a lack of good cybersecurity policies, or not following through on those policies.

Aurora Cannabis: On December 25th, 2020 Canadian company Aurora Cannabis suffered a data breach when SharePoint and OneDrive were illegally accessed. Included in the data that was compromised was credit card information, government identification, home addresses and banking details. The access point coming through Microsoft cloud software is a prime example of some of the challenges facing businesses who have an increasingly remote workforce yet still need that workforce to access critical (and usually highly sensitive) information.

THSuite: A database owned by seed to sale Point-Of-Sale (POS) software provider THSuite was discovered by researchers in December 2019. The database contained PHI/PII for 30,000 people, with over 85,000 files being exposed. The information that was left accessible included scanned government IDs, personal contact information and medical ID numbers. Clearly this gets into HIPAA territory, which can result in fines of up to $50,000 for every exposed record.

Door Dash: As cannabis delivery apps become more prevalent, it’s good to reference how similar businesses in other industries have been targeted. In May of 2019 nearly 5 million user records were accessed by an unauthorized third party, exposing PII and partial payment card information.  

Taking Action 

On an organizational level, employee training, password hygiene and malware protection are some of the basic and most important steps that should be taken by all organizations. But, if “knowledge is power,” the best defense for any organization against cyber threats is a well-informed organization- including leadership down to the front-line employees. Excellent tools to assist in this are Information Sharing & Analysis Centers/Organizations (ISACs/ISAOs). ISACs were established under a presidential directive in 1998 to enable critical infrastructure owners and operators to share cyber threat information and best practices. The National Council of ISACs currently has over 20 member ISACs including Real Estate, Water, Automotive and Energy. ISAOs were created by a 2015 executive order to encourage cyber threat information sharing within private industry sectors that fall outside of those listed as “critical infrastructure”. Christy Coffey, vice president of operations at the Maritime and Port Security ISAO (MPS-ISAO) says information sharing enabled by the executive order is critical. “We need to accelerate private sector information sharing, and I believe that the ISAO is the vehicle.”

According to Michael Echols, CEO of the International Association of Certified ISAO’s (IACI) at the Kennedy Space Center, security experts have long understood that threat information sharing can allow for better situational awareness and help organizations better identify common threats and ways to address them. “On the other side, hackers in a very documented way are already teaming up and sharing information on new approaches and opportunities to bring more value (to their efforts).” The ongoing crisis surrounding the Microsoft Exchange Server Vulnerability demonstrates that different cybercriminal groups will work simultaneously to abuse system flaws. As of March 5th it was reported that at least 30,000 organizations in the U.S. – and hundreds of thousands worldwide – have backdoors installed which makes them vulnerable to future attacks, including ransomware.

Below are several links to recent products that have been shared by various ISACs/ISAOs, which are provided as an example of the type of information that is commonly shared via these organizations.

If organizations are interested in learning more about enhancing their cybersecurity resiliency through private-sector led information sharing, please reach out to the newly formed Cannabis ISAO at ben@cannabisisao.org 

Cannabinoid Research & Pharmacology: A Q&A with Dr. Linda Klumpers

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Dr. Linda Klumpers has a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. Originally from the Netherlands, she began much of her career in studying cannabis there. She now lives and works in the United States, where she has worked on a number of projects, started her own company and is continuing her research on cannabis as an effective medicine.

After studying neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam, she went on to train at the Centre for Human Drug Research and Leiden University Medical Center, where Dr. Klumpers obtained a clinical pharmacology degree and a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. She has been researching cannabinoids in humans since 2006. Dr. Klumpers co-authored a number of peer-reviewed cannabinoid publications and she has received five honors and awards for her work, including the BJCP Prize from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Dr. Linda Klumpers

In 2016, she moved to the United States and founded Cannify, an online tool that helps patients and clinicians with product matching and providing legitimate cannabis education based in sound science. In 2018, Dr. Klumpers joined forces with Dr. Michael Tagen, another clinical pharmacologist, to launch Verdient Science, a consulting partnership. Their work at Verdient Science includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies, among other areas of focus.

Right now, Dr. Klumpers is waiting to hear back from a grant application they submitted to study THC and CBD ratios for medical efficacy in chronic pain patients. We sat down with Dr. Klumpers to hear her story, what she is working on now and how she hopes to continue researching cannabis as an effective medicine.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell us about your background as a research scientist. How did you get involved in cannabis? 

Dr. Linda Klumpers: During my Ph.D. work, we studied the effects of so-called cannabinoid receptor antagonists that block the effects of THC – I prefer to say “we”, as research is always done by multiple people. The problem with studying these compounds in healthy volunteers is that you can’t observe acute effects, which means that you won’t measure any effect after a single dose. To circumvent this issue, we applied a trick and developed a ‘challenge test’: after you give the ‘invisible’ blocking compound, you stimulate the cannabinoid system by giving people THC. If the subjects don’t feel the effects of THC, you know that the blocker worked. One thing lead to another and we ended up studying various administration methods, such as intrapulmonal (via the lungs) with vaporization, oral and sublingual. We studied the behavior of cannabinoids in the body and how the body responded to them.

