Tag Archives: FDA

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.

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Quality Controls and Medical Cannabis: What We Can Learn from Pharma

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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When we discuss growing and producing medical cannabis, we must think of it as a medicine. By definition, it is a substance intended to assist you with a medical condition, to help you feel better and not harm you. Drugs produced in the pharmaceutical industry go through extensive quality controls to ensure a level of safety for the consumer or patient. Yet when we talk process and quality controls in medical cannabis production, there is still a lot to learn.

Are we waiting for the wake-up call? Well, ring! Recently Health Canada, the regulatory body overseeing Canada’s medical cannabis market, decided that “It will begin random testing of medical marijuana products to check for the presence of banned pesticides after product recalls affecting nearly 25,000 customers led to reports of illnesses and the possibility of a class action lawsuit.”

Proper quality controls help protect businesses from unforeseen issues like those massive recalls in Canada. These can assure that the product is safe (won’t harm you), has integrity (free of contamination), and that the product is what it says it is (identity). To achieve this important goal, we must have robust systems that will guarantee product quality. Why is this important? Quality controls can ensure a safer and more consistent product, helping build patient and consumer trust and brand loyalty, preventing a public relations nightmare like a recall due to pesticide contamination.

Food processing and sanitation
Product recalls due to manufacturing errors in sanitation cause mistrust among consumers.

The FDA, among other regulatory bodies, has established excellent guidelines to implement these controls. So there is a lot we can learn from the pharmaceutical industry and that FDA guidance regarding quality controls and assurance. After all, we are all interested in the same thing: a safe and effective product.

So, let’s take a look at some of the controls included in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulation), Part 211 , which include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for finished products, and how you can implement them in the growing business of growing cannabis.

  1. Personnel selection and training: The GMPs establish that “Each person engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall have education, training… to enable that person to perform the assigned functions.” These include the creation of specific curricula per position and the establishment of requirements for specialized tasks. We all want to be successful so training, in this case, is what we call the vaccine for mistakes.
  2. Facilities: “Any building or buildings used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of suitable size, construction, and location to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and proper operations.” This requirement includes segregation of spaces to avoid cross-contamination, housekeeping, the cleaning process and detergent types, material storage conditions, humidity levels, temperature, water, and even ventilation requirements to prevent contamination with microorganisms. All with the intention of protecting the product.
  3. Pest control: “There shall be written procedures for the use of suitable rodenticides, insecticides, fungicides, fumigating agents, and cleaning and sanitizing agents. Such written procedures shall be designed to prevent the contamination of equipment, components, drug product containers, closures, packaging, labeling materials, or drug products and shall be followed.” There have been many issues pertaining this requirement. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson received many complaints claiming that the product had a musty, moldy odor. Later, the firm identified the cause of the odor to be a chemical, called 2, 4, 6-Tribromoanisole or TBA; a pesticide used to treat wooden pallets. One of the specific requirements of this section is to avoid the use of wooden pallets, but if you decide to use them, the method of sterilization by heat treatment seems like the only safe option for sterilizing wooden pallets and wood cases.
  4. Equipment/Instrumentation: “Equipment used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of appropriate design, adequate size, and suitably located to facilitate operations for its intended use and its cleaning and maintenance.” The intention is to not alter the safety, identity, strength, quality, or purity of the drug product beyond the official or other established requirements. What would happen if lubricants/coolants or any other substance, not intended to be part of the product, comes in contact with the product?
  5. Procedures and documentation: “There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess. Such procedures shall include all requirements of this subpart. These written procedures, including any changes, shall be drafted, reviewed, and approved. When we have followable, well written, clear, and specific procedures, we avoid possible errors that can get us in trouble.
  6. Defects Investigation: “Written production and process control procedures shall be followed in the execution of the various production and process control functions and shall be documented at the time of performance. Any deviation from the written procedures shall be recorded and justified.” We want to be successful, for that we need to learn from failures, understanding the root causes, correcting and preventing re-occurrence is what will keep you competitive. As you can see this requirement is essential for, quality, business and to evidence that such deviations did not adulterate the product.
  7. Process controls: Besides written procedures and deviations management, operation controls are pivotal in guaranteeing the quality as well as complete documentation of your process. These controls will vary depending on your technology and your product. If you do alcohol (ethanol) extraction, for example,  you want to keep an eye on the temperature, dissolution time, and even have color standards to be able to quickly and correctly identify possible abnormalities, while you can still correct the mistake. In-process product testing will allow you to monitor “performance of those manufacturing processes that may be responsible for causing variability in the characteristics of in-process material and the final product.”

