Ahead of the state’s implementation of their full adult use legalization in early 2018, California is working on improving their public outreach. Last week, the California Department of Public Health launched “Let’s Talk Cannabis”, a website dedicated to consumer education.
About two weeks ago, the Bureau of Cannabis Control, California’s state regulatory body for the cannabis industry, launched a rebranding effort of their own, with a new logo, website and even an Instagram account. Their “Cannabis Portal” is a website dedicated to helping those in the industry get updated information on licensing, new regulations and other news and events.
The Bureau’s upgraded website will better help business owners stay up-to-date on upcoming regulations and licensing applications, according to a press release. Judging by their Facebook (@bccinfo.dca), Twitter (@bccinfo_dca) and Instagram pages, the regulatory body seeks to have a more public presence online than other states’ regulatory bodies.
The state’s three regulatory bodies are featured on the portal. The Bureau of Cannabis Control is just one regulatory arm of the government, basically responsible for licensing dispensaries, distributors and laboratories. The Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch, a division of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), will presumably regulate manufacturers of infused products. CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing is under the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which will oversee regulating growers of medical and adult use cannabis. That regulatory body is also in charge of the state’s seed-to-sale traceability software system.
The Department of Public Health’s “Let’s Talk Cannabis” website is more of a consumer-focused educational tool. It features frequently asked questions, some links to other resources, information on legalization and information for the youth, parents and pregnant and breastfeeding women. That consumer-facing website offers tips for parents on storing cannabis and keeping it out of reach of children, in addition to advice for responsibly consuming cannabis.
It will be interesting to see how they plan on using those social media pages in the future. At first glance, they could be excellent tools for regulators to communicate with licensees, to help explain common regulatory compliance errors or to provide tips and tricks for staying compliant. The consumer-facing portal could also be a great means for communicating product recalls or public health and safety alerts, things that Colorado and Oregon currently struggle with.
According to a PennLive article, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health approved the first two cannabis laboratories for their medical cannabis program. ACT Laboratories of Pennsylvania LLC and Keystone State Testing LLC are the companies that were approved to perform analytical testing for safety and quality in cannabis products.
Both laboratories expect to be operational before the end of 2017, according to the PennLive article. Those labs are required to test for CBD and THC content, pesticides, moisture content, residual solvents and microbiological contaminants.
The temporary lab testing regulations are somewhat comprehensive, detailing lab reporting, licensing, sampling protocols and ownership stipulations, among other rules. ACT and Keystone, the labs that were approved by the Department of Health, have their approval for two years and can renew their license after.
While the state still expects the program to be fully implemented by 2018, Health Secretary and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine said last week they are hoping to launch the program sometime next year, according to a press release. December 2017 will mark a full year since the state opened applications for licensing businesses.
January 2018 has long been the goal for the full implementation of the program. “We have made significant progress in getting this program off the ground since Governor Wolf signed the Medical Marijuana Act into law last year,” says Dr. Levine. “These proposed regulations for patients and caregivers to participate are one of the final pieces we need to have in place to launch the program sometime next year.”
Pennsylvania Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS), won a license to grow medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, but some think the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) should reconsider awarding that license. PAMS is a subsidiary of Vireo Health, which has medical cannabis licenses in New York and Minnesota, as well as quite the blemish on their business record. In December 2015, two former employees were accused of breaking state and federal laws by transporting cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York. Because of that history, some are questioning why exactly they were awarded the PA medical cannabis license.
In that school of thought is Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia-based cannabis advocate and author of an article on Philly.com, which calls PAMS’ license into question. According to Goldstein, Vireo Health could lose their licenses in New York and Minnesota, and those former employees involved might even face federal prosecution. “On the surface it would seem that Vireo broke every rule in the book,” says Goldstein. “Not only could the company lose its permits in both of those states, but employees could face federal prosecution for interstate transport and distribution.” But does that previous wrongdoing by two former employees have any bearing on their application in PA? In Maryland, it did. According to The Baltimore Sun, concerns surrounding MaryMed’s parent company, Vireo Health, is the main reason why their permit to grow medical cannabis was revoked.
