When a thriving cultivator purchased additional cannabis from a wholesale grower to meet the 5,000 pounds he was short, he was left holding the bag. A customer complained of a strong sulfur taste, and soon it was discovered that the wholesaler had applied the wrong pesticide concentration, rendering the cannabis unusable. The cultivator had to pull contaminated cannabis product from the shelves, a move that cost the company $3.5 million.
This story is not unique. When running short on product, cannabis businesses will often turn to other suppliers and partners to help them fulfill their orders. Unfortunately, improper vetting and a lack of understanding and compliance with state regulations and other requirements may lead to a loss of product integrity and costly product liabilities. Product liability can include more than just the cannabis itself, such as the equipment – vape cartridges, batteries, and lighters. This can quickly inflate the risk and, of course, the cost of a product liability claim.It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance.
Top Three Product Liability Exposures Facing Cannabis Cultivators and Distributors
Three key areas of product liability exposure face cannabis business owners. It’s important to understand how each will affect your business.
Product contamination.When cannabis is sold in an edible form, business owners could face claims of food poisoning or illness. If the product is smoked, there are exposures to contamination, product mislabeling or misrepresentation, and possible health hazard claims related to long-term exposure to potential contaminants.
First party claims. Claims made in the event of an accident, injury or loss, whether caused by the business owner or someone else, will create another set of exposures, including manufacturing defects, failure to warn users on potential product usage hazards, improper labeling, or any product-related defect such as mold or odor.
Third party claims. Cannabis business owners could be liable for claims stemming from the use of their cannabis product that result in a DUI, property damage, loss of wages, medical expenses and bodily injury.
It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance. While there are multiple lines of product liability insurance, you’ll want to make sure you choose one designed specifically for the cannabis industry. These policies may provide coverage for the following exposures:
Bodily injury damages
Fines and penalties for non-compliance with state regulation
Bodily or property injury caused to others by product misuse, or by a third party
Manufacturing or product-related defects
While product liability insurance covers a number of cannabis risks, it doesn’t cover them all. Cannabis operations require a variety of coverage – property, crime, general liability, worker’s compensationand crop insurance. Insurance carriers will differ in definitions, policy exclusions and coverage language for each policy.
Because designated cannabis product liability and business operations coverage is fairly new and the marketplace features a wide range of options, make sure to work with a broker who understands the fine print of your policies, and your unique needs. The right broker can provide advice and loss control to help you reduce product liability exposures, make product and risk management recommendations that best mitigate your exposures to prevent loss, and ensure the proper coverage to address potential claims.
Good news came to patients using medical cannabis in Arizona earlier this week: Lawmakers in Arizona unanimously passed SB1494 through the state’s House and Senate, the bill requiring mandatory lab testing for medical cannabis products. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is expected to sign the bill and has ten days to do so.
When Governor Ducey signs the bill into law it will mark the first time since the state legalized medical cannabis in 2011 that a measure to protect patient safety via lab testing will be implemented. According to the bill, beginning November 1, 2020, all cannabis products shall be tested prior to sales “to determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed,” (Page 6, Section 36-2803).
The bill requires dispensaries to provide test results to patients immediately upon request. Dispensaries need to display a sign notifying patients of their right to see “certified independent third-party laboratory test results for marijuana and marijuana products for medical use,” according to the text of the bill (Page 7, Section 36-2803.01).“There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Under the new bill, the Arizona Department of Health Services will adopt rules to certify and regulate labs, establishing requirements like health and safety protocols, mandatory quality assurance program and standards, chain of custody and sampling policies, adequate records, accreditation, proficiency testing, among other requirements (Page 6-7, Section 36-2803).
Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA) and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, says this is a major turning point for Arizona’s cannabis industry. “We have been devoid of regulations with regard to testing the entirety of the program since it was legalized; This will be a significant change,” says Treacy. “Now patients can make sure they are getting a safe and clean product and getting exactly what they paid for.”