Regardless of federal regulatory guidance, quality controls can be that one factor which can make or break your business. Why re-invent the wheel?

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The Nerd Perspective

Pesticide Detection in Cannabis: Lab Challenges and Why Less Isn’t Always More

By Amanda Rigdon
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Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

The Big Challenge

Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.

Responding to the Challenge

One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.

Less isn’t always more…

Spiral Galaxy Milky Way
The Milky Way

In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.

FDAIn reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.

green apple with slice isolated on the white background.

A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.

How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?

The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.

*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)

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Biros' Blog

No Surprise Here: Federal Gov’t Still Butting Heads With States Over Cannabis Legalization

By Aaron G. Biros
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On August 11, 2016, the widely anticipated Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announcement on federal cannabis policy yielded fairly anticlimactic results. According to the statement, the federal agency denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted a scientific and medical evaluation that deemed cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.” The announcement reiterates the agency’s previous statements on the matter, stating that they believe clinical trials under the investigational new drug (IND) applications and the drug approval process are how the FDA can assess the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-derived medicine.

This avenue for bringing a cannabis-based drug to market is extraordinarily cost-prohibitive, allowing only pharmaceutical companies with deep coffers in the space. The DEA did however make one announcement in the statement that has the potential to lift many barriers to researching the plant’s medical value. The policy change allows more institutions to grow cannabis for research, which was previously allowed only at the University of Mississippi under a contract with NIDA. This is a very significant policy change that could be viewed as a step in the right direction. There is plenty of research currently that proves cannabis’ medical value and its safety and efficacy, but allowing more research opportunities signals that the DEA could be open to revisiting a rescheduling recommendation in the future.

One can speculate endlessly about when the DEA may reschedule cannabis, but in reality, no one knows when that might happen, no one knows what a new administration would do, if Congress would act on it or if the courts would. It seems even the FDA and DEA are sitting on their hands as the federal government does what they do best– inaction.

However, one important ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the baby steps taken toward some form of federal acceptance of legal cannabis. The court ruled that the Department of Justice couldn’t prosecute individuals in states where cannabis is legal. More specifically, the court ruling “prohibits the Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.” The ruling basically reaffirms the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which states that the DOJ cannot interfere with states where cannabis is legal, but this time also for those individuals complying with state law.

The DEA’s inaction on rescheduling cannabis should not be perceived as a loss to the legalization movement, rather as an upholding of the asinine status quo. Policy change in the United States is an arduous and very slow process. These things take time. One can look to the same-sex marriage movement and find striking similarities to the cannabis legalization movement. For example, Massachusetts and California were some of the first states to introduce legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and are also some of the first states that have introduced legislation legalizing cannabis. These states that are typically drivers of national policy have opportunities to pass important ballot initiatives this November that could have ripple effects throughout the country. Five states have ballot initiatives for recreational legalization and potentially up to eight states with initiatives for medical legalization, all being voted on this November.

What can the average citizen do to help with progress in cannabis legalization? For starters, you can vote. If you live in a state that has a ballot initiative for legalizing cannabis, show up at the polls and make your voice heard. If you live in a state where no such ballot initiative exists, you can still take action to get cannabis legalized. You can sign this petition or write your member of Congress to support the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). The CARERS Act, among many other important changes, would most notably reschedule cannabis to Schedule II.

So not all is lost with the DEA’s inaction. As more states legalize cannabis, we are seeing a rising tide lift all boats.

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A Case To Not Reschedule Cannabis

By Tyler Dautrich
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As many probably already know, last month the DEA announced that the organization was going to reconsider its position on cannabis and would come to a decision about whether or not to reschedule cannabis on The Controlled Substance Act (CSA) by June of this year. Many would say this is long overdue, considering the DEA has cannabis listed as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD.

Rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II would place it in the same category as Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall, oxycodone, and many more. These substances are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. However, they are recognized as having some potential medical benefits.

If cannabis were to become a Schedule II drug, it would allow further research on the plant. This could be beneficial to the industry because further medical research would finally provide the scientific validation that cannabis does have medical benefits and that it should be accepted as a form of medicine.

Those benefits come with a steep cost.

