Protecting Your Innovative Cannabis Strains With a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 3 – Trademark Protection for New Cannabis Strains

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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In the first two installments of this three-part series, we explored the reasons why cannabis breeders and growers should adopt a strong IP strategy and discussed the types of patent protection that they should consider. In this final installment, we examine trademark protection for new cannabis varieties and the unique trademark issues currently facing the cannabis industry.

What is a trademark and what does it really get me?

A trademark is a visual feature of some sort, such as a word, phrase, or symbol, which is used to identify a company’s goods and to distinguish those goods from the goods of a competitor. Like a patent, a trademark is effectively an exclusionary right, meaning that it gives the owner the right to exclude others from using the same mark, or a mark that is confusingly similar, in connection with the same type of goods. The test for determining whether a competitor’s mark infringes upon your trademark is whether there is a likelihood of confusion in the mind of consumers over the source of the goods. Put another way, the test is whether a consumer is likely to be confused into believing that your competitor’s goods are actually associated with your company.

How long does this exclusionary right last? So long as certain requirements are met, a trademark can last forever. While a patent that protects a new cannabis variety will expire in 20 years, a trademark that also covers that strain can be maintained forever, which allows patents and trademarks to be used together to offer both stronger and longer lasting protection over a new cannabis variety.

How do I get a trademark?

Trademarks exist under both state and federal law. In many states, to obtain common law trademark protection, one does not need to file anything with a government entity – you simply need to use the mark (e.g., the word or logo) in connection with your company’s goods and use a “TM” in conjunction with the mark. However, the protections afforded by such a common law mark are relatively limited, so it is generally advisable to register the mark with the state and/or federal government in order to strengthen the exclusionary rights. Along the same lines, federal registration offers certain advantages over state registration, such as the right to use the mark nationwide and the right to challenge infringers of the mark in federal court.

To register a trademark, breeders and growers need to file a trademark application with the relevant government entity – the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a federal mark or various state government offices for state marks. For both state and federal trademark registrations, an applicant typically must demonstrate that 1) he/she is the first to use and register the mark for the type of goods at issue, 2) that he/she is actually using the mark in commerce or has intent to do so, and 3) that the mark is distinctive. Of these three requirements, proving distinctiveness is often the one that gives applicants the most difficulty.

A mark is “distinctive” if it is capable of identifying the source of a particular good. Because of this requirement, a brand name that is generic or merely describes the goods, such as “Large Bud Cannabis Plants,” is often less desirable because it is less distinctive and thus may be difficult to register. Conversely, a brand name that is “arbitrary” or “fanciful,” such as “Moose Foot Cannabis,” is often more distinctive and therefore may be easier to register, generally making it a more desirable choice as a brand name. This issue of distinctiveness is something that cannabis growers and breeders should keep in mind as they develop a branding strategy for their new varieties.

Unique trademark issues for the cannabis industry

Like almost every aspect in the cannabis industry, there are some unique trademark issues that breeders and growers must contend with. With regard to federal registration, the USPTO will currently not allow registration of any trademark for cannabis products that are illegal under federal law. However, that does not mean that every cannabis-related product cannot obtain any federal trademark protection. The reason for this is that a federal trademark registration is tied to specific types of goods that are being sold under the mark, so the ability to register a desired brand name will depend on what type of goods are covered by the trademark.

To that end, a mark that covers actual cannabis products (like plants or edibles) cannot currently be federally registered even if the mark does not actually include the word cannabis. For example, a breeder likely could not federally register the brand name “River’s Edge Farms” for the sale of cannabis plants and plant parts. However, a mark that covers products that are related to the cannabis industry may be allowable – even if it references cannabis –if the goods being sold under the mark are not themselves illegal under federal law. For example, “Pot Maximizer,” a trademark name for a grow light that is being sold to cannabis growers, could be federally registered since it is not illegal to sell a grow light.

Under current federal law, which prohibits the cultivation and sale of cannabis plants and their parts, a federal trademark registration is certainly not currently available for new cannabis varieties. However, this does not mean that trademark registration for new cannabis varieties is impossible. Most states with legalized cannabis will allow registration of state trademarks for cannabis products (e.g., Washington, Oregon, Colorado).

Further, since branding is a long-term strategy it is important for growers and breeders to keep the requirements for federal registration in mind when adopting a branding strategy to ensure they can obtain federal protection for their current brand names if and when cannabis becomes federally legal.

The bottom line…

Despite the fact that there are currently some unique trademark issues for cannabis growers and breeders, trademark protection can be a very valuable asset that both increases the level of protection and extends it beyond what can be obtained through a patent alone. As such, breeders and growers should adopt a branding strategy for their new varieties that attempt to maximize trademark protections for those varieties, both now and in the future.

Breeders and growers should select brand names that are sufficiently distinctive to meet the requirements of both federal and state trademarks. Right now, they will likely need to focus on state trademark rights by applying for state trademark registrations where available and by making sure that they are treating the mark as a brand name of their company (e.g., using a “TM” after their marks). However, they should also keep a close eye on the status of federal registration laws so that they can apply for federal registration of their marks when it becomes available.

