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 “Long-standing information security issues remain unresolved, including insufficient and outdated policies and procedures necessary to safeguard information assets,” reads the report’s summary.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.
As many US States and Canadian provinces approach legalization of cannabis, the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue. While public awareness is mainly focused on issues like age restrictions and impaired driving, there is another practical question to consider: should cannabis be treated as a drug or a food product when it comes to safety? In the US, FDA governs both food and drugs, but in Canada, drugs are regulated by Health Canada while food products are regulated under the CFIA.There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled
Of course, there are common issues like dosage and potency that pharmaceutical companies typically worry about as the industry is moving to classifying its products in terms of percentage of chemical composition (THC, CBD, etc. in a strain), much as we categorize alcohol products by the percentage of alcohol. However, with the exception of topical creams and ointments, many cannabis products are actually food products. Even the herb itself can be brewed into teas, added to baked goods or made into cannabis-infused butters, oils, capsules and tinctures.
As more people gain access to and ingest cannabis products, it’s only a matter of time before food safety becomes a primary concern for producers and regulators. So when it comes to food safety, what do growers, manufacturers and distributors need to consider? The fact is, it’s not that different from other food products. There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled. Continue reading below for the top four safety hazards for the cannabis industry and learn how to receive free HACCP plans to help control these hazards.
Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud
Just like any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling and storage can result in mold growth, which produce aflatoxins that can cause liver cancer and other serious health problems. During storage, the danger is humidity; humidity must be monitored in storage rooms twice a day and the meter must be calibrated every month. During transportation, it is important to monitor and record temperatures in trucks. Trucks should also be cleaned weekly or as required. Products received at a cannabis facilities should be tested upon receiving and contaminated products must always be rejected, segregated and disposed of safely.
Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants
Chemical residues can be introduced at several points during the production and storage process. During growing, every facility should follow instructions for applying fertilizers and pesticides to crops. This includes waiting for a sufficient amount of time before harvesting. When fertilizer is being applied, signs must be posted. After cannabis products have been harvested, chemical controls must be in place. All chemicals should be labelled and kept in contained chemical storage when not in use to prevent contamination. Only food-grade chemicals (e.g. cleaners, sanitizers) should be used during curing, drying, trimming and storage.
Without a comprehensive food safety program, problems will inevitably arise.There is also a risk of excessive concentration of chemicals in the washing tank. As such, chemical concentrations must be monitored for. In general, water (obviously essential for the growing process) also carries risks of pathogenic bacteria like staphylococcus aureus or salmonella. For this reason, city water (which is closely controlled in most municipalities) should be used with an annual report and review. Facilities that use well water must test frequently and water samples must be tested every three months regardless.
Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations
Insects, rodents and other pests spread disease. In order to prevent infestations, a pest control program must be implemented, with traps checked monthly by a qualified contractor and verified by a designated employee. It is also necessary to have a building procedure (particularly during drying), which includes a monthly inspection, with no holes or gaps allowed. No product should leave the facility uncovered to prevent fecal matter and other hazards from coming into contact with the product. Contamination can also occur during storage on pallets, so pallets must be inspected for punctures in packaging material.
Furthermore, even the best controlled facility can fall victim to the shortcomings of their suppliers. Procedures must be in place to ensure that suppliers are complying with pest and building control procedures, among others. Certifications should be acquired and tracked upon renewal.
Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling
Employee training is key for any food facility. When employees are handling products, the risk of cross-contamination is highest. Facilities must have GMP and personnel hygiene policies in place, with training conducted upon hiring and refreshed monthly. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when sick and instructed to wear proper attire (gloves, hair nets, etc.), while glass, jewelry and outside food must not be allowed inside the facility. Tools used during harvesting and other stages may also carry microorganisms if standard cleaning procedures are not in place and implemented correctly by employees.
As the cannabis industry grows, and regulatory bodies like the FDA and CFIA look to protect public safety, we expect that more attention will be paid to other food safety issues like packaging safety (of inks and labels), allergen control and others. In the production of extracts, for example, non-food safe solvents could be used or extracts can be mixed with ingredients that have expiration dates, like coconut oil. There is one area in which the cannabis industry may lead the way, however. More and more often, risks of food terrorism, fraud and intentional adulteration are gripping the food industry as the global food chain becomes increasingly complex. It’s safe to say that security at cannabis facilities is probably unparalleled.
All of this shows that cannabis products, especially edibles (and that includes capsules and tinctures), should be treated the same as other food products simply because they have the same kinds of hazards. Without a comprehensive food safety program (that includes a plan, procedures, training, monitoring and verification), problems will inevitably arise.