If cannabis becomes Schedule II it means the federal government finally sees cannabis as a plant (drug) that can provide some medical value. Which, at face value, is good because that is what many advocates have been fighting for. On the other hand, the only reason that larger pharmaceutical companies have largely kept out of the industry so far is because it is a Schedule I drug and the government did not officially recognize that it had any medical value. If this were to change, there is no reason for those pharmaceutical companies to continue watching from the sidelines. There is also no industry better fit than the pharmaceutical industry to run, manufacture, control, and profit from medical cannabis. The infrastructure is already in place.

There is also not another industry that has the money and the historical relationship with the FDA like the pharmaceutical industry. If the FDA were to regulate cannabis, it would have to regulate every single product on the shelf of every single dispensary, which would require more stringent lab testing guidelines. Just because one of your brownies made it through the FDA regulation process, does not mean the cookie next to it will. Entering into this process would take companies years to complete and cost more than $1 billion per product. Think about how many products some dispensaries have. Think about the number of different strains that dispensaries carry. That requires years of testing and multiple billions of dollars, just for the strains.

Big Pharma is positioned perfectly to come in and take control of the entire process if this happens. It will be a mad rush from all pharmaceutical companies to come in and quickly obtain market share. I know that as an industry we think we are seeing a lot of money in sales and profit, but compared to the pharmaceutical industry, it is merely a drop in the bucket. These companies will easily, and willingly, out-spend every company currently in the industry to the point where we can no longer compete. All the work that advocates and business professionals have put in to get the industry to where it is today could be lost.

Schedule II status would also turn the adult-use industry into utter chaos. The only reason we are able to have an adult-use market right now without the interference of the FDA is because cannabis is federally illegal. If cannabis is moved to Schedule II it will be recognized by the government, which means the FDA will have to come in and start the approval process for every product on the shelf. How smoothly do you think that will go for the adult-use retail centers in the industry? The cost alone will force shops to close. There is also not another substance that has a Schedule II classification that we have an adult-use industry for. Could cannabis be the first? I would not want to take that chance with the government or have to go through that process as an adult-use cannabis business owner.

When discussing this matter with several colleagues, some would ask “But what about now? We are in direct violation of the federal law right now, and they are leaving us be.”

Yes, that is for the most part true, but it is true because cannabis is now a Schedule I, federally illegal drug. Meaning the government does not even recognize it. The FDA will not regulate anything that is not recognized by the federal government because they are a federal agency. If the FDA were to implement regulations and an approval process, that would mean that a federal agency is recognizing cannabis as a consumer product. Right now that goes directly against the government’s public stance on the issue. And pharmaceutical companies cannot start selling a drug that is federally illegal and has been classified by the government as having no medical value. But as soon as the government recognizes cannabis as a form of medicine, it opens the doors for these organizations to get involved because it is justifiable now.

If that were to happen all the money that has been generated in this industry, and has made several people very wealthy and successful, will slowly, but surely get stuffed into the pockets of Big Pharma, the FDA and the government.

That is a lot of individuals that stand to lose a very significant amount of money. This could be devastating for Colorado. Colorado’s entire economy is booming right now largely because of the cannabis industry. Colorado’s Real Estate market has seen tremendous growth since legal cannabis took effect with home values going up 13%, which is nothing compared to commercial properties. Cannabis is the driver behind half of Colorado’s tourism, and provided the state with $35 million to put into schools.

In my mind, rescheduling cannabis to a Schedule II substance will create more issues for the industry than it will benefits.

If the government were to take any stance on cannabis, it should completely declassify it. It should not be listed on any type of controlled substance list by the government. It is a natural plant, not a man-made substance. If the government will not declassify cannabis, I would rather them keep it as a Schedule I substance. At least this way it protects the industry and keeps it as is, belonging to the people.

Opportunities like the cannabis industry are once in a lifetime. It would be a shame to see it taken by Big Pharma, or controlled by the government.

For those that have made it this far down on this post, please understand that this is a worst-case scenario. A very drastic, but realistic outcome down one of the many paths the industry could go. But the motto in this industry since the beginning was, “prepare for the worst, and pray for the best.” I think we should follow those instructions now more than ever.


Editor’s Note: This article represents the opinion of the author, not necessarily that of Cannabis Industry Journal. We invite all readers who agree or disagree with the author’s opinion to join the conversation in the comments section below the article.