For those in the know when it comes to cannabis testing in the United States, the new requirements will look very similar to other states with testing requirements. One particularly unique aspect of the new program, however, is the establishment of a “Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council,” made up of stakeholders representing different interests in Arizona’s cannabis industry. Members of the council will include representatives from dispensaries, labs, cultivators, concentrate producers, edibles producers, as well as registered patients, caregivers, a representative from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, a licensed health care provider and “any other members deemed necessary by the director,” reads the text of the bill (page 16, Section 36-2821).
“Other states like California have complained about detection limits, while Arizona is taking a unique approach with an advisory council with stakeholders in the cannabis industry,” says Treacy. “So that when the Department of Health Services promulgates rules, they are taking into account the challenges in the cannabis industry specifically. We have a chance to do this right and avoid pitfalls we’ve seen in other states.”
One problem worth mentioning for Arizona’s cannabis industry: Dispensaries have not been required to test products for patients since medical cannabis was legalized back in 2011. That means many producers could be very used to operating procedures that don’t account for lab testing. With mandatory lab testing, some producers may be behind the curve when it comes to mitigating contamination.
According to Treacy, this could disrupt the supply chain a little bit. “When testing becomes mandatory in November 2020, dispensaries will need a full panel of tests performed on their samples,” says Treacy. “With the entire market now required to complete a full panel in depth analysis on each product, product testing will become a more time-consuming stop in the supply chain. So companies will need to work that into their plan to meet regulation requirements to prevent a bottleneck and maintain patients’ access to their cannabis medicine.”
Arizona has a chance to prevent that type of bottleneck seen in states that implemented testing requirements, like California for example. “When you have a habitual history of not testing products, it can be very hard to change, which adds to Arizona’s challenges,” says Treacy. “We need to make sure this does not affect access for patients and the ability of the industry to continue to flourish and grow.”
While Treacy thinks the transition will be difficult for some, it’s absolutely necessary for Arizona’s patients to access clean and safe medicine. “There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Unlike the food industry, the cannabis industry is still in its infancy. Which means there is not a push from retailers demanding cannabis farmers, extractors or manufacturers to get third-party audits. In fact, most grow operations supply into their own dispensaries. So why should a cannabis farmer, extractor or manufacturer get a third-party audit? Third-party audits are crucial to maintaining product safety and quality by providing a third set of eyes to verify what is working and what is not. Besides regulatory requirements and customers requiring your facility to get a third-party audit, there are numerous other benefits to receiving an audit. Some of these benefits include:
Improvement to product safety
Improvement to product quality and consistency
Meeting regulatory compliance
Eliminating potential risks and possible recalls
Marketing advantages over competitors who are not audited by a third-party
Improvement to consumer confidence and an increase to brand loyalty
How to Prepare for a Third-Party Audit
Working for a certification body, I am in the unique position to see numerous sites go through the certification process. In this position I have seen both extremes: Sites that spend 6-8 months and a lot of resources preparing for an audit, as well as sites that wait until the day before to even look at the audit standard. Unfortunately, the latter is almost always going to fail the audit. Here are seven steps for preparing for your next third-party audit.“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”– Benjamin Franklin
Start Preparing Early
Think of your third-party audit as a college exam one month away. You could start studying for the exam now and get a real understanding of the material or you could wait until the day before to start your no-sleep, energy drink-fueled, 24-hour cram session. We all know which preparation method will get a better score on the exam. Now let’s apply that same strategy to your third-party audit. Once you have decided what audit is best for your site and have those specific standards in your hand, the clock starts ticking and you should already be preparing for the audit, whether it is one month or six months away.
Get Management Commitment
It is essential to the entire cannabis safety and quality system to have commitment from top down. Without this, the site will not get the resources (people, equipment, money, time, etc.) they need to pass a third-party audit. Management commitment is so important that it is often seen as its own section in most modern audit standards. It is very easy for third-party auditors to identify when there is a lack of management commitment in a site. Therefore, if you don’t get management commitment, then you are already starting off the audit on a bad note.
Create a To-Do-List
Think of the entire audit checklist or standard as your long to-do list. Some things, like attaining a certificate of analysis (COA) from a supplier, may only need to be done annually. While other things, such as ensuring employees are following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), will need to be done continuously throughout day to day operations. Go through the audit checklist and separate what needs to be done annually, semiannually, quarterly, monthly and continuously throughout day to day operations. This will give you a list with all of the frequencies of each different requirement.
