Change control, when it comes to quality management systems in manufacturing, processing and producing products such as cannabis edibles or vape pens, is a process where changes to a product or production line are introduced in a controlled and coordinated manner. The purpose of change control process management is to reduce the possibility of unneeded changes disrupting a system, introducing errors or increasing costs unnecessarily.
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, is developing a new standard guide that will cover change control process management for the cannabis and hemp market. The guide is being developed through the D37 cannabis committee.
The WK77590 guide will establish a standardized method for change control process management for cannabis companies so that they can document and track important decisions in manufacturing and quality systems.
For example, an edibles manufacturer would utilize change control process management if they want to use a different type of processing equipment or introduce a new shape or design of their product. Without change control process management, that edibles producer might switch to a new piece of processing equipment without knowing that it requires more energy or uses different raw materials, thus making production unexpectedly more expensive.
While that’s a very cursory example, the premise is simple: Before you undergo a change to your process, plan it out, analyze it, review it, test it out, implement it and make sure it works.
Change control process management can often be summarized in six steps:
Maribel Colón, quality assurance consultant and vice chair of the ASTM subcommittee on cannabis quality management systems, says producers and testing labs will benefit the most from the guide. “As the cannabis industry grows, the quality, expectations, and control challenges grow within,” says Colón. “The creation and implementation of this standard guide will increase cannabis business efficiency and minimize risk, time, and potential cost of poorly managed changes.”
According to a press release, ASTM International is open to collaboration on this as well. Specifically, they are looking for professionals with change control who might be interested in helping advance and develop this guide.
As an experiential marketer that works with a lot of vice-oriented brands, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the rise of spirits in the US – a history marked by ingenuity in the face of heavy restrictions, clashing social norms, crime and political ideals. Since then, those same qualities have emerged in the story of cannabis and how, against all odds, it has recently begun to push its way into the mainstream. But on the path to legalization, cannabis can also learn a lot from the spirits industry about what not to do.
For example, when laws governing the spirits industry were written in the post-Prohibition 1930s, the federal government wanted to create an equitable landscape. So, they created a 3-tier system – manufacturers or importers must sell to wholesalers, wholesalers must then sell to retailers and retailers sell to us. They figured that keeping manufacturing interests separate from wholesale and retail interests would keep any large company from owning an entire supply chain, muscling out smaller competitors.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Imagine the consequences of massive companies like Diageo or AB InBev using their money to pay bars and liquor stores to only stock their brands and not competitors. Add on the Tied House Laws, which basically says an entity in one of the three categories cannot have an ownership stake in any of the others, and you get a seemingly even-handed marketplace.
In truth, it makes it almost impossible to be disruptive or for new brands to break through. Other industries have innovated by cutting out the middleman and selling direct-to-consumer – something that simply cannot happen in alcohol (minus the wineries and distilleries that can sell direct out of their tasting rooms). Also, now distributors are so consolidated that there are only one or two big distribution companies in each state. So, as a company trying to bring a new product to market, you have to get into one of these highly selective and competitive distributors if you are going to be successful – a challenging ask for a small, independent brand.
Now, imagine that same challenge coming to the cannabis space. With legalization around the corner, the adult use (as opposed to medical use) cannabis industry could easily look like alcohol in the rules that will be set up.
Right now, adult use manufacturers can sell their products to dispensaries directly. Some use a distributor, but there is no nationwide mandate to – which is probably for the best. If a distributor isn’t a requirement, it forces brands to offer something new to differentiate themselves. It will spark innovation, rather than add an extra profit margin that will get rolled into the final price – a price that is already higher than it should be due to the murky federal legal status. Adding complexity and cost will only make it harder to compete with the illicit market. For the industry to grow, costs for illicit cannabis can’t be lower than its legal counterpart.
Of course, we are in the nascent stages of legalization here and we’ve come a long way culturally and technologically since the 30s. But remember, the rules governing alcohol were written nearly 100 years ago along with the passage of the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Startlingly, those laws haven’t changed that much since they were written, so any mistakes made now in dealing with the cannabis industry could last for a long time.
A new way forward
What the cannabis industry needs is a new model for the adult use/recreational space, keeping some of what exists in the alcohol industry but without ever mandating use of a distributor – the middle tier. This would mean keeping Tied House Laws in place and applying them to cannabis so that a manufacturer could never hold an interest in a retailer, while still allowing them to sell directly to dispensaries and to consumers. Currently, some states allow for vertical integration, which would change under Tied House Laws.
This should be pretty simple, since most states are already separating licenses by type of activity (manufacturer, retailer, etc.) and it would promote competition while bringing the widest array of products possible to each consumer. Also, it would prevent any behemoths from squeezing out the up and comers.
Of course, some retail license allowances could be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, I would carve out an exception that growers/manufacturers could sell direct to consumers through a single “tasting room” at their brand home. This is similar to the operations of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries. It would encourage education for consumers, and provide great opportunities for brands to show why their products are better or unique.
Given the technology and logistics solutions available to businesses in a 21st century economy, mandated distributors create a sometimes-unnecessary barrier to an already efficient supply chain. If mandated, prices will inflate to cover added margin, thus making it harder to bring consumers over from the legacy market to the legal one. I’m not against the idea of a distributor – they can add tremendous value, but the mandate would seriously curtail industry growth.
Direct-to-retail and direct-to-consumer sales are necessary for the economic health and growth of the industry. Without this, using alcohol as a cautionary tale, at some point the middle tier cannabis brands will inevitably begin to wield an outsized amount of power. We are living at a time where innovation is going to be the key to explosive growth in the cannabis industry, so it’s important to do everything possible to let the market find its way without falling into a century-old trap.
No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.
Let’s consider the following situations:
Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’
Document the issue?
Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?
Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:
You don’t document the issue
I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.
“It’s not a big deal”
“It was a one off”
“The glasses probably broke in transit”
“They are cheap and easily replaceable”
“It’s not worth the time”
In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.
Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?
You perform an investigation
Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?
Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.
Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.
For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.
Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.
What does a CAPA program do?
The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:
An effective tool for investigating the true root cause
First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.
System for continuous improvement
Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.
This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!
Key inputs in a CAPA system
If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs.
Information that feeds into your CAPA system:
Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.
This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…
Laboratory test results
This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.
Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.
Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.
Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?
One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.
Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?
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.
Large-scale agricultural practices can take a toll on soil health leading to inefficiencies over the long term. Harvey’s All Naturals is a Colorado-based company specializing in premium farm-to-table full spectrum CBD products. Harvey’s gets all of its hemp from Boot Ranch Farms, an off-grid sustainable hemp farm in Southern Colorado supplied by an artesian well.