In response to some of those concerns about their PA license, Andrew Mangini, spokesman for Vireo Health, issued the following statement, which appeared in Goldstein’s article: “While we’re aware of allegations against two former employees of an affiliate, those individuals have never had a role in our application or in the management of PAMS,” says Mangini. “It’s also important to note that our Minnesota affiliate and our parent company Vireo Health have not been accused of any wrongdoing in connection with those allegations.”
Below is a timeline of events leading up to the PA DOH defending their decision to give PAMS a license:
December 2015: Two former employees of Minnesota Medical Solutions, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, transported a half-million dollars worth of cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York, violating state and federal laws.
February 9th, 2017: The two former employees were formally charged with crimes in Minnesota for illegally transporting cannabis across state lines.
February 20th-March 20th, 2017: PAMS submitted a license application to the PA DOH between these dates, listing their business state as Minnesota on the application.
May 2017: Maryland DOH suspended the licenses of MaryMed LLC, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, over concerns that the company did not provide information related to the Minnesota and New York licenses on their application, according to the Washington Post.
June 20th, 2017: PA DOH releases a list of license winners; PAMS was listed among winners for a cultivation license in Scranton.
June 26th, 2017: PA DOH officials defend their decision to award PAMS a license, according to a Philly.com article. That same day, The Baltimore Sun reported the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission revoked MaryMed, LLC their license, citing concerns about Vireo Health.
April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the PA DOH, told Philly.com in June, “Remember, the permits are given to business entities, not people.” The point she is making refers to the charges being filed against former employees, not any of the businesses who hold medical cannabis licenses.
Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group in Pennsylvania, has seen no objective evidence of anything wrongful in either PAMS’ application or the DOH’s processing of it. “Marijuana related businesses often have distinct, affiliated components and the Department of Health faces two critical issues,” says Schain.
“First, whether grow applicant PA Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS) had a duty to disclose alleged wrongdoing on its application, failed to fulfill this duty and, if so, whether PAMS’ application should be amended, re-scored or disqualified. Second, as part of its ongoing license reporting requirements, whether grow licensee PAMS has any duty to disclose the alleged wrongdoing. The answer to much of this hinges on whether criminal or administrative charges were leveled against just Vireo Health’s former employees or also included the entity and whether these individuals or enterprise fell within Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Organization Permit Application definition of an “Applicant” (“individual or business applying for the permit”) or applicant’s “Principals, Financial Backers, Operators or Employees” of PAMS. Either way, it does not presently appear that the [PA] DOH missed anything.”
This does raise the question of whether or not Vireo Health is under investigation, which is yet to be determined. According to Goldstein in his Philly.com article, the Minnesota DOH declined to comment on Vireo Health and the New York DOH says the department’s investigation is ongoing. “The selection of a Vireo Health affiliate to grow and process medical cannabis in Pennsylvania has cast a serious shadow over the integrity of the program even before it has started,” says Goldstein.
In Maryland, the DOH revoked their license as a direct result of those former employees in Minnesota committing crimes, according to The Baltimore Sun. Commissioner Eric Sterling said there is “a reasonable likelihood of diversion of medical cannabis by the applicant.” So should Pennsylvania do the same? Do those crimes by former employees have any bearing on their application? This story raises a number of questions regarding applications for state licenses that are largely left unanswered. One thing we know for certain: each state handles applications very differently.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced today the first 12 winners of growing and processing permits for the state’s medical cannabis program. At first glance, it appears those who won the permits have teams with experience in successful cannabis operations elsewhere in the country. The permit winners now have six months to become operational, according to a press release.
According to that press release, John Collins, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Medical Marijuana, received 457 applications in total, with 177 prospective grower/processors and 280 for dispensaries. “With today’s announcement, we remain on track to fulfill the Wolf Administration’s commitment to deliver medical marijuana to patients in 2018,” says Collins. “The applications from the entities receiving permits were objectively reviewed by an evaluation team made up of members from across commonwealth agencies.”