Teamwork“Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.” – John C. Maxwell
The preparation of an audit should never rest on the shoulders of one person. Yet this is something I tend to see too often in both food and cannabis facilities alike. Your site should establish a cannabis safety and quality team of multidiscipline personnel that have an impact on product safety and quality. Once the team is established, various tasks from the to-do-list can be disbursed among all the members of the team. Collaboration is key to successfully preparing for a third-party audit, especially when the timelines are very stringent.
Training is essential to preparing for your third-party audit. This is what closes the gaps between what the safety and quality department have developed and what your front-line employees are applying. All employees should know what part of the audit standard applies to them. Additionally, employees should be trained on interview questions that the auditor might ask them during the audit. Helping them prepare for these types of questions will help ease their nerves and allow them to answer the questions with self-assurance when it comes time to the actual audit.
Conduct Internal Audits
Conducting internal audits is not only a great way to prepare for your third-party audit, it’s a requirement. You should always use the audit checklist to observe your documents and facility to see where there are gaps. If possible, the person or team conducting the internal audit should never review their own work. Additionally, all issues or non-conformances should be noted, evaluated, corrected and closed out.
Third-Party Pre-Assessment or Mock Audit (Optional)
A third-party pre-assessment or mock audit is the closest thing you can get to an actual audit. This is where a company would come in and evaluate your site to the specific standards and give a formal report over any deficiencies found during the assessment and how to fix them. This is a great way to test your preparedness before the actual audit.
AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.
In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.
Where It All Began With Cannabis
As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.
According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”
Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs
Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”
According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.
Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles
The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.
Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.
While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing
Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.
“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”
When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.
Food Authenticity & Fraud
One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.
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 126.96.36.199 (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.
The press release says this makes EVIO Labs Massachusetts one of only a few operating and accredited testing laboratories serving the state’s medical cannabis industry. With recreational sales coming shortly to the state, EVIO is preparing for a higher demand in their lab testing services. “We are very proud of all of the teams’ hard work that resulted in this advanced accreditation,” says James Kocis, lab director of EVIO Labs Massachusetts. “With the state-mandated laboratory regulations, EVIO upholds the high standards of testing and plays a pivotal role in ensuring consumer safety and confidence in the states burgeoning marijuana market.”
According to Adam Gouker, general manager at A2LA, EVIO Labs Massachusetts, based in Southborough, MA, is the first cannabis laboratory they accredited in the state. “A2LA is excited to expand our cannabis accreditation program into yet another state, promoting the value of independent third-party accreditation to support quality products in the industry,” says Gouker. “Having the opportunity to work with a prominent name in the industry such as EVIO Labs and assess their exceptional Massachusetts laboratory has been an additional bonus.”
According to the A2LA press release, by achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, EVIO Labs Massachusetts demonstrates that they “have management, quality and technical systems in place to ensure accurate and reliable analyses, as well as proper administrative processes to ensure that all aspects related to the sample, the analysis, and the reporting are standardized, measured, and monitored.” It also requires that personnel are competent to perform each analysis.
TFNR is now the first recreational cannabis-testing laboratory in Alaska accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 standard. According to Roger Brauninger, A2LA biosafety program manager, this accreditation is a sign of attention to thorough science. “Cannabis testing laboratories that have gained ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation have demonstrated their competence and commitment to rigorous science,” says Brauninger. “In the greatly scrutinized recreational cannabis industry, we are pleased to have granted the first accreditation of its kind in Alaska.”
According to the press release, the ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is the most significant third-party lab accreditation an organization can receive. The standard confirms labs have management, quality and technical systems designed for accurate and repeatable analyses, in addition to proper administrative processes for testing.
Jessica Alexander, technical director of the TNFR laboratory, says this is the first step in many to researching the medical properties of cannabis. “By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, The New Frontier Research believes that it advances the cannabis industry as a whole so that we can conduct legitimate research to unlock the amazing potential that this plant has for development of more effective medicines to address problems like opioid dependence and pediatric seizures,” says Alexander.