Additionally, as discussed in prior articles, growers and breeders should also be seeking to maximize patent protection for their new cannabis strains so that they can use that protection in addition to trademarks to create a stronger IP position. Cannabis growers and breeders who adopt such a comprehensive strategy now could reap huge rewards down the road, especially if (or when) cannabis becomes federally legal, either at the medical or recreational level.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 3

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we introduced some relevant terms and principles to tissue culture micropropagation and reviewed Dr. Hope Jones’ background in the science of it. In the second part, we went into the advantages and disadvantages of using mother plants to clone and why tissue culture could help growers scale up. In the third part of this series, we are going to examine the five steps that Dr. Jones lays out to successfully micropropagate cannabis plants from tissue cultures.

Cleaning – Stage 0

Explant cuttings are obtained from mother plants. The cuttings are further separated into smaller stem pieces with a single node.

Micropropagation includes 5 stages. “Stage 0 is the preparation of mother plants and harvest of cuttings for the explant material,” says Dr. Jones. “To ensure the best chance of growing well in culture, those ladies [the mom’s] should be cleaned up and at their best. And hopefully not stressed by insects or pathogens.” She says growers should also make sure the plants are properly fertilized and watered before harvesting explants. “Obtaining the explants is done with a clean technique using new disposable blades and gloves,” says Dr. Jones. “Young shoot tips are harvested and placed in labeled, large Ziploc bags with a small amount of dilute bleach and surfactant solution, then placed in a cooler and taken to the lab.” This is a process that could be documented with record keeping and data logs to ensure the same care is taken for every explant. “Once in the lab, working in the sterile environment of the transfer hood, the cuttings are sterilized, typically with bleach and a little surfactant, and then rinsed several times with sterile water,” says Dr. Jones. Once they reach the sterile environment, Dr. Jones removes the leaves and cuts the stem down to individual nodes.

Establishment – Stage 1

Established explants propagating shoots

Establishment essentially means waiting for the shoots to develop. Establishing the culture requires an absolutely sterile environment, which is why the first step is so important. “Proper explant disinfection is equally as important is the control parameters of the facility itself,” says Dr. Jones. Mother plants are not grown in sterile facilities, but in an environment that is invariably contaminated with dust, which harbors micro-organisms, insects and other potential sources of contamination, including human handling. We discussed some of this in Part 2.

Explants, once sterilized and placed in the culture vessel, must establish to the new aseptic conditions. “Basically Stage 0 ends when the explants are cleaned and placed in the vessel. Stage 1 begins on the shelf while we patiently sit, watch and wait for the shoot growth,” says Dr. Jones. “Successful establishment means we properly disinfected the explants because the cultures do not become contaminated with bacteria or fungi and new shoot growth emerges.”

Multiplication – Stage 2

Stage 2 involves subculturing an explant to produce new shoots

This stage is rather self-explanatory as multiplication simplified means generating many more shoots per explant. In order to create a large number of plants needed for meeting the demand of weekly clone orders, Dr. Jones can break up, or subculture, one explant that contains multiple numerous new shoots. “Let’s say one vessel, which originally started with 4 explants each developed four new shoots. Working in the hood, I remove each explant from the vessel and place it on a sterile petri dish. Now I can divide each explant into 4 new explants and then place the four new explant cuttings into their own vessel. In this example, we started with one vessel with 4 explants,” says Dr. Jones. “Which when subcultured 4-6 weeks later, we now have 4 vessels with 16 plants.” This is instrumental in understanding how tissue culture micropropagation can help growers scale without the need for a ton of space and maintenance. From a single explant, you can potentially generate 70,000 plants after 48 weeks, according to Dr. Jones. “Starting with not 1, but 10 or 20 explants would significantly speed up multiplication.” Using tissue culture effectively, one can see how a grower can exponentially increase their production.

Rooting – Stage 3

“When the decision is made to move cultures to the rooting stage, we typically need to subculture the plantlets to a different media formulated to induce rooting,” says Dr. Jones. “In some instances, the media is very dark, and that’s because of the addition of activated charcoal.” Using activated charcoal, according to Dr. Jones, helps darken the rooting environment, which closely mimics a normal rooting environment. “It helps remove high levels of cytokinin and other possible inhibitory compounds,” says Dr. Jones. Cytokinins are a type of plant growth hormone commonly used to promote healthy shoot growth, but it is important to make sure the culture contains the right ratio of hormones, including cytokinin and auxin for maximum root and shoot development. Dr. Jones suggests that growers research their own media formulation to ensure nice, healthy roots develop and that no tissue dies in the process. “With everything I grow in culture, when it comes to media, in any stage and with all new strains, I run some simple experiments in order to refine the media used,” says Dr. Jones. She puts a special focus on the concentrations and ratios of plant hormones in formulating her medias.

After harvesting and multiplying, these explants are ready for rooting

“We commonly think of auxin’s role in rooting, but it’s also important in leaves and acts as a regulator of apical shoot dominance,” says Dr. Jones. “So having no auxin may not be ideal for the shooting media used in Stages 1 and 2.” Auxin is a plant hormone that can help promote the elongation of cells, an important step in any plant’s growth. “And cytokinins are typically synthesized in the root and moves through xylem to shoots to regulate mitosis as well as inducing lateral bud branching, so again finding that nice balance between these two hormones is key.”

