The legal cannabis industry was recently rocked to its core by the announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be rescinding the so-called “Cole memo” and several other Obama-era legal directives suggesting the federal government would leave state-by-state cannabis reforms more or less alone. Suddenly, it seemed the entire cannabis movement was in jeopardy. Laws legalizing medical and recreational cannabis could be at risk. A booming industry predicted to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 could instead be going down in flames.
Here’s the good news: As a business transactions attorney who’s been working in the cannabis industry for eight years, I don’t see any cause for panic. The Cole memo and the other directives the Justice Department are rescinding were not laws, orders or even legal precedents – they were simply legal guidance, and murky at that. The memos provided guidance to federal prosecutors regarding cannabis enforcement under federal law, suggesting that federal prosecutors not focus resources on state-legal cannabis operations that weren’t interfering with other federal priorities, such as preventing the distribution of cannabis to minors and preventing revenue from the sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Yes, federal prosecutors could take Sessions’ recent moves to mean it’s open season on medical and recreational cannabis businesses. But with medical cannabis programs of one form or another up and running in 29 states and Washington D.C., and recreational cannabis now legal in eight states and Washington D.C., dismantling the entire legal cannabis industry would require a Herculean federal effort that would come at the expense of a cornerstone of the Republican Party now in power: The vital importance of states’ rights.The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators
In other words, I don’t see the termination of the Cole memos as the end of the nascent cannabis industry. But I do think the development should be a wake-up call for all those people in the cannabis industry who have been playing fast and loose with their business operations. After all, if federal prosecutors do decide to make examples of certain cannabis operations, they’re going start with those who are not operating within the confines of the applicable state rules and regulations. Any business that smells even slightly of tax evasion, interstate trafficking or the allocation of cannabis-derived revenue to benefit a criminal enterprise will end up at the top of that target list.
So how should well-meaning cannabis operators stay off the feds’ radar? Simple: Follow all the rules.
Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.For starters, you need a CPA who’s not just at the top of their game, but who also understands the very specific – and potentially debilitating – nuances of cannabis-specific tax liabilities. That’s because thanks to a quirk in the tax code called IRS section 280E, cannabis companies are utterly unique in that they are not allowed to deduct expenses from their business income, save for the costs of goods sold. You want an accountant who thoroughly grasps this issue, so they can help you plan for and (to the extent possible) minimize your tax liability. And you want to address such matters before you start to realize positive revenue, so you’re ready to handle an effective tax rate that can be upwards of 70 percent. Last I checked, the IRS doesn’t consider “But I can’t afford to pay my taxes!” a valid excuse.
Along the same lines, you need a business corporate attorney who’s well-versed in the world of cannabis. That’s because while it might seem exciting to jump headlong into the cannabis green rush, you’re not going to get very far if you don’t deal with the boring stuff first. I’m talking about start-up financing strategies, business contracts and agreements, profit and loss forecasts, cash-flow analysis, and long-term financial plans. Properly structuring your business from the get-go isn’t just important if you ever plan to seek capital or sell your business. It’s also necessary if you want to keep the feds happy. In other industries, regulators might cut first-time business owners some slack. Not so in cannabis. Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.
Finally, make sure you’re playing by all the cannabis rules, regulations and requirements of your state and jurisdiction. While this suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, far too often cannabis brands hire hotshots from Fortune 500 companies who don’t know anything about cannabis regulations and how they apply to their business.
The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators. Here in Arizona, I am in constant contact with our regulators discussing nuances and new business concepts for which the rules are unclear, convoluted or simply silent. Working with the enforcers might not come naturally to many folks in the cannabis business, but we’re dealing with a new and evolving industry where there’s little or no business, regulatory or judicial precedent. We’re all in this together.
It’s exciting to be at the bleeding edge of a bold and booming new industry like cannabis, but to do so safely and legally, cannabis industry pioneers need to make sure they’re striking the right balance between daring innovation and sensible business security.
We shouldn’t expect Jeff Sessions to launch a new army of prohibition agents around the country to kick down doors of cannabis businesses. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for cannabis entrepreneurs to start acting like he might.
Last week, Cannabis Trainers, a compliance education and training services provider, announced their launch into the California market with their ServSafe® and Sell- SMaRT™ training programs. Ahead of the launch of California’s adult-use cannabis market in 2018, the programs will train employees in the areas of food safety and retail sales.
