Cannabis businesses have become a driving force for economic growth in the United States. We’ve all heard the statistics. In 2018, the industry accounted for approximately $10.4 billion in revenue and is slated to grow to $21 billion by 2021.
But with growth comes pressure to produce more, enhance quality and optimize operations. However, managing a cannabis business without modern, capable tools can hinder growth and leave opportunities on the table. That’s why fast-growing cannabis businesses are looking to the proven benefits of a true cloud Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform to help manage production, provide insights and improve business operations. When we add in the complexity and ever-changing nature of regulation, the need for a robust operational system becomes even more critical.
David Stephans will be speaking during CIJ’s October 9th webinar, “Driving Strategic Advantage for your Cannabusiness through Process Efficiency, Quality & Compliance” Click here to learn more and register for free.Cannabis business leaders may want to develop their own “playbook” to differentiate themselves in the market. But before they start to engineer their forward-thinking approach, they should start with a cloud ERP as their foundation. This can help with everything from the most basic of needs to more sophisticated strategies. In this article, we’ll review some key cannabis business goals and tactics, and how ERP can help lay the groundwork for success.
Drive growth and expansion.
Business growth often translates into operational expansion, meaning more facilities, staff and compliance requirements to manage. A cloud ERP supports these functions, including the launch of new products, expanding pricing schedules and increasing production to meet demand. Having the ability to track and manage growth is crucial, and a cloud ERP can provide the real-time reporting and dashboards for visibility across the entire business. This includes not just operational visibility, but also a look into a company’s sales, finances and supply chain.
Foster exemplary customer experience.
Cannabis companies need to streamline processes from the moment an order is placed to when it arrives at the customer’s door. In the mind of consumers, cannabis businesses compete against the likes of Amazon. They must be able to provide a similar experience and level of service, with customers receiving orders in a couple of business days. Cloud ERP can help automate processes. And when things go wrong, it can also help with resolution, especially when it’s paired with a customer relationship management (CRM) system on the same cloud platform. For the B2B market, cloud ERP empowers account management to review past orders to better meet future customer needs.
Stay a step ahead of the game.
In the industry, change is a constant. The future will likely bring about shifts in products, regulations and suppliers. A cloud ERP can modify workflows, controls and process approvals on the fly, so companies can adapt to new requirements. It offers security against emerging risks and easy integration with other systems cannabusinesses may need. An advanced cloud ERP will also provide cutting-edge capabilities, such as AI insights and data-capture from Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices.
Ensure quality product for raving fans and avoid flags on the field through airtight compliance.
Many cannabis companies are passionate about delivering the highest-quality cannabis products. Auditability is key to both quality and compliance. Complete traceability, with lot and serial number tracking, will record comprehensive audit trails from seed to sale. A cloud ERP will incorporate RFID tags down to the plant, lot and product levels to assist in this process. As cannabis goods move through their lifecycle, the cloud ERP will append appropriate tracking to purchasing receipts, inventory as it moves between locations, products as they’re packaged and sales orders as they’re fulfilled.
As a heavily regulated industry, cannabis business is also subject to burdensome compliance standards. A cloud ERP can support the rigorous testing that’s required to assure potency and safety. It easily facilitates Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Production Practices (GPP), which ensures products are consistently produced according to quality standards. Many regulatory agencies require digital reporting; cloud ERP can facilitate this requirement through integration with Metrc, Health Canada and the FDA. Compliance can be a costly endeavor, and this type integration saves time, money, and effort.
As you can see, a cloud ERP helps efficiently balance compliance and regulatory requirements, with operational efficiency and customer service – key strategies in any cannabusiness playbook.
You’re sitting down to dinner at a restaurant about ten minutes from where you work, finally relaxing after a tough day. You’ve set your environmental alerts on your plants; you have that peace of mind that the technology promised and you know that if anything goes wrong you’ll get notified immediately. As you’re looking at the menu, you receive an alert telling you that the temperature in one of your 2,000 square foot grow rooms has gone out of the safe range. Your mind starts to race, “It’s week seven, I’ve got 500 plants one week away from harvest, that’s 200 pounds of cannabis worth about $150,000-$200,000. Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
You’re doing all this at the dinner table and even though you’re not in a state of panic, you are extremely concerned. You need to figure out what’s going on. You check the graphing and see that over the past hour your humidity dropped and your temperature is gradually going up. Within the past ten minutes, the temperature has gone to 90 degrees. Your numbers tell you that the temperature in the room with $200,000 of cannabis is going up about five degrees every three minutes.
“I see this trend and can’t figure it out,” the grower relates. “Normally, the HVAC kicks on and I’d begin to see a downward trend on the graphs. I pre-set my trigger for 90 degrees. But, I’m not seeing that. What I AM seeing is the temperature gradually and consistently getting warmer without the bounce-back that I would expect once the HVAC trigger was hit. All I know is I better find out what’s causing all this and I better find out fast or my entire crop is gone.”
You go through the rest of the checklist from LUNA and you see that the lights are still on. Now, you’re starting to sweat because if the temperature in that room hits 130 and stays there for more than twenty minutes, you’re losing your entire crop. You have to walk in your boss’s office the next day and explain why, after all the time and money you put in over the past seven weeks, not only is all that money gone but so is the $200,000 he is counting on to pay salaries, expenses, and bank loans.