Acclimation & Hardening Off – Stage 4

“When plants have developed good looking healthy roots, it’s time to pop the top,” says Dr. Jones. This means opening the vessel, another risk for contamination, which is why having a clean environment is so crucial. “The location of these vessels needs to be tightly controlled for light, relative humidity, temperature and cleanliness.” In the culture, sugar is a main ingredient in the medium, because the growing explants are not very photosynthetically active. “By opening the lid of the vessel, carbon dioxide is introduced to the environment, which promotes and enhances photosynthesis, really getting the plants ready for cultivation.”

Harvesting explant material from mother plants

The very final step in tissue culture micropropagation is hardening, which involves the formation of the waxy cuticle on the leaves of the plant, according to Dr. Jones. This is what preps the plant to actually survive in an unsterile environment. “The rooted plants are removed from the culture vessel, the media washed off and placed in a potting mix/matrix or plug and kept in high humidity and low light,” says Dr. Jones. “Now that there is no sugar, contamination is no longer a threat, and these plants can be moved to the grow facility.” She says conditioning these plants can take one or two weeks. Over that time, growers should gradually increase light intensity and bring down the relative humidity to normal growing conditions.

Overall, this process, if done efficiently, can take roughly eleven weeks from prepping the explants to acclimation and hardening. If growers perform all the steps correctly and with extra care to reduce risks of contamination, one can produce thousands of plants in a matter of weeks.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we are going to dive into implementation. In that piece, we will discuss design principles for tissue culture facilities, equipment and instrumentation and some real-world case studies of tissue culture micropropagation.

Human Resources and the Cannabis Workforce

By Aaron G. Biros
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Cannabis businesses encounter a variety of problems when hiring and managing employees. Some of those are issues that every business runs into and some of them are quite specific to the cannabis industry. Chris Cassese, co-founder and managing director of Faces Human Capital Management, has some solutions for cannabis businesses facing seemingly daunting workforce management issues.

Cassese co-founded Faces HCM with Caela Bintner after two decades of working in the human resources and sales strategy across a variety of financial institutions. He oversees software platform development, daily operations, sales, and business development for their organization. Before co-founding the company, Cassese held a variety of operational and product development roles during his ten-year tenure at Merrill Lynch, worked in marketing at HSBC and was a sales and performance advisor at Insperity, a professional employment organization. Faces HCM is a professional employment organization that handles workforce compliance, education, and other HR needs for cannabis companies. They work with companies like Dixie Elixirs, LivWell and Women Grow, among other cannabis businesses.

Chris Cassese, co-founder and managing director of Faces Human Capital Management

According to Cassese, the cannabis industry faces a roughly 60% turnover rate, which is on par with the turnover rates in retail and call centers. Those are industries that typically have high turnover rates simply because the nature of the business. However, Cassese says it doesn’t have to be so high for the cannabis industry. “It is easy to say it is just high turnover by nature, but we found there are some steps that we can put in place that seem relatively easy, but are key tenants of Fortune 500 companies’ hiring strategies,” says Cassese. “Engaging in a needs-based analysis with companies will help us figure out exactly what’s going on.” They start by looking at the onboarding process, or what happens immediately after an employee is hired. “We start by looking at their pay rate, employee handbook and the paid time off policy, which are some of the points that a lot of the owners are familiar with coming from other high-end industries outside of cannabis.” He says things like swag bags, free ski passes after reaching quotas and other perks can keep employees engaged on the team. “Things like that go a long way and can reduce turnover by up to 20 or 30 percent,” says Cassese. “Sometimes [business owners] are so stressed with regulatory compliance that they don’t have time to tackle these issues so employee dissatisfaction often starts with onboarding procedures.” That can include anything from analyzing the overall compensation structure to making a video displaying the company’s vision, mission and values. “There is no panacea for reducing turnover. It requires conducting a needs-based assessment, taking pieces of what we know works well in other companies and bringing that to the cannabis industry.” Making an employee feel like they are part of the team can help boost retention and keep turnover low.

One area they often help companies with is performance reviews. “Performance reviews are a big part of any business,” says Cassese. “You can’t make progress if you don’t know where you’re going. If you don’t know how you’re doing you can’t get better.” Looking at the supervisor level, they have often found employees have never given a performance review before. “We implement processes to teach them how to deliver positive or negative performance reviews and help make them feel comfortable delivering that,” says Cassese. They might have employees perform a DISC analysis (dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness), a personality test akin to the Meyers-Briggs test. “From this we can help figure out the stressors and motivators of people and create effective teams,” says Cassese. “If an employee might be more outgoing or humble, high-spirited, results-oriented, analytical or good working on teams.” These are approaches to workforce management that have been adopted from Fortune 500 companies.

Caela Bintner, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Faces Human Capital Management

Cassese says one of the most overlooked items for companies are proper I-9 verification forms. This goes back to basic record keeping and documentation, but if overlooked, companies can get hefty fines for improper record keeping. “You are supposed to have a separate binder, in a separate locked drawer where your I-9 forms are housed, but a lot of people don’t know about that, which could come back to bite them in the form of large fines” says Cassese. “Businesses can’t afford to have sloppy record keeping. We help businesses take a look at their process and how they put their files in the cloud or physical locations, which is an area where companies often need guidance.” Civil fines can reach up to $20,000 for mistakes on I-9 forms.

