Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
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Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102

New Drug Delivery Mechanisms For Cannabis Products

By Aaron G. Biros
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Next Frontier Biosciences announced the launch of their new product line, Verra Wellness, in the Colorado market this week. The products are designed with relatively new concepts for the cannabis market, including nasal, sublingual and topical administration.

The company claims their product is the first-ever cannabis nasal mist. Co-founded by biotech executives Marc Graboyes and Dr. Paul Johnson, Ph.D, Next Frontier Biosciences is developing this product line with three formulations, each with a different ratio of THC and CBD. According to a press release, Next Frontier Biosciences is focused on developing cannabis products with these new drug delivery methods, and even offering a microdosing option.

“We believe that leveraging science and research is the key to optimizing product development,” says Dr. Johnson, one of the co-founders. “With the introduction of our Verra Wellness line of products, we are reshaping the cannabis industry by offering trusted products that provide uniform composition, formulation and dosing in highly consistent modes of administration.”

Their topical salves in the Verra Wellness product line are “designed to permeate skin and muscle tissue deeply without penetrating the blood stream or causing psychoactive effects,” reads a press release. In addition to the nasal mist and topical salve, they also launched a sublingual spray.

Marc Graboyes, chief executive officer and co-founder of Next Frontier Biosciences

According to Marc Graboyes, chief executive officer and co-founder of Next Frontier Biosciences, drug delivery mechanisms like a nasal mist are superior to smoking, vaporizing and edible administration. “Nasal administration is among the most effective delivery technologies due to the extensive vascularization and large surface area of the nasal cavity, allowing for rapid uptake and reliable results,” says Graboyes. “The cannabis nasal mist is a novel technology that other brands have not yet tapped into.”

He says this drug delivery mechanism is efficient, fast acting and a healthy alternative to smoking. “For many, nasal delivery is a desirable alternative delivery mechanism because it does not present the health risks associated with smoking,” says Graboyes. “In addition, as previously mentioned, the large surface area of the nasal cavity permits high drug absorption, and the fine-mist sprayer allows for accurate, consistent dosing and an excellent safety profile. Further, nasal delivery avoids first-pass metabolism by the liver, where a large fraction of orally delivered cannabinoids are inactivated.”

While the Verra Wellness product line is available in Colorado starting this week, the company has plans to expand into a number of other states as well. “We are executing a multi-state expansion, with plans to move into the California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada markets in the coming year,” says Graboyes.

Designing Your Continuing Cannabis Education Program

By RJ Starr
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As many states’ medical cannabis programs are already in full swing and several are launching or nearing their one-year or biennial maturation periods, medical cannabis dispensaries and cannabis cultivation and processing facilities should be fine-tuning their Continuing Cannabis Education Program, or CCEP, and be ready for inspection by state agencies.

While states with medical cannabis programs administer them through various agencies such as Department of Medicine/Health, Department of Pharmacy, Department of Commerce, Alcoholic Beverage Control, each has their own minimum requirements for continuing education in the medical cannabis space, and each structures their program in the direction within which that particular regulatory agency leans. Each state’s personality also brings an influential component as well; for example, a state with a highly visible opioid crisis may place greater emphasis on substance abuse training.

Suffice it to say that while there is certainly insight to be gained from knowing your particular state, there are certain elements of an ongoing professional development program that should be considered in each CCEP. This article will explore a few of the elements integral to any successful human capital and professional development plan from a vantage of compliance, and will offer some insight into the exceptional training methodology designed by Midwest Compassion Center and Bloom Medicinals.

There are a number of key considerations in developing a Continuing Cannabis Education Program, and a thoughtful CCEP should be developed specifically to meet the needs of both the organization and its employees. This can be done by a needs assessment consisting of three levels: organizational, occupational, and individual assessments.