In the populous Southeast region of Pennsylvania, grower/processor permits were awarded to Prime Wellness of Pennsylvania, LLC, and Franklin Labs, LLC. Prime Wellness is a Connecticut-based enterprise. According to Steve Schain, Esq., attorney at the Hoban Law Group, Franklin Labs includes team members from Garden State Dispensary, a successful medical cannabis operation in New Jersey.
Two of the businesses that won permits are actually from Illinois, not Pennsylvania. GTI Pennsylvania, LLC (Green Thumb Industries), has a strong presence in Illinois and Nevada. AES Compassionate Care LLC lists their business state as Illinois as well.
“Based on the first phase award of grower/processor licensees both the strength and weakness of Pennsylvania’s program has been highlighted,” says Schain. “Many licensee recipients are affiliated with existing national marijuana-related businesses with excellent track records for operating in a transparent, compliant and profitable manner.” The applications were rated on a scorecard out of 1,000 points. “Unfortunately missing from this initial phase license winners are purely regional enterprises who may have been unable to compete with national concerns’ resources and checkbooks.” According to Schain, some of the more significant areas on the scorecard reflect a diversity plan, community impact statement, business history and capacity to operate, capital requirements and operational timetable. Capital requirements are the applicants’ demonstrable financial resources comprised of at least $2 million in capital and $500,000 in cash. All of the growers are required to grow indoors, not in a greenhouse or on an outdoor farm.
There is also a ten-day appeals process for scorecards that will undoubtedly be utilized by companies that were not successful in their bids. The next phase, according to Schain, of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program regards “Clininical Registrants” in which grow/processor and dispensary licensure will be awarded to eight applicants, which, if able to satisfy requirements including demonstrating $15 million in capital, will be authorized to open up to six dispensary locations.
PA Secretary of Health Dr. Karen Murphy last week announced applications for growers and processors, while dispensary license applications will be available January 17, 2017. License applications will be accepted from February 20 through March 20, 2017. Governor Wolf signed the medical cannabis bill into law back in April of this year.
“We’ve reached an important milestone in the program with the release of permit applications on January 17, 2017,” says Secretary Murphy. The PA Department of Health will issue 12 licenses for growers and processors and 27 dispensary licenses, according to Secretary Murphy’s statement. “The decision for which counties will be issued permits in this first phase was determined by using the department’s medical data, as well as comments from more than 5,000 patients and nearly 900 potential grower/processors and dispensary applicants.”
According to the Philly Voice, the highly populated Southeast region of Pennsylvania will get ten dispensary permits, including three in Philadelphia, two in Montgomery County and one in Bucks, Chester, Berks, Delaware and Lancaster counties each. The state will fully implement its medical cannabis program by 2018, but a temporary program with ‘Safe Harbor guidelines’ was effective in May of 2016, essentially allowing access for patients in the mean time, while establishing preliminary regulatory compliance guidelines.
In last week’s statement, Secretary Murphy also stressed the importance of their Physician Workgroup in developing the regulations. “We cannot underestimate the role of physicians in making sure that patients can access medical marijuana,” says Secretary Murphy. “That’s why the involvement of physicians and health care professionals through our Physician Workgroup is vital to the successful development and implementation of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program.” The Workgroup’s recommendations include establishing quality monitoring, training for dosage recommendations while addressing rural and urban access, education and delivery.
This November 8th, voters in five states will head to the polls to decide on legalizing recreational cannabis and another three states have ballot initiatives that would legalize medical cannabis. If any of those five states pass a measure for recreational legalization, including Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona and California, (which are all leading in the polls) they could potentially create massive new market opportunities for cannabis brands that have their eye on expansion.
Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of Wana Brands and chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance Infused Product Committee, sees great potential in capitalizing on those markets early. Whiteman has been working with Wana Brands since 2010 in Colorado, starting out in the young medical market there.