Employee education is another crucial aspect of managing the workforce. Faces HCM has a learning management system that gives companies the ability to push education to their employees. Education is of course a broad term and can cover a wide variety of needs for employees. “We can help them take leadership, teamwork, excel, OSHA, safety classes and more,” says Cassese. “Training that shows you active listening, empathy skills and other types of training can really help budtenders deal with customers appropriately.” They have developed customized training programs for cannabis companies expanding beyond their own state too. “As you find certain cannabis companies growing in different states they want to create a repeatable, consistent and predictable experience,” says Cassese. “Putting those standard operating procedures online is important to streamline the process and ensures that you are creating a learning or education plan to meet your employees’ needs.” That can look like requiring employees to take an online course once every quarter, or offering them books on subjects pertaining to their specific job function.

Little things like improving the employee experience, implementing an education program and keeping up with employee records can make or break a business. They all add up to solid workforce management, which if done correctly, can enhance a business’ bottom line and keep employees working for you.

NCIA: 280E, Federal Reform & Cannabis Lobbying Efforts

By Aaron G. Biros
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With the 2017 Cannabis Business Summit just around the corner, we sat down with Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), to hear about their lobbying efforts and what they’ll discuss in the keynote panel discussion on Taxes, 280E and the Path to Federal Reform. Henry Wykowski, Esq., attorney, Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Center and Michael Correia, director of Government Relations for NCIA will join her on that panel discussion.

According to West, the 280E tax code issue has an enormous impact on the industry. This tax code essentially means that businesses cannot make deductions for normal business operations from the sale of schedule I narcotics. Because cannabis is still listed as schedule I, businesses touching the plant often pay a majority of their profits to federal taxes. “When they are handing over 80% of their profit to the federal government, which is a lot of money that isn’t being pumped into the local economy, that is a big problem,” says West. “We want to highlight how 280E isn’t just harmful to businesses, but also harmful to the local economies and states that have businesses dealing with cannabis in them.” As the primary organization lobbying on behalf of the cannabis industry in Washington D.C., they have three full-time staff as well as a contracted lobbying firm working there. “We are the voice on Capitol Hill for the businesses of the cannabis industry,” says West. “We primarily focus on a couple of core issues, and one of them is 280E tax reform since that is such a significant issue for our members touching the plant.”

Taylor West, deputy director of NCIA

Another important issue they have been lobbying on is banking access. According to West, banks and credit unions are regulated on the federal level, and as a result, are largely still reluctant to serve cannabis businesses. “The inconsistency between federal and state law means they are concerned their federal regulators will flag them for working with cannabis businesses,” says West. “It is very difficult to operate without a bank account- this creates a lot of transparency, logistical and safety issues. We are working with lawmakers to try and make a change in the law that would make it safe for banks to serve state-legal cannabis businesses.” NCIA’s lobbying efforts have long engaged a few core allies on Capitol Hill, including the representatives that formed the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. “They have been champions of broader reform issues around cannabis,” says West. “But we are also starting to see new faces, new members of congress getting interested in these issues, beyond the traditional champions.” A lot of NCIA’s recent lobbying efforts have focused on recruiting members of Congress for those issues.

One example of their success came by teaming up with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican Congressman from Florida serving on the House committee overseeing tax issues. “He hasn’t previously been involved with cannabis legislation, but because Florida moved forward with the medical program, he got more interested in the issue and we helped educate him about the problem with 280E,” says West. “Having a republican that sits on the committee dealing with these issues is a huge step forward as we build the case for reform in D.C.” A lot of these efforts will be discussed in greater detail at the upcoming Cannabis Business Summit June 12-14. “We want to talk about the work we are doing just now in Washington D.C.; we have been doing a significant amount of work helping to draft legislation that would fix the 280E issue,” says West. “We will talk about those efforts as well as what businesses are currently doing to deal with the issue of 280E.” For readers interested in getting tickets, seeing the agenda and learning more about NCIA’s lobbying efforts, click here.

What Does The Constitution Have To Say About Cannabis Legalization?

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!

Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Photo: Shane T. McCoy

This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?

The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.

United States Constitution
Photo: National Archive

Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus Announced

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.

Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.


Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law

Protecting Your Innovative Cannabis Strains With a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 2 – Patents for New Cannabis Strains

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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In the first installment of this three-part series we explored the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy sooner rather than later and looked briefly at the types of IP that those breeders and growers should be considering. In this second installment, we will examine in more detail patent protection for innovative new varieties of cannabis and how one can use that patent protection to further their business objectives.

What is a patent and what do I do with one?

A patent is a right granted by the government to protect a new and useful invention. Importantly, a patent gives its owner an exclusionary right as opposed to a right to do something – the patent owner has the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing the invention (or, for a plant, any of its plant parts) for the term of the patent, which is 20 years for the types of patents that can be used to protect new cannabis varieties.

Because it is an exclusionary right, there are essentially two things that a patent owner can use a patent to do: 1) disallow anyone else from producing and selling that variety (or any of its parts) so that the patent owner is able to capture all of the sales for that variety, or 2) use license contracts to allow other growers to grow the variety while paying royalties back to the patent holder. The latter option can often be beneficial because it can greatly expand production of the variety by licensing to multiple growers. However, this does require some oversight on the part of the patent holder to make sure that the product those growers are producing is high quality –growers who produce poor quality product can hurt the existing brand. Cannabis breeders should consider these options up front when formulating their IP strategy.

Which type of patent should I use to protect my new variety?