  1. Needs assessment and learning objectives. This part of the framework development asks you to consider what kind of training is needed in your organization. Once you have determined the training needed, you can set learning objectives to measure at the end of the training.
    1. Organizational assessment. In this type of needs assessment, we can determine the skills, knowledge and abilities our cannabis dispensaries need in order to meet their strategic objectives. This type of assessment considers things such as changing laws, demographics and technology trends. Overall, this type of assessment looks at how the organization as a whole can handle its weaknesses while promoting strengths.
    2. Occupational (task) assessment. This type of assessment looks at the specific tasks, skills, knowledge and abilities required of our employees to do the jobs necessary within our dispensaries.
    3. Individual assessment. An individual assessment looks at the performance of an individual employee and determines what training should be accomplished for that individual.
  2. Consideration of learning styles. Making sure to teach to a variety of learning styles is important to development of training programs.
  3. Delivery mode. What is the best way to get your message across? Is classroom or web-based training more appropriate, or should one-on-one mentoring be used? Successful training programs should incorporate a variety of delivery methods.
  4. How much money do you have to spend on this training? This does not only include the cost of materials, but the cost of time. Consideration should also be given to the costs associated with not investing in training: CFO asks CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”
  5. Delivery style. Will the training be self-paced or instructor led? What kinds of discussions and interactions can be developed in conjunction with this training? The delivery style must take into account people’s individual learning styles. A balance of lectures, discussions, role-playing, and activities that solidify concepts are considered part of delivery style.
  6. Audience. Who will be part of this training? Do you have a mix of roles, such as accounting people and marketing people? What are the job responsibilities of these individuals, and how can you make the training relevant to their individual jobs? The audience for the training is an important aspect when developing your CCEP. This can allow the training to be better developed to meet the needs and the skills of a particular group of people.
  7. Content. What needs to be taught? How will you sequence the information? The content obviously is an important consideration. Learning objectives and goals for the training should be established and articulated before content is developed.
  8. Timelines. How long will it take to develop the training? Is there a deadline for training to be completed, and if so, what risk analysis can be used to determine the consequences of not meeting that deadline? After content is developed, understanding time constraints is an important aspect. Will the training take one hour or a day to deliver? What is the timeline consideration in terms of when people should take the training?
  9. Communication. How will employees know the training is available to them? Letting people know when and where the training will take place is part of communication.
  10. Measuring effectiveness. How will you know if your training worked? What ways will you use to measure this? The final aspect of developing a training framework is to consider how it will be measured. At the end, how will you know if the trainees learned what they needed to learn?

A thorough review of your state’s rules and regulations should take place quarterly, with one or more specific employees designated to stay abreast of changes. If your regulatory authority has implemented requirements that trainings must be approved in advance, know that as well, and keep your Continuous Cannabis Education Program up-to-date and ready for inspection.

California Manufacturing Regulations: What You Need To Know

By Aaron G. Biros
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In late November, California released their proposed emergency regulations for the cannabis industry, ahead of the full 2018 medical and adult use legalization for the state. We highlighted some of the key takeaways from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s regulations for the entire industry earlier. Now, we are going to take a look at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) cannabis manufacturing regulations.

According to the summary published by the CDPH, business can have an A-type license (for products sold on the adult use market) and an M-type license (products sold on the medical market). The four license types in extraction are as follows:

  • Type 7: Extraction using volatile solvents (butane, hexane, pentane)
  • Type 6: Extraction using a non-volatile solvent or mechanical method
    (food-grade butter, oil, water, ethanol, or carbon dioxide)
  • Type N: Infusions (using pre-extracted oils to create edibles, beverages,
  • capsules, vape cartridges, tinctures or topicals)
  • Type P: Packaging and labeling only

As we discussed in out initial breakdown of the overall rules, California’s dual licensing system means applicants must get local approval before getting a state license to operate.

The rules dictate a close-loop system certified by a California-licensed engineer when using carbon dioxide or a volatile solvent in extraction. They require 99% purity for hydrocarbon solvents. Local fire code officials must certify all extraction facilities.

In the realm of edibles, much like the rule that Colorado recently implemented, infused products cannot be shaped like a human, animal, insect, or fruit. No more than 10mg of THC per serving and 100mg of THC per package is allowed in infused products, with the exception of tinctures, capsules or topicals that are limited to 1,000 mg of THC for the adult use market and 2,000 mg in the medical market. This is a rule very similar to what we have seen Washington, Oregon and Colorado implement.

On a somewhat interesting note, no cannabis infused products can contain nicotine, caffeine or alcohol. California already has brewers and winemakers using cannabis in beer and wine, so it will be interesting to see how this rule might change, if at all.