After expanding to the recreational market, Wana Brands saw its sales skyrocket. From January to August 2016, Wana had the best-selling candy brand in Colorado with 21% dollar share, according to BDS Analytics. Wana Brands has already expanded to Oregon and will launch in Nevada on November 15th, with agreements signed to expand in other states as well. “The model we are pursuing is a licensing agreement where we partner with existing or new license holders in their state,” says Whiteman. “In many ways they are doing the heavy lifting, but we are providing an enormous lift by licensing our intellectual property to them.” That model for growth is becoming increasingly common in some of the more established brands, like Steep Hill Laboratories, GFarma Labs, Dixie and others. Whiteman says that Wana Brands also has a partner in Illinois, Massachusetts and a number of other states they hope to reach.
According to Mark Slaugh, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance and chief executive officer of iComply, a compliance services provider, brands from Colorado expanding to other states need to ask themselves if their reputation is on the line with these new operators. “If you are licensing to companies that are not compliant, the penalties could be huge and they vary state to state- that could potentially hurt the overall brand image nationally,” says Slaugh. “People doing the licensing that are operating with full compliance really need to look at controlling that risk and mitigating that as much as possible.” With brand trust on the line, there are substantial risks that come with expansion. “We help clients ensure quality is consistent so, for example, an edible product would taste the same in Colorado as it would in Nevada or Arizona. They need to follow the intellectual property consistently but more importantly follow those specific regulations in that state to stay afloat.” Managing ongoing compliance in different states requires monitoring regulatory updates across multiple markets, which can get incredibly complex.
“Six years ago, it was much easier to get into the market in Colorado,” says Whiteman. “There were no capital requirements, no limits on the number of licenses, but there was still a lengthy application and vetting process- as long as you met those minimum requirements you could get a license.” Other new states put stringent limits on the number of licenses granted and some have extraordinarily cost-prohibitive capital requirements, up to a million dollars, as is the case for New York. “Anyone who becomes a license holder in Massachusetts has to be prepared to embark on three separate business models, which is a massive undertaking,” says Whiteman. Massachusetts requires license holders to cultivate, process and dispense in a vertically integrated model.
In other states, Wana Brands is working with exclusive partners who will have the capabilities to manufacture and distribute throughout the entire state, but in Massachusetts that won’t be the case. “To cover the state, we need several partnerships; the partner we are working with is a little south of Boston,” says Whiteman. But all that could change if voters in Massachusetts legalize it recreationally, opening a much larger market than the current medical program. “With no legislation drafted yet, the regulatory environment is still up in the air in Massachusetts so there is no way of telling what the recreational market will look like.” In terms of ongoing regulatory compliance, Whiteman believes that Colorado still has some of the most stringent rules. The universal symbol printed on every individual edible product serving is one example. “Every state has different lab testing and licensing requirements, but Colorado looks like the most stringent currently,” says Whiteman. “Colorado requires a full gamut of lab testing including homogeneity, potency, residual solvents, contaminants and soon pesticides too.” According to Mark Slaugh, Nevada’s lab testing regulations are fundamentally different from Colorado’s with regard to sampling procedures, but the broader inconsistencies in lab standards need to be addressed. “The lack of laboratory standardization state to state with regard to methods creates a big challenge to get consistent, proficient lab testing across the board,” says Slaugh.
A big differentiator between Colorado and other states is that it was a first mover. “When Colorado came online there were not any established brands to speak of anywhere in the country- we were all pioneers,” says Whiteman. “Because it is so difficult to get a license in another state, either the organization or investor groups are looking to partner with established brands.” The advantages to this business model are many. Expediting your entry to market gets you the advantage of being a first mover. Working with an established brand also minimizes risks and the learning curve. “Bigger players understand that building a brand from scratch is time consuming and expensive so I think we will see a lot of these partnerships.”