As a further consideration, there are two different types of patents that can be used to protect new plant varieties and there are multiple factors to consider when determining which one to pursue.

U.S. Plant Patents are a special type of intellectual property that is used solely for the protection of asexually/vegetatively reproduced plant varieties. Traditionally, plant patents have been used to protect new varieties of ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs, such as a new variety of rose bush or a new variety of apple tree, such as the ‘Honeycrisp’ apple tree, patented in 1990. This type of patent has recently been used to protect a new cannabis variety called ‘Ecuadorian sativa’, while several other cannabis varieties, ‘Midnight’, ‘Erez’, and ‘Avidekel’ varieties are awaiting plant patent approval.

On the other hand, a “utility patent” can be used for new “compositions” (e.g., a new type of grow light) or new types of “methods” (e.g., a new method of extracting compounds from cannabis or a new method of growing cannabis to produce higher THC content). This type of patent can also be used to protect a new plant variety so long as the applicant can demonstrate that the variety is novel and not obvious over what was already known in the art. To date, two utility patents have been issued to protect cannabis varieties that exhibit certain cannabinoid and terpene profiles (U.S. Patent Nos. 9,095,554 and 9,370,164), and other similar utility patent applications are also pending (e.g., U.S. Patent Pub. No. 2014/0298511).

One of the main determining factors in deciding which type of patent to pursue is the nature of the invention. Growers and breeders will likely want to seek a plant patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which was made using simple breeding techniques, 2) which can be stably reproduced in an asexual manner (such as by cuttings and cloning), and 3) which is different from its parents and certain other strains on the market, but not completely distinct from everything that already exists. On the other hand, growers and breeders may want to consider a utility patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which has unique features in comparison to everything else that exists today (such as a unique disease resistance or chemical makeup), 2) which has unique features that can be demonstrated by some sort of biological or chemical test, and 3) that can be reproduced either asexually or by seed. It is also important to keep in mind that these two routes are not mutually exclusive – one could apply for both types of patent if the variety satisfies the criteria for both.

Though there are numerous similarities between the processes for obtaining both types of patents, there are also clear differences that should be taken into consideration when making the decision about which type of patent to seek. For instance, the grant rate for plant patents is much higher, meaning there is a higher likelihood that the plant patent application will eventually be granted compared to a utility patent application. Further, plant patent applications typically move quicker through the Patent Office, frequently being granted in approximately 18 months, while utility patent applications typically take two to four years (or more) to issue.

Another factor that should be considered is cost. Because a plant patent application is much simpler to prepare and typically moves through the Patent Office more swiftly, the cost for obtaining a plant patent is generally significantly lower than for a utility patent.

Determining which type of patent to pursue requires consideration of numerous factors. However, it is important to keep in mind that, regardless of which type of patent a grower or breeder seeks, there are certain time limitations that can impact the right to obtain a patent. For example, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented has not been sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. After that time, the invention becomes part of the “public domain.” So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, they risk losing the ability to ever get that protection.

Clearly, growers and breeders have to weigh several options when formulating a patent strategy, including what type of patent to pursue and what to do with the patent once they obtain it. Thinking through these issues early on allows the cannabis breeder an opportunity to formulate a strategy that is most beneficial in furthering their business objectives. Additionally, regardless of the type of patent strategy used, it is often helpful to combine it with trademark and branding strategy, which allows the business to utilize a more comprehensive approach to IP for their innovative strains. The third installment of this series will focus on trademarks for cannabis products and some unique issues that facing the cannabis industry today.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

Implementing a HACCP Plan in Cannabis Processing

By Aaron G. Biros
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Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) is a robust management system that identifies and addresses any risk to safety throughout production. Originally designed for food safety through the entire supply chain, the risk assessment scheme can ensure extra steps are taken to prevent contamination.

The FDA as well as the Food Safety and Inspection Service currently require HACCP plans in a variety of food markets, including high-risk foods like poultry that are particularly susceptible to pathogenic contamination. As California and other states develop and implement regulations with rigorous safety requirements, cannabis cultivators, extractors and infused product manufacturers can look to HACCP for guidance on bolstering their quality controls. Wikipedia actually has a very helpful summary of the terms referenced and discussed here.

Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction

The HACCP system consists of six steps, the first of which being a hazard analysis. For Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction at Outco, a medical cannabis producer in Southern California, one of their hazard analyses takes place at the drying and curing stage. “When we get our flower from harvest, we have to think about the drying and curing process, where mold and bacteria can spoil our harvest,” says Dr. Roggen. “That is the hazard we have to deal with.” So for Dr. Roggen and his team, the hazard they identified is the potential for mold and bacteria growth during the drying and curing process.

The next step in the HACCP system is to identify a critical control point. “Correct drying of the flower will prevent any contamination from mold or bacteria, which is a control point identified,” says Dr. Roggen. “We also have to prevent contamination from the staff; it has to be the correct environment for the process.” That might include things like wearing gloves, protective clothing and hand washing. Once a control point is identified, the third step in the process is to develop a critical limit for those control points.