We spoke with Harvey Craig, CEO Harvey’s All Naturals and co-founder of Boot Ranch Farms, to learn more about the benefits of regenerative agriculture, how he thinks about soil health, and how they produce their CBD products. Harvey started Boot Ranch Farms in 2014 after the passing of the Farm Bill and Harvey’s All Naturals followed shortly thereafter.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis and hemp industry?
Harvey Craig: I got involved at a very young age, as the youngest of eight kids, seven of which are boys, I was introduced to cannabis on the marijuana side first. As an engineer through the years, I’ve always been involved in creating very efficient growing systems for cannabis.
In the early 2000s, I learned about CBD a little bit through experimenting with marijuana strains to help a friend who had Parkinson’s and also through the research performed by Raphael Mechoulem, an organic chemist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. In 2014, when the Farm Bill made hemp legal, I dropped everything and went into it because I felt “this is what I need to be doing.”
Green: What is sustainable farming mean to you?
Craig: Sustainable farming to me means putting soil health and responsible natural growing practices at the forefront of all agriculture – regenerative processes for soil, in a nutshell. To me, soil health is one of the biggest problems in the United States right now. By regenerating and making our soils living, healthy and with a rich nutrient base we create an ecosystem that is good for human health and health all around.
Green: What do you mean specifically when you say, “soil health?”
Craig: Soil is living. A good natural soil has a living microbiotic structure inside it. There’s a living habitat that forms inside our soil over the years. Large scale agriculture in many cases has depleted or killed this living structure through readily accessible fertilizers and tilling practices.
Farmers understand the soil. There are practices we can undertake that are helping our living soils and helping the microbiotic habitat to thrive. Practices such as no-till technologies, rotating crops, using cover crops, not being a monocrop, responsible water use, healthy fertilizer and pesticide technologies, minimal processing, the list goes on and on…
When we talk about this thing called sustainability, I think it’s very important that we understand there are two sides of cannabis. There’s the marijuana and then there’s the hemp. We can’t put those two together – they’re governed very differently. Hemp became legal through the Farm Bill and is governed by the Department of Agriculture. Hemp is just like any other crop out there really. That means we can mix hemp in with other crops. It’s very much like corn and other crops in how it’s grown on a large scale, industrial basis.
Marijuana on the other hand is governed by each state’s regulatory commission. Those regulations make it very hard to mix in with general agriculture. So, when it comes to the marijuana side, unfortunately, it must be a monocrop. Most marijuana is grown in pots and pots are fine. However, if you are just growing in a pot and then throwing your soil away, that is not very sustainable. As it sits right now, in the marijuana industry there is really no sustainability, unfortunately. The energy use for the lights in indoor grows, for example, creates a huge carbon footprint and load on the electrical grid. I’m not trying to put indoor growing down, but that’s the way it is. The only way I foresee sustainability in the marijuana side of cannabis is to let loose a little bit on regulation and allow it to become a part of normal agricultural processes.
Green: What is it about tilling that degrades the soil quality?
Craig: When we till our soil, we’re turning the organisms in the soil up and we’re allowing the sun to dry them out. If it’s not done properly, you kill that soil structure.
Now, these little microorganisms in our soil create a healthy soil, but it doesn’t happen instantly, this takes years to create. Nobody has the time anymore, everybody’s “go go go” and “make it happen instantly”. So that gets destroyed. Now we have all these dead soils that everybody’s growing in and growers turn to factory-produced fertilizers with readily available nutrients.
When we are talking about cannabis, we can’t just look at monocropping. If you grow one crop in the same soil over and over, the soil is going to get depleted. One of the main things that we deplete is nitrogen and growing other crops, such as clover, can replenish that nitrogen. Growing cover crops protects the soil from the sun, creates nitrogen for the soil, and holds the water within the soil.
Instead of tilling, you can rotate with crops like root vegetables, radishes and other things that have deep root structures. Instead of tearing them up, just let them degrade organically and go back into the soil. Those deep root structures will also help aerate the soil.
Green: What is a farmer’s first approach?
Craig: Farmers want their land to be healthy. True farmers have a oneness with the earth and understand the earth. The farmer’s first approach keeps the farmer involved in creating new technologies for agriculture.
Green: Let’s say you’re a farmer that has land or recently acquired land that’s been industrially grown upon. How would you take that land and start fresh with a regenerative process?
Craig: The first thing you have to do is take soil samples and send them to a lab. That’ll tell you what you’re working with. Also, knowing a little history about the land helps as well. Was it used for grazing? Was it used for growing corn? What was it used for? Were organic practices used?
Then, there are many things you can do to start to regenerate your soil, but it takes time. In many situations, people don’t want to take that time. But what we’re learning is, the people and the farmers that do take that time often take a hit monetarily for the first two or three years. After that, once that structure is maintained, the natural health of the soil can be replenished. Crops will grow better, and they won’t spend as much money on fertilizers and pesticides in the long run because the microbiotic structure in the soil is creating a healthy ecosystem. When we destroy that ecosystem, it doesn’t come back easily or quickly. If there’s a little bit there, it can be regenerated with the right practices.
Green: I understand that the Boot Ranch is an off-the-grid farm. What was your motivation for either going off-grid or remaining off-grid?
Craig: I have a background in alternative energies and engineering, and when creating Boot Ranch Farms there was a lot that went into the sustainability side of it. The farm is extremely far away from the power grid for starters. So, an investment in solar for electricity was money well spent. My thought process was, why would I invest in bringing the wires in when I could actually save money and resources by creating a very efficient solar system and not be tied to the grid? Our farm is self-sustaining without being connected to any grid, which is one of the main reasons for remaining off-grid.
Green: I understand the farm is supplied by an artesian well. How do you monitor your water quality?
Craig: Well, we’re very fortunate. Existing natural water quality is one of the main reasons we decided to grow in the San Luis Valley. When you’re starting something new, you have to look at your financial side of things. Investing in a hemp farm is very different than the marijuana side because you won’t make as much money per pound of product sold. So, you have to watch your budget and not spend too much, or you’re never going to make a profit.
The self-sustaining artisanal well and water rights were existing on the property. There’s no pumping required for it and the water goes into a 10,000-gallon holding tank, where we can monitor and test for water quality. In order to water our plants, we use a pump/drip water system that supplies water to each individual plant. It’s very efficient compared to most watering systems out there, such as flood irrigation or pivots, and really doesn’t use a heck of a lot of water.
Green: Are you growing in open air or greenhouses?
Craig: We grow in two 3,000 square feet industrial-grade greenhouses at Boot Ranch Farms. Greenhouse One has all the bells and whistles including heating, cooling, light deprivation, supplemental lighting, automated controls and more. That greenhouse allows us to mimic Mother Nature a little bit. We can get up to six harvests throughout the course of the year in that greenhouse. However, in reality, we get about four.
