Government regulations keep millions of Americans safe every year by controlling what companies can put in their products and the standards those products must meet to be sold to consumers.
Enter the strange case of legal cannabis: In order for cannabis to be legally distributed by licensed medical professionals and businesses, it must be tested. But unlike other consumable goods, cannabis is not regulated by the FDA. Without an overarching federal policy requiring cannabis testing laboratory accreditation, the testing and laboratory requirements differ greatly across state lines.For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important.
To be federally regulated, cannabis would first have to be federally legalized. It turns out that states and businesses alike are not willing to wait for a federal mandate. Many states have begun to adopt standards for cannabis testing and some, such as Ohio, have even announced mandatory ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for all cannabis testing laboratories. As the industry evolves, increased compliance expectations are certain to evolve in tandem.
Some cannabis labs have even taken the initiative to seek ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of their own volition. Seth Wong, President of TEQ Analytics Laboratories, shared in a press release:
“By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, TEQ Analytical Labs believes that we can address the concerns throughout the cannabis industry regarding insufficient and unreliable scientific analysis by providing our clients with State required tests that are accredited by an international standard.”
There are key reasons why accreditation in cannabis testing labs is important. First and foremost, cannabis is a consumable product. Like fruits and vegetables, cannabis is prone to pesticides, fungi and contaminants. The result of putting a potentially hazardous material on the market without proper and documented testing could lead to a public health crisis. An accredited testing lab, however, will ensure that the cannabis products they test are free from harmful contaminants.
For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. Because many consumers of medical cannabis are immuno-compromised (such as in the case of chemotherapy patients), ensuring that products are free from any and all contaminants is critical. Further, in order to accurately determine both short- and long-term effects of prescribed cannabis consumption, accredited and compliant laboratories are necessary.
Accreditation standards like ISO/IEC 17025 also provide confidence that testing is performed properly and to an internationally accepted standard. Rather than returning a “pass/fail” rating on products, the Cannabis Safety Institute reports that an ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory is required to produce numerical accuracy percentages in testing for “at a minimum, cannabinoids, pesticides, microbiology, residual solvents, and water activity.” Reliable data sets that can be reviewed by both accreditors and the public foster trust between producers and consumers.
Finally, ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation demonstrates that a laboratory is properly staffed and trained. The Cannabis Safety Institute’s “Standards for Cannabis Testing Laboratories” explains that conducting proper analytical chemistry on cannabinoids (the chemical compounds extracted from cannabis that alter the brain’s neurotransmitter release) requires personnel who have met specific academic and training credentials. A system to monitor, manage and demonstrate proficiency is necessary to achieve and maintain accreditation. With electronic systems in place, this management and documentation minimizes risk and also minimizes administrative time tracking and maintaining training records.
Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming yearsFor cannabis testing labs, utilizing a comprehensive software solution to achieve and maintain compliance to standards such as ISO/IEC 17025 is key. Absent of a software solution, the necessary compliance requirements can become a significant burden to the organization. Paper tracking systems and complex spreadsheets open up organizations to the likelihood of errors and ultimately risk.
Because ISO/IEC 17025 has clearly defined expectations for training, a software solution also streamlines the training process while simultaneously documenting proficiency. By utilizing role-based trainings, organizations can be confident employees are receiving proper onboarding and in-service training. Additionally, the effectiveness of training can be proven with reports, which results in smoother audits and assessments.
Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming years- which means utilizing technology tools such as electronic workflows to ensure proper process controls. Beyond adding critical visibility, workflows also create efficiencies that can eliminate the need to increase staffing as companies expand and grow.
For an industry that is changing at a rapid pace, ensuring traceability, efficient processes and visibility across organizations is paramount. Using a system that enables automation, process control, document management and documented training procedures is a step in the right direction. With the proper software tools in place, cannabis testing labs can achieve compliance goals, demonstrate reliable and relevant results and most importantly ensure consumer safety.
Ultimately, the goal of any good company is to take care of their customers by providing a quality product at a competitive price. You take the time to use good practices in sourcing raw materials, processing, testing and packaging to make sure you have a great final product. Yet in practice, sometimes the product can degrade over time, or you find yourself facing costly manufacturing stoppages and repairs due to downed equipment or instrumentation. This can harm your company’s reputation and result in real, negative effects on your bottom line.
