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Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 2

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), told us about the basics of laboratory accreditation, what it means and why it is such a cornerstone of product safety. In this next piece, we sit down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry.

Brauninger has worked at A2LA since 1999. As the manager of their biosafety program, his focus is on developing and maintaining accreditation programs in the life sciences. Brauninger has conducted a number of management system assessments to ISO/IEC 17025 and 17020 and also evaluates other assessors in this role.

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Roger Brauninger, A2LA biosafety program manager

He is A2LA’s point person for interacting with organizations working with food and drug safety, human and animal anti-doping, biological and chemical threat agents and since 2014 for issues related to cannabis testing. He is a member of the ASTM D37 Cannabis committee, a group focused on creating standards for cannabis products. He was also a member of the stakeholder panel on strategic food analytical methods (SPSFAM) cannabis potency working group when they were awarded the Official Methods Board (OMB) award for achievement in technical and scientific excellence at the AOAC’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Atlanta, GA. Brauninger holds an M.S. degree in Cellular, Microbial and Molecular Biology from George Mason University and is a member of the Society for Toxicology, AOAC International and the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP).

In this part of the series, we sit down with Brauninger to learn specific requirements in states, some of the benefits of using ISO/IEC 17025 and the influx of start-up or novice testing laboratories. Stay tuned for part three.

CannabisIndustryJournal: Do all states with legalized medical cannabis require the testing to be performed by an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited laboratory?

Roger Brauninger: No not at present, while most of the states where cannabis is legal do require accreditation; there are some states that have no requirements dealing with ensuring the competence of the testing laboratories, some that require the labs to be accredited to state environmental and drinking water standards, some that require laboratories adhere to Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) requirements and some have no requirements in place currently. Now, there are roughly 13 states that require or recommend accreditation of the testing laboratory to ISO/IEC 17025.

CIJ: If and when cannabis use is accepted federally, how is ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of testing laboratories beneficial?

Roger: The accreditation process provides a uniform platform to allow for comparability of test results between states. This would also allow for these laboratories to benefit by being able to expand their customer base, if state borders were not an artificially imposed barrier to trade. This could also help to raise the quality of the testing services by allowing for greater participation in realistic accredited proficiency testing programs, which can create greater comparability of methods and results.

CIJ: What are the benefits to the states by choosing to require ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation as a basis for competence of testing laboratories?

Roger: States face the unique challenge, due to the federal illegality of cannabis, that they must craft their own regulatory cannabis program requirements. The ISO/IEC 17025 requirements provides a means upon which to recognize laboratory competence. This saves the states from having to come up with their own laboratory quality management requirements detailing the necessary activities a laboratory must address with respect to documentation, chain of custody, method validation, etc. Because these items are already considered in the standard. ISO/IEC 17025 helps to creates a baseline consistency amongst laboratories between states. And It also helps to   provides for the legal defensibility of the test results. If and when cannabis is legalized on a federal level, a uniform 50 state recognition is possible using ISO/IEC 17025 as the basis of recognition. In short accreditation can help to ensure that test results have greater comparability and reliability; It also provides greater trust and confidence in the labels and the stated ingredients.

CIJ: Many of the laboratories are “starting up”, how is A2LA equipped to deal with the influx of novice laboratories in this field of testing?

Roger: A2LA offers many different relevant training classes, including those on the ISO/IEC 17025 standard itself, (as well as ones that also contain cannabis-specific content), internal auditing, documenting your quality system, etc. for the laboratories. A2LA also is knowledgeable regarding various states’ cannabis regulatory requirements and can help guide the labs through some of the many obstacles they face in order to perform testing in their state.

CIJ: Does A2LA provide any technical assistance to laboratories that are starting up in this industry?

Roger: A2LA has numerous technical assessors who are experts in the analytical technology associated with cannabis testing. Assessors can be hired in a consulting role and act independently of the assessment process (and independent of A2LA). As a consultant, they can also assist in setting up a quality management system in compliance with ISO/IEC 17025.

CIJ: What benefits can be gained from a laboratory seeking accreditation or from a state that requires cannabis testing laboratories to be accredited?

Roger: Accreditation can provide legal defensibility and increased confidence in the test results being able to stand up in court.   It also may help to lower the cost of doing business because it helps to ensure that the test methods are in control by the laboratory and has been shown to be able to reduce the need for repeat testing. Laboratory accreditation has also led to reduced insurance rates in some cases.