As those new states come online, similarities in their regulations might appear in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) or good manufacturing practices (GMPs). “We might start to see a standardization from state to state that models FDA GMPs or USDA GAPs, [good agricultural practices] moving toward a framework that is more consistent with the possibility of federal regulation,” says Slaugh. Another commonality among a number of states is the implementation of a statewide tracking system. According to Slaugh, California has no such mandated system in place yet. “They will probably have one eventually but the market is so localized there- we will see if California will be ready with a statewide compliance system for tracking by 2018,” says Slaugh. “With such a weird patchwork of local governments allowing or not allowing certain operations to exist, it is a tough business to be in and it’s getting tougher every day.”
Last week, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy announced the formation of temporary regulations for cannabis growers and processors in the state, according to a press release. Those temporary rules were published on Saturday, October 29. Secretary Murphy asked for public comment on developing regulations for dispensaries as well.
The PA Department of Health published the new set of temporary regulations this past Saturday, outlining “the financial, legal and operational requirements needed by an individual to be considered for a grower/processor permit, as well as where the facilities can be located.” The regulations also discuss tracking systems, equipment maintenance, safety issues, disposal of cannabis, tax reporting, pesticides, recalls and insurance requirements. “One of our biggest accomplishments to date is the development of temporary regulations for marijuana growers and processors,” says Secretary Murphy. “We received nearly 1,000 comments from members of the community, the industry and our legislative partners.”
The general provisions published on Saturday outline the details of the application process, fees, inspections, reporting, advertising and issues surrounding locations and zoning. The temporary regulations for growers and processors delve into the minutia of regulatory compliance for a variety of issues: including security, storage, maintenance, transportation, tracking, disposal, recall, pesticides and packaging and safety requirements. A list of pesticides permitted for use can also be found at the bottom of the rules.
The document discusses the regulations for performing voluntary and mandatory recalls in great detail. It requires thorough documentation and standard operating procedures for the disposal of contaminated products, cooperation with the Department of Health and appropriate communications with those affected by the recall.
The department has yet to release temporary regulations for laboratories and dispensaries, but hopes to do so before the end of the year. “I am encouraging the public – and specifically the dispensary community – to review the temporary regulations and provide us with their feedback,” says Secretary Murphy. “The final temporary regulations for dispensaries will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin by the end of the year.”
Since Governor Tom Wolf signed the medical cannabis program bill into law in April 2016, the state has made considerable progress to develop the program, including setting up a physician workgroup, public surveys for developing temporary rules and a request for information for electronic tracking IT solutions. The PA Department of Health expects to implement the program fully in the next 18 to 24 months.
Even though half of U.S. states and the District of Colombia now permit the possession of medical or recreational cannabis, state regulatory bodies differ greatly in their approaches to managing our industry. In Washington, anyone over the age of 21 can legally possess one ounce of usable cannabis and/or seven grams of concentrate. In Minnesota, patients are only allowed to purchase non-smokable cannabis in pill, liquid or oil form.
Given these substantial differences, it is no surprise that the application process to open a dispensary or cultivation facility also varies from state to state. The question I am most often asked (and catch myself mulling over late at night) is what can applicants do to ensure their success, regardless of where they are applying?
Recently we helped a client secure one of the first 15 licenses issued to grow medical cannabis in Maryland. The Maryland application process was particularly unique because most of the applicants had political or law-enforcement ties, or were connected to successful out-of-state growers. That experience, along with our work in places like Arizona, Colorado and Florida, has shown me the importance of teamwork, diversity and security in developing a winning application.
So here are my suggestions for ensuring a successful submission, regardless of which state you are operating in:
Build the Right Team. My dad likes to say, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I think the same is true about creating the team for your application. Do not assume one or two people will be able to fill all of the required roles. You will need experts in a range of different areas including medicine, pharmacology, capital investment, cultivation, real estate, security and law.
Focus on Diversity. I think one of the reasons we have been successful in helping clients secure applications (we are six for six, in six different states) is our commitment to gender, racial and even geographic diversity. For example, we recently helped a client secure a license in an economically underdeveloped area. I think our choice to headquarter the new business outside of the metropolitan corridor was at least partially responsible for our success.