Editor’s Note: This is an article submission from the EAS Consulting Group, LLC team.
To Audit, or not to audit? Not even a question! Audits play a crucial role in verifying and validating business practices, ensuring suppliers are meeting their requirements for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and most importantly, protecting your interests by ensuring that you consistently receive a compliant and quality product. Audits can help ensure sound business procedures and quality systems, including well-established SOPs, verification and documentation of batch records, appropriate sanitation practices and safe storage and use of ingredients. Audits can also identify deficiencies, putting into motion a corrective action plan to mitigate any further challenges. While a detailed audit scheme is commonplace for established industries such as food, pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements, it is equally important for the cannabis industry to ensure the same quality and safety measures are applied to this budding industry.
If the question then is not whether to audit, perhaps the question is howand when to audit, particularly in the case of a company’s suppliers.This is an opportunity to strengthen the working relationship with each side demonstrating a commitment to the end product.
Supplier audits ensure first and foremost that the company with which you have chosen to work is operating in a manner that meets or exceeds your quality expectations – and you should have expectations because ultimately your product is your responsibility. Any issues that arise, even if they are technically the fault of a supplier, become your issue, meaning any enforcement action taken by your state regulators will directly impact your business. Yes, your supplier may provide you with a batch Certificate of Analysis but you should certify their results as well.
Audits are a snapshot of a moment in time and therefore should be conducted on a regular basis, perhaps biennially or even annually, if they are a critical supplier. In some cases, companies choose to bring in third-party auditors to provide an objective assessment of suppliers. This is especially helpful when the manufacturer or customer does not have the manufacturing, compliance and analytical background to accurately interpret data gathered as part of the audit. With the responsibility for ensuring ingredient identity and product integrity falling on the manufacturer, gaining an unbiased and accurate assessment is imperative to reducing the risk to your business.
Conducting a supplier audit should be well planned in advance to ensure both sides are ready. The audit team must be prepared and able to perform their duties via a combination of education, training and experience. A lead auditor will oversee the team and ultimately will also oversee the results, verifying all nonconformities have been properly identified. They will also work with the supplier to conduct a root cause analysis for those nonconformities and develop a corrective action plan to eliminate them from occurring in the future. The audit lead will also verify follow-up results.
Auditors should discuss with the supplier in advance what areas will be observed, what documentation will need to be ready for review and they should conduct their assessments with professionalism. After all, this is an opportunity to strengthen the working relationship with each side demonstrating a commitment to the end product.This is your chance to ensure your suppliers are performing and will meet your business, quality and product expectations.
Auditors must document that ingredient identity and finished product specifications are verified by test methods appropriate for the intended purpose (such as a whole compound versus a powder). State regulations vary so be certain to understand the number and types of required tests. Once the audit is complete and results are analyzed, you, the manufacturer, have an opportunity to determine if the results are acceptable. Remember, it is your product, so ultimately it is your responsibility to review the available data and release the product to market, you cannot put that responsibility on your supplier.
Quality Agreements as Part of a Business Agreement
There are opportunities to strengthen a partnership at every turn, and one way to set a relationship on the right path is to include a quality agreement as part of a business agreement. A quality agreement lays out your expectations for your suppliers, what you are responsible for and is a living document that, once signed, demonstrates their commitment to upholding the standards you expect. Just as with a business agreement, have any quality agreements reviewed by an outside expert to ensure the wording is sound and that your interests are protected. This is just another step in the development of a well-executed business plan and one that solidifies expectations and provides consequences when those expectations are not met.
Supplier audits must be taken seriously as they are opportunities to protect your brand, your business and your consumers. Enter into an audit as you would with any business endeavor – prepared. This is your chance to ensure your suppliers are performing and will meet your business, quality and product expectations.
EVIO Labs recently became the first cannabis laboratory in Florida to obtain ISO 17025 accreditation. Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), an organization that provides third-party assessments to ISO/IEC 17025, accredited EVIO Labs. The assessment process that lead to ISO 17025 accreditation for EVIO Labs included a thorough review of their quality management system, their capability to perform potency and contaminant testing for cannabis products.