DEA To Consider Rescheduling Cannabis, Could Mean Policy Shift

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to make a decision on rescheduling cannabis by mid-2016. The announcement could represent the culmination of a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward cannabis legalization.Dea_color_logo

Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the government views it as lacking medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. The rescheduling of cannabis has the potential to open the floodgates for research, including much needed clinical trials.

Derek Peterson, chief executive officer at Terra Tech, a cannabis-focused agriculture company, believes this bodes well for the growth potential of the cannabis industry. “From the perspective of quality and safety standards, I find it unlikely that rescheduling it would negatively impact the degree to which cannabis is examined,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessarily high position on the DEA drug schedule does nothing but limit the industry’s potential for growth, stall any meaningful pharmaceutical testing and increase law enforcement’s ability to prosecute non-violent drug offenders,” adds Peterson.

The rescheduling could also potentially allow for the prescribing of cannabis for patients. Stephen Goldner, founder of Pinnacle Labs and president of Regulatory Affairs Associates, is hopeful this will lead to a greater shift in public attitude towards cannabis. “The DEA’s announcement is a clear message to all States and possibly even to United Nations policy makers: even the DEA is willing to reconsider cannabis,” says Goldner. “Since the DEA is reconsidering cannabis, state politicians and local police departments can also be flexible and move away from prohibition, towards the regulation of cannabis.”

The rescheduling of cannabis could have a tremendous impact on the growth of the cannabis industry, including more clinical trials, medical research and physician participation. It could also open the door for more federal agency involvement, as the Schedule I status inhibits any EPA research on cannabis pesticide use or FDA guidance on food and drug good manufacturing practices. When reached for comment, the FDA’s press office said they could not speculate on any involvement in the matter.

Are You Ready For an Inspection?

By Maureen McNamara, Lezli Engelking
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Would you be proud to have your customers and patients tour your production facility? When health inspectors or enforcement personnel arrive at your location is there sense of panic or pride?

When you have detailed systems in place, inspections should be informative, not stressful. Keep in mind that in the cannabis industry, products are often created for patients. Patients may have a compromised immune system and thus are more susceptible to food borne illnesses, pesticides and other contaminants.

Are you and your team doing everything you can to produce a wholesome and safe product?

According to the World Health Organization, Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) “is a system for ensuring that products are consistently produced according to quality standards.”

GMP is the proactive part of quality assurance. It is designed to minimize the risks involved in all steps of the manufacturing process. A basic tenant of GMP is that quality cannot be tested into a product. It must be built into each batch of product during all stages of the manufacturing process.

GMPs involve much more than most people think. A common misconception is that GMP only covers the process of manufacturing itself. GMPs actually cover all aspects of the production process:

  • Materials
  • Premises
  • Equipment
  • Storage
  • Record Keeping
  • Staff Training to Hygiene
  • How Complaints Are Handled

GMP & The Cannabis Industry

In most industries, agencies that control licensing for the manufacture and sale of a product recommend GMPs, or guidelines to business owners. These guidelines provide minimum requirements that a manufacturer must meet to assure that products are of high quality and do not pose any risk to the consumer or public. The guidelines generally become the basis of regulation for that industry.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends guidelines for anything food, drug or pharmaceutical related.

Because cannabis still remains illegal at the federal level, none of the federal agencies that would normally develop good manufacturing guidelines have done so. This has left state lawmakers and business owners on their own to navigate this new and rapidly developing industry.

The Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) has developed standards with a mission to protect public health, consumer safety and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry.

The comprehensive implementation of cannabis specific good manufacturing practices, like the FOCUS standards, across all aspects of the industry will assist business owners and regulators alike, addressing quality proactively at every step in the process, which is critical to protecting consumer safety and public health – and the overall success of a nascent and divisive industry like cannabis.

The FOCUS standards are completing the final phase of development, a thirty-day public review and comment period before being released for use in the marketplace in June. These voluntary consensus-based standards are built on GMPs drawn from agriculture, food production, chemical management, OTCs, pharmaceuticals, and other relevant industries. In addition, the standards draw best practices from the cannabis industry, as well as those published in OSHA, FDA, FTC, CDC, ISO, code of federal regulations and various state-level cannabis regulations.