How Science Is Going To Save Your Cannabis Business

By Kay Smythe
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Marketing cannabis and the products that accompany recreational use is set to become one of the biggest industries in the United States. With 29 states promoting legal medical cannabis, 14 with it decriminalized and 8 having legalized it completely, you might be thinking this will be the easiest ad-campaign of all time. Unfortunately, science suggests otherwise.

The Science of Marketing

You heard correctly, marketing is a science, but almost half of what we know about the process cannot be applied to cannabis. Why? Because cannabis lives in the grey area of the American psyche. How do I know this?

Science.

In 2015, I completed and published The Safe Haven theory, a socio-demographic linguistic analysis of attitudes toward recreational drug use in the United Kingdom. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the study, but the findings are important.

The study, using theoretical sociological trends, found that even non-recreational drug users in the United Kingdom favor cannabis legalization. A great number of police jurisdictions have chosen to not longer punish cannabis users, meaning that the law is (mostly) on our side – the side of full legalization and taxation of cannabis as a product for recreational usage, not so dissimilar from alcohol.

In the UK, we could easily put a huge billboard of someone’s grandmother smoking a spliff and make a million on the first day.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be done in the United States.

Advertising law aside, Americans just don’t have the same view of cannabis as Brits. In the last two years, I applied the same framework to a host of American demographics, and – as I hypothesized – localism rules the American market.

If you live in a Red town and you’re a recreational cannabis user, stigma will prevail over the scientific data, and changing that stigma is almost impossible without hard scientific evidence to back-up the marketing campaign.

Qualitative research is key when understanding why people buy into particular industries. This might not be the general belief held by most folks in advertising, as stats and numbers are distinctly easier to work with. However, as last year’s General Election and Brexit vote showed: numbers can lie. Therefore, the best means of understanding what people really want is to actually talk to them – and I mean in-person.

Marketing rules are shifting. More and more, the heads of marketing departments are turning to scientific and scholarly data to assess the current trends in social development, molding their campaigns around this data as a means of showing that they are industry leaders in understanding the phenomena, as well as speaking to target buyers in their own language.

Am I being too wordy? Let me put it simply.

Say your new product is an indoor indica strain with sleep/stress aid properties, this is how you should market it to three specific demographics:

  • Californian recreational smoker in the 50+ age demographic with a moderate knowledge of cannabis strains, “Indoor indica, grown locally with minimal chemical input, good as a sleep aid and positive for stress reduction.”
  • New York medical user, 30+, business background, “This strain is an excellent sleep aid, can decrease stress without taking off the edge of your day-to-day workload; highly recommended for those employed in a full-time, private sector position.”
  • Small town with predominantly low-income demographic employed in blue-collar industry, “affordable means of relaxing after a tough day at work that won’t give you the same cancer risk as tobacco.”

We market the same strain to each of these demographics, but the language used in the campaign is more important than the product itself. In the UK, the same strain would be marketed across the country using something like:

“Dank strain with sleep aid and relaxation properties, best for chilling out at the end of the day – definitely not recommended prior to work!”

What this means for the United States cannabis marketing specialist is simple: you need to invest as much as you can in getting scholarly researchers out into the field and figuring out the local socio-demographic linguistic trends for your target buyers. Luckily, this can be a fairly affordable means of research.

Marketing specialists have two options in uncovering this data:

  • Use students currently enrolled in universities and colleges, either offering paid internships or college credit for bulk research.
  • Hire an academic consultancy corporation. This is rapidly becoming a norm in for companies looking to expand their marketing by using scientific data, particularly in industries related to sport and the outdoors.

Just like how Pepsi really missed the mark with their latest failed advertising campaign, cannabis companies are at significant risk of ostracizing themselves from a wealth of demographics that would otherwise be open to recreational or medical cannabis use as an alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals, alcohol and even some forms of therapy.

Language is key, and if you can’t talk to your buyers on their level then you’ve already lost your edge over the competition.

Soapbox

Sustainability for the Cannabis Industry: Part I

By Olivia L. Dubreuil, Esq., Brett Giddings
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The cannabis industry is an unusual creature. It is so new and fluid that nothing in its space is yet crystallized. Product types, brand names, generally accepted processes and procedures are all still being invented and tested. Consumer market segments are defining themselves as the progression of legalization advances through the states. Seniors, children, veterans, women, and professionals of all backgrounds are feeling the health and wellness benefits of the flower that is slowly losing the negative stigma inherited from the so-called war on drugs. The potential is enormous. Money is already flooding to the lucky entrepreneurs with enough foresight to work in the space, and corporate business leaders from many other traditional sectors are slowly, but steadily flocking to the market.