Maureen McNamara, founder of Cannabis Trainers, says that training and certification of employees is crucial to regulatory compliance in the cannabis space. “In few other industries could a frontline employee crumble an entire business with a single mistake,” says McNamara. “We aim to honor California’s cannabis pioneers by fusing their decades of hard work with cutting-edge approaches to safety and compliance.” She has over 25 years of professional training experience and has trained and certified over 15,000 employees across a handful of industries. In 2014, she launched Cannabis Trainers in Colorado and the following year in Illinois.
According to the press release, their ServSafe® program is essentially a food safety certification course based on food safety research and the FDA food code, but tailored to the cannabis industry for retailers and manufacturers of infused products. In 2015, their Sell-SMaRT™ program was the first to gain approval from the Colorado Department of Revenue Marijuana Enforcement Division’s Responsible Vendor Program, becoming the first state-certified cannabis vendor-training program. That course is an education program for budtenders and managers covering consumer safety issues, checking IDs and other key retail regulatory compliance issues.
According to McNamara, their Sell-SMaRT™ program is designed and customized to each state’s rules for cannabis sales. “We’ll be customizing our content to ensure it’s relevant to California regulations,” says McNamara. “We comb through the rules and pull out information pertinent to the responsible sale of cannabis in each state.” They’ll be doing the same for the ServSafe® program as well. “Although it’s a nationally recognized program based on the FDA food code, states may choose to create additional restrictions for cannabis infused products.”
She says they look at their programs like a translation for cannabis businesses; helping employees and managers make sense of the complex and confusing rules for cannabis compliance. “Most rules are written in legalese and can be a challenge to understand, says McNamara. “We simplify it and make it approachable and easy to digest.” Looking past California, McNamara says Cannabis Trainers is looking to expand to a few other states. She says their course curricula are based on state laws, but they try their best to incorporate regulatory compliance issues on the local level. “Our course information is based on state law,” says McNamara. “And, we realize local counties and municipalities may create stricter regulations and we do our best to include those variances in our courses.” Cannabis Trainers has incorporated variations in local rules in Colorado successfully.
“In addition to California, we’ll be customizing our courses for Nevada to launch this year as well,” says McNamara. “In 2018, we aim to provide professional development and certification courses to even more states.” McNamara says they have entered talks with teams in Ohio, Massachusetts and Maryland and are also actively looking to expand into Canada’s market. Their first California class will be the 3.5-hour September 20, 2017 ServSafe® course for cannabis producers at East Anaheim Community Center.
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.
The ultimate goal of any business is to produce and generate revenue. Now, when the company’s revenues drop, who’s fault is it? This question, though silent, is in the minds of everyone in an organization, especially when things start to become difficult.
Working as a consultant in productivity with different industries around the world, I have come to realize that question is not openly discussed, but everyone wants to know the answer. To answer it, we will explore the most common areas of opportunity related to this problem.
When we talk about productivity, we are talking about final tangible results, because of the production process and the effort made by each one; when speaking of income, we are talking about the difference between the purchase price and the cost of entering the market. Seeing these definitions, we might conclude that the increase in income is directly related to the increase in productivity.
On the other hand, we must not lose perspective that the increase in productivity is also directly related to the decrease of losses.
First, we have to put into perspective the goals and objectives that a business or organization may have. Many companies go on believing that everyone is clear about the goals and organizational objectives and what is expected in each one of those roles that compose the organization. The reality is that, if we do not know where we are going, the chances of reaching the goal decrease.
When organization’s objectives are properly communicated, and documented, in such a way that the evaluation of the performance is directly linked to the expected results, the chances of success increase substantially.
On many occasions, I have heard phrases such as: “we work hard, we spend many hours, all sacrifice ourselves… we should be more successful”. The question then is: what are we encouraging, efforts or results?
It is hard for organizations to translate or differentiate between organizational goals and individual objectives (expected results) for each of those roles in the company. We all agree that we want to be the first in sales, the best in service and produce the highest quality, but how is that done?
To be the first in sales, what do I have to do as a seller? Get three customers in a three-month period? As secretary, process the orders in the first three days of receiving them? As a carrier, suggest three ideas be more useful in daily deliveries? How does that translate into individual performance?
We focus too much on telling people what they must do, but we forget to be clear on what we expect them to achieve. Hence, the effort versus result dissonance. The success of an organization is the collective behavior that arises from the conduct of individuals. If we align people, we align the organization.
Other elements that we must ponder, and that are directly related to productivity, are: how much of what we do holds value? How much of what we do does not have value? Moreover, how much of what we do, though it has great value, shall be performed by the requirements of law or regulation?