In addition, we have a second greenhouse that is set about 100 feet away and set up to keep plants growing on mother nature’s cycle. We can move groups of mature plants to Greenhouse One after each harvest for multiple flowering cycles. Lastly, between greenhouses, we have a 10,000 square foot courtyard that’s protected with shade cloth and other things to help protect those plants from the elements. In late October, all remaining plants in both greenhouses and the courtyard become mature and ready to harvest due to shorter days created by mother nature.
Green: Do you insure your crops?
Craig: We have not. Hemp is a new industry and we have not found good crop insurance.
Green: Do you cultivate your own genetics?
Craig: We work with some other companies here in Colorado to provide genetics. Consistent genetics are extremely important on the hemp side because we need to trust that they are going to keep the THC levels down. On the marijuana side, that part doesn’t matter so much
There are different strains that have been created that I absolutely love, and I’ve tried to stick with them and stay with that seed stock. One of them is called The Wife and the other Cherry Wine. Most of the best hemp I have found is based upon the Cherry strain. People are always looking for high CBD. I’d rather have a lower CBD level in the 8% to 12% range. Something higher in the 14% to 20% range has a higher chance of producing a product with more than the legal amount of THC.
Green: Is Harvey’s All Naturals fully supplied by Boot Ranch Farms?
Craig: Yes, it is. There are a lot of things that go into a quality product and we focus on that at Boot Ranch. We’re small, not trying to compete with the large-scale market. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the products out on the market come from large-scale industrial hemp grows. We focus on long-term medicinal value and grow very high-quality hemp and we try not to degrade it in any way, shape or form throughout processing.
Green: How many square feet or acres is the Boot Ranch Farm?
Craig: Boot Ranch farm is about 260 acres. We only grow on less than three of it.
Green: What’s your extraction process?
Craig: We use cold alcohol extraction. We do not distill to separate our alcohol from the hemp oil. We use what’s called a roto vape. That cold processing preserves our terpenes, it preserves our full-spectrum cannabis oil profile and doesn’t fully decarboxylate our CBDa. We want a large CBDa percentage because there are many things that CBDa is good for when it comes to long term medicinal reasons.
Green: Are you processing your own hemp?
Craig: No, we sub that part of it out. What I’ve learned in this industry is three main parts: 1- the farming; 2- the extraction, and; 3- the product line. Those are three very separate processes and require specialized expertise within themselves. Each is a large investment and it’s very hard to do it all. I decided to work with other people on the extraction part of it. They have the expertise, and we pay them well to do what they do.
Green: Okay, great. And then any final words for Ag Day?
Craig: Support your small farmer in nutrient-rich agricultural products.
Green: Great. That concludes the interview, Harvey!
Editor’s Note: While CIJ typically omits the word “marijuana” where possible due to antiquated nomenclature and prejudicial connotations, we understand the legal distinction between cannabis containing THC and hemp requires the use of the word when referencing federal government policies and legislative language.
Despite the rapid evolution of the cannabis industry, the assurance of safe manufacturing practices remains unclear.Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have imposed significant hurdles for cannabis operators to remain on the “right side of the law.” Therefore, manufacturers of both hemp and marijuana products have been left to figure things out on their own, or choose to ignore existing guidance because the lack of federal oversight allows them to do so. Inconsistent regulation on manufacturing, packaging, labeling and testing of cannabis products offers the potential for unsubstantiated, non-scientific and often times blatantly false claims on product safety and efficacy.
Science vs. Law
Hemp and marijuana are both species of the Cannabis family, Cannabaceae. Genetically they are identical but are arbitrarily defined by the presence of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While science does not differentiate between hemp and marijuana, the law does.
The hemp industry declared a small victory with the passing of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill). Under this bill universities and state agriculture departments were allowed to grow hemp under state law. Additionally, “industrial hemp” was officially defined by establishing the legal limit of THC at 0.3% on a dry weight basis. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill), under the guidance of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), took things a few steps further by authorizing the cultivation of hemp and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the CSA. The bill however provides no language that mandates the safe manufacture of hemp-derived consumer goods. The 2018 version also preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). To the surprise of most, listing cannabidiol (CBD), even hemp-derived, as an ingredient on consumer product labels remains illegal under the bill. Furthermore, CBD product manufacturers are not protected under the current regulations. Since 2015 the FDA has issued warning letters to firms marketing CBD products as dietary supplements and/or foods, and in December 2018, FDA declared it illegal to introduce food containing CBD (or THC) into interstate commerce, regardless if it is derived from hemp. To date, the only FDA approved CBD product is GW Pharmaceutical’s Epidiolex.
Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the CSA. Thirty-six (36) states have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana programs, and now 14 states have approved adult use programs, with New Jersey passing legislation on February 22, 2021. However, the industry has seen minimal movement toward mandating GMP requirements in the marijuana market. Only a handful of medical programs require manufacturers to follow GMP. Furthermore, the requirements are inconsistent between states and the language in the regulations on how to approach GMP implementation is vague and disjointed. This fragmented guidance supports the complexity and difficulty of enforcing a coherent, standardized and reliable approach to safe manufacturing practices.
What is GMP and Why Should You Care?
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are a system for ensuring that products are consistently manufactured and controlled according to quality standards and regulatory guidelines. The implementation of a GMP compliant program ensures consumer health and safety, allows manufacturers to understand the intended use of their products, allows manufacturers to defend product specifications as being appropriate, considers the risks to vulnerable populations and minimizes overall business risk. In a nutshell, GMP equals product safety and quality, and defines the responsibilities of the manufacturer to ensure consumers are protected from the distribution of unsafe and ineffective products. Currently, the GMP “landscape” in the cannabis space is complicated. The various “flavors” (food, dietary supplements, cosmetics and drugs/devices) of GMP leave many confused and frustrated when making the decision to implement GMP. Confusion is a result of unclear regulatory requirements as well as operators not fully understanding how to classify or designate the end use of their product(s). Implementing an effective GMP program requires proper planning (both short and long term), financial commitment and qualified resources.
Where Should You Start?
As the regulatory landscape continues to evolve and mature in the cannabis space, your business model must consider GMP implementation if you wish to remain successful and sustainable.
Before you can implement GMP you must first understand what GMP regulations apply to the intended use of your product(s). Are you manufacturing food, beverages or dietary supplements? Get acquainted with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) on GMP.
Conduct a Gap Assessment
A gap assessment allows you to determine your deficiencies in relation to GMP compliance. The assessment should include, but is not limited to facility design, equipment design, supply chain, risk management and employee training.
Develop an Action Plan
Once the gap assessment is complete a comprehensive action plan will be developed to map out the steps required to achieve GMP compliance. The action plan should follow the SMART Goal principles:
Specific (simple, well-defined)
Attainable (achievable, agreed upon)
Relevant (resource-based, reasonable and realistic)
Timely (time-based, defined due dates)
The plan will include prioritized deliverables, due dates and allocated resources in order to strategically plan and execute and complete the required tasks.