This is something you’ve been working on for seven straight weeks and if you don’t make the right decision, really quickly, when that room hits 130 degrees here’s what happens.
“My equipment starts to fail,” our grower continues. “The crop literally burns as the oils dry up and the crop is worthless. At 130 degrees, my grow lights essentially start to melt. All you can think of is that temperature going up five degrees every three minutes and you’re ten minutes from your facility. I need to leave that restaurant right now, immediately, because even if I get there in ten minutes the temperature is going to be almost 120 degrees while I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what’s wrong.”
You run out to your car and you speed back to the facility. The grow room is now 125 degrees, you have maybe three or four minutes left to figure things out before you flush $200,000 down the drain. The first thing you do is turn off the grow lights because that’s your primary source of heat. Then, you check your HVAC panel and you realize it malfunctioned and shorted out. There’s the problem.
The real toll is the human cost. Once this happens, no grower ever wants to leave and go home or even go to dinner. It’s a horrible toll. It’s the hidden cost we don’t talk about. The grower opens up with his own personal experience.“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,”
“You think about the burden on the person that you bring in to replace you while you’re out of town and then you think about the burden on you if something goes wrong again. And you decide, it’s not worth it. The anxiety, the fear that it will happen again, it’s not worth it. So, you don’t go. I didn’t even see my sister’s new baby for eight months.”
Your desire to see your family, your desire to have a normal life; all of that goes out the window because of your desire to be successful in your job. It outweighs everything.
This is every grower. It’s why many farmers never leave their property. It just becomes a normal way of living. You just repeat it so much that you don’t even think about it. Why go on vacation if your stress level is higher than it is if you’re home. You’re constantly worried about your farm or your facility. The only way to escape it is to not go away at all.
“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,” he tells us. “You don’t realize how stressful a lifestyle you live is until you step back and look at it. Or, if you have an alert system that allows you to pull back. That’s when you realize how difficult your life is. Otherwise, it just seems normal.”
As AI technology expands its footprint into agriculture, there will be more tools to help mediate situations like this; more tools to give you a more normal life. It’s one of the reasons we got into the business in the first place.
To reinforce the ideas in the article, Sanitation Starting Points: More Than Sweeping the Floors and Wiping Down the Table, the main goal of sanitation is to produce safe food and to keep consumers healthy and safe from foodborne illness. With the cannabis industry growing rapidly, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant, or the young. These consumers, and all consumers, need and deserve safe cannabis products every experience.
Sanitation is not an innate characteristic; rather, sanitation is a trained skill. To carry out proper sanitation, training on proper sanitation practices needs to be provided. Every cannabis food manufacturing facility should require and value a written sanitation program. However, a written program naturally needs to be carried out by people. Hiring experienced experts may be one solution and developing non-specialists into an effective team is an alternative solution. Note that it takes every member of the team, even those without “sanitation” in their title, to carry out an effective sanitation program.
Sanitation is a part of the Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations on current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) in manufacturing, packing or holding human food (21 CFR 110). Sanitation starts at the beginning of a food manufacturing process; even before we are ready to work, there are microorganisms, or microbes, present on the work surfaces. What are microbes? At a very basic level, the effects of microbes can be categorized into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The beneficial effects are when microbes are used to produce cheese, beer or yogurt. On the other hand, microbes can have undesirable effects that spoil food, altering the quality aspects such as taste or visual appeal. The last category are microbes that have consequences such as illness, organ failure and even death.In a food manufacturing facility, minimizing microbes at the beginning of the process increases the chance of producing safe food.
Proper sanitation training allows cannabis food manufacturing facilities to maintain a clean environment to prevent foodborne illness from affecting human health. Sanitation training can be as basic or as complex as the company and its processes; as such, sanitation training must evolve alongside the company’s growth. Here are five key talking points to cover in a basic sanitation training program for any facility.
Provide the “why” of sanitation. While Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk “Start with why” is geared more towards leadership, the essential message that “Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.” Merely paying someone to complete a task will not always yield the same results as inspiring someone to care about their work. Providing examples of the importance of sanitation in keeping people healthy and safe will impart a deeper motivation for all to practice proper sanitation. An entertaining illustration for the “why” is to share that scientists at the University of Arizona found that cellphones can carry ten times more bacteria than toilet seats!
Define cleaning and sanitizing. Cleaning does not equal sanitizing. Cleaning merely removes visible soil from a surface while sanitizing reduces the number of microorganisms on the clean surface to safe levels. For an effective sanitation system, first clean then sanitize all utensils and food-contact surfaces of equipment before use (FDA Food Code 2017 4-7).
Explain from the ground up. Instead of jumping into the training of cleaning a specific piece of equipment, start training with the foundational aspects of food safety. For example, a basic instruction on microbiology and microorganisms will lay down the foundation for all future training. Understanding that FATTOM (the acronym for food, acidity, temperature, time, oxygen and moisture) are the variables that any microorganism needs to grow supplies people with the tools to understand how to prevent microorganisms from growing. Furthermore, explaining the basics such as the common foodborne illnesses can reinforce the “why” of sanitation.