A critical limit for any given control point could be a maximum or minimum threshold before contamination is possible, reducing the hazard’s risk. “When we establish the critical limit, we know that water activity below 0.65 will prevent any mold growth so that is our critical limit, we have to reach that number,” says Dr. Roggen. The fourth step is monitoring critical control points. For food manufacturers and processors, they are required to identify how they monitor those control points in a written HACCP plan. For Dr. Roggen’s team, this means using a water activity meter. “If we establish the critical control point monitoring, water activity is taken throughout the drying process, as well as before and after the cure,” says Dr. Roggen. “As long as we get to that number quickly and stay below that number, we can control that point and prevent mold and bacteria growth.”

One of the cultivation facilities at Outco

When monitoring is established and if the critical limit is ever exceeded, there needs to be a corrective action, which is the fifth step in a HACCP plan. In Dr. Roggen’s case, that would mean they need a corrective action ready for when water activity goes above 0.65. “If we don’t have the right water activity, we just continue drying, so this example is pretty simple,” says Dr. Roggen. “Normal harvest is 7 days drying, if it is not dry enough, we take longer to prevent mold or bacteria growth.”

The sixth step is establishing procedures to ensure the whole system works. In food safety, this often means requiring process validation. “We have to double check that our procedure and protocols work,” says Dr. Roggen. “Checking for water activity is only a passive way of testing it, so we send our material to an outside testing lab to check for mold or bacteria so that if our protocols don’t work, we can catch those problems in the data and correct them.” They introduced weekly meetings where the extraction and cultivation teams get together to discuss the processes. Dr. Roggen says those meetings have been one of the most effective tools in the entire system.

Dr. Roggen’s team identified worker safety as a potential hazard

The final step in the process is to keep records. This can be as simple as keeping a written HACCP plan on hand, but should include keeping data logs and documenting procedures throughout production. For Dr. Roggen’s team, they log drying times, product weight and lab tests for every batch. Using all of those steps, Dr. Roggen and his team might continue to update their HACCP plans when they encounter a newly identified hazard. While this example is simplistic, the conceptual framework of a HACCP plan can help detect and solve much more complex problems. For another example, Dr. Roggen takes us into his extraction process.

Dr. Roggen’s team, on the extraction side of the business, uses a HACCP plan not just for preventing contamination, but for protecting worker safety as well. “We are always thinking about making the best product, but I have to look out for my team,” says Dr. Roggen. “The health risk to staff in extraction processes is absolutely a hazard.” They use carbon dioxide to extract oil, which carries a good deal of risks as well. “So when we look at our critical control points we need to regularly maintain and clean the extractor and we schedule for that,” says Dr. Roggen.

Gloves, protective clothing, eyewear and respirators are required for workers in the extraction process.

“My team needs respirators, protective clothing, eyewear and gloves to prevent contamination of material, but also to protect the worker from solvents, machine oil and CO2 in the room.” That health risk means they try and stay under legal limits set by the government, which is a critical limit of 3,000 ppm of carbon dioxide in the environment. “We monitor the CO2 levels with our instruments and that is particularly important whenever the extractor is opened.” Other than when it is being opened, Dr. Roggen, notes, the extractor stays locked, which is an important worker safety protocol.

The obvious corrective action for them is to have workers leave the room whenever carbon dioxide levels exceed that critical limit. “We just wait until the levels are back to normal and then continue operation,” says Dr. Roggen. “We updated our ventilation system, but if it still happens they leave the room.” They utilize a sort of double check here- the buddy system. “I took these rules from the chemistry lab; we always have two operators working on the machine on the same time, never anyone working alone.” That buddy check also requires they check each other for protective gear. “Just like in rock climbing or mountain biking, it is important to make sure your partner is safe.” He says they don’t keep records for employees wearing protective gear, but they do have an incident report system. “If any sort of incident takes place, we look at what happened, how could we have prevented it and what we could change,” says Dr. Roggen.

He says they have been utilizing some of these principles for a while; it just wasn’t until recently that they started thinking in terms of the HACCP conceptual framework. While some of those steps in the process seem obvious, and it is very likely that many cannabis processors already utilize them in their standard operating procedures and quality controls, utilizing the HACCP scheme can help provide structure and additional safeguards in production.

Regulatory Overreach: Are California’s Lab Rules Too Strict?

By Aaron G. Biros
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With California moving into a more regulated market, some are concerned the state may be overregulating the market with strict, unnecessary rules. The Bureau of Marijuana Control, California’s agency in charge of regulatory oversight for the cannabis industry, released a set of proposed draft regulations for lab testing recently.

Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, Chief Executive Officer of The Werc Shop

Those rules cover everything from sampling standard operating procedures to detection limits for pesticide analytes, which some say are absurdly strict as is. According to Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, a cannabis consulting firm located in Monrovia, CA, these rules will immediately raise prices. “The regulations are quite extensive and will undoubtedly drive the costs of patient medicine upward,” says Raber. “Regulations are not intended to be so detailed in these fashions, but are supposed to provide the floor and specific framework upon which operators can build best practices and differentiate themselves from others in a competitive market that drives prices downward.”

“Comparable guidance from other states operating today, and even federal regulations, are not nearly as specific in certain aspects,” says Raber. “While there are some very good parts to the current draft, and the bureau has certainly aimed to provide strong consumer protections, as they should, the idea of benzene even being mentioned or possibly permitted, or a completely cold transportation chain being required, and pesticide levels so low it pushes the limits of the most sophisticated and modern analytical equipment while going far past sensible EPA limits, strongly suggests there is work to be done to dial back the current position and make for far more workable and fully balanced regulations before they are fully finalized.”