CA Universal Symbol (JPG)

The rules for packaging and labeling are indicative of a major push for product safety, disclosure and differentiating cannabis products from other foods. Packaging must be opaque, cannot resemble other foods packaged, not attractive to children, tamper-evident, re-sealable if it has multiple servings and child-resistant. The label has to include nutrition facts, a full ingredient list and the universal symbol, demonstrating that it contains cannabis in it. “Statute requires that labels not be attractive to individuals under age 21 and include mandated warning statements and the amount of THC content,” reads the summary. Also, manufacturers cannot call their product a candy.

Foods that require refrigeration and any potentially hazardous food, like meat and seafood, cannot be used in cannabis product manufacturing. They do allow juice and dried meat and perishable ingredients like milk and eggs as long as the final product is up to standards. This will seemingly allow for baked goods to be sold, as long as they are packaged prior to distribution.

Perhaps the most interesting of the proposed rules are requiring written standard operating procedures (SOPs) and following good manufacturing practices (GMPs). Per the new rules, the state will require manufacturers to have written SOPs for waste disposal, inventory and quality control, transportation and security.

Donavan Bennett, co-founder and CEO of the Cannabis Quality Group

According to Donavan Bennett, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Cannabis Quality Group, California is taking a page from the manufacturing and life science industry by requiring SOPs. “The purpose of an SOP is straightforward: to ensure that essential job tasks are performed correctly, consistently, and in conformance with internally approved procedures,” says Bennett. “Without having robust SOPs, how can department managers ensure their employees are trained effectively? Or, how will these department managers know their harvest is consistently being grown? No matter the employee or location.” California requiring written SOPs can potentially help a large number of cannabis businesses improve their operations. “SOPs set the tempo and standard for your organization,” says Bennett. “Without effective training and continuous improvement of SOPs, operators are losing efficiency and their likelihood of having a recall is greater.”

Bennett also says GMPs, now required by the state, can help companies keep track of their sanitation and cleanliness overall. “GMPs address a wide range of production activities, including raw material, sanitation and cleanliness of the premises, and facility design,” says Bennett. “Auditing internal and supplier GMPs should be conducted to ensure any deficiencies are identified and addressed. The company is responsible for the whole process and products, even for the used and unused products which are produced by others.” Bennett recommends auditing your suppliers at least twice annually, checking their GMPs and quality of raw materials, such as cannabis flower or trim prior to extraction.

“These regulations are only the beginning,” says Bennett. “As the consumer becomes more educated on quality cannabis and as more states come online who derives a significant amount of their revenue from the manufacturing and/or life science industries (e.g. New Jersey), regulations like these will become the norm.” Bennett’s Cannabis Quality Group is a provider of cloud quality management software for the cannabis industry.

“Think about it this way: Anything you eat today or any medicine you should take today, is following set and stringent SOPs and GMPs to ensure you are safe and consuming the highest quality product. Why should the cannabis industry be any different?”

The Hiring Dilemma Facing The Cannabis Industry

By Gilbert J. Carrara, Jr., MD
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The business of cannabis is starting to mature and the industry as a whole is gearing up for rapid expansion. This means that pharmaceutical companies, dispensaries and other cannabis-focused businesses are starting to expand their executive teams. However, finding qualified candidates is proving to be an incredibly challenging task, due to the shallow talent pool of leaders with cannabis-related experience, the volatility of the industry and its lingering public perception problems. Companies must therefore dip into other, related talent pools. Here are some factors to consider when beginning the hiring process:

Desired Experience

The ideal candidate to fill an executive role in the medical cannabis industry needs to possess a unique skill set and extensive experience. One obvious source of candidates are peopleIt is important to be resilient in the face of intense criticism and have a thick skin. Diplomatic strength is required. who have hands-on leadership credentials in the pharmaceutical industry, given the highly regulated nature of both the business and consumer sectors. Other good talent sources are the tobacco industry and consumer healthcare services (such as hospitals and other kinds of medical centers).

Due to the evolving nature of the cannabis industry and the intense scrutiny it is under, executives will need to be well acquainted with how to manage compliance with governmental regulations and keep up-to-date on upcoming rule changes and potential legislation. This is especially true for dispensaries, as they are often arriving right after a state vote occurs, leaving no room for error when it comes to knowing and adapting to a state’s unique rules and regulations.

It is also important for a candidate to possess both business and consumer experience, not only on the medical and regulatory side of the business, but also the sales process. A large part of what medical executives do is indirect marketing through their interactions with people — both business affiliates and consumers. Having an executive with poor communication skills could prove to be costly down the line. 