There are many aspects of creating and implementing GMPs. Here are three to be aware of:

  1. Get the facility design right from the start: It’s much easier to be GMP compliant if the design and construction of the facilities and equipment are right from the start. It is important to embody GMP principles and use GMPs to drive every decision. 
  1. Document what you do and do what you document: Having good procedures in place to ensure a controlled and consistent performance is an essential part of GMP. Procedures should be clear, concise, logical, and available to everyone.
  1. Keep good records: Keeping accurate records is an essential part of GMP. It helps convey that you are following procedures and demonstrates that processes are known and under control. If it’s not written down, it did not happen.

Standards and quality programs in any industry are dynamic by nature. Nothing is static. Standards must constantly be updated to reflect ever-changing market conditions. This is why it is so crucial that regulations are based on them.

To be a standard, there are certain core principals that must be present. However, the goal of a standard is to guide an industry without impeding or controlling it. This is why there is so much inherent value in implementing standards. They bring enough structure to help reduce costs and increase efficiency, but not so much control that individual nuances or creativity is affected.

It is much less expensive to be proactive. Recovering from a recall or contaminated product can not only be costly, it is a massive hit to the company’s reputation. It may take years for sales to recover, and for consumers to trust the product again. Where could you and your team enhance your standards and processes?

Ask the Expert: Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security, Part II

By Aaron G. Biros, Bruce E. Lesniak, Lezli Engelking
1 Comment

In this week’s Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security, we answer a reader’s question about traceability in quality processes and offer some practical advice for building a safety and security strategy. Travis Lodolinsky from Gleason Technology submitted this week’s question. For a response, we sit down with Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), to help answer your questions. If you have questions about safety, defense and security in cannabis, please ask them in the comments section below and we will address them in the next edition of Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security.

T. Lodolinsky: How are safety processes being tracked in the industry to ensure regulations and quality assurance are being uniformly enforced throughout?

Lezli Engelking: In related industries, such as herbal products or pharmaceuticals, the FDA has created guidelines, or current good manufacturing processes (CGMP) that control for the quality, consistency and safety of the products being produced. Businesses must be certified by independent third parties to demonstrate they are following CGMP to protect public health and consumer safety. CGMP is a proactive approach to quality assurance. A basic tenant of CGMP is that quality cannot be tested into a product after it is made; quality must be built into the product during all stages of the manufacturing process. One common misconception is that CGMP only covers the process of manufacturing itself. CGMP actually covers all aspects of the production process including materials, premises, equipment, storage, staff training and hygiene, how complaints are handled and record keeping.

Because cannabis is federally illegal in the US, the FDA has not developed cannabis-specific CGMP guidelines, so lawmakers do not have the benefit of having those guidelines available to base regulations on. So to answer your question, state cannabis regulations do not track processes and procedures used by cannabis businesses to control for safety or quality because they do not have the federal guidelines. Instead, most state cannabis regulations currently take a reactive approach to safety, mandating only for testing of the final product. While testing is an extremely important and valuable part of any quality management program, just analytics is not enough.

This is precisely why FOCUS was created and how they assist business owners and regulators, while fulfilling the mission of protecting public health, consumer safety and safeguarding the environment. The FOCUS standards are a cannabis-specific system of guidelines (cannabis-specific current good manufacturing practices) to ensure products are consistently produced according to quality standards. FOCUS provides detailed guidance and independent, third party auditing services for all key aspects of the cannabis industry including cultivation, extraction, infusion, retail, laboratory, security, packaging, labeling and sustainability.

CannabisIndustryJournal: What advice can you offer to cannabis businesses for product safety, defense and security prior to standardization?

Bruce E. Lesniak: Businesses that make products infused with cannabis (I call these businesses “plus one” companies because they produce products that include one more ingredient than traditional food products), require a carefully written master plan that specifically addresses the unique qualities, sensitivities and critical areas of the business. When building a comprehensive plan I address three questions:

  • Why (identify the why, this is your preventative, overarching strategy)?
  • How (addresses the “why question” with products, services and training)?
  • What (what is your reactive strategy that addresses actions and activities to be performed in the event of a breech)?

First and foremost, consumer-facing businesses must safeguard their products to the public. One product recall or illness related incident could spell disaster. Build your plan correctly the first time. Contact an industry expert to review your facility and help build and implement your plan. This will save you money by quickly exposing vulnerabilities and providing corrective measures specific to your business needs and requirements. Even though product safety and defense are closely related to security and should share a complementary strategy, product safety and defense are unique (due to standards and regulations), and should be treated as such.