An analysis of productivity is critical, particularly in a time when we want to do more with less. Lately, an area of great success for many organizations is to streamline processes to make them more simple, efficient and with less risk of error. Human errors generated many losses. Defects, the re-process, the handling of complaints and lawsuits are costing companies money equivalent to the salary of 7,200 employees every day (according to statistics in the United States).
Human errors can be avoided. The idea that to err is human has led us to ignore this problem. We think that we can do nothing and lose an infinite number of opportunities for improvement that can help us to increase our income, reducing losses.
Only 16% of organizations measure the cost of human error. The remaining 84% do not measure it and are paying a high price without knowing it. In Puerto Rico, there are no statistics that could shed light on how many local companies lose because of human error, but it is very likely that the numbers are alarming. Human error can be reduced by 60% in less than a year when an intervention is done on systems. Approximately 95% of human errors are due to the design of the company’s systems, and they can be the simplest errors even in the most complex processes.
Today, we have more information, and we know that errors are symptoms of deeper problems in the processes created by the organizations. People play a crucial role regarding how robust methods are, but, we must not lose perspective that human beings operate according to the policies, procedures, and instructions which the same organization designs. Then, if people work according to the designs of the organization, is it not easier to modify designs than eliminating people?
So, who’s fault? Organizations are responsible for providing clear guidance to individuals in the right direction, and individuals have the responsibility of translating their efforts into results. Both have to work with the same objective in mind, and both employers and employees should communicate openly about these objectives. Only by working in partnership will achieve success. Forget who is to blame and focus on the processes and goals that help us be successful.
From the perspective of sustainable cannabis cultivation models, it seems clear that outside of the particular cultivation methodology adopted, that operational efficiency and the implementation of lean manufacturing principles will be necessary for successful and truly “sustainable” businesses, in the current, ever growing, cannabis space.
Implementing lean manufacturing principles as an integral part of the cannabis cultivation facility just makes sense- it is a manufacturing operation after all. From a lean perspective, doing away with the non-value-added costs in the supply chain and production model are quite important.
Let’s look at this case study as evidence for the necessity of operational efficiency:
A 300-light flowering, indoor cultivation facility in Colorado.
The system was purchased with ongoing pest/disease issues, recent updates to Colorado’s approved pesticide list, had prompted the implementation of an updated integrated pest management (IPM) program, which had been moderately successful in developing an albeit short-term solution to keeping ongoing root aphids, powdery mildew, and botrytis, to name a few, at bay.
This existing facility was producing roughly 60 pounds of trimmed cannabis per week, equivalent to almost $6M annual gross, however they were losing a percentage of their yields to product that did not pass Colorado’s contaminant testing requirements.
It is important to note that any deviation from the existing manufacturing schedule and system would create a change to the potential productivity of the system, for better or worse.
At the most basic level, one would hope that a new operator taking over an existing facility would analyze the system and implement incremental or perhaps major changes to create more efficient and profitable outcomes. That being said, currently the average grower likely doesn’t have much understanding of the lean manufacturing process. That will undoubtedly change.
When we look at basic manufacturing facility operations, on an annual gross potential basis, each daily task not completed on the existing manufacturing timeline is, at least, a 0.3% (1/365) loss in potential productivity. In monetary terms, for this particular facility, each 0.3% equates to a potential $18,000 in lost productivity.
The information that follows is taken from observations during the first week of this facility ownership transition and below is a generalized outline representing just one aspect of the operational inefficiencies (created or existing) that were observed :
- Plant group A put into flowering 4 days behind schedule (4 days x 0.3%) =1.2%
- Plant group B transplanted 3 days behind =0.9%
- Plant group C transplanted 7 days behind =2.1%
- Plant group D (clones) taken 7 days behind =2.1%
- IPM applications not completed for 7+ days
That equals a 6.3% loss in potential annual productivity, which translates into a rough estimate of up to $378,000 in lost revenue.
Changes to the nutrient program in the midst of the plant’s life cycle had created nutrient deficient plants in all stages of vegetative and flowering growth, coupled with changes to the existing IPM program, all add to the potential losses incurred. Deviations in the plant nutrition program and IPM scheduling are hard to quantify mid-cycle, but will certainly be quantifiable when the hard numbers come home to roost.
These inefficiencies, once compounded, could potentially equal more than a 20% loss in potential productivity during the subsequent 3.5 month plant cycle. The current 60 pounds-per-week would likely be reduced for the next 2 months, down to roughly 50 pounds, or even much less, per-week. This could become a loss upwards of $500,000 in annual potential revenue in the first quarter of operation alone.