Schedule a Mock GMP Inspection
A mock inspection verifies that the action plan was adequately executed. Hire an experienced resource familiar with related GMPs and QMS to conduct the inspection. A successful mock inspection is a perfect litmus test if the end goal is to achieve GMP certification.
Cannabis manufacturers that ignore the obvious progression toward an FDA-like industry will not survive the long game. Those that embrace the momentum and properly plan to mitigate product and business risk – those who demonstrate integrity and are truly in this space to ensure safe, effective and quality products to consumers will come out on top, gain credibility and secure brand recognition.
21 CFR Part 111, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packaging, Labeling, or Holding Operations for Dietary Supplements.
21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
21 CFR Part 210, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Processing, Packing, or Holding of Drugs; General.
21 CFR Part 211, Current Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
21 CFR Part 700, Subchapter G-Cosmetics.
21 CFR Part 820, Subchapter H-Medical Devices; Quality System Regulation
Congressional Research Service, FDA Regulation of Cannabidiol (CBD) Products, June 12, 2019.
United States Food and Drug Administration-Warning Letters, Current Content as of 02/19/2021.
The culture of the cannabis industry is filled with passion that many envy, and for valid reasons. The roots of the cannabis plant go back thousands of years. As of this writing, there are no documented human deaths that were caused by a phytocannabinoid overdose. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Before breaking ground, fundraising, proper facility design, competitive application and permitting requirements are just the start. Once operating, businesses struggle to stay current with regulations that continue to evolve. Cannabis cultivators struggle to scale while mitigating pest infestations, which is a part of life in the conventional agricultural industry. A lack of consistent products frustrates consumers, while regulators and policy makers continue to struggle on the best way to regulate a commodity that has seemingly endless demand. The reality is dizzying!
However, amidst all of the challenges and opportunities, a continually overlooked tool stands out: a Quality Management System (QMS). Merriam-Webster defines a system as “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole.”
A QMS documents processes, procedures and responsibilities that ultimately direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements as well as continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency. In other words – it steers innovation through the collection of data while ensuring products are safe for the consumer. For further reading, the American Society for Quality (ASQ), now over 70 years old, is an excellent resource and provider of resources and formal training programs that are recognized and revered around the world.
Step 1: Define your stakeholder requirements
This all starts with knowing your stakeholder (e.g., customer, regulatory body) requirements. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with your customer; at a fundamental level, they expect safe, consistent and reliable products that impart a certain experience.
How does that translate into specifications? Let’s look at them one at a time.
What does “safe” mean? For an edible, safe means the product is free of physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Knowing what potential impurities could be in your product requires understanding your raw materials (inputs) and the manufacturing process. To take a deeper dive, some of the aspects of safety and quality, product specifications and testing considerations are discussed in this recent Cannabis Industry Journal article by Dr. Roggen and Mr. Skrinskas here.
What does “consistent” mean? This builds off and complements the safety profile. It could mean a consistent fill level, an acceptable range of cannabinoid concentration, and so on. For example, in the US Pharmacopeia’s peer-reviewed article about quality attributes of cannabis inflorescence (commonly known as flower or bud), they recommend 20% as the acceptable variance in cannabinoid content. For a product labeled as having 25% THC, the product will actually test to between 20% and 30%. This may be surprising, and discomforting for some, but the reality is that products on the market consistently fail to meet label claims.
What does “reliable” mean? That could mean that you always have inventory of certain products on the shelves at your dispensary. Defining “always” as a SMART goal – perhaps it means that you will have your top 3 products in stock at least 90% of the time. Customers need to feel like they can rely on your business to provide them with the products they want. Take the time to capture the data on what your customers want and work to satisfy their needs and you’ll watch your business really accelerate.
Step 2: Build your processes to meet these expectations
This is where your written standard operating procedures (SOPs), forms and records come into play. Your SOPs serve to memorialize your operations for consistency. Most SOPs in the cannabis industry are not written by the actual operators of a process. Rather, they are written by the legal and compliance team without review by the operators to confirm that what they are stating reflects operational reality. The audience needs to be the operators. Without effective SOPs that are utilized by your employees, your business will struggle to meet the established specifications. Cannabis businesses in Colorado, the oldest regulated adult-use cannabis market in the United States, continue to see 1 in 8 of their products fail final product testing! Cannabis businesses that understand their processes, document them in SOPs and have records to prove they follow their SOPs (see Step 3) are able to reduce errors that ultimately lead to costly rework and product failures.
Step 3: Monitor and improve
You have your requirements, you have your process, but how do you know that they are being adhered to? By the time you have results from a third-party lab, it’s too late. Look internally. Records and logs that show preventive maintenance was performed, room and canopy temperature and humidity checks, inventory reports, production records, extraction equipment report and employee training records shouldn’t be filled out only to be filed away. These records are data, which is your most valuable tool. Unfortunately, records are one of the most overlooked assets in today’s cannabis business. A team independent from operations (typically a Quality Unit) should be regularly reviewing these for inconsistencies and trends that can alert you to catastrophic failures before they occur.
Initially, the additional expenditure and learning curve may make this seem like an added burden, but keep in mind that succeeding in today’s cannabis industry requires long-term customer retention. By biting off one piece at a time, you can slowly implement a QMS that will improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and ensure your brand is a staple for years to come. Remember, quality and compliance is a journey, not a “set it and forget it” situation.
The definition of a Quality Management System includes ‘continuous improvement’. Look forward to a future article which will discuss the importance of tools like a CAPA Program – Corrective Action Preventive Action (which all cannabis license holders in Colorado are required to have in place as of January 1, 2021) and how they complete your QMS, keeping you compliant and mitigating your business risks!
Anyone owning and operating a cannabis business should know the value of proactive compliance management to operate successfully. For consumers, the view into the world “behind the budtending counter” is limited to the cool looking packaging, test results and the overall “vibe” of products they may want to try.
In our experience, as the oldest cannabis compliance firm, we’ve audited and visited hundreds of facilities and have seen the proverbial “Wizard behind the curtain”. We know “how the sausage is made.” And, as one can expect, it’s not always as glamorous in the back of the house as it appears on the shelf.
As markets expand and people buy into existing or new cannabis businesses, amid a world of thousands of competing companies and products, consumers need to ask themselves: “What do I know about the companies and products I consume?”
More and more, the question of consistent quality keeps coming up in the cannabis industry. Recalls are still ongoing in the news as products continually fail testing for potency and contamination.