Banks not accepting industry money complicates normal business operations and security planning, causing retail operations to handle and store large sums of cash. I asked industry expert and security professional, Tony Gallo of Sapphire Protection LLC, what is the single most important piece of security equipment you are currently providing for the retail and dispensary owner? “Design an air tight policy of handling money,” says Gallo. “Remove money often from cash registers and place it into the best safe for your application!”

Spend time familiarizing yourself with all things product safety and defense (there are volumes written on food safety and food defense, thus the “plus one” reference). This a great starting point and protecting the consumer protects your business. When it comes to designing your security application, consult an expert! Take into account that the cannabis industry is unique due to its “plus one” ingredient. Therefore you need to build your security systems, applications and policies to systematically protect your employees, facility, suppliers, transportation, manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, supply chain and brand.

Cannabis Coaching & Compliance

Avoiding Recalls: Preparing for the What-Ifs

By Maureen McNamara
8 Comments

Recalls are a necessary part of our lives, and they occur quite often. There are hundreds of food recalls performed each year. Now we are experiencing recalls in the cannabis industry. It is important to keep in mind that the primary objective of performing a recall is to protect consumer safety.

Welcome to a whole new game!

The Scoop:

A recall occurs to remove defective or potentially harmful products from the marketplace.

Recalls can be expensive and stigmatizing. Companies involved are usually highly motivated to remedy the issue and recover as quickly as possible. It is in the producer’s best interest to do everything in their power to maintain and regain patient & customer confidence and brand trust as soon as possible.

In the United States, food recalls are typically generated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Food manufacturers regularly perform mock recalls and, when needed, perform voluntary recalls of possibly contaminated product. Recently, listeria has become a major concern for contamination in the food industry and as a result, many companies are preparing themselves for prevention strategies.

As cannabis is still federally illegal, the FDA does not perform cannabis recalls. As a result, we are seeing local health departments and the state departments of agriculture getting involved in cannabis recalls. Recent recalls are voluntary and are related to potentially dangerous pesticide residue on flower, concentrates and infused products. Colorado has come into the spotlight recently for businesses performing a number of voluntary recalls, in the interest of protecting consumer safety. This January, a recall included “individual units of marijuana concentrates that are used for vaporizing” testing positive for Imidacloprid, Myclobutanil, Etoxazole and/or Avermectin, which are all pesticides determined by the Colorado Department of Agriculture as not usable on cannabis.

How do we know there is a problem?

  • A manufacturer discovers a problem
  • Inspectors reveal a potential issue
  • A product fails a test carried out by a licensed laboratory
  • A state health department may be alerted to an issue

Preparing for the “What- Ifs”

  • What is your crisis management strategy?
  • How will your team communicate the issue with regulators?
  • What is the protocol to recover or destroy recalled product?
  • What is the communication plan with purveyors & consumers?
  • What new structures will be in place to prevent future issues?

How do we avoid a Recall?

Manufacturers and cultivators endeavor to prevent issues in the first place. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans are used to ensure quality and safety during the production process. Mistakes can occur. It is ultimately the manufacturer’s responsibility to remove any possibly contaminated product from the market quickly and before potential damage is incurred.

As we pioneer the cannabis industry, it is important to be as proactive as possible at every step of the supply chain, from seed to the sale of cannabis: Cultivating, trimming, curing, extracting, infusing, producing, packaging, shipping, receiving, storing and selling are all points where safety measures should be in place.

Prevention Rules!

How is your team doing with the following?

  • GAP, GMP & HACCP plans to ensure quality product
  • Testing, TESTING, Testing- to confirm safety of your goods
  • Requiring strict & tested operating procedures from your suppliers
  • Internal quality reviews
  • Training and Accountability

Our desire is that you do not ever need to recover from a crisis, but mistakes happen. They create a learning opportunity for us to make a higher quality product, to strengthen our procedures and to show our consumers that we are committed to excellence.

Pesticide Position Paper: Prepared by Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C)

By Adam Koh, Nic Easley
4 Comments

Those that follow the legal cannabis industry are undoubtedly aware of the struggles of Colorado to regulate pesticide use on cannabis. At the time of this writing, there have been 19 recalls of products contaminated by pesticides in as many weeks. Authorities could not in all cases identify exactly how many units of products may have been tainted, but based on the numbers available, roughly 200,000 individual cannabis products, if not more, have been pulled from dispensary shelves. Along with these recalls have come a large amount of coverage and commentary from various news outlets, industry stakeholders, and even those companies who have had products pulled from shelves.