These seemingly small and incremental delays in the plant production cycle are all greatly compounded. The end result is that each subsequent cycle of plants is slightly smaller due to delays in transplanting and less days at maximized vegetative growth, etc. Undoubtedly, the cumulative effect of these operational inefficiencies creates a significant drop in the existing level of productivity, with the end result being a significant, undesired loss of revenue.
The sum of the lessons learned from this cultivation facility, is this: a sustainable operation, in the most pragmatic sense, is an efficient one both in terms of productivity and in terms of the carbon footprint and waste generated. The more streamlined and successful the operations are, the greater likelihood of success. Perhaps all of this is to say don’t forget about all the little parts that make up the whole, and strive to create a work environment/corporate culture that empowers your employees, your managers and all involved to participate and contribute to the process of improving the operations for mutual benefit.
Lessons learned from the aerospace manufacturing industry: Even the smallest zip tie on a spaceship matters! Some food for thought: If it’s truly beneficial it should stick around… If it is beneficial and it’s not sticking around, then there are limiting factors in the system that need to be addressed.
Lezli Engelking founded the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) in 2014 to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry through the use of standards. Standards are an agreed upon way of doing things and specify guidelines or requirements for producing goods or providing services, according to FOCUS.
Standards can take the form of a “reference document, which may include specifications, guidelines, conditions or requirements for products, operations, services, methods, personnel and systems on how to design, operate, manufacture or manage something.” Peter Maguire, VP of System Applications for Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions and committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation standard, joined the organization wanting to make a positive impact on the industry that is in line with protecting people and medical patients. He sees so much variability in the industry and the need to homogenize standard operating procedures (SOPs). “I have worked with multiple cultivation facilities and a few of them have operating procedures in place but having them in place is only half the solution- it’s critical to have the right ones in place,” says Maguire. He has twenty years of experience in contamination control in manufacturing, before entering the cannabis industry.
The FOCUS cultivation standard was created by experts who have years of experience in both cannabis cultivation, good agricultural practices and in the tightly regulated pharmaceutical industry. “FOCUS created these guidelines as a sort of roadmap for success in business; You need to keep your employees healthy and your products safe to survive in the long term,” says Maguire. We sit down with Lezli Engelking to find out how the standards are created, what makes them significant and what businesses can gain by working with them.
CannabisIndustryJournal: Why are standards important?
Lezli: Standards are the international language for trade – they exist in every industry. “The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that standards and conformity assessment impact more than 80% of global commodity trade.” FOCUS is not reinventing the wheel with what we are doing. We are simply adapting a business model the federal government already uses. In the 80s, when the heroin epidemic swept across the US, methadone clinics popped up in every state in the country within two years. The clinics were all operating under different state, city and county regulations – much like the cannabis industry is today. The federal government took a look at the situation and decided they needed a way to regulate these clinics in order to protect public health and safety. They released a Request For Proposal (RFP) looking for an organization to create voluntary-consensus standards and a third-party certification system for the methadone clinics. Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) is the organization that answered and won that RFP. CARF continues to work with Health and Human Services to maintain the standards and provide third-party certification to the clinics today. FOCUS develops international, voluntary consensus standards and a third party certification program for the global cannabis industry based on the CARF model. This is extremely important, because of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, (Public Law 104-115), signed into law March 7, 1996 by President Clinton. The act requires that all federal agencies use standards developed by voluntary-consensus standards bodies, instead of government-unique standards wherever possible. Perhaps even more importantly, the Act includes provisions that encourage federal agencies to partner with the private sector in the development of standards that not only help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but also strengthen the U.S. position in the global marketplace.
CIJ: What exactly goes into developing a voluntary-consensus standard?
Lezli: Voluntary-Consensus refers to the type of standard and how it is developed. Everyone who participates in the development of voluntary-consensus standards does so on a voluntary basis. Committee members must come to a consensus on every point within the standard- down to every comma or semicolon. Once the development process is complete, the standards must undergo a 30-day public review period. The process for developing voluntary-consensus standards is designated by International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO has member agencies in 163 countries that participate in the development of standards. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the American body for ISO. FOCUS follows all ISO/ANSI guidelines in the standards development process. This is extremely important because it means FOCUS standards are suitable for accreditation and adoption into regulations according to the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act. All voluntary-consensus standards are developed under the principles of:
- Openness| Participation in the standard development process is open to individuals with a stake in the standard who bring useful expertise along with the spirit and willingness to participate.