Inform about the principles of chemistry and chemicals. A basic introduction to chemicals and the pH scale can go a long way in having the knowledge to prevent mixing incompatible chemicals, prevent damaging surfaces, or prevent hurting people. Additionally, proper concentration (i.e. dilution) is key in the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals.
Ensure the training is relevant and applicable to your company. Direct proper sanitation practices with a strong master sanitation schedule and ensure accountability with daily, weekly, monthly and annual logs. Develop sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs), maintain safety data sheets (SDS’s) and dispense proper protective equipment (PPE).
Overall, sanitation is everyone’s job. All employees at all levels will benefit from learning about proper sanitation practices. As such, it is beneficial to incorporate sanitation practices into cannabis food manufacturing processes from the beginning. Protect your brand from product rework or recalls and, most importantly, protect your consumers from foodborne illness, by practicing proper sanitation.
The steady destigmatization and legalization of medical and recreational cannabis at the state level continues to propel a large and fast-growing industry forward. In 2018, the legal cannabis industry grew to $10.4 billion in the U.S., employing more than 250,000 people according to New Frontier Data.
The mass production of anything that humans consume is invariably accompanied by an increased concern for safety and accountability—especially in the case of cannabis, which the federal government still deems a Schedule I substance. Each U.S. state has its own mix of laws based on the will of its voters, spanning the spectrum from fully legal to fully illegal.
While the mix of legality in states can be hard to keep up with, all states with any form of cannabis legalization have one thing in common: the need to regulate this new industry. Last year, the federal government issued a Marijuana Enforcement Memorandum that allows federal prosecutors to decide how to prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws, so states are at risk.
If you are a public official involved in state cannabis regulation, or anyone involved in the supply chain from cultivator to dispensary, chances are you are using some kind of seed-to-sale tracking technology to monitor things like plant inventory, sales volume, chain of custody—and to hedge against federal encroachment by having a legitimate form of accountability.
Mandatory Request For Proposals (RFPs) issued by states for compliance solutions have spawned an entire sub-industry of seed-to-sale tracking, and point-of-sale hardware and software vendors, with large multi-million dollar contracts being awarded. Metrc’s RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) plant and packaging tags are gaining wide usage, and 11 states plus DC have adopted the technology.
While states are taking the right steps to keep their legal cannabis industry legitimate and accountable, there is actually a major gap that existing systems don’t cover: cultivation management. Most of the existing RFPs and platforms focus on the post-harvest side of the business (processing, packaging, distribution) and may have some cultivation management capability, but are not geared for the cultivation operation, which is where a lot of the risk actually lies for both growers and state regulators.
As a state official or a cultivator, what could be more damaging to business than a massive product recall—especially after the product has been distributed and consumed? This is the fastest way to get shut down or audited by the state as a grower or invite federal investigation if you’re a state. And these recalls cost growers millions of dollars and possibly their license. There is massive risk involved by not addressing the cultivation side.
With current tracking systems, it’s possible to see where the product came from in the event of such a recall, but nearly impossible to pinpoint and see what actually happened and when the recall happened. This makes it almost impossible to stop the same problem in the future and puts consumers at unnecessary risk.
The reason most seed-to-sale systems are difficult for growers to use is because they were designed for regulators to address the most obvious regulatory questions (are growers abiding by the law? Who is selling and buying what and how much? Is the correct tax amount being levied?). They were not designed for growers and in many cases, cultivation teams are using two systems—their own ERP and/or spreadsheets and seed-to-sale tracking mandated by regulators.
This means there is a huge missing link in data that should be captured during the cultivation process. In many cases, growers are tracking crop inventory during the growth stage with pen and paper, or at best, in Excel. Cultivators need a tool designed for them that helps both run better operations and identify hazards to their crop health before it’s too late, and regulators need complete traceability along the supply chain to reduce risk to consumers.
To fill this critical data gap, there is a strong case for states in their RFPs and ongoing regulatory capacity, to adopt and encourage cultivators to use Cultivation Management Platforms (CMPs) alongside any existing seed-to-sale and ERP solutions for complete traceability.
As more states move to legalize medical and recreational cannabis, mitigating risk as part of a larger regulatory framework will only become more important. Adopting and using a CMP empowers growers to focus on not just tracking data, but making that data accessible and functional for growers to drive efficiency and profits all while ensuring security and regulatory compliance in this rapidly evolving industry.
There’s a better way to design HVAC for cannabis grow rooms, and it may seem a little odd at first.
Central chillers are a tried-and-true solution for projects requiring large refrigeration capacity. They’re found in college campuses, hospitals, office buildings and other big facilities.
While central chillers are a good default for most large-scale applications, they fall short in this industry. Grow rooms, with their need for tight, variable conditions and scalable, redundant infrastructure, have HVAC requirements that the central chiller model simply can’t deliver on.
Let’s unpack the shortcomings with the central chiller in this niche and explore some possible solutions.
What’s Wrong With Chillers?
Building a scalable HVAC system is essential for the cannabis industry as it continues to ramp up production in the U.S. and Canada.