One thing you can do to prevent this problem is to have a properly scaled calibration and maintenance program for your organization.
First, a short discussion of terms:
Calibration, in the context of this article, refers to the comparison of the unit under test (your equipment) to a standard value that is known to be accurate. Equipment readings often drift over time due to various reasons and may also be affected by damage to the equipment. Periodic calibration allows the user to determine if the unit under test (UUT) is sufficiently accurate to continue using it. In some cases, the UUT may require adjustment or may not be adjustable and should no longer be used.
Maintenance, in the context of this article, refers to work performed to maximize the performance of equipment and support a long life span for the equipment. This may include lubrication, adjustments, replacement of worn parts, etc. This is intended to extend the usable life of the equipment and the consistency of the quality of the work performed by the equipment.
There are several elements to putting together such a program that can help you to direct your resources where they will have the greatest benefit. The following are some key ingredients for a solid program:
Keep it Simple: The key is to scale it to your operation. Focus on the most important items if resources are strained. A simple program that is followed and that you can defend is much better than a program where you can never catch up.
Written Program: Your calibration and maintenance programs should be written and they should be approved by quality assurance (QA). Any program should include the following:
- Equipment Assessment and Identification: Assess each piece of equipment or instrument to determine if it is important enough to be calibrated and/or requires maintenance. You will probably find much of your instrumentation is not used for a critical purpose and can be designated as non-calibrated. Each item should have an ID assigned to allow tracking of the maintenance and/or calibration status.
- Scheduling System: There needs to be some way to schedule when equipment is due for calibration or maintenance. This way it is easy to stay on top of it. A good scheduling system will pay for itself over time and be easy to use and maintain. A web-based system is a good choice for small to mid-sized companies.
- Calibration Tolerance Assignment: If you decide to calibrate an instrument, consider what kind of accuracy you actually need from the equipment/instrument. This is a separate discussion on its own, but common rule of thumb is that the instrument should be at least 4 times more accurate than your specification. For very important instruments, it may require spending the money to get a better device.
- Calibration and Maintenance Interval Assignments: Consider what interval you are going to perform maintenance for each equipment item. Manufacturer recommendations are based on certain conditions. If you use the equipment more or less often than “normal” use, consider adjusting the interval between calibrations or maintenance.
- OOT Management: If you do get an Out of Tolerance (OOT) result during a calibration and you find that the instrument isn’t as accurate as you need. Congratulations! You just kept it from getting worse. Review the history and see if this may have had an effect since the last passing calibration, adjust or replace the instrument, take any other necessary corrective actions, and keep it up.
- Training: Make sure personnel that use the equipment are trained on its use and not to use equipment that is not calibrated for critical measurements. Also, anyone performing calibration and/or maintenance should be qualified to do so. It is best to put a program in place as soon as you start acquiring significant equipment so that you can keep things running smoothly, avoid costly repairs and quality control problems. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming equipment will keep running just because it has run flawlessly for months or years. There are many bad results that can come of mismanaged calibration and/or maintenance including the following:
- Unscheduled Downtime/Damage/Repairs: A critical piece of equipment goes down. Production stops, and you are forced to schedule repairs as soon as possible. You pay premium prices for parts and labor, because it is an urgent need. Some parts may have long lead times, or not be available. You may suffer reputational costs with customers waiting for delivery. Some calibration issues could potentially affect operator safety as well.
- Out of Specification Product: Quality control may indicate that product is not maintaining its historically high quality. If you have no calibration and maintenance program in place, tracking down the problem is even more difficult because you don’t have confidence in the readings that may be indicating that there is a problem.
- Root Cause Analysis: Suppose you find product that is out of specification and you are trying to determine the cause. If there is no calibration and maintenance program in place, it is far more difficult to pinpoint changes that may have affected your production system. This can cause a very significant impact on your ability to correct the problem and regain your historical quality standards of production.