Recommended Personality Characteristics

Due to the controversial nature of the business, a potential executive needs to possess a number of characteristics or personality traits. As with other industry sectors that face similar public approbation, including the tobacco industry, it is not a job for the thin-skinned or easily discouraged. Important traits to look for include:

Flexibility: Due to the evolving nature of the industry and its rapid growth, you cannot possibly control everything and everyone. Remaining flexible is the only way to remain sane and successful during this phase of industry expansion.This ability to easily communicate with diverse audiences is a strong indicator of success.

Resiliency: The cannabis industry is often vilified, and as a result so are the businesses and employees who work in it. It is important to be resilient in the face of intense criticism and have a thick skin. Diplomatic strength is required.

Adaptability: A candidate should be comfortable and credible talking about scientific and business issues one minute, and consumer issues the next. This ability to easily communicate with diverse audiences is a strong indicator of success.

Passion: If a candidate possesses passion for the cause and the medical and therapeutic value of cannabis, there is a much greater chance that they will weather the storm. Having someone who genuinely cares will show in every facet of the way they conduct business — from discussing quality of life to discussing the scientific background to relating to patients.

Hiring at an executive level is never easy and in the case of the cannabis industry, it is infinitely more challenging than most. It is imperative to never “settle” on a candidate simply because time is an issue. Having someone on your recruiting staff, or using a professional recruiter who has deep experience in the medical, pharmaceutical or consumer healthcare industries is also helpful, as they can “speak the language” of recruits and thoroughly answer their questions. Their credibility can help a candidate determine if the cannabis industry is right for them. Finding a quality candidate who understands the industry, the regulations and has a passion for their work will serve your business well as the cannabis industry matures.

Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 4

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry. In the third part, we heard from Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., discussing method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we sit down with Susan Audino, Ph.D., an A2LA lead assessor and instructor, laboratory consultant and board member for the Center for Research on Environmental Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Audino will share some insights into method validation and the most technical aspects of laboratory accreditation.

Susan Audino, Ph.D.

Susan Audino obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an analytical chemistry major, physical and biochemistry minor areas. She currently owns and operates a consulting firm to service chemical and biological laboratories. Susan has been studying the chemistry and applications of cannabinoids and provides scientific and technical guidance to cannabis dispensaries, testing laboratories and medical personnel. Dr. Audino’s interest most directly involves cannabis consumer safety and protection, and promotes active research towards the development of official test methods specifically for the cannabis industry, and to advocate appropriate clinical research. In addition to serving on Expert Review Panels, she is also chairing the first Cannabis Advisory Panel and working group with AOAC International, is a member of the Executive Committee of the ASTM Cannabis Section and has consulted to numerous cannabis laboratories and state regulatory bodies.

CannabisIndustryJournal: What are the some of the most significant technical issues facing an accreditation body when assessing a cannabis-testing laboratory?

Susan: From the AB perspective, there needs to be a high level of expertise to evaluate the merits and scientific soundness of laboratory-developed analytical test methods. Because there are presently no standard or consensus test methods available, laboratories are required to develop their own methods, which need to be valid. Validating methods require a rigorous series of tests and statistical analyses to ensure the correctness and reliability of the laboratory’s product, which is– the test report.

CIJ: When is method validation required and how does this differ from system suitability?

Susan: Method validation is required whenever the laboratory modifies a currently accepted consensus or standard test method, or when the laboratory develops its own method. Method validation is characterized by a series of analytical performance criteria including determinations of accuracy, precision, linearity, specification, limit of detection, and limit of quantitation. The determination of system suitability requires a series of deliberate variations of parameters to ensure the complete system, that is all instrument(s) as well as the analytical method, is maintained throughout the entire analytical process. Traditionally, method validation has been referred to as “ruggedness” and system suitability as “robustness.”

CIJ: What are the most important aspects of method validation that must be taken into account? 

Susan: In keeping with the FDA guidelines and other accepted criteria, I tend to recommend the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH), particularly Q 2A, which is a widely recognized program that discusses the pertinent characteristics of method validation. This include: method specification, linearity, range, accuracy, and precision (e.g., repeatability, intermediate precision, reproducibility). As mentioned earlier, system suitability is also a critical element and although related to method validation, does require its own protocol.