Many growers are building their large facilities in phases. In Canada, this is common because growers must have two harvests before they can receive a production permit, so they build just one phase to satisfy this requirement and then build out the facility after the government’s approval.
This strategy of building out is less feasible with a central chiller.
A chiller and its supporting infrastructure are impractical to expand, which means it and the rest of the facility needs to be built to full size for day one, even though the facility will be in partial occupancy for a long time. This results in high upfront capital costs.
If the facility needs to expand later down the road, to meet market demand for example, that will be difficult because, as mentioned, it’s expensive to add capacity to a central chiller.
Additionally, the chiller creates a central point of failure for the facility. When it goes down, crops in every room are at risk of potentially devastating loss. Grow rooms are unusual because of their requirement for strict conditions and even a slight change could have big impact on the crop. Losing control due to mechanical failure could spell disaster.
One Southern Ontario cannabis grower met with some of these issues after constructing their facility, which uses a central chiller for cooling and dehumidification. The chiller was built for full size, but the results were disappointing as early as phase one of cultivation. While sensible demands in the space are being easily met, humidity levels are out of control – flowering rooms are up to 75% RH.
Humidity is one of the most important control aspects to growers. Without a handle on it, growers risk losing their entire crop either because there’s not enough and the plants dry out, or there’s too much and the plants get mold disease. This facility has fortunately not yet reported serious crop issues but is mindful of the potential impact on harvest quality.
By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.If tight control over humidity is what you need, then a chilled water system needs very careful consideration. That’s because typical chiller system designs get the coils cold enough to lower the air temperature, but not cold enough to condense water out of the air as effectively as a properly designed dehumidifier coil.
A chilled water system capable of achieving the coil temperatures needed for adequate dehumidification in a typical flower room will also require full-time reheat to ensure that air delivered to the plants isn’t shockingly cold — either stunting their growth or killing them altogether. This reheat source adds complexity, cost and inefficiency which does not serve growers well, many of whom are under pressure from both utilities and their management to minimize their energy usage.
How Do Unitary Systems Solve These Problems?
Compared to central chillers, a unitary setup is more agile.
A facility can commence with the minimum capacity it needs for start-up and then add more units in the future as required. They’re usually cheaper to install than a central system and offer several reliability and efficiency benefits as well.
The real business advantage to this approach is to open up the grower’s cash flow by spreading out their costs over time, rather than a large, immediate cost to construct the entire facility and chiller for day one. By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.
Growers can have more control over their crop by installing multiple units to provide varying conditions, room-by-room, instead of a single system that can only provide one condition.
For example, flowering rooms that each have different strains of crop may require different conditions – so they can be served by their own unit to provide variability. Or, rooms that need uniform conditions could just be served by one common unit. The flexibility that growers can enjoy with this approach is nearly unlimited.
Some growers have opted for multiple units installed for the same room, which maximizes redundancy in case one unit fails.
A cannabis facility in the Montreal area went this direction when building their HVAC system. Rather than build everything in one shot, this facility selected a unitary design that had flowering rooms served independently by a series of units, while vegetation rooms shared one. The units were sized to provide more capacity than currently required in each room, which allows the grower to add more plants and lighting in the future if they choose.
This facility expects to build more grow rooms in a future phase, so it was important to have an intelligent system that could accommodate that by being easy to add capacity to. This is accomplished by simply adding more units.Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment.
The grower, after making a significant investment in this facility, was also averse to the risk of losing crop due to mechanical failure, which is why they were happy to go with a system of independent grow room control.
Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment. Not only are they easier to maintain (parts are easier to switch out and downtime for maintenance is minimal) but they can actually be more efficient than a large, central system.
Some units include heat recovery, which recycles the heat created by the dehumidification process to efficiently reheat the unit’s cold discharge air and keep the space temperature consistent, without needing expensive supplementary heaters. There’s also economizer cooling, which can be used to reduce or even eliminate compressor usage during winter by running the unit on dry outside air only.
Demand for cannabis continues to increase and many growers are looking to expand their businesses by adding new facilities or augmenting existing ones. Faced with the limitations of the traditional chiller system, like the lack of flexibility, scalability and redundancy, they’re looking for an intelligent alternative and the unitary approach is earning their trust. It’s expected this option will soon become the leading one across North America.
On May 15, BioTrackTHC was announced the conditional winner for Maine’s seed-to-sale tracking system government contract. The award is still pending final approval from the State Procurement Review Committee and the successful negotiation of the contract.
BioTrackTHC, a Helix TCS subsidiary, announced in a press release their conditional award earlier this month. The contract means that BioTrackTHC would partner with the state to provide software for tracking both medical and recreational cannabis products from the immature plant to the point of retail sales.
The contract could go for as long as six years, through 2025. If this contract receives final approval from the state internally, then this will become the ninth government contract for BioTrackTHC. Patrick Vo, CEO of BioTrackTHC, expects a quick deployment of the software once the contract is finalized. “We are excited to be working with the State of Maine and are grateful for their vote of confidence in our team’s ability to execute upon state-level tracking contracts and rapidly deploy a sound and secure technology solution,” says Vo.