- Balance| Focus stakeholder groups involve all stakeholder groups: industry, regulatory, quality assurance, medical, law enforcement, business, research, consumers, patients and the general public.
- Voluntary-Consensus| Individual subcommittees of volunteers develop each area of the standard, offering their unique expertise to form a consensus. They are not paid for their participation.
- Lack of Dominance| No party has dominant representation, or influence to the exclusion of fair and equitable consideration of other viewpoints.
CIJ: More specifically, how are the FOCUS standards developed?
Lezli: To create a baseline standard, FOCUS utilized World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for pharmaceutical GMPs, nutraceutical GMPs, food safety standards, OSHA and HACCP. From there, applicable cannabis regulations from around the world were added. All of this information was compiled into auditor-style checklists. Each committee member was provided time to go edit, remove or add to items in the checklist on their own. Over the next two years, each of the eight committees had monthly meetings, going through and coming to a consensus on each line item of the standard. Once the committees completed development, the standards were open for a 30-day Public Review to collect comments and feedback. The first eight FOCUS standards, completed and ready for use, cover Cultivation, Retail, Extraction, Infused Products, Laboratory, Security, Sustainability and Packaging & Labeling.
FOCUS is currently recruiting committee members to begin development of five new cannabis standards later this year: Advertising/Marketing, Insurance, Banking/Finance, Patient Care and Research. Committees will receive a list of proposed suggestions for what should be considered in developing the standards. Each committee member will develop a list to select criteria they think should be included into the standard. FOCUS will compile the lists, then committees will go through the monthly standards development/vetting process for each line item in the standard.
CIJ: So what does a business have to gain by adopting a FOCUS standard?
Lezli: Compliance becomes easily manageable with the FOCUS software platform, integrating standards, training and SOPs into the everyday operations of the business. FOCUS certified clients could expect to reduce costs, reduce risk and reduce liability by assuring they are producing safe, quality and consistent products. FOCUS certification allows a business to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and prove to their patients and customers they can trust their products. Certification also allows businesses to access reasonable insurance rates and drives interest from investors.
FOCUS is here to partner with cannabis businesses. We are there to hold their hand, by providing guidance and assistance along every step of the way. Unlike state mandated audits that delineate what a business is doing right or wrong, FOCUS is an on-going compliance management system. We are here to make sure a business runs as efficiently as possible and take the guesswork out of compliance. Under FOCUS certification, a business receives ongoing consulting, customized SOPs, employee training and a documentation management software system to track and prove compliance.
CIJ: Can you give us an update on FOCUS’ progress in 2016?
Lezli: A large milestone for FOCUS this year, aside from completing version one of the standards, is choosing an appropriate software platform, (Power DMS) to house the standards and provide an ongoing compliance management system for our clients. Power DMS also houses regulatory standards for law enforcement; health care, federal aviation and fire departments, so most agencies in public health are already familiar with it. The familiarity and access to this platform is a huge benefit on the regulatory side. It allows first responders to access the schematics of a FOCUS certified client in the event of an emergency. This is crucial in the event of an explosion from extraction equipment, or a fire in a cultivation facility, as without first identifying where the hazards are, they will not access the facility. The FOCUS software platform allows first responders access to all pertinent information through computers in police cars, ambulances, or fire trucks.
For the industry, the FOCUS software platform is equally as impressive. Not only does the platform house the standards and all SOPs, it is also complete compliance management system. FOCUS certified clients have a simple management tool that houses all training and documentation, assuring all required compliance documentation can be easily accessed at any time. The platform also allows FOCUS certified clients to provide access to governing bodies in advance of state audits –streamlining the process and minimizing time and interruption caused by state audits. The FOCUS platform tracks all changes to required documents, provides real time updates on employee training, creates appropriate traceability logs, and provides updates on regulatory changes, including which SOPs need to be changed to maintain compliance. The platform allows FOCUS to be way more than an auditing company. FOCUS is a partnership in compliance for cannabis companies wanting to maintain good business practices and stay compliant with regulations.
We have about 140 new committee members that will assist existing committees with standards updates and participate in the development of the next set of FOCUS standards for advertising/marketing, banking/finance, research, patient care and insurance. All committees will convene before 2017.