Colorado, for example, is considered the shining jewel of the US industry in terms of experience, quality and integrity. However, consumers may be shocked to learn that a majority of dispensaries in the state do not operate by stringent SOPs, nor do they verify packaging and labeling for compliance, or review test results of products coming in and going out of their shops.
Starting January 1, 2021, these retailers finally have to develop and implement recall procedures in the event of contaminated products or cannabis that is causing adverse side effects. Later this year, vape pens will finally have their vapor tested instead of just the concentrate therein.
These liabilities or lack of compliance infrastructure may very well be a ticking time bomb no consumer in their right mind would want to deal with.
Bad Product/Brand Experience
Non-compliance and inconsistency on the part of operators translates directly into negative experiences for consumers. Whether its consuming a product that tastes like chlorophyll or enjoying a product the first time only to find a completely different experience the next time around, consumers experience the cost of non-compliance the most.
Beyond products, most consumers recognize their brand experience when shopping for products. Since the invention of Weedmaps, customers have always expressed their like or dislike for particular dispensaries and delivery services. Operators know these reviews from a customer’s experience can make or break their business and brand.
We always tell cannabis operators that a brand is a double-edged sword. As easily as it can strike through competitors, it can just as easily damage one’s own business.
Examples include SweetLeaf and Kushy Punch whose brands, once well-known and popular, are now synonymous with the worst of the worst given their histories of non-compliance and shut downs.
For consumers, finding consistent, quality products at a fair price is often the most important consideration to avoid the cost of a bad experience with cannabis. For visitors or first-time consumers, this could mean the difference between trying cannabis again or deciding it’s simply not for them.
Contamination & Illness
The worst-case scenario for consumers, especially patients, is the cost of consuming contaminated products or otherwise having adverse effects from the use of cannabis. While cannabis itself is one of the least harmful substances known to man, contaminated cannabis can be dangerous or deadly.
In the early days of the industry and in many emerging markets with poor to no oversight, these lessons are learned most severely. From the use of non-commercial washing machines being used for water-based extracts that tested positive for E. coli to recalled products ladened with Eagle 20 (which contains the harmful pesticide known as Myclobutanil), the industry has been reactive to safety measures and complying with best practices.
Still, some states persist with limited to no testing and simply label products with a warning to consumers that they are using cannabis at their own risk without testing for safety or efficacy.
Most consumers may be shocked to know that most cannabis companies do not adhere to good agricultural practices or good manufacturing practices (GAP/GMP) to ensure consistent quality and safety standards in similar industries such as nutraceuticals and food manufacturing.
Patients already weakened by disease states – including auto-immune disorders – are most at risk and understand all too well the costs of hospitalization, medical bills and loss of quality of life. For the average adult user, these risks are the same and there is often little to no recourse with the dispensary or product manufacturers if the product slips through contamination testing because of the non-compliance of product validation on flower or infused products.
For companies, outdated and inaccurate SOPs as well as production batches are the only line of defense to protect the company from product liability lawsuits filed by consumers in the event of contamination and illness. Most cannabis companies do not manage this aspect of their business effectively and simply assume they are sufficiently compliant without proactively measuring such compliance and adjusting operations as necessary.
Consumers would do well to remember that the modern industry is infantile in its development compared to other heavily regulated industries. Cannabis companies are babies learning to crawl while major food and beverage, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, and alcohol and tobacco industries are far ahead of the game. The US industry, is arguably, already behind the compliance curve comparative to other nations already placing stricter regulations and standards on licensees.
For customers, this can be a confusing experience given that no two batches of flowers will taste the same let alone give a consumer exactly the same effect.
Already, customers are learning Sativa and Indica are imaginary cultural terms to describe generalized characteristics of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain which produces a variety of effects – despite state limitations on labeling these active ingredients.
Vape pens are under increasing scrutiny as regulators discover long-term effects of vape use from the tobacco industry causing EVALI in consumers and being deemed as dangerous. As with anything new, the data and science simply aren’t there to truly tell customers what the effects may be over the long run. It has taken decades for tobacco, as an example, to go from doctor-recommended to carcinogenic.
Similarly, Big Cannabis of the future may be facing similar concerns that aren’t being warned about currently on their products and consumers could face unknown long-term consequences. In no way is this a condemnation of cannabis and early research shows cannabis is much safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
The point is to emphasize that over the long run, compliance is key to tracking the consistency and safety of products to avoid long-term liability and costs on consumers. Consumers would be wise to gravitate towards compliant brands and companies that focus on consistent quality and safety to minimize potential long-term negative impacts and costs.
Accountability & Transparency
Customers must first understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what as it applies to cannabis and the cannabis products they consume. This can vary between states from vertically integrated models to horizontal models which allow for independent businesses to buy and sell cannabis between each other.
In the case of cannabis, the restrictions on METRC and other state “seed to sale” tracking systems make it nearly impossible for customers to return products and unclear on how to file complaints.
METRC and other seed to sale systems dictate that dispensaries must be able to track originating sources of cannabis back to another licensed facility. As such, once the consumer buys a faulty vape pen, for example, it’s gone from the dispensary inventory. Bringing it back in physically creates non-compliance issues for the dispensary as they cannot virtually account for the physical addition back into inventory.
No one ever said making sausage was a pretty or easy process. That’s why most consumers don’t want to think about how it’s done.
This example is a simple one to showcase the importance of compliance in the cannabis business and the complexities businesses must go through to operate. What is more applicable and important for consumers to understand is how non-compliance and inconsistency can affect them negatively – beyond messy fingers from leaky vape carts.
These types of unexpected issues represent significant costs for cannabis operators in recalls, fines, lawsuits and fees which is what most people think the “costs of non-compliance” mean.
However, and in addition to the literal cost mandated by regulation, there are the costs owners don’t think about: in the time and fees charged by the professionals to solve these issues, the time and stress spent on production, the increase or decrease in supply, mitigating product liability, and brand recognition and damage due to poor quality or recalls.
All of these factors simply drive up the costs of products for consumers and decrease the reliability of finding consistent, quality products and brands that customers can count on.
As we always say at iComply:
“It is always more cost-effective to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to operational cannabis compliance management.”
Consumers would be wise to recognize which companies are proactive in managing their compliance. And companies would be wise to get ahead of these customer costs by being the proactively compliant companies that consumers want and need.
The cannabis industry is growing so quickly that even COVID-19 can’t slow it down. Before the pandemic, the industry amassed $13.6 billion in U.S. legal cannabis sales in 2019 – a figure that is expected to more than double to $30 billion in the next five years, according to New Frontier Data. In states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use, dispensaries have been deemed necessary, essential businesses – especially when it comes to calming stress and anxiety in our ever-changing times.