Zachary L. Venegas, Executive Chairman and CEO of Helix TCS, Inc, says BioTrackTHC’s technology is leading the industry in shaping regulatory oversight for legal cannabis. “As states and countries begin to rollout or expand legal cannabis programs, our technology continues to lead as demonstrated by this Intent to Award and our multiple recent contract extensions with our partners,” says Venegas. “We look forward to playing a vital role in shaping the global cannabis industry and ensuring that it is able to operate efficiently and transparently.”
Sanitation is not just sweeping the floors and wiping down the table – sanitation has a wide-ranging function in a cannabis food manufacturing facility. For example, sanitation covers the employees (and unwanted pests), food-contact equipment (and non-food-contact equipment), trash disposal (including sewage), and more. Ultimately, sanitation systems maintain a clean environment to prevent foodborne illness from affecting human health. Fortunately, there are resources and tools to ease into establishing a robust sanitation program.
Overall, the main goal of sanitation is to produce safe food, to keep consumers healthy and safe from foodborne illness. With the cannabis industry growing and gaining legalization, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant, or the young. These consumers, and all consumers, need and deserve safe cannabis products every experience.
1) General maintenance of the facilities: The buildings and fixtures of the food manufacturing facility cover a lot of ground – hiring a maintenance team will divide the responsibility, ensuring the entire facility can be maintained in a clean and sanitary condition. Furthermore, a team can build out a tool like a preventative maintenance program to restrict issues from ever becoming issues.
2) Control of the chemicals used for cleaning and sanitizing: Not all chemicals are equal – select the appropriate cleaning and sanitizing chemicals from reputable suppliers. Obtain the right knowledge and training on proper use, storage, and proper protective equipment (PPE). This ensures the safe and effective application of the chemicals in minimizing the risk of foodborne illness.
3) Pest control: Understand the environment within the facility and outside the facility. This will aid in identifying the most common or likely pests, in order to focus the pest control efforts. Keep in mind that internal pest management programs can be just as successful as hiring external pest control services.
4) Procedures for sanitation of both food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces: Developing sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) provides guidance to employees on appropriate cleaning and sanitizing practices, to balance effective and efficient operations. A master sanitation schedule can control the frequency of indicated sanitation procedures.
5) Storage and handling of cleaned portable equipment and utensils: Cross contamination in storage can be minimized with tools such as controlled traffic flow, signage, training, color coding, and more.
6) Water supply, plumbing, and sewage disposal: Routine inspections of plumbing, floor drainage, and sewage systems prevent unintended water flow and damage.
7) Toilet facilities: Clearly defining standards for the toilet facilities and setting accountability to everyone who uses them will ensure that the toilet facilities are not a source of contamination for the food products.
8) Hand-washing facilities: Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) include proper hand washing and proper hand washing starts with suitable hand-washing facilities. For example, frequent checks on running water, hand soap, and single use towels ensure that all hands are clean and ready to produce safe food.
9) Trash disposal: While trash can be a source of cross contamination, trash can also attract and harbor pests. Scheduling regular trash disposal and controlling traffic flow of waste are two ways to minimize the risk of cross contamination from trash.
Even after meeting these requirements, sanitation programs can be more sophisticated. An example is to institute an environmental monitoring program to verify and validate that the sanitation program is effective. Another example is in identifying and measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) within the sanitation program that can improve not just the sanitation processes, but the operations as a whole. Principally, sanitation is cleanliness on the most basic level, but waste management can encompass sanitation and grow into a larger discussion on sustainability. All in all, sanitation programs must reshape and evolve alongside the company growth.
Sanitation is interwoven throughout the food manufacturing process; sanitation is not a single task to be carried out by a sole individual. As such, it is beneficial to incorporate sanitation practices into cannabis food manufacturing processes from the beginning. Protect your brand from product rework or recalls and, most importantly, protect your consumers from foodborne illness, by practicing proper sanitation.
By Ravi Kanipayor, Christian Bax, Dr. George Anastasopoulos No Comments
As state cannabis regulatory frameworks across the country continue to evolve, accreditation is becoming increasingly important. Because it provides consistent, turnkey standards and third-party verification, accreditation is quickly emerging as an important tool for regulators. For cannabis testing laboratories, this trend has been especially pronounced with the increasing number of states that require accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025.
As of 2017 there were nearly 68,000 laboratories accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, making it the single most important benchmark for testing laboratories around the world. ISO/IEC 17025:2005 specifies the general requirements for the competence to carry out tests including sampling. It covers testing performed using standard methods, non-standard methods and laboratory-developed methods. It is applicable to all organizations performing tests including cannabis labs. The standard is applicable to all labs regardless of the number of personnel or the extent of the scope of testing activities. Developed to promote confidence in the operation of laboratories, the standard is now being used as a key prerequisite to operate as a cannabis lab in many states.
There are currently 26 states in the United States (also Canada) that require medical or adult-use cannabis to be tested as of February 2019. Of those states, 18 require cannabis testing laboratories to be accredited – with the vast majority requiring ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation. States that require testing laboratories to attain ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation represent some of the largest and most sophisticated cannabis regulatory structures in the country, including California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio. As a consequence, many cannabis testing laboratories are taking note of recent changes to ISO/IEC 17025 standards.