This is economically encouraging. A whole new industry that creates new jobs, generates tax revenue and creates wealth. But there is a worrying scenario. In that scenario, traditional cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs are pushed out of the market as corporate competitors enter the game. In that scenario the industry grows faster than its regulatory framework, with little to no voluntary regulations, no sustainability leadership, and the industry’s practices and reputation finish in the gutter. In that scenario, federal and state regulators ramp up indiscriminate bans and phony prohibitions. In that scenario the new cannabis industry exacerbates the world’s social and environmental problems by being non-inclusive, by creating a divide within communities, by adding its own share of pollution, by pushing unhealthy and unsafe products – all for the sake of an easy buck.

That scenario is not a certainty – it does not have to see the light of day. This industry has the potential to be different. It has the unique opportunity to integrate sustainability practices from the start, to create a space where business meets mindfulness, and where corporate profits do not trump consumer health, worker welfare, community engagement or environmental preservation.

Sustainability strategy is the best risk management tool available to the cannabis businesses emerging today that hope to stay relevant in the future. A sustainable cannabis industry is one where women and minorities feel included, where the consumer recognizes and is loyal to brands and labels, where businesses are thriving while having a positive influence on their peers, a positive impact on their community and on the environment, where the race to the top breeds best practices and innovation.

Three levers can push sustainability: the consumer, the industry (and the businesses that comprise it) and the government (local, regional, national and international). Surprisingly, businesses can have a significant influence on all three. Consumers make and shape a market. What will happen when the consumer becomes aware of fossil-fuel (benzene) extraction in the age of climate change, when they request organic flowers that fits their ‘Wholefoods lifestyle’, or when they boycott non-biodegradable packaging? What will happen when a scandal breaks, linked to an avoidable health and safety accident, or when they realize people of color do not have equal opportunity in a cannabis business?

It is preposterous to think, that in this day and age – where information travels at the speed of light, some type of potentially damaging information about a product manufacturing process will not get out at some point or another (in some cases they have). There is absolutely no need to gamble with that. The solution is simple: adopt sustainable practices from the start.

The third lever is the government – we will come back to the second lever later. The cannabis industry, better than any other industry, knows how the government can make or break a business. If the government decides, like they did in Colorado, that in nine months cannabis packaging needs to be resealable and childproof, businesses will have to sit on several weeks worth of sales until they can find new suppliers, they will probably have to rethink their processes, while absorbing the costs of the packaging they had bought in advance. Worse case, they also have marketing and merchandising to rethink. All of that is costly.

However there is good news; government can be channeled, generally speaking, by doing the right thing. If an industry actively demonstrates a desire to do the right thing, and there is not an exaggerated amount of complaints (or accidents), then regulators will leave it alone. Businesses can and should invest as a group into drafting and endorsing generally accepted industry practices and organizing industry self-regulations. Those will guide governments when they draft regulations, but they could also preempt a lot of nonsensical top down rules

The second lever is the most important, and that is the business lever. Cannabis businesses can make or break this industry. Those who believe that the unsustainable practices that worked in the context of an illegal/black/grey market will work in the context of a 21st century legal industry may need a reality check. Those who continue to promote and endorse them are dangerous for the industry because they breed a climate of distrust, and they bring the industry under closer scrutiny. The cannabis industry needs businesses that display exemplary behaviors, think about their impact, and elevate the discussion as well as their peers.

Whether a business is small, large, mature or emerging, developing a strategic response to these challenges can and will create a sustainable business model. Businesses can gain robust competitive advantages over their peers, reap the rewards of having loyal customers, create thriving communities, and foster healthy natural environments by doing the right thing and embedding sustainability within their business decisions.

Tomorrow’s cannabis industry business leaders will be those that chose to be part of the solution, those that understood that sustainability was vital to their business model and took action early on.logo name1


Editor’s Note: Project Polaris is a California non-profit corporation, offering sustainability coaching and guidance to cannabis industry businesses. By becoming a member of Project Polaris, businesses have access to sustainability experts throughout the year, to set, support and carry out cost-effective, meaningful and impactful sustainability solutions.