A solid calibration and maintenance program can go a long way to keeping your production lines and quality testing “boring”, without any surprises or suspense, and can allow you to put more sophisticated quality control systems in place. Alternatively, an inappropriate system can bog you down with paperwork, delays, unpredictable performance, and a host of other problems. Take care of your equipment and relax, knowing your customers will be happy with the consistent quality that they have become accustomed to.
Last week, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson published his office’s audit of The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). The audit uncovered a number of inadequacies with the regulatory agency, most notably the problems with their tracking system, designed to prevent cannabis form being sold on the black market.
The report highlights the need for Oregon to implement a more robust tracking system, citing reliance on self-reporting, overall poor data quality and allowing untracked inventory for newly licensed businesses. The audit also found an insufficient number of inspectors and unresolved security issues. According to The Oregonian, the OLCC only has 18 inspectors, roughly one for every 83 licensed businesses.
Auditors also found inadequacies in the application system, saying the OLCC doesn’t monitor third-party service providers and doesn’t have a process in place for reconciling data between the licensing and tracking systems. The audit found there is a risk that decisions made for the program could be based on unreliable data. It also found a risk of unauthorized access to the systems, due to a lack of managing user accounts.
This audit’s publication is very timely. Most notably because U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, who called Oregon’s black market problem “formidable,” convened a summit this week to examine how Oregon can prevent cannabis being exported to other states. According to the Oregonian, Williams said Oregon has an “identifiable and formidable overproduction and diversion problem.” The audit’s findings highlighting security issues are also very timely, given that in the same week, Oregon’s neighbor to the North, Washington, experienced a security breach in its own tracking system.
The problems with the Oregon tracking system’s security features are numerous, the audit says. They found that the OLCC lacks a good security plan, IT assets aren’t tracked well, there are no processes to determine vulnerabilities, servers and workstations not using supported operating systems and a lack of appropriately managing antivirus solutions. “Long-standing information security issues remain unresolved, including insufficient and outdated policies and procedures necessary to safeguard information assets,” reads the report’s summary.
The audit proposes 17 recommendations for the state to bolster its regulatory oversight. Those recommendations intend to address undetected compliance violations, weaknesses in application management, IT security weaknesses and weaknesses in disaster recovery and media backup testing. You can read the full audit here.
RJ Palermo has joined Innovative Publishing Co. (IPC) as Director of Sales – Events. In this newly created position at IPC, RJ will be managing the business development activities of the company’s food safety medical device and cannabis industries, working on both conference sponsorships and booth sales.
RJ will work side by side with Marc Spector, Director of Sales – Publishing. Marc had been responsible for all events and publishing sales, as well as for the year-after-year growth in these areas. The addition of RJ to the IPC team will support the company’s growth in sponsorship and exhibit sales, and allows Marc to continue supporting growth in digital advertising sales across all three of IPC’s digital publications, Food Safety Tech, MedTech Intelligence and Cannabis Industry Journal.
For many of IPC’s customers who leverage IPC’s unique position of conference sponsorships and digital advertising, they will be serviced in tandem by Marc and RJ.
“We saw a 25% growth in total revenue in 2017 and see tremendous growth potential in the three industries that we serve. Bringing RJ onto the team provides us the bandwidth to capitalize on the opportunities facing us,” said Rick Biros, president and co-founder of IPC. “Plus, RJ’s years of B2B conference and trade show management experience complements the IPC team’s current skill sets.”
RJ has more than 20 years of media, conference and agency experience. He was most recently a biopharmaceutical equipment contributor for the Pharma’s Almanac publication, and delivered several branding and research projects for pharmaceutical and medical device contract manufacturers. For 17 years RJ served as vice president of Interphex, the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing event in North America and was a key contributor of a successful launch of Medical Device Puerto Rico, which created the largest life sciences event in the Caribbean. RJ is an avid NY sports fan, and enjoys working out and spending time with his family and friends. RJ is married to his wife Beth, has a daughter Nora and dog Beau, and resides in Norwalk, CT.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
- Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
- Screening for pesticide levels
- Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
- Moisture content measurements
- Terpene profiling
- Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
- Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
- Cannabis samples are received.