ISO/IEC 17025 was first issued in 1999 by the International Organization for Standardization. The standard was updated in 2005, and again in 2017. The most recent update keeps many of the legacy standards from 2005, but adds several components – specifically requirements for impartiality, risk assessment and assessing measurement uncertainty. The remainder of this article takes a deeper dive into these three areas of ISO/IEC 17025, and what that means for cannabis testing laboratories.Objectivity is the absence or resolution of conflicts of interest to prevent adverse influence on laboratory activities.
ISO/IEC 17025:2005 touched on an impartiality requirement, but only briefly. The previous standard required laboratories that belonged to organizations performing activities other than testing and/or calibration to identify potential conflicts of interest for personnel involved with testing or calibration. It further required that laboratories had policies and procedures to avoid impartiality, though that requirement was quite vague.
ISO/IEC17025:2017 emphasizes the importance of impartiality and establishes strict requirements. Under the new standard, labs are responsible for conducting laboratory activities impartially and must structure and manage all laboratory activities to prevent commercial, financial or other operational pressures from undermining impartiality. The definitions section of the standard defines impartiality as the “presence of objectivity.” Objectivity is the absence or resolution of conflicts of interest to prevent adverse influence on laboratory activities. For further elaboration, the standard provides similar terms that also convey the meaning of impartiality: lack of prejudice, neutrality, balance, fairness, open-mindedness, even-handedness, detachment, freedom from conflicts of interest and freedom from bias.
To comply with the new standard, all personnel that could influence laboratory activities must act impartially. ISO/IEC 17025:2017 also requires that laboratory management demonstrate a commitment to impartiality. However, the standard is silent on how labs must demonstrate such commitment. As a starting point, some cannabis laboratories have incorporated statements emphasizing impartiality into their employee handbooks and requiring management and employee training on identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Both the 2005 and 2017 versions contain management system requirements. A major update to this is the requirement in ISO/IEC 17025:2017 that laboratory management systems incorporate actions to address risks and opportunities. The new risk-based thinking in the 2017 version reduces prescriptive requirements and incorporates performance-based requirements.
Under ISO/IEC 17025:2017, laboratories must consider risks and opportunities associated with conducting laboratory activities. This analysis includes measures that ensure that:
The lab’s management system is successful;
The lab has policies to increase opportunities to achieve its goals and purpose;
The lab has taken steps to prevent or reduce undesired consequences and potential failures; and
The lab is achieving overall improvement.
Labs must be able to demonstrate how they prevent or mitigate any risks to impartiality that they identify.To comply with ISO/IEC 17025:2017, labs must plan and implement actions to address identified risks and opportunities into management systems. They must also measure the effectiveness of such actions. Importantly, the standard requires that the extent of risk assessments must be proportional to the impact a given risk may have on the validity of the laboratory’s test results.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 does not require that labs document a formal risk management process, though labs have discretion to develop more extensive methods and processes if desired. To meet the requirements of the standard, actions to address risks can include sharing the risk, retaining the risk by informed decision, eliminating the risk source, pinpointing and avoiding threats, taking risks in order to pursue an opportunity, and changing the likelihood or consequence of the risk.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 references “risks” generally throughout most of the standard. However, it specifically addresses risks to a laboratory’s impartiality in section 4.1. Note, the new standard requires that labs must not only conduct activities impartially, but also actively identify risks to their impartiality. This requirement is on-going, not annually or bi-annually. Risks to impartiality include risks arising from laboratory activities, from laboratory relationships, or from relationships of laboratory personnel. Relationships based on ownership, governance, shared resources, contracts, finances, marketing, management, personnel and payment of a sales commission or other inducements to perform under pressure can threaten a laboratory’s impartiality. Labs must be able to demonstrate how they prevent or mitigate any risks to impartiality that they identify.
Assessing Measurement Uncertainty With Decision Rules
ISO/IEC 17025:2005 required (only where necessary and relevant) test result reports to include a statement of compliance/non-compliance with specifications and to identify which clauses of the specification were met or not met. Such statements were required to take into account measurement uncertainty and if measurement results and uncertainties were omitted from the statement, the lab was required to record and maintain the results for future reference.
ISO/IEC 17025:2017 requires similar statements of conformity with an added “decision rule” element. When statements of conformity to a specification or standard are provided, labs must record the decision rule it uses and consider the level of risk the decision rule will have on recording false positive or negative test results. Like the 2005 version, labs must include statements of conformity in test result reports (only if necessary and relevant- see 184.108.40.206 (b)). Now, test result reports on statements of conformity must include the decision rule that was employed.
Because many states require ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for licensing, cannabis testing labs across the country would be well advised to closely monitor the implications of changes in ISO/IEC 17025:2017 related to impartiality, risk assessment and measurement uncertainty. If you run a cannabis testing lab, the best way to ensure compliance is education, and the best place to learn more about the new requirements is from a globally recognized accreditation body, especially if it is a signatory to the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) for testing laboratories, calibration laboratories and inspection agencies.