Dave Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical

It is important to note that nothing is set in stone yet. The bureau will hold four public hearings throughout the month of June for the lab testing rules. In addition to that, concerned stakeholders can send written comments through June 20th.

Dave Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical, a cannabis-testing lab based in Oakland, is pleased they are finally regulating the market, but definitely plans on providing some feedback to change the rules a bit. “CW Analytical applauds the state’s efforts to regulate laboratories and the cannabis industry in general,” says Egerton. “…Many aspects of the proposed regulations for labs will make for a marked shift in the way our businesses operate, but the motivation behind them is well-intended.” His sentiment is consistent with many who operate cannabis laboratories and other stakeholders who see these proposed rules as overreach.

“Unfortunately, some of the regulations as written will create undo burden upon the industry and carry a strong probability of limiting supply to medical patients,” says Egerton. “During the current review period, CA laboratories will be providing feedback on some of the details within the law in order to streamline their quality assurance goals into a more tenable document that still protects patients.” That public comment period is a crucial part of the rulemaking process, as the rules will most likely change after cannabis laboratories’ voices are heard.

Protecting Innovative Strains with a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 1– Why IP & Why now?

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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This three-part series will provide an in-depth look at intellectual property (IP) protection that is available for innovative and new varieties of cannabis. In this first installment, we will examine the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy and look briefly at the types of IP that they should be considering. In the second and third pieces, we will look at the types of IP protection that can be used to protect innovative cannabis varieties and the unique IP issues the cannabis industry faces right now. Taken together, these articles will provide insight into IP strategies that cannabis breeders and growers can employ today to help prepare for the day that cannabis becomes legal nationally.

Why should I use IP to protect my cannabis varieties?

First and foremost, as the cannabis industry continues to move from a small, tight-knit community of breeders and growers into a ‘big-business’ industry, IP is the only way for breeders to protect the investment of time, energy and money that they put into developing new and innovative strains of cannabis. At a recent cannabis growing conference, one sentiment felt among numerous breeders was a feeling of frustration– stemming from the fact that they had spent many years developing new varieties of cannabis and, now that the industry is exploding, they are not getting recognition for all that effort. The way to avoid this issue is to protect novel varieties with IP to ensure that you are given proper credit for all of your hard work.

Moreover, an examination of industries that have strong similarities to the cannabis industry, such as other plant-based industries and ‘vice’ industries, provides compelling evidence that IP will become a main driving force in the cannabis industry as it continues to mature. For example, the fruit and hops industries have been relying upon strong plant patent and trademark protection for many years. The extremely popular Honeycrisp apple is a patented variety and the Amarillo hops variety (officially called ‘VGXP01’) is protected by both a U.S. Plant Patent and a federally registered trademark. Similarly, the alcohol and tobacco industries rely upon strong trademark and branding strategies, with many consumers being extremely brand-particular.

Additionally, there is strong evidence that the cannabis industry is primed for intellectual property protection. Since long before cannabis was legalized, consumers who were buying cannabis on the black market often sought out a particular variety from their dealer, something that becomes more prevalent as the industry continues to mature.

Why is now the time to think about IP?

First, the relevant governmental bodies have now provided some clarity as to the types of IP protection that can, and cannot be obtained for cannabis. For example, it is now clear that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue patents that cover new cannabis plant varieties and related innovations, such as novel growing methods. In fact, the first U.S. Plant Patent that covers a novel cannabis strain, called ‘Ecuadorian Sativa’, issued in late 2016.

Similarly, though federal trademark registration is not currently available if the product being protected is a cannabis product that is illegal under federal law. Federal trademark registration may be available to protect products related to the cannabis industry that are not themselves federally illegal (e.g., grow lights, fertilizer, etc.). Many states with legalized cannabis will grant state trademark registrations for cannabis products regardless of whether the products are viewed as illegal under current federal law. With this increased clarity, companies can now begin to formulate a comprehensive IP strategy that ties together the various types of IP protection.

Additionally, cannabis breeders and growers should look to adopt an IP strategy now because there are certain time bars that exist that may result in loss of rights if they wait. For example, as we will discuss in Part 2 of the series, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented was not sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, the ability to ever get that protection may be lost.

The bottom line is that, to solidify their place in the market, cannabis breeders and growers should be formulating an IP strategy sooner rather than later. Those forward-thinking growers and breeders that adopt a comprehensive IP strategy up front will gain a distinct competitive advantage over competing growers and breeders down the road – an advantage that will become even more important if and when large corporations begin to move into the cannabis space. Those companies that have strong brands in place will be better equipped to survive and thrive in the face of pressure from legal teams at larger companies.

The next two installments of this series will examine the specifics of the types of IP protection that can be sought and the unique issues that the cannabis industry faces with each of them.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 2

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we introduced Dr. Hope Jones, who took her experience in tissue culture from NASA and brought it to the cannabis industry and C4 Laboratories. We discussed some of the essential concepts behind tissue culture and defined a few basic terms like micropropagation, totipotency, explants and cloning. Now let’s get into some of the issues with cloning from mother plants and the advantages that come with using tissue culture for propagating and cultivating cannabis.