Cannabis legalization and newly budding dispensaries have expanded across the U.S., which may come with an unfortunate counterpart – a higher incidence of crime. Despite lower prices in states that have legalized cannabis, as compared to states where it is still illegal, theft has run rampant across grow operations, warehouses and, most often, dispensaries.
Dispensaries can be targeted more frequently. Robbers may perceive them as an easy target, because they are businesses that have larger amounts of cash on hand. Many dispensaries only accept cash because payment processors and financial institutions aren’t willing to work with them. This is primarily because cannabis is still deemed an illegal substance under federal law, and the actions of financial institutions are governed by federal, not state, laws. Once the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is approved, cannabis businesses will be able to work more easily with banks, in turn reducing the amount of cash on site and erasing the dollar signs in opportunistic thieves’ eyes.
However, cash isn’t the only high thieves seek when they break into dispensaries. There’s also the product itself. Protecting it – and providing peace of mind to the facilities’ owners and occupants – is a concern for dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses. Robbers are motivated by the opportunity to make even more fast cash through reselling the product found onsite.
To eliminate such easy targets, security requirements for the cannabis industry are a necessity. They are also involved, complicated, and vary from state to state. A number of security specifications apply between state laws and local ordinances. Inventory must be properly surveilled and managed at all stages of transportation and storage. Any discrepancies in inventory can result in large fines and other penalties. To aid in understanding security compliances, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a national trade association, recommends that start-ups obtain attorneys to guide businesses through their state’s laws and regulations.
This is why, especially for new business owners, it is critical to consider the best, most advanced security solutions – especially when it comes to doors and points of egress – that are easily integrated into buildings during the design phase. These solutions protect the products, properties, and people throughout the cannabis supply chain.
Understanding State Security Regulations While there are no federally recognized security requirements for the cannabis industry, there are similar requirements across all states that have legalized cannabis, including:
Maintaining strict access control throughout the facility – this is especially important for grow operations and warehouses
Functional alarm systems
Documented standard operating procedures
Video surveillance systems – many states mandate very precise requirements, such as length of storage time and even video resolution specifications
Notifying appropriate regulatory agencies immediately or within a strict timeframe after a security incident or theft
Securing all records and record storage
While these are common, state-mandated security requirements, it is critically important to know and understand all rules, regulations, and laws concerning the industry within the business’s specific state. Making sure the business is compliant with all aspects of state laws for security and preventing violations, including the hefty financial penalties that can accompany them, is key.
States require cannabis facilities to implement sophisticated security features for several reasons. One of the most obvious is the fact that the industry supplies a high-value product and is a cash-intensive business. Integrating security features into the building can be a challenging task for architects and designers. To help tackle these challenges, manufacturers have introduced products to the cannabis industry, creating easier, more effective and aesthetically pleasing security solutions.
Integrated Designs For High Level Security Security shouldn’t be a constraint when considering design aesthetics. Certain elements can be discretely tucked away, including cameras and security doors by way of specifying a concealed rolling door, conveniently disguised in the ceiling during operating hours. These doors can even close under alarm eliminating the need for manual intervention. Other security measures, such as bullet resistant glass, are hidden in plain sight.
Untrustworthy employees, smash-and-grab thefts or meticulously planned heists mean secure building design is of the utmost importance. In order to have the most effective security, there needs to be design vision – a clear intent for incorporating advanced security into the facility, whether visible or not.
Suggested security measures include video surveillance around the outdoor perimeter of the property as well as inside the facility. Physical barriers, such as specialized entrance locking systems – including fingerprint-scanning biometric technology – and security doors that may also include intrusion detection and automatic closure systems are recommended. All systems may be paired with 24/7 visual monitoring by security personnel.
Many state regulations also require restricted access to specific areas within dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses, with employee names and activities logged for reference. These necessary measures aid in inventory monitoring and control, further reducing the likelihood of internal theft.
When specifying building security, it’s important for architects to consider what type of building they are designing. There are differences in providing security for dispensaries versus warehouses and grow operations. Dispensaries and storefronts are frequently out in the open and in locations that are well-known to consumers. Warehouses and grow operations are usually tucked out of the way, rarely publicized, and less noticeable.
Rolling Grilles And Doors Deter Dispensary Theft With a high-value product and cash on hand, dispensaries in particular have unique security challenges. And because they are retail businesses, egress and fire codes must be strictly adhered to, in addition to special security regulations.
In light of this, security doors require special consideration. They are necessary to provide secure protection against theft but shouldn’t distract from the architectural vision of the building or interior design.
Rolling security grilles are the ideal solution to protect the counter inside the dispensary and may also be ideal for the front of the store. They fit in small headspaces where there is limited ceiling room and can be easily concealed when not in use.
Even heavy-duty rolling doors used to protect the glass storefront of the dispensary and prevent intruders from entering the building’s dock area can be hidden when not in use. If building code allows, architects may specify a rolling door that coils up into the door’s header, residing behind an exterior soffit. These robust security doors’ lift-resistant bottom bars also can be obscured from sight.
Heavy-duty security doors at the front of the dispensary block sight access and provide a visual deterrent. They give the building a secured look when in use, but heavy-duty rolling doors don’t need to be imposing to customers during the dispensary’s operating hours.
Robust Visible Protection For Grow Operations And Warehouses
Grow operations and warehouses usually opt for more visible security doors to deter criminal activity. They also have different design considerations because of building layout and production needs. For instance, larger grow operations house plants and supplies which require heavy equipment to move throughout the facilities.
Heavy duty rolling security doors can be made with up to 12-gauge steel with interlocking slats and tamper resistant fasteners – making them stronger than standard garage doors. They provide high-end security at loading docks and limit access to restricted areas inside.
Rolling doors can also be used to block employee access to off-limits areas common in grow operations and warehouses. Because they are heavily reliant on utilities and infrastructure, such as water mains and humidity and temperature controls, warehouses and grow operations are ideal applications for rolling doors. If unauthorized personnel with ill intentions access these utility areas, it could spell disaster with ruined crops and damaged or unsafe products – turning into substantial financial losses. From a design standpoint, these doors do not need to be concealed. In fact, their visibility signals restricted access areas and hints at the security measures taken to protect these facilities.
Enhanced Security Features
Whether designing a dispensary, a grow operation facility, or a warehouse, rolling doors may be paired with automatic protection features to enhance the building’s security and help workers feel safe. These automatic closing systems allow the security doors to be immediately activated by a building alarm or the push of a panic button in emergency situations. The doors also feature advanced locking systems – some of which are hidden in non-traditional locations – providing further tamper resistance.
Some rolling door manufacturers offer in-house architectural design groups to guide architects and designers in choosing the ideal security doors. These groups can address and solve any design dilemmas that arise during the project. Every rolling door is built to a specific opening, making each product unique to that area of the project. Because of this customization, manufacturers can meet virtually any specification.