CIJ: What three areas do you see the laboratory having the hardest time with in preparing for accreditation? 

Susan: My responses to this question assume the laboratory employs appropriate instruments to perform the necessary analyses, and that the laboratory employs personnel with experience and knowledge appropriate to develop test methods and interpret test results.

  • By and large, method validation that is not appropriate to the scope of their intended work. Driving this is an overall lack of information about method validation. Oftentimes there is an assumption that multiple recoveries of CRMs constitute “validation”. While it may be one element, this only demonstrates the instrument’s suitability. My recommendation is to utilize any one of a number of good single laboratory validation protocols. Options include, but are not limited to AOAC International, American Chemical Society, ASTM, and ICH protocols.
  • Second is the lack of statistically sound sampling protocols for those laboratories that are mandated by their governing states to go to the field to sample the product from required batches. Sampling protocols needs to address the heterogeneity of the plant, defining the batch, and determining/collecting a sample of sufficient quantity that will be both large enough and representative of the population, and to provide the laboratory an adequate amount from which to sub-sample.
  • Third, sample preparation. This is somewhat intertwined with my previous point. Once an appropriate sample has been collected, preparation must be relevant to the appropriate technology and assay. It is unlikely that a laboratory can perform a single preparation that is amenable to comprehensive testing.

Protecting Your Cannabis Plant IP

By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S
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You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:

Plant Patents


Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.

Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.

Utility Patent
 

Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.

Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.

So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.

Plant Variety Protection Act


A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.

In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.

Notice

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.

urban-gro Launches Cannabis Industry’s First Line Of IoT Solutions

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week at the MJBizCon, a major cannabis industry event held annually in Las Vegas, urban-gro launched the first technology line for cannabis growers utilizing Internet-of-Things (IoT). urban-gro, a cultivation technology company for commercial-scale growers, announced the launch of announced Soleil® Technologies, an integrated portfolio of hardware, software, and services that uses IoT.

“The solution suite includes per-plant sensing, environmental monitoring, machine diagnostics, fertigation management, lighting controls, inventory management, and seed-to-sale tracking,” reads the press release. IoT is essentially a network of devices embedded with sensors and software that allow the devices to connect and exchange data. IoT devices are used extensively in the food industry, including for integrated pest management, restaurant food safety and management and tracking product conditions such as temperature and humidity throughout the supply chain, among other uses.

Soleil consists of three primary lines:

  • Soleil 360 is the cloud-based software-as-a-service (SASS) platform that integrates all Soleil solutions.
  • Soleil Sense is the brand for all of urban-gro’s low-power wireless sensors that deliver data with the scale, precision and resolution needed for analytics and machine learning.
  • Soleil Controls is urban-gro’s product set for climate and irrigation controls, lighting systems, and other focused controls.

The core, low-power sensor that makes this unique was licensed from Edyza, a wireless innovator that specializes in low-power wireless grids that scale. urban-gro then developed on top of that sensor, including its cloud-based management, analytics, what the sensors detect and cover, etc., to make it ideal for cannabis growers.

According to Brad Nattrass, urban-gro’s chief executive officer, finding an IoT solution that can easily scale was a key goal for their business. “When evaluating the most advanced market-ready sensor technology available, it was crucial that we deliver a solution that can easily scale to thousands of sensors in order to satisfy the needs of large-scale commercial cultivators,” says Nattrass. “The introduction of Soleil demonstrates urban-gro’s commitment to going beyond simply supplying equipment, to truly serving our clients as an ongoing technological innovator and advisor, enabling cultivators to leverage today’s more advanced technologies to rise above the competition.”

“Cultivators will be able to monitor substrate moisture and EC (electrical conductivity) levels on a per plant basis, as well as track key environmental metrics like temperature, humidity, air movement, and probability of infestation,” reads the press release. “With multiple device options, cultivators can choose between several deployment options.” With the data hosted on the cloud, users can access it through web browsers, Android and iOS devices.

According to Jay Nichols, a representative of urban-gro, they have hired (and is hiring) code developers, product developers, etc. in order to expand this unit. Plant sensors are just one piece of the system, with the goal to automate the entire cultivation process, including controlling lights, pest management, irrigation and fertigation. They say it will be available in late Q1/early Q2.