- The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
- A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
- The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
- The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
- The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
- The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
- The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
- Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
- Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
- Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
- Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
|Barcode label designing and printing||Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
|Instant data capture by scanning barcodes||Facilitates quick client registration and sample access|
|3600 data traceability||Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records|
|Inventory and order management||Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy|
|Custodian management||Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
|Test management||Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples|
|Accounting for sample and inventory quantity||Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests|
|Package & shipment management||Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories|
|Electronic data import||Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
|Report management||Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
|21 CFR Part 11 compliant||Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures|
|ISO 17025 accreditation||Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation|
|Audit trail capabilities||Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp|
|Centralized data management||Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval|
|Workflow management||Promotes better data management and resource allocation|
|High-configurability||Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows|
|State compliance systems||Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API|
|Adheres to regulatory compliance||Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.|
|Data security & confidentiality||Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
|Global accessibility||Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere|
|Real-time collaboration||Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites|
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
For more information on this, check out a webinar here: Webinar: How to Meet Cannabis Testing Standards and Regulatory Requirements with LIMS by Stephen Goldman, laboratory director at the State of Colorado certified Cannabis testing facility, PhytaTech.
Cannabis testing laboratories around the country are expanding quickly, taking on new clients and growing their business incrementally. Many of these labs are receiving a large number of test requests from growers for potency testing, terpene profiling, pesticide screening, residual solvent screening, heavy metal testing, microbial analysis and even genetic testing. To keep pace with the number of test requests received, efficient data, sample and test management is imperative.
Considering the magnitude of cannabis testing, data management using spreadsheets is a serious impediment to quality assurance. Data being recorded in spreadsheets is error-prone and difficult to manage. Furthermore, using spreadsheets does not allow labs to adhere to regulatory guidelines that demand strict accounting for every gram of the sample, right from reception, consumption for testing, to disposal.
To overcome such data management challenges and improve the operational efficiency of cannabis testing laboratories, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) plays a significant role. LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for managing analytical and operational activities. LIMS enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating the manual data entry. With its built-in audit trail capability, LIMS helps labs adhere to regulatory standards.
LIMS can provide companies with a method to manage samples, records and test results, and ensures regulatory compliance by increasing traceability. LIMS can also be integrated with other lab instrumentation and enterprise systems, enabling easier transmission of information across the lab and the organization, reducing manual efforts and improving decision-making.
Multiple resources are also available to assist labs in preparing for quality assurance and accreditation, LIMS being one of them. LIMS can help cannabis labs with instrument integration, and automate reporting to help improve efficiencies and reduce errors. LIMS, such as CloudLIMS Lite, a cloud-based LIMS, automates cannabis-testing workflows right from sample collection, data recording, managing test chain of custody, sample weight accounting to report generation. With data security and audit trails, a LIMS provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation for highly regulated labs. Above all, cloud-enabled systems are often low in the total cost of acquisition, have maintenance outsourced, and are scalable to help meet the ever-changing business and regulatory compliance needs.
Cloud-based products are secure, easy to deploy and scalable. A cloud product is typically hosted on a server with a guaranteed uptime of 99.5%, allowing for a reliable system, accessible 24×7. Cloud-based LIMS have automatic data backup mechanism that allow for quick turnarounds in case of a server failure or in the eventuality of a natural disaster.
With LIMS in place, cannabis labs can manage sample and requisition-centric records, track sample quantity and location, integrate the test data, and provide online reports to clients. This in turn, reduces the turnaround time for testing and improves the operational efficiency. Besides, audit trail of each and every activity performed by the lab personnel is recorded in the system to ensure that the lab follows regulatory compliance.
Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a poster that was submitted and displayed at this year’s Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon. The authors of the original poster are Arun Apte, Stephen Goldman, Aditi Gade and Shonali Paul.
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.
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.
Cannabis businesses encounter a variety of problems when hiring and managing employees. Some of those are issues that every business runs into and some of them are quite specific to the cannabis industry. Chris Cassese, co-founder and managing director of Faces Human Capital Management, has some solutions for cannabis businesses facing seemingly daunting workforce management issues.