Tracy Szerszen, president and operations manager at PJLA, encourages this international standard for laboratories to provide confidence to end-users that the test results they receive are reliable. She says laboratories that achieve this accreditation are showing they have the proper tools, equipment and staff to provide accurate testing. “It is a very critical component of the industry, and becoming accredited provides the assurance that laboratories are performing to the highest standard,” says Szerszen. “EVIO Labs has taken the right step in their commitment towards meeting this standard and providing clean and safe cannabis for the patients of Florida.”
EVIO Labs provides cannabis testing for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, microbiological and pesticides contamination, residual solvent, heavy metals, mycotoxins, water activity and moisture content. Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs Florida explains that the Florida Department of Health mandates that an independent third-party laboratory tests medical cannabis to ensure that these products are safe for human consumption. Martinez says their first priority is the safety of their patients, and ensuring that EVIO Labs provides clean and safe cannabis for Florida.
Martinez launched their laboratory with some help from Shimadzu last year. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez. According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
Every certificate of analysis is reviewed by a lab director with over 20 years of experience operating in FDA regulated labs. Martinez says that EVIO has some of the most advanced technology in the industry, which provides them the opportunity to quickly provide results, frequently as fast as a 24-hour period. Martinez and his team are currently building a 3,300 square-foot laboratory in Gainesville, which is expected to be running by March of this year.
According to the Marijuana Policy Group, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to reach more than $13 billion in sales by 2020 and create more jobs than the U.S. manufacturing industry. According to Viridian Capital’s Cannabis Deal Tracker, there were close to 100 M&A transactions in the U.S. cannabis industry in 2016 and approximately $1.2 billion was raised in equity and debt. As the cannabis industry has grown more mature and businesses begin to have more capital available, the M&A activity within the industry is poised to grow significantly over the next years to assist businesses gain necessary scale and take advantage of synergies and diversification.
The Obvious Wrinkle
U.S federal law has prohibited the manufacture and distribution of cannabis since 1935. The U.S. regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (i.e., drugs determined to have a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety regarding their use). Yet, more than 25 states have by now legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes and, as a result, there is a clear conflict between such state laws and existing federal law. To possibly help bridge that conflict, the U.S. Attorney General’s office in 2013 issued guidance directing the federal government not to intervene with state cannabis laws except in specific, limited circumstances, but, contrarily, the DEA has shown no desire to re-classify cannabis. To add to the confusion, President Trump and the new U.S. Attorney General have provided mixed statements and signals about their positions.
All of this means that it continues to be risky to acquire cannabis businesses. The requirements to legally grow, distribute, prescribe, and use cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes vary widely by country, state, and local jurisdiction, making it tricky to determine whether such businesses can be legally combined, in particular, across state lines.
Pick the Right Team of Advisors
When preparing to sell or buy a cannabis business, it is important to pick the right team of advisors. Your regular legal counsel, accounting firm or CPA may not be the right advisors for a cannabis M&A transaction. Choose a legal counsel that not only has experience with cannabis laws and regulations, but also has cannabis M&A experience and can offer expert advice on areas like IP, employment, tax matters, etc. Similarly, verify that your accounting firm or CPA has real experience with financial and quality of earnings analysis and due diligence.
Conduct Gating Due Diligence Up Front
In any contemplated M&A transaction, it is wise to prioritize your due diligence investigations. There will always be some more prominent risks and business objectives in a particular industry or with respect to a specific target business. It will be more cost and time effective if those specific risks and business objectives are prioritized early in the due diligence process. These can dictate whether you even want to pursue the target further before you dig into a deeper and broader due diligence investigation. Conducting gating due diligence up front is even more important in an industry like cannabis that contain complex and thorny regulatory hurdles.