Enforcing Your Patent Without Litigation

By William H. Honaker
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Patent litigation can be costly; the median cost can be more than $3 million. Even as the owner of a patent, you should explore all options before deciding to file an infringement suit. Litigation should be your last resort, even if your lawyer is convinced you can win. Winning a patent lawsuit is not likely your true goal. Remind your confident lawyer that the stronger your case, the greater your options.

Patent litigation is expensive and distracting for everyone. The expense is astronomical. A recent survey by the American Intellectual Property Law Association, “2017 Report of the Economic Survey,” stated that the median cost to litigate a patent case is $3,000,000. In addition to the out-of-pocket costs, there are the distractions that keep you from running your business. Patent litigation means years of endless meetings, depositions, document productions, and days in court.

William H. Honaker, member and attorney at Dickson Wright

Patent litigation is also uncertain. Like my 92-year-old father who recently was cut off on the highway. He chased down the young guy at a red light, jumped out and pounded on the guy’s window, and said. “ONE of us is getting his ASS kicked.” Patent litigation is the same; someone is getting their ass kicked. Many surprises can develop in a patent case leaving the outcome a question.

As cannabis-related businesses grow and enter the business main stream, patent litigation will increase. More businesses will get patents. Patents are valuable to businesses: they protect margins, protect market share and increase the asset value of the business. They do this by preventing competition.

The winds of change are blowing, as I read the article by Walters, G. “What a Looming Patent War Could Mean for the Future of the Marijuana Industry.” The article referenced United States Patent No. 9,095,554, stating:

“On August 4, 2015, US officials quietly made history by approving the first-ever patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the patent’s holders, their lawyers, and outside experts in intellectual property law.”

At first, this made me acutely aware that we are on the threshold of a brave new world, where legalized cannabis is driving great changes in the way we look at a now-legitimate industry.

Then, I had a little chuckle when I read the words of a longtime cannabis activist:

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Tim Blade, a longtime grower and activist who founded California’s annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition. “Marijuana growers developing new varieties are going to have to spend a lot of money on attorneys.”

It’s clear Mr. Blake was starting to see through the haze of an unregulated industry that’s been under the radar until now. And what he saw was going to be a real buzz-kill. So how can you avoid litigation?

Both sides of the lawsuit will suffer. Typically, litigation should be avoided if at all possible. The good news is there are alternatives. You can take advantage of your patents without suing for infringement.

By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.The Myth About Patent Litigation

Before we explore alternatives, you may find some comfort in the fact that about 90% of patent suits are settled; (see Pridham, D. “The Patent Litigation Lie”, found in Forbes. Of those not settled, only 1% to 5% are litigated, (see LaBelle, M. “Against Settlement of (Some) Patent Cases” found in Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, 2014.) The cases not settled and not litigated are concluded through summary judgment or other motions prior to trial. But, even though only 1% to 5% make it to trial, getting to settlement or other non-trial resolutions is still uncertain, expensive and distracting.

Avoiding Patent Trials

Options open up when you understand what you want, and what you are willing to accept. First, you must know what you want to achieve, what you will sacrifice and how that will affect the accused infringer. Maybe you want to put the accused infringer out of business. You might be satisfied if they changed their product. You may want then to pay for their infringement, or only sell in certain geographic areas. By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.

Simple Agreement

Talk to the accused infringer and discuss your position and listen to theirs. You may be able to come to terms. I represented a client who was faced with asserting their patents against a competitor. The product was a huge success, and the patent was very strong. The competitor was clearly cornered, and like any cornered animal, it had no alternative but to fight. But there was an alternative. The client realized this and offered the competitor a different design. Not as good, but acceptable. The two agreed to the re-design, saving both millions in litigation costs and giving both certainty in the outcome.To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers.

License Agreement

Work out a license. As the patent owner, you have the ability to grant others the right to use your invention, for a fee or other terms. You define the terms and allow the accused infringer to continue their activities, or a variation of them. You can limit sales to certain industries, geographic areas, customer size, charge a royalty, allow for a specific time period to continue selling, etc. You can even cross-license technology with the accused infringer.

A client had a very successful product, but it was protected by a weak patent. Weak because others could challenge the patent and likely win. To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers. That allowed the owner to remain in control of the patent and receive a stream of income from the licensees. The licensed parties were limited to geographic areas, and not permitted to expand beyond them.