CIJ: Can you share some information on the projects you are working on? What is Cannify and what is Verdient Science?  

Dr. Klumpers: Cannify was founded in 2016 after I saw that too many people had opinions about cannabis that were more based on emotion than fact. Besides, I noticed that a majority of the scientific literature on cannabis pharmacology was left unnoticed and unapplied to the people getting exposed to cannabis, such as patients, the cannabis industry – that was in a very different stage at that time – healthcare providers and regulators. With my Ph.D. in cannabis pharmacology, I wanted to add a level of objectivity to cannabis education and research. Cannify’s goals are to understand the science of cannabis, and share this with others.

The way we do this is multi-fold:

  1. Cannify Quiz: Patients with an interest in cannabis often want to know the science about cannabis and their condition. Our quiz helps these people by asking in-depth questions and showing them relevant scientific literature in a personalized report. After that, an overview is given with products and product matching scores. Our account system allows users to track their progress over time. Product manufacturers, dispensaries and other companies can use the quiz for their websites and their stores to help out retail employees and save them time, and to receive insight with our analytics on customer desires and behavior. Needless to say, an educated customer is a better customer. It is important that customers come and leave stores well-informed.
  2. Education: Speaking of education, our website contains educational articles about everything cannabis: from plant to patient and from product to mechanism of action. We regularly publish educational quizzes for people to test their knowledge level. With a free Cannify account, you can find all of our educational quizzes and save your results. We also provide customized courses, and have educated a wide audience varying from industry professionals to CME-accredited courses for healthcare providers. On top of that, our educational videos in dispensaries (in collaboration with our partner, Enlighten) reach customers and retail employees.
  3. One of Cannify’s educational graphics, showing the difference between topical and transdermal product administration

    Research: To expand the knowledge on cannabis, performing and especially sharing research is essential. We have already performed and published some of Cannify’s results on descriptive statistics and effect prediction during conferences, as well as a review paper on cannabis therapeutics in a peer-reviewed journal and a book chapter. This year, we expect to co-publish the results of a survey in different sleep patient groups. We collaborated with the Centre of Excellence for Epilepsy and Sleep Medicine in the Netherlands on a peer-reviewed paper from which we expect new research to follow to benefit these patients. We have also co-submitted a grant to study THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients: fingers crossed! Another important next step is to test a healthcare provider-specific version of Cannify’s quiz in the clinic once COVID dies down. I want to add that after working in a clinical lab for many years, it is important to combine the results of clinical trials to what people do in real life, which is what we do with Cannify.

And here’s some information on Verdient Science:

Verdient Science is a consulting partnership I have with clinical pharmacologist Dr. Michael Tagen. We provide clinical and translational pharmacology expertise to improve the quality of product development & clinical testing. While both working as independent consultants, we decided from 2018 to start working together to offer better services. Since then, our work has been very variable and includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies to make them more efficient and cheaper, performed scientific due diligence and much more. When clients want additional services that are beyond our expertise, we are typically able to introduce them to various people per expertise area, or refer them to our partner companies, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV) with Dr. Markus Roggen, and Via Innovations with Dr. Monica Vialpando. A benefit of working with the same partners includes smooth handovers and the feeling of a one stop shop.

CIJ: How does Cannify match available products to consumer needs? Is there an algorithm you developed that matches moods or feelings to cannabinoids or chemical profiles?

Dr. Klumpers: That is a great question and the core of what we do! So back to the Cannify quiz: there are three steps:

  1. Users fill in questions;
  2. A personalized report is generated with the relevant science;
  3. The user gets a product overview with product matching scores.
Another Cannify educational graphic, showing THC distribution throughout the body over time

The report and the matching scores are generated using algorithms that are regularly updated. These algorithms are based on various data sources:

  1. Literature: There is a lot of available literature, and we make sure to select the most relevant and reliable studies;
  2. Raw data: There is only so much one can find in the literature, and lots is hidden in the raw data. Therefore, we piled up data from studies done at various research institutions, including the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University, and used them in our algorithms;
  3. Internal studies: From the thousands of users filling in their results, there is a lot of information that we should learn from. This feedback loop helps us to better understand how the lab relates to real life situations.

CIJ: The world of cannabis research has been historically stymied by red tape, DEA interference and a host of federal regulations. How have you managed to work through all that? Do you have a DEA license? What did it take to get it? 

Dr. Klumpers: Luckily, a majority of our research was and is done outside of the US. You still need to obtain the appropriate licenses, but I was perhaps lucky to have filled in every form very thoroughly and we got the licenses within months. The process is quite meticulous, as you need separate licenses for almost every step from manufacturing to administration. An additional complication is that our cannabis is not stored in our own building, but in the hospital pharmacy across the street, involving transport via the public road. Despite the roadblocks, including a legal procedure about this matter that was going on in parallel, I had no major issues getting our work done. For our research in the US, we were lucky to have been working with partners that already have the required license.