Marijuana Matters

Education & Experience: Understanding the Operations

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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I often write about the legal side of and opinions about the cannabis industry. Much of what I write about is culled from anecdotal experiences within either my personal practice or observations in regard to the industry. I recently had a trip to Portland, Oregon to spend time learning and understanding a little bit about a particular client’s operations so that I could provide counsel to that particular client, where permissible. For me, it was an important part of the education, which I stress and serve as the basis for this article.

With education comes understanding. What I see in the cannabis industry is often those who are critical of the use of cannabis, either recreationally or medically, seem to demonstrate some lack of understanding. In Florida, as the “No on Amendment 2″ commercials and videos roll out, I see much information that clearly comes from a lack of understanding or potentially a willful desire to distort the truth.

I share the following, less as a means to correct those distortions, but more as an opportunity to educate one who may be reading this and who may not have the same experience, which I just had the opportunity to receive. My time in Oregon was spent predominately in Portland and Salem as this is where the particular client has locations that I was able to view and experience.

My observation from a zoning perspective was that there was not a dispensary on every corner and that at times I had to be patient before seeing a dispensary during our drive. Of note in regard to the dispensaries that I did see was often the use of “cannabis” or “marijuana” in the name or associated with signage at the dispensaries, in addition to a green cross. However, there were many that did not take as visible an approach. I recall seeing, pursuant to the rules of the Oregon Program, windows covered so that one cannot see in. From time to time there were billboards advertising dispensaries. What I noticed most was in part, the clean presentation of the particular client I was seeing versus what was presented on the outside of many dispensaries we passed. This may be highlighted in part based on viewing dispensaries through what one might consider an East Coast lens. There are others that might argue that this perspective, particularly in emerging markets, is much different than that which has been developed over time in the West Coast markets, many of which have now gone recreational.

Overall, like anything, what I saw ranged the gamut from unprofessional and a little unsightly to professional and clean looking, which generally fit into the surrounding neighborhood. In particular, my client’s dispensary in Salem was in a retail shopping center along with a Little Caesars, Aaron’s Rentals, a nail salon, and other normal and expected retailers. Unless you poked your head inside the door, it would not be readily apparent that it was a dispensary.

My experience with the types and looks of the dispensaries running the gamut was mirrored by a particularly unique experience I had in viewing customers/patients. What was clear from a very limited time of viewing who it is that goes into a dispensary in Oregon was that it was impossible to pigeonhole the types of patients and ailments or, in the recreational setting, who the end user might be. On the Saturday morning of my visit, while viewing operations in Salem, I was approached and began to speak with an older gentleman with a long straggly gray beard who appeared to be in his late 60’s to early 70’s. During the course of our conversation he let me know that he is looking forward to taking it easy, and that he was a veteran. He had two friends with him and it looked like they were going to enjoy some time relaxing together, but he was also able to tell me that it was assistive to him at times when his anxiety got the best of him. His purchases were economical, and it was apparent that he and his friends were of limited socio-economic means; however, his purchases were notably and significantly cheaper for use than potentially alcohol if, in fact, he was not medicating and using with his friends recreationally.

Within minutes after the gentleman left, the exact opposite walked in the store. Candidly, I was mildly surprised by whom I held the door for to walk in as I was leaving. For a moment I was transported from Salem, Oregon to any town in central New Jersey or main street USA. Decked out in what could have been Lily Pulitzer or other preppy outfit were two soccer moms. They had stepped out of the newest model of a particular German automobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to engage with the soccer moms in discussion, but it was clear through their knowledge of the layout and interaction with the employee behind the counter that this was not their first trip to this particular location.

So what does the foregoing illustrate? For me it illustrates the development of perspective through education. It is that perspective that I hope to bring to the advice and counsel of clients. Perhaps I can use the knowledge to be assistive in making recommendations on regulatory issues, if consulted on them, helping to explain to politicians and bureaucrats or zoning and planning officials what might or might not be important in their considerations when dealing with a client. My observations should ultimately help me assist in educating others as to what the business and operation of cannabis related businesses might actually entail and look like. It is absolutely necessary, irrespective of one’s role in the cannabis industry, whether it be on the real estate side, insurance brokerage, providing legal or consulting advice (especially as individuals transition from those areas of practice in non-cannabis related spaces) that one take the time to understand the industry and its practice from the inside out. Only then can one be an effective resource to a cannabis related business wherein once the layers of the onion are peeled back, there is actually substance and information.