Mediation

Agree to have an independent third-party mediator consider your case. Mediation is an opportunity to have one or more independent mediators review the evidence and provide a decision. Every aspect of the process is agreed-upon by the participants. The parties can agree to the type of evidence that can be presented, the length of time of the mediation, the number of witnesses if any, the effect of any decision, whether evidence can be used later in a trial, whether the proceeding is confidential, whether the decision is advisory, etc.Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation

At a minimum, mediation gives everyone an independent view of the case. This independent view can lead to more informed negotiations. It can show both parties what an independent evaluator considers the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.

Mock Trial

A variation of mediation is a mock trial. Again, the parties can set the rules. The difference is the Mock Trial would use actual jurors to hear each side’s case, normally a very short summary. This summary can take the form of a closing argument, brief testimony from key witnesses, or the reading of their statements. Mock trials are usually used to give the parties an idea of what a typical jury thinks, and help the parties better understand their respective positions.

Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation. Historically, only a tiny fraction of patents are litigated. To avoid litigation as a patent owner, keep the lines of communication open with the accused infringer. Think about your actual goal. It’s rarely winning a lawsuit (that’s the goal of a lawyer, not a business person). Your goal is more likely a beneficial result that business people will both understand; a result that works for both of you.

Using Cloud-Based LIMS To Improve Efficiency In Cannabis Labs

By Shonali Paul
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Cannabis testing laboratories around the country are expanding quickly, taking on new clients and growing their business incrementally. Many of these labs are receiving a large number of test requests from growers for potency testing, terpene profiling, pesticide screening, residual solvent screening, heavy metal testing, microbial analysis and even genetic testing. To keep pace with the number of test requests received, efficient data, sample and test management is imperative.

Considering the magnitude of cannabis testing, data management using spreadsheets is a serious impediment to quality assurance. Data being recorded in spreadsheets is error-prone and difficult to manage. Furthermore, using spreadsheets does not allow labs to adhere to regulatory guidelines that demand strict accounting for every gram of the sample, right from reception, consumption for testing, to disposal.

Log samples, keep track of Chain of Custody(CoC), track samples from initial location in the lab through disposal by recording location, custodians and other metadata

To overcome such data management challenges and improve the operational efficiency of cannabis testing laboratories, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) plays a significant role. LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for managing analytical and operational activities. LIMS enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating the manual data entry. With its built-in audit trail capability, LIMS helps labs adhere to regulatory standards.

LIMS can provide companies with a method to manage samples, records and test results, and ensures regulatory compliance by increasing traceability. LIMS can also be integrated with other lab instrumentation and enterprise systems, enabling easier transmission of information across the lab and the organization, reducing manual efforts and improving decision-making.

Account for the entire quantity of sample received, used and disposed

Multiple resources are also available to assist labs in preparing for quality assurance and accreditation, LIMS being one of them. LIMS can help cannabis labs with instrument integration, and automate reporting to help improve efficiencies and reduce errors. LIMS, such as CloudLIMS Lite, a cloud-based LIMS, automates cannabis-testing workflows right from sample collection, data recording, managing test chain of custody, sample weight accounting to report generation. With data security and audit trails, a LIMS provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation for highly regulated labs. Above all, cloud-enabled systems are often low in the total cost of acquisition, have maintenance outsourced, and are scalable to help meet the ever-changing business and regulatory compliance needs.

Incorporate all tests, instruments, sample information and result data (etc.) in one place

Cloud-based products are secure, easy to deploy and scalable. A cloud product is typically hosted on a server with a guaranteed uptime of 99.5%, allowing for a reliable system, accessible 24×7. Cloud-based LIMS have automatic data backup mechanism that allow for quick turnarounds in case of a server failure or in the eventuality of a natural disaster.

With LIMS in place, cannabis labs can manage sample and requisition-centric records, track sample quantity and location, integrate the test data, and provide online reports to clients. This in turn, reduces the turnaround time for testing and improves the operational efficiency. Besides, audit trail of each and every activity performed by the lab personnel is recorded in the system to ensure that the lab follows regulatory compliance.


Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a poster that was submitted and displayed at this year’s Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon. The authors of the original poster are Arun Apte, Stephen Goldman, Aditi Gade and Shonali Paul.