The Devil is in the Details. According to ArcView Market Research, the cannabis industry is expected to be worth $23 billion by 2020. If you want to be one of the organizations selected by your state to sell cannabis, you need to have your act together. Most applications ask incredibly detailed questions. Therefore it is essential that you answer them thoroughly and accurately. All answers should be in compliance with your state’s regulations.
Put Safety First. You will need a comprehensive plan that takes all aspects of security into account. This includes everything from hiring security guards to purchasing cameras, and implementing internal anti-theft procedures. Regardless of the size of your operation, safety should be a primary consideration.
Secure Funding. Successful cannabis businesses require capital. It’s important to be realistic about the amount of money you will need to have on hand. Application costs typically range from $500,000 to $1 million. This will cover things like hiring an architect or leasing land. Ideally, your organization will have another $5 to $10 million or more available to start your project once you’ve been approved so that you can quickly become operational.
Connect With Your Community. It is essential to consider the impact of your business on the community. Being a good corporate citizen means being transparent and engaging in a two-way dialogue with neighbors, government officials and patients. I strongly recommend that my clients develop a comprehensive community outreach plan that designates which organizations they plan to work with, (hospitals or universities, for example) and what the nature of those partnerships will be.
Last week, news of problems facing Oregon’s cannabis laboratory accreditation program surfaced, leading some to speculate about possible delays for the recreational cannabis market. According to The Register-Guard, ORELAP administrator Gary Ward believed the program was “on the precipice of collapse.”
According to Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) was anticipating over 30 cannabis laboratories applying for accreditation and they doubled their staff from two to four to prepare for the uptick in applications.
In June, the agency had zero labs applying for accreditation but within two months, 37 labs applied. However, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) just provided three additional staff members on Monday to help with the application process, says Modie.
Some believe the issues could mean the state may not have enough accredited labs by October 1st, when the recreational cannabis market is expected to go into full swing. “It is difficult to say exactly how many labs we can accredit by October 1,” says Modie. “We have seven labs today which would bring it to nine labs waiting for assessment, but our goal is to get as many labs assessed and hopefully accredited as soon as possible.”
With the additional staff members, Modie is hopeful this will jumpstart the program. “We really appreciate our collaboration with the DEQ and look forward to boosting our capacity a bit to help us get through this busy time,” says Modie.
Part of the reason some laboratories might have trouble meeting prerequisites is simply because the requirements are very strict. “The process involves submitting a quality manual, standard operating procedures, method validation, submitting proficiency testing data and finally undergoing an ORELAP assessment by our staff, so it is a very rigorous process,” says Modie. “This speaks to our concern for making sure they have the right systems in place so public health is protected.” Modie said there were at least three labs that did not pass the assessment.
Bethany Sherman, chief executive officer of OG Analytical, believes the hardest part of the process involves getting accredited for testing pesticides. OG Analytical, based in Eugene, Oregon, has already received their accreditation, one of the first to do so. “The pesticide testing requires our most expensive instrumentation and the sample preparation for testing pesticides is the most time consuming,” says Sherman. “Not only does it require very specific instrumentation, it also requires a real know-how and expertise to ensure we are cleaning samples appropriately, minimizing background noise and looking at the pesticides in trace quantities.” According to Sherman, laboratories are also left to their own devices to develop methodologies specifically for the cannabis matrix, adding to the difficulties.
Rodger Voelker, Ph.D., lab director at OG Analytical, seems confident that the state will be able to handle it. “It is a relief they were able to get some resources from the DEQ and I think the state will not allow a program with this kind of importance to fall apart,” says Voelker. He believes after this initial phase of putting the program in place, the workload will go down. “It is easier to maintain a program than it is to implement,“ adds Voelker. In his eyes, it is crucial for the program to require rigorous science. “People are forced to reconcile that there is a tremendous amount of controls to be considered to produce legally defensible data and I think it is great that the requirements are so strict.”
The OHA’s job is to essentially safeguard public health and they do not want to leave any stone unturned when it comes to potential contamination, says Modie. “This is not just about getting as many labs accredited as possible, this is about protecting public health.”