Also with publishing, I have never had an issue with the cannabis stigma. Generally, in my field of science, good quality science is very much welcomed and appreciated, and this was even before the time that there were four different cannabis-related journals, as is the case nowadays.

CIJ: Looking to the future, where do you hope to focus your research efforts? Where do you think the cannabis community should be focusing their efforts in the next 5-10 years?

Dr. Klumpers: Besides continuing to analyze the data generated from Cannify, I keep my fingers crossed for the grant application I mentioned earlier on THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients. Although we know that CBD is able to influence THC-induced effects, it is not known at what dosages, which ratios and how the effects are related to each other. For example: is CBD able to decrease certain side-effects of THC without decreasing pain-relieving effects?

Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are keyNext to that, I am also interested in other neurological and psychiatric disorders, and, of course, my Ph.D. love: the cannabinoid antagonists. Sadly, all the research efforts on this compound group were halted more than a decade ago. However, there is a renewed interest. I would love to help turn these compounds into effective and safe medicines.

Regarding the cannabis community: 5-10 years sounds really far away for an industry that is relatively new to many, but a lot has already changed since I started cannabis research more than 14 years ago and time has flown by. Some changes have been positive and others less so. Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are key. Many companies gather data and even publish them in peer-reviewed journals, but that does not always mean that the data are useful or that the studies were done well. Only a few minor changes to how and which data are gathered, and so much more can be done. What can help with achieving this is to let the right people do the right thing: many call themselves a ‘cannabis scientist’ or ‘cannabis expert’, but that does not mean anything. What has someone truly achieved and what is their exact expertise? A Ph.D. in chemistry is not going to help you in setting up effect studies, neither will I be able to improve your product’s shelf life or extraction yield. Getting the right people in the right place is key. Lastly: the cannabis community should stay critical. The length of one article in Cannabis Industry Journal wouldn’t be enough to lay out all the misconceptions that people have about cannabis. Make sure that those misconceptions do not live on and do not be afraid to admit you don’t know something, irrespective of the branch you work in: only then, can the cannabis community progress to the benefit of all.

What’s Going Down In The Danish Cannabis Market?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Despite the fact that the Danes are going to do something that is still verboten in Germany and many other European locales (namely allow a recreational trial), the overall bloom is off the first heady days of the cannabis rose here in Denmark.

Medical sales have stalled of late because of both supply (and in part CannTrust problems) and of course price in a market with a lot of cultivation enthusiasm, but also one which still imports its medical cannabis (although domestic production is coming online soon).

This is even more interesting of course given some ideas floating in the current Euro cannosphere – namely that Canadian funded, Danish based cultivators are or were planning on importing to both Germany and Poland this fall. In other words, low sales at home for expensive product that can be bought for less at the revived Christiana marketplace are not a market entry strategy that brings ballast to balance sheets. And while the rec market is coming (obviously), the trial is in early days yet.

Further, while the German market certainly presents an opportunity for higher priced cannabis coming out of Denmark (for now), that also will not last. And is certainly not the case in Poland.

For that reason, it is clear there is at least temporary trouble brewing in what some initially thought was going to be a European-based cannabis paradise. But that too, is so 2018.

A Few Numbers

The medical trial in Denmark is now entering the beginning of its third year as of 2020. There are, according to official estimates just over 4,000 legal patients. 34 companies have permits to cultivate cannabis, including all the usual suspects – starting with Canopy Growth, Aurora, Aphria, ICC (Wayland) and The Green Organic Dutchman, plus of course all the indie locals.

Put this in perspective and is it really any wonder why Aurora also just recently announced the halting of partly built construction in both Denmark and Canada this month?

aurora logoEspecially with problems in Poland, slower than expected legal sales in Germany and of course the disaster that is still the UK, this newest setback for the company is also not exactly unexpected. The only cannabis company, European or not, who benefitted from the recent NHS pivot on medical cannabinoids was the home-based GW Pharmaceuticals, albeit at lower negotiated prices as the total pool of patients is now increased with the new NICE guidelines.

Given all of these headwinds, even with a few export possibilities, the Danish market that supposedly offered a promised respite from the problems of the German one (certainly on the cultivation front), has run into a similar problem at point of prescription and sales.

Even Danish patient number growth is anaemic compared to Deutschland – which is, by all reports, not even close to considering a recreational trial in Berlin, Bremen or any other jurisdiction which has suggested the same.

With bulk, high-grade production coming online, there is clearly going to be a regulated cannabis market in Denmark. How the decisions about who will qualify for medical will be made in the future is another question. And one that certainly the larger producers at least, are responding to in kind.

The Winds of Change

Given the amount of compliant cannabis now in the pipeline for the continent (and not just domestically) it will be interesting to see how 2020 shapes up. However, no matter how still sluggish the numbers, another domestic cannabis market has begun to come into its own as the continent moves forward on the issue generally.