As this is a controversial and contentious subject, it can be difficult to parse and evaluate the various points of view being offered. In what follows, we will outline the issues at hand objectively: first providing a brief overview of federal and state pesticide regulations and how they pertain to cannabis; addressing claims of whether pesticide usage is “safe” or not; and, finally, offering our opinion of how the cannabis industry should address the pesticide conundrum considering the current regulatory environment and the state of our knowledge.

Before diving in, we are also aware that there is controversy around cannabis testing methodologies, and that the reliability of cannabis testing labs in general has been called into question by a number of the companies that have faced recalls. While we cannot comment on the operations of particular labs, we do support the application of consistent standards, proficiency evaluations, and stringent regulatory oversight to testing labs themselves, so that their results can be assured of being beyond reproach.

Still, 3C’s stance is that quality cannot be tested into a product. To have growers continue to produce contaminated cannabis only to see it recalled repeatedly is unsustainable for the industry; indeed, it threatens its very existence, as we discuss below. That is why we focus in this paper on the cultivation of the plant, as correcting problems on the production side is the only way to ultimately resolve the dilemma in which the industry finds itself.

Pesticide Regulation in the US Relative to Cannabis Cultivation

Cannabis’ pesticide problems stem in large part from the fact the pesticide regulation takes place at the federal level, under the auspices of the EPA. All pesticides undergo years of research and development before they can be sold to farmers and employed on crops. That research addresses questions such as where and how a pesticide can be employed, on what crops, in what concentrations, with what frequency, and how long before harvest can a pesticide be applied. Questions of worker safety are also addressed, such as those concerning what Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) might be required and how long workers must avoid treated areas (Re­Entry Intervals), among other concerns.

The fruits of such studies are then distilled to the contents of a pesticide’s label, which must be registered with and approved by the EPA before a pesticide can be distributed for sale. Federal and state laws require that pesticides be applied according to label directions, making the label a legal document of sorts. “The label is the law,” is a phrase common among agricultural professionals with which the legal cannabis industry is becoming acquainted.

The sticking point in regard to cannabis is that, due to its federal illegality, no research has been performed on the use of pesticides on cannabis. Due to the lack of research, no pesticides registered currently with the EPA are labeled for use on cannabis. Since all pesticides must be applied according to label specifications, this essentially prohibits pesticide use in cannabis production. However, some labels are written in such a broad manner that the use of those pesticides could not be construed as a breach of the legally­ binding use directions. Additionally, certain pesticides are of such low­toxicity that the EPA has deemed that their registration is not required; these are known as minimum­ risk products under section 25(b) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). At this time, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), in an attempt to offer guidance to cannabis growers, is maintaining a list of such products that, either due to broad label language or 25(b) status, may be used on cannabis without that use being a violation of the label.

Are Pesticides Safe for Use on Cannabis?

Since the first plants to be quarantined after discoveries of improper, off­-label pesticide use to the most recent recalls, some of the Colorado cannabis companies caught up in those enforcement actions have made public statements claiming that their products are safe. These statements are dangerously misleading, as they do not take into account the issues laid out above, nor the facts that follow.

Frequently, attempts to justify such claims point out that pesticides are employed on our food and therefore must be okay to apply to cannabis as well. This is a classic case of comparing apples to oranges; or, in this case, comparing apples and oranges to cannabis. Such data cannot be bridged for the simple reason that apples and oranges (and most other agricultural food crops) are not smoked. Smoking remains the primary method of cannabis ingestion, but cannabis products are also vaporized (concentrates), consumed (edibles), applied to the skin (topical creams and patches), and taken sublingually (tinctures, sublingual strips).

As noted, the studies that pesticides must undergo prior to being approved by the EPA involve measuring acceptable residues based on the method of consumption of the final product. Since most food is consumed and digested, few pesticides on the market have undergone pyrolysis studies, which examine how the chemical structures of pesticides degrade when burned. This means that while the fungicide myclobutanil, the active ingredient in Eagle 20EW, may be approved for use on grapes, that approval is meaningless in regard to cannabis, as grapes are not smoked and the relative safety of myclobutanil residues was not tested in regard to such a consumption method.