For the second time in six months, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) took swift and severe action on a cannabis business licensee operating in the black market. The regulatory agency issued an emergency license suspension for Port Angeles’ North Coast Concentrates, which are effective for 180 days, during which time regulators plan on revoking the license altogether.
According to a release emailed last week, the violation was uncovered during a routine traffic stop. “On September 20, 2018 an employee of North Coast Concentrates was pulled over by Lower Elwha Police, during the course of the traffic stop officers found 112 grams of traceable marijuana concentrates, three large jars and a large tote bin of untraced dried marijuana flower,” reads the release. “The products were not manifested in the state traceability system. Subsequent investigation by WSLCB officers revealed that the untraced product had been removed from the licensees grow operation and that the traced concentrates were returned from a marijuana retailer in Tacoma several weeks earlier.”
The release goes on to add that when regulators investigated the matter, they found text messages indicating the license holder’s complicity in the act. When the WSLCB suspended the license, officers seized “556 pounds of marijuana flower product, 24 pounds of marijuana oil and 204 plants from both locations.” Regulators say, “the severity of these violations and the risk of diversion” is the reason for the emergency suspension and product seizures.
According to the end of the release, The WSLCB issued one emergency suspension in 2017, and six in 2018. One of those was roughly six months ago in July when regulators issued an emergency suspension for a Tacoma-based cannabis business for the same reason as the most recent one- diversion.
The enforcement branch of the WSLCB acted on a complaint and inspected Refined Cannabinoids where they found “numerous and substantial violations including full rooms of untagged plants, clones and finished product,” reads a release emailed back in July. “During the course of the inspection officers discovered and seized 2,569 marijuana plants, 1,216 marijuana plant clones, 375.8 lbs. of frozen marijuana flower stored in 11 freezer chests, 3,423 0.5 gram marijuana cigarettes, and 97.5 lbs. of bulk marijuana flower without the requisite traceability identifiers.”
That July release also states that enforcement officers found evidence of diversion to the black market, in addition to the company not tracking their product. “Traceability is a core component of Washington’s system and essential for licensee compliance,” says Justin Nordhorn, WSLCB chief of enforcement. “If our licensees fail to track their product they put their license in jeopardy.”
No matter the size of your cannabis greenhouse operation, keeping your plants alive and healthy requires the best possible growing environment. This means greenhouse managers and personnel must frequently monitor the status of environmental conditions and equipment. The sooner someone discovers extreme temperature fluctuations, rising humidity or equipment failure, the more inventory you can save.
That’s why integrating a remote monitoring system into your greenhouse operation can save you time, money and anxiety. Monitoring systems that use cloud-based technology let you see real-time status of all monitored conditions and receive alerts right on your mobile device.
Installing a monitoring system and sensors can be easier than you might think. Here are answers to ten questions to ask before installing a cloud-based monitoring system:
What is required to use a remote monitoring system?
Most remote monitoring systems require an internet or WiFi connection and access to an electrical outlet. Programming is done through a website, so it’s easiest to use a computer for the initial setup. If you don’t have an internet connection at your location, you’ll want to choose a cellular system. Make sure that there’s sufficient signal strength at your site, and check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular device.
2. How do we determine what kind of monitoring system and sensors we need?
A reputable manufacturer will have a well-trained support team that can assess your needs even without a site visit to determine which products are best for your application. If you feel you need them to check out your greenhouse operation,many companies can set up a video conference or FaceTime chat to substitute for being on site.
You will want to provide details about the scope and purpose of your cannabis growing operation. Important factors to discuss include:
Skeletal structure of the greenhouse (metal, plastic, wood, etc.) and the covering material (glass or plastic).
Floor space square footage and height of each of your greenhouses.
Number of greenhouse structures in your operation.
Outdoor climate to determine if you rely more on heating or air conditioning and the level of humidity control needed.
Space dedicated to phases of growth (cloning and propagation, vegetative, flowering) and the microclimates needed for each.
Types of lighting, ventilation and irrigation systems.
Level of technological automation versus manual operation in place.
The monitoring system representative will then determine the type of system that would best serve your operation, the number of base units you will need and the types of sensors required.
The representative should also be able to provide tips on the placement of the sensors you’re purchasing. For example, to ensure thorough air temperature coverage, place sensors throughout the greenhouse, next to the thermostat controlling the room temperature and in the center of the greenhouse out of direct sunlight.
Note that there shouldn’t be a cost for a demo, consultation or assistance throughout the sales process. Be sure to ask if there are any fees or licenses to keep using the monitoring equipment after you purchase it.
3. Are sensors included with the monitoring system?
In most cases, sensors are sold separately. The sensors you select depend upon the conditions you want to monitor and how many you can connect to your base unit. Certainly, temperature is critical, but there are many other factors to deal with as well, such as humidity, CO2, soil moisture, water pH, power and equipment failure, ventilation and physical security.
For example, humidity has a direct impact on the photosynthesis and transpiration of plants. High humidity can also cause disease and promote the growth of harmful mold, algae and mildew. Sensors can detect changes in humidity levels.