The cannabis industry is an unusual creature. It is so new and fluid that nothing in its space is yet crystallized. Product types, brand names, generally accepted processes and procedures are all still being invented and tested. Consumer market segments are defining themselves as the progression of legalization advances through the states. Seniors, children, veterans, women, and professionals of all backgrounds are feeling the health and wellness benefits of the flower that is slowly losing the negative stigma inherited from the so-called war on drugs. The potential is enormous. Money is already flooding to the lucky entrepreneurs with enough foresight to work in the space, and corporate business leaders from many other traditional sectors are slowly, but steadily flocking to the market.
This is economically encouraging. A whole new industry that creates new jobs, generates tax revenue and creates wealth. But there is a worrying scenario. In that scenario, traditional cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs are pushed out of the market as corporate competitors enter the game. In that scenario the industry grows faster than its regulatory framework, with little to no voluntary regulations, no sustainability leadership, and the industry’s practices and reputation finish in the gutter. In that scenario, federal and state regulators ramp up indiscriminate bans and phony prohibitions. In that scenario the new cannabis industry exacerbates the world’s social and environmental problems by being non-inclusive, by creating a divide within communities, by adding its own share of pollution, by pushing unhealthy and unsafe products – all for the sake of an easy buck.
That scenario is not a certainty – it does not have to see the light of day. This industry has the potential to be different. It has the unique opportunity to integrate sustainability practices from the start, to create a space where business meets mindfulness, and where corporate profits do not trump consumer health, worker welfare, community engagement or environmental preservation.
Sustainability strategy is the best risk management tool available to the cannabis businesses emerging today that hope to stay relevant in the future. A sustainable cannabis industry is one where women and minorities feel included, where the consumer recognizes and is loyal to brands and labels, where businesses are thriving while having a positive influence on their peers, a positive impact on their community and on the environment, where the race to the top breeds best practices and innovation.
Three levers can push sustainability: the consumer, the industry (and the businesses that comprise it) and the government (local, regional, national and international). Surprisingly, businesses can have a significant influence on all three. Consumers make and shape a market. What will happen when the consumer becomes aware of fossil-fuel (benzene) extraction in the age of climate change, when they request organic flowers that fits their ‘Wholefoods lifestyle’, or when they boycott non-biodegradable packaging? What will happen when a scandal breaks, linked to an avoidable health and safety accident, or when they realize people of color do not have equal opportunity in a cannabis business?
It is preposterous to think, that in this day and age – where information travels at the speed of light, some type of potentially damaging information about a product manufacturing process will not get out at some point or another (in some cases they have). There is absolutely no need to gamble with that. The solution is simple: adopt sustainable practices from the start.
The third lever is the government – we will come back to the second lever later. The cannabis industry, better than any other industry, knows how the government can make or break a business. If the government decides, like they did in Colorado, that in nine months cannabis packaging needs to be resealable and childproof, businesses will have to sit on several weeks worth of sales until they can find new suppliers, they will probably have to rethink their processes, while absorbing the costs of the packaging they had bought in advance. Worse case, they also have marketing and merchandising to rethink. All of that is costly.
However there is good news; government can be channeled, generally speaking, by doing the right thing. If an industry actively demonstrates a desire to do the right thing, and there is not an exaggerated amount of complaints (or accidents), then regulators will leave it alone. Businesses can and should invest as a group into drafting and endorsing generally accepted industry practices and organizing industry self-regulations. Those will guide governments when they draft regulations, but they could also preempt a lot of nonsensical top down rules
The second lever is the most important, and that is the business lever. Cannabis businesses can make or break this industry. Those who believe that the unsustainable practices that worked in the context of an illegal/black/grey market will work in the context of a 21st century legal industry may need a reality check. Those who continue to promote and endorse them are dangerous for the industry because they breed a climate of distrust, and they bring the industry under closer scrutiny. The cannabis industry needs businesses that display exemplary behaviors, think about their impact, and elevate the discussion as well as their peers.
Whether a business is small, large, mature or emerging, developing a strategic response to these challenges can and will create a sustainable business model. Businesses can gain robust competitive advantages over their peers, reap the rewards of having loyal customers, create thriving communities, and foster healthy natural environments by doing the right thing and embedding sustainability within their business decisions.
Tomorrow’s cannabis industry business leaders will be those that chose to be part of the solution, those that understood that sustainability was vital to their business model and took action early on.
Editor’s Note: Project Polaris is a California non-profit corporation, offering sustainability coaching and guidance to cannabis industry businesses. By becoming a member of Project Polaris, businesses have access to sustainability experts throughout the year, to set, support and carry out cost-effective, meaningful and impactful sustainability solutions.