Cassese co-founded Faces HCM with Caela Bintner after two decades of working in the human resources and sales strategy across a variety of financial institutions. He oversees software platform development, daily operations, sales, and business development for their organization. Before co-founding the company, Cassese held a variety of operational and product development roles during his ten-year tenure at Merrill Lynch, worked in marketing at HSBC and was a sales and performance advisor at Insperity, a professional employment organization. Faces HCM is a professional employment organization that handles workforce compliance, education, and other HR needs for cannabis companies. They work with companies like Dixie Elixirs, LivWell and Women Grow, among other cannabis businesses.
According to Cassese, the cannabis industry faces a roughly 60% turnover rate, which is on par with the turnover rates in retail and call centers. Those are industries that typically have high turnover rates simply because the nature of the business. However, Cassese says it doesn’t have to be so high for the cannabis industry. “It is easy to say it is just high turnover by nature, but we found there are some steps that we can put in place that seem relatively easy, but are key tenants of Fortune 500 companies’ hiring strategies,” says Cassese. “Engaging in a needs-based analysis with companies will help us figure out exactly what’s going on.” They start by looking at the onboarding process, or what happens immediately after an employee is hired. “We start by looking at their pay rate, employee handbook and the paid time off policy, which are some of the points that a lot of the owners are familiar with coming from other high-end industries outside of cannabis.” He says things like swag bags, free ski passes after reaching quotas and other perks can keep employees engaged on the team. “Things like that go a long way and can reduce turnover by up to 20 or 30 percent,” says Cassese. “Sometimes [business owners] are so stressed with regulatory compliance that they don’t have time to tackle these issues so employee dissatisfaction often starts with onboarding procedures.” That can include anything from analyzing the overall compensation structure to making a video displaying the company’s vision, mission and values. “There is no panacea for reducing turnover. It requires conducting a needs-based assessment, taking pieces of what we know works well in other companies and bringing that to the cannabis industry.” Making an employee feel like they are part of the team can help boost retention and keep turnover low.
One area they often help companies with is performance reviews. “Performance reviews are a big part of any business,” says Cassese. “You can’t make progress if you don’t know where you’re going. If you don’t know how you’re doing you can’t get better.” Looking at the supervisor level, they have often found employees have never given a performance review before. “We implement processes to teach them how to deliver positive or negative performance reviews and help make them feel comfortable delivering that,” says Cassese. They might have employees perform a DISC analysis (dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness), a personality test akin to the Meyers-Briggs test. “From this we can help figure out the stressors and motivators of people and create effective teams,” says Cassese. “If an employee might be more outgoing or humble, high-spirited, results-oriented, analytical or good working on teams.” These are approaches to workforce management that have been adopted from Fortune 500 companies.
Cassese says one of the most overlooked items for companies are proper I-9 verification forms. This goes back to basic record keeping and documentation, but if overlooked, companies can get hefty fines for improper record keeping. “You are supposed to have a separate binder, in a separate locked drawer where your I-9 forms are housed, but a lot of people don’t know about that, which could come back to bite them in the form of large fines” says Cassese. “Businesses can’t afford to have sloppy record keeping. We help businesses take a look at their process and how they put their files in the cloud or physical locations, which is an area where companies often need guidance.” Civil fines can reach up to $20,000 for mistakes on I-9 forms.
Employee education is another crucial aspect of managing the workforce. Faces HCM has a learning management system that gives companies the ability to push education to their employees. Education is of course a broad term and can cover a wide variety of needs for employees. “We can help them take leadership, teamwork, excel, OSHA, safety classes and more,” says Cassese. “Training that shows you active listening, empathy skills and other types of training can really help budtenders deal with customers appropriately.” They have developed customized training programs for cannabis companies expanding beyond their own state too. “As you find certain cannabis companies growing in different states they want to create a repeatable, consistent and predictable experience,” says Cassese. “Putting those standard operating procedures online is important to streamline the process and ensures that you are creating a learning or education plan to meet your employees’ needs.” That can look like requiring employees to take an online course once every quarter, or offering them books on subjects pertaining to their specific job function.
Little things like improving the employee experience, implementing an education program and keeping up with employee records can make or break a business. They all add up to solid workforce management, which if done correctly, can enhance a business’ bottom line and keep employees working for you.