Time & Resources

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer at C4 Labs

Taking cuttings from mother plants is arguably the most popular method of propagating cannabis plants. It is a process that requires significant real estate, resources and labor. “Moms can take up a great deal of space that is not contributing directly to production,” says Dr. Jones. “I know from experience that scaling up production and/or adding new strains to the production line requires significant time and resources to raise and maintain new healthy and productive mother plants.” Each mother plant produces a limited number of clones per harvest period and over the course of her life cycle.

By using tissue culture, a cultivator can generate an almost infinite number of clones from one plant cutting. With so many growers calculating their costs-per-square-foot, micropropagation is an effective tool to save space, labor and time, thus increasing profit margins. “Just to put it in perspective: Holly Scoggins’ book Plants From Test Tubes, cites a Day Lily cultivator who uses micropropagation to produce 1,000 plants in 30 square feet of shelf space each week,” says Dr. Jones. “Using conventional methods, one would need a half-acre to produce the same amount of plants.” Cultivators can produce a much greater number of plants-per-square-foot by using micropropagation effectively.

Damage from whiteflies, thrips and powdery mildew is all visible on this sick plant.

Early Health & Vigor

Most tissue culture methods use sterilized vessels that contain sugar-rich media to support growth of plantlets before they can photosynthesize on their own. “The media is prepped, poured into vessels, and placed in an autoclave (or pressure cooker) where it is subjected to high temps and pressure to achieve proper sterility.”

The sterile environment and rich growth media supplies plantlets with an abundance of everything they need. “When plantlets emerge from culture, they are pathogen-free, with a stockpile of food and nutrient reserves that support rapid growth and vigor, superior to conventional cuttings,” says Dr. Jones.

Stress & Disease

As any grower knows, mother plants can sometimes experience stress and disease. This might come in the form under or over-watering, heat stress, spider mites, whiteflies, mold and viruses. “Any stress or infection that a mother plant is subjected too can impact progeny health and productivity in a couple of ways,” says Dr. Jones.

Powdery mildew starts with white/grey spots seen on the upper leaves surface
Tobacco Mosaic Virus symptoms can include tip curling, blotching of leaf mosaic patterning, and stunting.

For example, diseases like powdery mildew and tobacco mosaic virus are often systemic, meaning that pathogens have spread to almost every tissue in the plant. Once infected, it is impossible to completely eliminate pathogens from tissues. Therefore any cuttings made from a diseased mother plant, even if they look perfectly healthy, will also be infected and can eventually present disease symptoms like reduced productivity and/or plant death, according to Dr. Jones.

How does tissue culture get around this problem? Remember that explants (small tissue samples used as starting material) can be extracted from any part of the plant. Meristematic cells in shoot tips and leaves are the source of new plant growth. Dr. Jones explains that these cells, and the first set of primordial leaves are not connected directly to the vascular tissue, the plant’s transport system by which pathogens spread. Therefore, meristematic cells tend to be disease-free, whatever the condition of the mother. It takes a sharp blade, a dissecting microscope, and a lot of experience to learn, but as Dr. Jones explains, “harvesting explants from meristems is a routine micropropagation technique used by ‘Big Horticulture.’ One example is the strawberry. Viruses and pathogens are so prevalent that the strawberry industry must use meristematic culture to ensure pathogen free progeny.”

Epigenetics

Now let’s talk about epigenetics. We know that plants don’t have the option of physically moving away from stress or predation. Instead, they have evolved sophisticated ways of changing their own biology to adapt to and/or protect themselves. “Consider what happens to a mom exposed to a pathogen. The infected plant will start expressing (turning on) genes and making proteins that contribute to pathogen resistance,” says Dr. Jones. “These changes to gene expression are partly regulated by epigenetic modifications, chemical changes to DNA that increase or decrease the likelihood a cell will express a particular gene, but that do not actually modify the gene itself. Like annotations to a piece of music, epigenetic modifications don’t change the notes but rather how loud or soft, quickly or slowly the notes are played.”

There are more than 1,000 different viruses and mixed infections are very common

This is where it gets interesting. “Epigenetic modifications can be systemic and long lived. Plants infected by a pathogen or stressed by drought will present widespread epigenetic modifications to their DNA,” says Dr. Jones. “For an annual plant like cannabis, those modifications are relatively permanent. Thus a cutting from a mom having drought or pathogen adapted epigenetic programming will inherit that modified DNA and behave as if it were experiencing that stress, whether present or not.”

In the wild, this adaptability is critical for plant survival and reproduction, but to a grower, this is a less-than-ideal scenario. “The epigenetic modifications allowed the mother to tolerate the stress, which is great from the perspective of survival and fitness, but it comes at a cost. Some of the finite energy and resources that usually support plant growth and reproduction are instead channeled to stress response,” says Dr. Jones. This trade off results in reduction in overall plant yield and quality. “Those epigenetic changes result in a new phenotype for that mother,” says Dr. Jones. “All cuttings from her will reflect the new phenotype. This is one major mechanism underlying what many in the cannabis industry (incorrectly) call ‘genetic drift,’ or the loss of vigor over successive clonal generations.”

This is again where tissue culture can be such a game changer. The process of dedifferentiation, as explained in part 1 of this series, can rejuvenate a “tired” mother plant by inducing a kind of reboot– clearing accumulated epigenetic modifications that negatively impact progeny vigor and productivity. In the third part of this series, we will discuss the five stages of micropropagation, detailing the process of how you can grow plantlets in tissue culture. Stay tuned for more!