I often write about the legal side of and opinions about the cannabis industry. Much of what I write about is culled from anecdotal experiences within either my personal practice or observations in regard to the industry. I recently had a trip to Portland, Oregon to spend time learning and understanding a little bit about a particular client’s operations so that I could provide counsel to that particular client, where permissible. For me, it was an important part of the education, which I stress and serve as the basis for this article.
With education comes understanding. What I see in the cannabis industry is often those who are critical of the use of cannabis, either recreationally or medically, seem to demonstrate some lack of understanding. In Florida, as the “No on Amendment 2″ commercials and videos roll out, I see much information that clearly comes from a lack of understanding or potentially a willful desire to distort the truth.
I share the following, less as a means to correct those distortions, but more as an opportunity to educate one who may be reading this and who may not have the same experience, which I just had the opportunity to receive. My time in Oregon was spent predominately in Portland and Salem as this is where the particular client has locations that I was able to view and experience.
My observation from a zoning perspective was that there was not a dispensary on every corner and that at times I had to be patient before seeing a dispensary during our drive. Of note in regard to the dispensaries that I did see was often the use of “cannabis” or “marijuana” in the name or associated with signage at the dispensaries, in addition to a green cross. However, there were many that did not take as visible an approach. I recall seeing, pursuant to the rules of the Oregon Program, windows covered so that one cannot see in. From time to time there were billboards advertising dispensaries. What I noticed most was in part, the clean presentation of the particular client I was seeing versus what was presented on the outside of many dispensaries we passed. This may be highlighted in part based on viewing dispensaries through what one might consider an East Coast lens. There are others that might argue that this perspective, particularly in emerging markets, is much different than that which has been developed over time in the West Coast markets, many of which have now gone recreational.
Overall, like anything, what I saw ranged the gamut from unprofessional and a little unsightly to professional and clean looking, which generally fit into the surrounding neighborhood. In particular, my client’s dispensary in Salem was in a retail shopping center along with a Little Caesars, Aaron’s Rentals, a nail salon, and other normal and expected retailers. Unless you poked your head inside the door, it would not be readily apparent that it was a dispensary.
My experience with the types and looks of the dispensaries running the gamut was mirrored by a particularly unique experience I had in viewing customers/patients. What was clear from a very limited time of viewing who it is that goes into a dispensary in Oregon was that it was impossible to pigeonhole the types of patients and ailments or, in the recreational setting, who the end user might be. On the Saturday morning of my visit, while viewing operations in Salem, I was approached and began to speak with an older gentleman with a long straggly gray beard who appeared to be in his late 60’s to early 70’s. During the course of our conversation he let me know that he is looking forward to taking it easy, and that he was a veteran. He had two friends with him and it looked like they were going to enjoy some time relaxing together, but he was also able to tell me that it was assistive to him at times when his anxiety got the best of him. His purchases were economical, and it was apparent that he and his friends were of limited socio-economic means; however, his purchases were notably and significantly cheaper for use than potentially alcohol if, in fact, he was not medicating and using with his friends recreationally.
Within minutes after the gentleman left, the exact opposite walked in the store. Candidly, I was mildly surprised by whom I held the door for to walk in as I was leaving. For a moment I was transported from Salem, Oregon to any town in central New Jersey or main street USA. Decked out in what could have been Lily Pulitzer or other preppy outfit were two soccer moms. They had stepped out of the newest model of a particular German automobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to engage with the soccer moms in discussion, but it was clear through their knowledge of the layout and interaction with the employee behind the counter that this was not their first trip to this particular location.
So what does the foregoing illustrate? For me it illustrates the development of perspective through education. It is that perspective that I hope to bring to the advice and counsel of clients. Perhaps I can use the knowledge to be assistive in making recommendations on regulatory issues, if consulted on them, helping to explain to politicians and bureaucrats or zoning and planning officials what might or might not be important in their considerations when dealing with a client. My observations should ultimately help me assist in educating others as to what the business and operation of cannabis related businesses might actually entail and look like. It is absolutely necessary, irrespective of one’s role in the cannabis industry, whether it be on the real estate side, insurance brokerage, providing legal or consulting advice (especially as individuals transition from those areas of practice in non-cannabis related spaces) that one take the time to understand the industry and its practice from the inside out. Only then can one be an effective resource to a cannabis related business wherein once the layers of the onion are peeled back, there is actually substance and information.