Like any other plant, cannabis needs CO2 to thrive, so it’s a good idea to include a CO2 sensor that will signal to the monitoring device when readings go out of the preset range. There are even sensors that you can place in the soil to measure moisture content to help prevent over- or underwatering, budget water usage costs, promote growth and increase crop yield and quality.
Of course, all the critical systems in your growing facility—from water pumps to irrigation lines to louvers—rely on electrical power. A power outage monitoring sensor detects power failure. It can also monitor equipment for conditions that predict if a problem is looming, such as power fluctuations that occur at specific times.
Ventilation systems not only help control temperature, they also provide fresh air that is critical to plant health. Automated systems include features like vented roofs, side vents and forced fans. Sensors placed on all these systems will send personnel an alert if they stop running or operate outside of preset parameters.
To monitor the physical security of your greenhouses, you can add sensors to entrance doors, windows, supply rooms and equipment sheds. During off hours, when no staff is on duty, you can remain vigilant and be alerted to any unauthorized entry into your facility.
4. Do monitoring systems only work with the manufacturer’s sensors?
Not necessarily. For example, certain monitoring units can connect with most 4-20mA sensors and transmitters regardless of the brand. When selecting sensors, you might have a choice between ones that are designed by the manufacturer to work specifically with the monitoring system or universal components made by a third party. If the components aren’t made by the system manufacturer, you’ll want to find out if they have been tested with the monitor you are choosing and if you need to work with another vendor to purchase the parts.
5. Is a monitoring system easy to set up, or do we need to hire an electrician?
Many monitoring systems are quick and easy to install, and users can often set them up without hiring an outside expert. Look for one that requires only a few simple physical installation steps. For example:
Mount the device to the wall or somewhere secure;
Plug it into an electrical outlet and an internet connection;
Connect the sensors.
You connect the sensors to the base unit’s terminal strip using wire, which is included with many sensors. The range of many wired sensors can be extended up to 2,000 feet away from the base unit by adding wire that can be easily purchased at any home store. It’s a good idea to hire an electrician if you need to run wires through walls or ceilings.
Usually, once you plug in the device and connect the sensors, you then create an account on the manufacturer’s designated website and begin using your device. There should be no fee to create an account and use the site.
If the manufacturer doesn’t offer installation services, ask if they can recommend a local representative in your area who can set up your system. If not, make sure they provide free technical support via phone or email to walk you through the installation and answer any questions you might have about programming and daily usage.
6. Is there a monthly fee to access all the functionality of a monitoring device?
Many web- or cloud-based systems provide free functionality with some limitations. You might have to purchase a premium subscription to unlock features such as text messaging, phone call alerts and unlimited data logging access.
7. Should we get a system that is wired or wireless? Will we need to have a phone line, cable, internet or something else?
Wireless can mean two different things as it relates to monitoring: how the system communicates its data to the outside world and how the sensors communicate with the system.
The most popular systems require an internet or WiFi connection, but if that’s not an option, cellular- and phone-based systems are available.
A hardwired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. A wireless system uses built-in radio transmitters to communicate with the base unit. Some monitoring systems can accommodate a combination of hardwired and wireless sensors.
8. Can one system monitor several sensor inputs around the clock?
Once the monitoring system is installed and programmed, it will constantly read the information from the sensors 24/7. Cloud-based systems have data logging capabilities and store limitless amounts of information that you can view from any internet-connected device via a website or app.
If the system detects any sensor readings outside of the preset range, it will send an alarm to all designated personnel. The number of sensors a base unit can monitor varies. Make sure to evaluate your needs and to select one that can accommodate your present situation and future growth.
When a monitoring system identifies a change in status, it immediately sends alerts to people on your contact list. If you don’t want all your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, some devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion or on a schedule. Multiple communications methods like phone, email and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. It’s a good idea to check the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Some systems allow for flexible scheduling, so that off-duty personnel don’t receive alerts.
9. Do monitoring systems have a back-up power system that will ensure the alarming function still works if the power goes out or if someone disconnects the power?
The safest choice is a cloud-based system that comes with a built-in battery backup that will last for hours in the event of a power failure. Cloud-based units constantly communicate a signal to the cloud to validate its online status. If the communication link is interrupted—for example by a power outage or an employee accidently switching off the unit—the system generates an alarm indicating that the internet connection is lost or that there is a cellular communications problem. Users are alerted about the disruption through phone, text or email. All data collected during this time will be stored in the device and will be uploaded to the cloud when the internet connection is restored.
If you opt for a cloud-based monitoring system, make sure the infrastructure used to create the cloud platform is monitored 24/7 by the manufacturer’s team. Ask if they have multiple backups across the country to ensure the system is never down.
10. What should we expect if we need technical support or repairs to the system?
Purchase your system from a reputable manufacturer that provides a warranty and offers full repair services in the event the product stops working as it should. Also, research to make sure their tech support team is knowledgeable and willing to walk you through any questions you have about your monitoring system. Often, support specialists can diagnose and correct unit setup and programming issues over the phone.
It helps to record your observations regarding the problem, so the tech team can look for trends and circumstances concerning the issue and better diagnose the problem. Ideally, the manufacturer can provide loaner units if your problem requires mailing the device to their facility for repair.
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