So, before you spend money and time on a broader legal, business and financial due diligence investigation, have your legal counsel analyze and confirm that the potential transaction is feasible from a regulatory perspective. This will include whether it is possible to obtain or transfer necessary local and/or state licenses and whether a combination or sale can occur across state lines if necessary. Early on in the process, It is also advisable to request that the target business complete a legal compliance questionnaire or discuss with the target its regulatory compliance program, policies and training. Such up front due diligence will either clear a path to negotiations and broader confirmatory due diligence or flush out “red flags” that may kill a possible deal or require the buyer to investigate further before proceeding.
Important Terms and Pitfalls in the M&A Agreement
Generally, a sale or purchase agreement for a cannabis business does not appear to vary much from a similar agreement in any other industry. However, the complex environment and the premature nature of the industry impacts certain deal terms and processes in different ways from most other developed industries.
Here are few examples to keep in mind when preparing and negotiating a sale or purchase agreement:
Third Party and Governmental Consents: Buyer’s legal due diligence must focus on the consents that may be required from seller’s suppliers, customers, landlords, licensors or other third parties under relevant contracts. Additionally, the due diligence should focus on consents and approvals required by local and state regulators as a result of the sale. The M&A agreement should contain solid seller representations and warranties about all such consents and approvals and any such material consents and approvals should, from a buyer’s perspective, be a condition precedent to closing of the transaction.
Legal Compliance: A buyer should not agree to a boilerplate seller representation about the target’s compliance with laws. Be specific and tailor seller’s legal compliance representation to relevant state and local cannabis laws, regulations and ordinances. From a seller perspective, be careful and thoughtful about any appropriate exceptions (including the federal prohibition) to be disclosed to buyer in the disclosure schedules underlying the sale or purchase agreement.
Financial statements: The cannabis industry is very fragmented and consists of many small businesses. Many of these small businesses do not have financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP and may consist of only management prepared financials. In that scenario, a buyer should have its financial advisor do an analysis of the financials available and ask seller to provide a representation and warranty about the accuracy and good faith preparation of the provided financials.
Escrow: Typically, a buyer will request some part of the purchase price be placed with an independent financial institution for a period of time post-closing as a source of recovery for losses as a result of breaches by seller of any of the representations and warranties in the definitive sale or purchase agreement. Due to the federal cannabis and banking regulations, many of the larger commercial banks will not provide financial services to cannabis businesses, in particular if the business touches the plant. The parties must therefore consider alternatives, including local financial institutions with more relaxed compliance requirements or perhaps place the escrow in a trust account of a law firm or other independent party.
Working Capital Dispute Procedures: Similar to the escrow, larger accounting firms generally do not provide services to cannabis businesses. Due to the rapid evolution of cannabis related regulations, if the terms of the transaction include provisions for a post-closing working capital/purchase price adjustment and related dispute procedures, it is advisable to not name an arbiter in the agreement. Instead, parties should agree to mutually select the arbiter if and when a dispute should arise.
Indemnification: Because of the tricky legal environment of the cannabis industry, it may be prudent for a buyer to request, at the very least, that certain parts of seller’s legal compliance representation and warranty not be subject to the “regular” caps, deductibles and other indemnification limitations. Also, if a buyer has unearthed a significant issue in its due diligence investigation, it should consider asking seller for a special indemnity for such issue that would be indemnifiable regardless of buyer’s knowledge of the issue and not be subject to the general indemnification limitations.
R&W Insurance: If there’s a lot of competition for the purchase of a target, particularly in a bidding process, it is now common for buyer to offer to purchase a representation and warranty insurance policy (“R&W Insurance”) to possibly gain an advantage by limiting the seller’s post-closing indemnification exposure. The good news is that many of the R&W Insurance carriers do offer such insurance in connection with the sale and purchase of cannabis businesses. However, typically, R&W Insurance cannot be obtained for insured amounts of less than $5 million. Experienced M&A counsel can advise of the advantages and disadvantages of R&W Insurance and assist in the negotiation of the related terms.
The above are just some examples of what to expect in a cannabis M&A transaction. Every M&A transaction will have its unique issues that will need to be appropriately reflected in the sale or purchase agreements and good M&A practices will continue to evolve with the industry. If you are an owner of a successful cannabis business, buckle your seat belt and be prepared for an exciting ride as the industry gets closer to significant consolidation.
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