Meeting Insurance Requirements
Selecting the correct rolling door along with other advanced security features aids in meeting insurance requirements. Each insurance company has individual minimum-security conditions in its policy. Many insurance companies will not provide theft insurance if cannabis businesses do not have adequate security or cannot demonstrate they have it.
Planning Leads To Integrated Protection The technical and legal aspects of securing dispensaries, grow operations, and warehouses can be overwhelming and, at times, confusing. Legal counsel, state agencies, industry associations, and manufacturers encourage new cannabis businesses to use them as resources as they unravel the nuances of the industry’s security regulations.
By combining robust security features such as video surveillance, proper access controls, rolling doors or grilles and automatic closure systems, cannabis facilities can meet state and insurance requirements and deter theft. With thoughtful design consideration and planning, these security features also have the capabilities to seamlessly blend with interior and exterior design aesthetics.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods.
We spoke with Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical. Wes recently joined Green Mill as CEO and investor in the company after a long career at the Coca-Cola Company in senior sales and general management roles.
Aaron Green: Wes, thank you for taking the time to chat today. How did you get involved in Green Mill?
Wes Reynolds: I came out of a 20-year career at Coca-Cola, where I lived and worked around the world. I was a sales and general management guy with Coke, and learned a lot about running businesses and how to drive growth. I left Coke in 2017. After that successful career I wanted to be in the cannabis space. I felt like cannabis was a growing space with a lot of opportunity and a lot of misperceptions out there, particularly around the foundations of what I would call the “evil reputation” of cannabis. I just found that abhorrent and wanted to be part of changing it.
So I ran the Florida operations for Surterra, which is now called Parallel, for a year out of Tampa, and we did a great job of growing that business in Florida. As the president of the Florida operation for Surterra, I saw everything seed-to-shelf for the industry. We had a 300,000-square-foot greenhouse in Central Florida, we had dispensaries, we had all the production, distribution and all the marketing. I was really able to learn the industry top to bottom.
When I left Surterra, I started looking at various investment opportunities and thinking about what I might want to do next. I came across Green Mill out of Pittsburgh, and was really impressed with the technology that they had put together. Having run a company where we used CO2 extraction, I had experiences with systems that didn’t work when they were supposed to or didn’t work the way they were promised, which led to lots of downtime, lots of frustration and lots of babysitting. I was impressed with Green Mill’s engineering approach and decided that I’d like to be involved with them. I originally considered just being an investor, but more and more conversations led to a greater understanding of some basic business administrative needs that they had as well. One thing led to another and I agreed to come on as the CEO, and I’m also an investor.
I’m excited about what we’re doing at Green Mill. I think that bar none, we make the best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment out there. We continue to innovate on that every day. We want to push CO2 beyond known limits, which is our stated goal as a company. We believe in CO2 and we’re living our goal in that we really are pushing it beyond known limits. There are new things we’re uncovering every day where we go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know we can do that with CO2!” So, that’s kind of fun.
Aaron: Can you tell me just a high-level overview of how CO2 extraction works?
Wes: A supercritical CO2 extraction system is a collection of extraction vessels and fractionation vessels or collection vessels. In our case fractionation because we’re doing multiple collections through a single run. Then you need a system of pumps and valves and tubing, etc. to move the solvent in a supercritical state through the packed biomass, and then move the extracted compounds into a set of collection vessels. It sounds very easy. But the key to supercritical CO2 extraction is controlling temperature, flow rate and pressure. The better you can control temperature, flow rate and pressure, the more precise of an outcome you’re going to get. For example, say you run a three-hour extraction run, and you want to run it at 3500 psi. Well, you know, a competitive system might fluctuate 300 to 400 psi on either side of 3500. Whereas our system currently fluctuates more like five to 10 psi on either side of the 3500. So, there is much more control and precision.
Our whole goal, when we’re talking about pushing CO2 beyond known limits, is how do we continue to chase that holy grail of perfect control of temperature, flow rate and pressure? One of our advances so far is a proprietary pump, for example, that’s a liquid displacement pump that we engineer and build. It ensures a very even and consistent flow, independent of the pressure setting. So, that flow rate doesn’t change in our system compared to what you would see with another system. It sounds like a minor thing, except that at the end of a run, if you expected to get a certain set of molecules, you’re going to get a different set of molecules if your temperature and flow rate and pressure are varying, because what you’re doing is disrupting the density of the CO2 as it flows.
It’s about building a system that is precise in that way, I think, that requires enormously skilled engineering effort and design effort on the front end, and then requires us to have advanced production and manufacturing capabilities in our shop in Pittsburgh. Our customers are clearly impressed with the levels of consistency that they’re getting out of their system.
Aaron: You talked about precision and consistency as two items. Is there anything else that makes Green Mill different?
Wes: I’m a brand guy. I believe in brands. I came out of a 20-year Coca-Cola career.
The way that the cannabis industry is going in total, in my opinion, is the consumer is going to get more and more discerning along the way. Up until this point, everybody thinks “oh, we have THC and CBD and we have intensity.” But the more sophisticated and educated consumers get, the more discerning they’re going to be about what products they want to put in their bodies.
What makes Green Mill different is that we’re building a system that allows the operator of that system to create differentiated products for the marketplace. So, it’s not simply “CBD is CBD.” It’s: what plant did you start with? How can you maintain as many of the characteristics of that plant as possible?
We’re going to create the most sophisticated tool possible to allow the operator to create products that can be differentiated in the marketplace for a discerning consumer at a premium price. That way, you can create a market where there might not have been a market before, instead of just “hey, I’ve got X pounds of biomass that I need to extract. Give me your bluntest instrument and let me extract.”
We currently make five different systems. First is the SFE Pro. We make a seven and a half liter and a 10-liter version, with two-vessel configurations of each of those. Then we have what we call a Parallel Pro, which has four 10-liter vessels and two pumps, with two streams running parallel to each other and emptying into shared collectors. It doubles the extraction rate, and you don’t expand the footprint very much. But 10-liter vessels are the biggest vessels we use. Because when you go too large with the vessel, you are giving up something in terms of the ability to control temperature, flow rate and pressure. Your efficiency starts to drop with higher vessel volume.
One of the things that makes Green Mill different is our extraction rate. Our Parallel Pro can do 145 pounds a day of biomass. We think that’s a significant amount, given the demand that’s out there for unique products. What we’re advocating for is multiple extraction systems instead of giant permanent installations of extraction systems, that end up limiting your flexibility. Big systems also prevent you from creating redundancies in your operating system. So, when your extraction system goes down, you’re done. Versus in our universe, we would say, you might want to have three or four extraction systems in different locations, running different products. Our price points are such that that’s very doable.
Aaron: How does the breakdown look between your cannabis and hemp clients?