While studies may eventually reveal that certain pesticides may be used on cannabis without ill effects to the end users, such research has not been performed and no one can say with certainty what the effects of consuming cannabis containing pesticide residues might be. Even the CDA qualifies the list of products that may be used without violating labeling guidelines with the following statement, “These products have not been tested to determine their health effects if used on marijuana that will be consumed and thus the health risks to consumers is unknown.”

Again, no one can currently say what pesticides, if any, can be safely employed on cannabis; anyone claiming definitively that their products are safe despite off­-label pesticide use is making a statement that at this time lacks any scientific basis whatsoever.

Another claim made numerous times by companies defending their off­-label pesticide use is that no one has yet fallen ill from pesticide use on cannabis. While this is true, we must remember that we are in uncharted territory, and no large­scale public health studies have been done to determine what, if any, effects result from consuming cannabis to which pesticides were applied. We hope that no ill effects will surface, but the fact of the matter is that chronic health issues may take years to show themselves and a public health crisis may yet emerge.

Recommendations for the Cannabis Industry

We are advocates for cannabis legalization and want to see this industry grow and develop into one that is beneficial for all involved. We believe that cannabis can continue to be a force for positive change in numerous areas of society, from medicine to criminal justice to agriculture, and beyond. But, in order for it to do so, we must navigate issues such as those around pesticide use in an intelligent and responsible manner.

Our primary recommendation should be preceded by the statement that the use of chemical pesticides of the type triggering Colorado’s recalls is not needed in cannabis production. We make this statement based on years of experience working in, managing, and advising cultivation operations of all types, methodologies, and scales on how to grow successfully without illegal pesticides. Cannabis has survived and flourished throughout human history without pesticides, and will continue to do so if we cultivate it correctly.

As such, we recommend that growers n​ot​ employ any pesticides in a manner that violates label directions, and only use 25(b) products that have undergone pyrolysis testing to ensure that they are not releasing harmful compounds when burned. Furthermore, applications should only be made during the vegetative stage, prior to the emergence of flowers. Overall, if there is any doubt as to whether a product or material is safe, it should not be used until legitimate, peer­-reviewed research has been performed by a reputable institution.

Successful pest control can be achieved via intelligent facility design, robust environmental controls, workflow protocols, and strict cleanliness standards, in addition to preventative applications of appropriate minimum­ risk pesticides. There is no magic bullet that will solve all pest problems, which is why experienced agricultural professionals rely on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), defined as “an ecosystem­-based strategy that focuses on long­term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.” Overall, the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is much needed in the industry, and cannabis growers should look to agricultural operations that promote the four pillars of GAP standards (economic viability, environmental sustainability, social acceptability, and safety and quality of the final product) for guidance in formulating best practices in this new field.

This recommendation is not simply a matter of principle, but one that will preserve your business. In addition to costly and brand­-damaging recalls, we have already seen the first product liability lawsuits filed last year against LivWell by cannabis consumers over off­label pesticide use. Another issue is that of worker safety. Most cannabis cultivation takes place indoors, where pesticide residues can linger in garden areas and on equipment, creating toxic work environments. Unfortunately, based on the widespread nature of pesticide use in the legal cannabis industry, we feel confident in stating that thousands of workers employed in legal cannabis cultivation operations have applied chemical pesticides without proper PPE or safety training. Businesses employing pesticides off­-label will likely find themselves subject to liability claims from workers, as well as consumers, in the relatively near future.

Conclusion

In closing, the bottom line is that applying pesticides off­-label is a violation of state and federal law and could result in criminal and civil sanctions, should regulators and affected parties choose to pursue them.

It must also be noted that off­-label pesticide use threatens the industry as a whole. Point six of the Cole Memorandum states that the federal government will not make the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act a priority as long as the “exacerbation of (…) public health consequences associated with marijuana use” is prevented. The emergence of a public health problem would be a violation of the Cole Memo ­and it could be argued that the current situation unfolding in Denver is already a violation ­ and could trigger federal intervention against states that have legalized cannabis. In this light, the Denver Department of Environmental Health, which is driving the recalls, has not “launched a campaign against legal cannabis,” as a company recently subject to a recall claimed, but is actually acting as a bulwark against a potentially serious Cole Memo violation that could shutter the entire industry.

Based on the current situation, the cannabis industry must come together to denounce and eliminate off­-label pesticide use. In order to ensure the health of patients, consumers, workers, and the industry itself, we must seize this opportunity to grow without chemicals that are currently illegal, potentially very harmful, and ultimately not even necessary.