When newspapers and television run a cannabis story, it is frequently accompanied by photos or video of vast, cavernous warehouses filled with veritable oceans of plants. Photos used to illustrate stories in the New York Times and Denver Post serve to illustrate this point.
This type of facility design is sometimes referred to in the cannabis industry as a “perpetual harvest” model. This is because plants are harvested piecemeal – one row at a time, for example – with new plants ready to flower replacing the recently harvested ones. In this model, flowering plants of various ages occupy the same space and the room is never completely harvested and empty, hence the “perpetual” moniker. This is in contrast to more compartmentalized facility designs, in which flowering plants are segregated in smaller groups in various rooms, which are then harvested completely before the room is cleaned and new plants ready to flower replace the previous ones.
The perpetual harvest setup appears impressive and lends itself well to portraying the volume of production being achieved in large facilities. This is likely why I have seen such models, or similar ones, copied in other states. Prospective entrants to the industry have also approached my firm with such designs in mind for their cultivation facilities. However, we generally advise against the perpetual harvest facility model, as this type of design imposes serious difficulties upon operators. Problems arise primarily in the areas of pest and contamination mitigation, ability to properly observe pesticide use and worker safety guidelines, and inefficiencies in lighting and HVAC usage. The problems noted are linked to the perpetual harvest design and can be mitigated with increased compartmentalization. Before getting to my recommendations, however, lets run down the issues created by the perpetual harvest model.
Lighting and HVAC Inefficiencies
In many photos I see of perpetual harvest facilities, the ceilings are extremely high, as are the light fixtures in most cases. This is likely the result of one of the main perceived advantages of such spaces, which is that they require minimal construction prior to getting up and running. There are no walls to be put up or ceilings lowered, and the lack of compartmentalization makes running wires and ducting much easier.
However, whatever capital was saved in initial construction will likely be burned up by increased ongoing operational costs. High ceilings such as those in the above photos mean more cubic footage that climate control systems must cool or heat. Additionally, due to the great height of the light fixtures, plants are not getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak, compared to designs that allow lights to be lowered appropriately to provide optimal intensity and spectrum. Double-Ended High Pressure Sodium (DE HPS) lamps are probably the most common type of lighting in use for flowering by commercial cannabis cultivators today, and they are ideally situated about four feet above the canopy when running at full capacity.
For businesses aiming for a no-frills production model with minimal attention to the light management needs of individual cannabis cultivars (or strains, as they are commonly referred to), then this consideration may be moot. However, those operations attempting to produce the highest-quality flower and plant material know the value of proper light management, as well as the fact that some cultivars respond differently than others to intense light. Indeed, I have observed cultivars that produce more when light intensity was decreased, while others thrived under intense light that would have seriously damaged others. This makes the one-size-fits-all approach to light management I’ve seen in most perpetual harvest designs generally detrimental to the quality of the final product, in addition to using the same amount of energy, or more, to achieve that lower quality result.
Difficulties in Pest and Contamination Mitigation
Such a design makes it easy for a small pest incursion to become a full-blown infestation. Because plants about to be harvested are sharing space with plants just beginning their flowering process, this means that both current and future harvests will be affected, or even lost entirely if the pest problem is severe. Having plant groups of different ages share the same space is generally unadvisable. This is because older plants, particularly those close to harvest, are weaker and more susceptible to pests by virtue of the fact that their life cycles are nearing an end. On the other hand, a more compartmentalized facility design provides physical barriers that can contain mites and mildew spores to some extent, limiting the damage done by individual pest incursions.
One of the essential tasks in an indoor cultivation operation is sterilizing just-harvested spaces to ensure that the subsequent run gets off to a clean start. This task could conceivably be performed in a perpetual harvest model; say, for example, trays, trellis frames, and other equipment are scrubbed after a row has been cut down and removed for drying or processing. However, due to the fact that there are always other plants in the room, it seems impossible for any plant group to get an assuredly clean start, as other plants may be harboring bugs, mold spores, or viruses, despite not showing signs or symptoms. The presence of plants also eliminates the possibility of using cleaning agents such as bleach, which gives off harmful fumes, but is sometimes necessary to completely sterilize an area that might have previously experienced some amount of powdery mildew or botrytis.
In Part II of this series, I will discuss some problems with pesticide use and worker safety regulations as well as provide recommendations for compartmentalization in cultivation facilities. Stay tuned for Part II of A Case for Compartmentalization: Problems with “Perpetual Harvest” Models in Cultivation, coming out next week.