Controlling your grow environment doesn’t start when you germinate your first seeds, it starts before you build your grow. There are steps you can take that will have a significant impact on mold growth and contamination, and these will vary based on the grow environment you choose.
Below is a roadmap to where each grow environment stands in terms of mold and contamination risk, and simple steps you can take to mitigate these factors.
The benefits of an outdoor grow are significant – using natural sunlight to grow plants is both inexpensive and environmentally sound. However, it allows the least amount of control and makes plants susceptible to weather conditions and outdoor contaminants including dust, wind, rain and insects. Depending on humidity and precipitation levels, mold can be a big issue as well.
When selecting an outdoor area for a cannabis farm, there are two important factors to consider: location and neighboring farmland. Geographical environments and sub-climates vary and once you have purchased land, you are committed, so be sure to consider these factors prior to purchase.
While arid desert climates have abundant sunlight and long growing seasons, flat, dry lands are subject to dust-storms, flash floods and exceedingly high winds that can damage crops. Conversely, more protected areas often have high humidity and rainfall late in the season, which can create huge issues with bud rot and mold. Neighboring farms also have an impact on your grow, so be sure to find out what they cultivate, what they spray, their harvest schedule and how they run their operation. Large farming equipment kicks up a lot of contaminant-laden dust and can damage crops by displacing insects to your farm if they harvest before you. Pesticide drift is also a major issue as even tiny amounts from a neighbor’s farm can cause your crops to fail testing, depending on what state you are in.
With outdoor grow environments always at the mercy of Mother Nature, any cultivator is wise to control contamination potential on the ground. Cover soil and protect your crop by planting cover crops and laying plastic mulch on as much ground as reasonable. In many cases it makes sense to irrigate uncultivated parts of your farm just to keep dust down.
Greenhouses are the future of cannabis cultivation. They allow growers to capture the full spectrum and power of the sun while lessening environmental impact and operating expenses, while still being able to precisely control the environment to grow great cannabis. With recent advancements in greenhouse technology such as automated control systems, positive pressure, geothermal heating or cooling and LED supplemental lighting, greenhouses are the future. However, older or economy greenhouses that take in unfiltered air from outside still have a medium amount of mold and contamination risk.
Before building your greenhouse, study the area while taking into account climate, weather conditions and sun exposure. Excessively windy areas can blow in contaminants, and extremely hot climates make cooling the greenhouse interior a challenging and costly endeavor.
There are several simple operational tactics to reduce contaminants in a greenhouse. Add a thrip screen to keep insects out, thoroughly clean pad walls with an oxidizing agent after each cycle, and keep plants at least 10 feet from pad walls. Plan to flip the entire greenhouse at once so that you can clean the greenhouse top to bottom before your next crop. A continuous harvest in your greenhouse allows contaminants to jump from one plant to the next and reduces the ability to control your environment and eliminate problems at the end of a cycle. Lastly, open shade curtains slowly in the morning. This prevents temperature inversion and condensation, which can cause water drops to fall from the ceiling and transfer contaminants onto plants below.
An indoor environment offers ultimate control to any grow operation. Cultivators can grow high-quality cannabis with the smallest potential for yeast and mold growth. Unfortunately, indoor environments are extremely expensive, inefficient and environmentally costly.
With indoor grow environments, keeping mold and contaminants at bay comes down to following a regimented plan that keeps all grow aspects clean and in order. To keep your grow environment clean, change HVAC filters multiple times a month. It’s also important to install HEPA filters and UV lights in HVAC systems to further reduce contamination threats. Clearly mark air returns if they are near the ground and keep those areas free of clutter. They are the lungs of your grow. Also, stop using brooms in the grow space. They stir up a lot of contaminants that have settled to the floor. Instead, use HEPA filter backpack vacuums or install a central vacuum system. Set up a “dirty room” for anything messy on a separate HVAC system, and be sure to thoroughly clean pots after every harvest cycle.
This November 8th, voters in five states will head to the polls to decide on legalizing recreational cannabis and another three states have ballot initiatives that would legalize medical cannabis. If any of those five states pass a measure for recreational legalization, including Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona and California, (which are all leading in the polls) they could potentially create massive new market opportunities for cannabis brands that have their eye on expansion.
Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of Wana Brands and chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance Infused Product Committee, sees great potential in capitalizing on those markets early. Whiteman has been working with Wana Brands since 2010 in Colorado, starting out in the young medical market there.