Wes: A lot of that is legislative frankly. It has to do with what the environment is like at the moment. About 60% of our customers are small hemp farmers. And then we have the other 40% in the cannabis space that are medical or adult use producers.
CO2 extraction has a lot of applications beyond cannabis. We have a couple of customers using our system for hops extraction, for example. We see an enormous opportunity out there for non-cannabis botanical extraction, but our primary focus is cannabis. That is what we’re designing this system to do.
We find that small hemp farmers love our system because it is reliable and very automated. We have proprietary software that operates the whole system. You load and run various “recipes,” at least we call them recipes. What you are doing is setting flow rate, setting temperatures, setting pressures, etc., then that proprietary software has an unbelievable ability to control everything through the process. I’ve talked to several different operators who have used other machines, and then found themselves on a Green Mill system and couldn’t believe how easy, but also feature-rich it was.
I talk about it like it’s like an oven, you know, you set the oven at 375 degrees. And a really good oven stays right at 375. You still need to be a good chef to be able to make that perfect cheesecake. But without that oven, your hands are tied, so you are constantly trying to check those, “is it still 375? I don’t know!” With our system, if it says 375, it holds at 375. So we’re pretty excited about that.
And we’re going to continue to innovate. For example, we have a proprietary heat exchanger that we use on our systems. It’s actually 3D printed stainless steel. It’s about a 20-pound piece of steel that’s been printed to have a special tubing shape in the center only possible with 3D printing that allows us to heat CO₂ very quickly.
Aaron: That’s very cool. I’m noticing a lot actually, the innovations in cannabis are creating these adjacent market opportunities in botanicals. So, I think that’s interesting you point that out. You mentioned terpenes are one of the things you collect out of the CO2 extraction. Can you talk about the crude that comes off and how people are either monetizing or formulating that crude?
Wes: Our goal is to produce the “purest crude” possible. So, we want “less crude” crude. I think that we’re at the beginning of this, Aaron. We’re nowhere near the end, which is what I find so exciting, because all of our innovation, all of our continued development and all of our experimentation is designed to keep thinking, how do we push this further and further and further and get a more refined crude.
We just welcomed Jesse Turner to our team as Director of R&D, who is a well-known extraction guy in the industry. He came from Charlotte’s Web and Willie’s Reserve, and has been doing independent consulting. He’s just a rock star. He’s already off and running on experimenting with different stuff.
I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing more and more of that opportunity to help people realize, “Oh, my gosh, I did not know you could do this!” Terpenes are a good example. I think we are only scratching the surface of what terpenes can do. I mean, a cannabis plant has 400 plus molecules and we know a good bit about probably 10 or 12 of them. So, what are we going to find out about the other 390? And as we do, the Green Mill system will be ideal for separating those molecules that we don’t know today are valuable. So, I think that’s part of what we’re chasing as well.
Aaron: So where do you see CO2 extraction fitting into the cannabis and hemp supply chain?
Wes: For any product on the market that is not a smokable flower it helps to have an extraction process. There may be some products that come out that we don’t know about yet that are not going to qualify in that category. Whether you are talking about vape cartridges, or lozenges, or gummy bears, or whatever it is, they are going to start with extract. I think what consumers want is zero adulteration of their product. So if you take any botanical product, and if it is GMO-free, does not have any pesticides, maybe it is all organic, etc. — there is real consumer appeal to that. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what consumers want.
We believe that we can continue to push CO2 so that there’s no requirement for introduction of any other materials than just CO2, which is a completely inert gas. It’s got no residual effect whatsoever on the product. If we get where we want to go, then eventually you are talking about a pure botanical experience.
Initial upfront capital is higher than you are going to see with ethanol and butane extraction solutions for the same size equipment, but ongoing operating costs of those are much higher, when you weigh it out over a period of time. I think what we are going to find is that people are going to keep coming to CO2 because they realize there are things they can do with it that they can’t do any other way.
The end consumer is really who we want to keep in mind. I think for a long time, this industry was very demand driven. “I have X acres of cannabis product, whether that’s hemp, sativa, indica, whatever it is, and I need to extract this many pounds a day over this period of time.” And we keep asking the question, well, who’s going to buy that product on the other side? What do you want it to look like when you put it out on the market? As opposed to how much raw plant matter do you have? What’s the demand? And that was a difficult conversation. We’re starting to see more people come around to that conversation now. But I think that’s the question we want to keep answering is how do we create those products that are differentiated in the marketplace and that can pass muster in any regulatory environment? People are going to want to know what’s in their product.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Wes: As the CEO, I’m particularly interested in the overall development of the landscape of the industry in terms of who’s playing, who’s winning, what’s happening with legislation, MSOs versus SSOs. I’m also interested in the international environment. We have a good bit of interest from multiple countries that have either ordered Green Mill systems or are talking to us about Green Mill systems, including Canada and Latin American countries, some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.“We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.”
The trends that I’m particularly interested in are more on the business side of the equation, in terms of how this business is going to shake out particularly from a capitalization perspective, as banking laws continue to change, which is a big deal, and the legislative environment gets a little more predictable and a little more consistent.
Aaron: Okay, last question. So what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Wes: Everything, is the short answer! I constantly run this little challenge of trying to understand enough of the science. I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy. That was how I grew up: general management and sales. I’ve made my living over many years being wowed by the pros. Depending on the scientists and the very specialized folks to help provide the right answers to things. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and I’m fascinated by the mechanical engineering challenges of what we do at Green Mill. So, I’m always interested in learning about that.
I think there’s a need, and it is helpful to be able to talk about those things in language that the layperson can understand, as opposed to explaining everything in scientific language. I think what I am trying to do is help people put it into a language that they can get, but that is not simple. Language that is correlative to reality. I think there’s so much misunderstanding about how these things work and what’s happening. We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.
Aaron: Okay, that’s it. Thank you for your time Wes!
According to a press release published earlier in October, Metrc has won the seed-to-sale traceability software contract for West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health, Office of Medical Cannabis (OMC) made the announcement on October 21.
According to that press release, the main focus for the state’s traceability program is “helping OMC regulators ensure no illicit cannabis products are sold in the medical cannabis market, and also that no legal medical cannabis products are sold unlawfully.”
Regulators in West Virginia are still on schedule to open the medical cannabis market as soon as next year, according to Jason Frame, OMC director. “This is an important step to make certain medical cannabis is available only to West Virginians with serious medical conditions and to prevent diversion of products in West Virginia,” says Frame. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has put many industries across the country on hold, we’re proud to say that it has not stopped West Virginia from meeting its deadlines and laying the groundwork for a safe, regulated medical cannabis market.”
Regulators at the OMC are still working on scoring processing and retail license applications. The OMC says they will begin the process of issuing patient cards in the spring of 2021.
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