After expanding to the recreational market, Wana Brands saw its sales skyrocket. From January to August 2016, Wana had the best-selling candy brand in Colorado with 21% dollar share, according to BDS Analytics. Wana Brands has already expanded to Oregon and will launch in Nevada on November 15th, with agreements signed to expand in other states as well. “The model we are pursuing is a licensing agreement where we partner with existing or new license holders in their state,” says Whiteman. “In many ways they are doing the heavy lifting, but we are providing an enormous lift by licensing our intellectual property to them.” That model for growth is becoming increasingly common in some of the more established brands, like Steep Hill Laboratories, GFarma Labs, Dixie and others. Whiteman says that Wana Brands also has a partner in Illinois, Massachusetts and a number of other states they hope to reach.
According to Mark Slaugh, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance and chief executive officer of iComply, a compliance services provider, brands from Colorado expanding to other states need to ask themselves if their reputation is on the line with these new operators. “If you are licensing to companies that are not compliant, the penalties could be huge and they vary state to state- that could potentially hurt the overall brand image nationally,” says Slaugh. “People doing the licensing that are operating with full compliance really need to look at controlling that risk and mitigating that as much as possible.” With brand trust on the line, there are substantial risks that come with expansion. “We help clients ensure quality is consistent so, for example, an edible product would taste the same in Colorado as it would in Nevada or Arizona. They need to follow the intellectual property consistently but more importantly follow those specific regulations in that state to stay afloat.” Managing ongoing compliance in different states requires monitoring regulatory updates across multiple markets, which can get incredibly complex.
“Six years ago, it was much easier to get into the market in Colorado,” says Whiteman. “There were no capital requirements, no limits on the number of licenses, but there was still a lengthy application and vetting process- as long as you met those minimum requirements you could get a license.” Other new states put stringent limits on the number of licenses granted and some have extraordinarily cost-prohibitive capital requirements, up to a million dollars, as is the case for New York. “Anyone who becomes a license holder in Massachusetts has to be prepared to embark on three separate business models, which is a massive undertaking,” says Whiteman. Massachusetts requires license holders to cultivate, process and dispense in a vertically integrated model.
In other states, Wana Brands is working with exclusive partners who will have the capabilities to manufacture and distribute throughout the entire state, but in Massachusetts that won’t be the case. “To cover the state, we need several partnerships; the partner we are working with is a little south of Boston,” says Whiteman. But all that could change if voters in Massachusetts legalize it recreationally, opening a much larger market than the current medical program. “With no legislation drafted yet, the regulatory environment is still up in the air in Massachusetts so there is no way of telling what the recreational market will look like.” In terms of ongoing regulatory compliance, Whiteman believes that Colorado still has some of the most stringent rules. The universal symbol printed on every individual edible product serving is one example. “Every state has different lab testing and licensing requirements, but Colorado looks like the most stringent currently,” says Whiteman. “Colorado requires a full gamut of lab testing including homogeneity, potency, residual solvents, contaminants and soon pesticides too.” According to Mark Slaugh, Nevada’s lab testing regulations are fundamentally different from Colorado’s with regard to sampling procedures, but the broader inconsistencies in lab standards need to be addressed. “The lack of laboratory standardization state to state with regard to methods creates a big challenge to get consistent, proficient lab testing across the board,” says Slaugh.
A big differentiator between Colorado and other states is that it was a first mover. “When Colorado came online there were not any established brands to speak of anywhere in the country- we were all pioneers,” says Whiteman. “Because it is so difficult to get a license in another state, either the organization or investor groups are looking to partner with established brands.” The advantages to this business model are many. Expediting your entry to market gets you the advantage of being a first mover. Working with an established brand also minimizes risks and the learning curve. “Bigger players understand that building a brand from scratch is time consuming and expensive so I think we will see a lot of these partnerships.”
As those new states come online, similarities in their regulations might appear in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) or good manufacturing practices (GMPs). “We might start to see a standardization from state to state that models FDA GMPs or USDA GAPs, [good agricultural practices] moving toward a framework that is more consistent with the possibility of federal regulation,” says Slaugh. Another commonality among a number of states is the implementation of a statewide tracking system. According to Slaugh, California has no such mandated system in place yet. “They will probably have one eventually but the market is so localized there- we will see if California will be ready with a statewide compliance system for tracking by 2018,” says Slaugh. “With such a weird patchwork of local governments allowing or not allowing certain operations to exist, it is a tough business to be in and it’s getting tougher every day.”
Regulators in Colorado last week announced another massive recall of cannabis found to contain banned pesticides. 92 batches of cannabis plants, with roughly a dozen plants in each batch, were recalled for using the product, Guardian, on the plants. The culprit was an ingredient in the product called avermectin, a pesticide listed as a ‘bad actor’ by the Pesticide Action Network.
The recall follows dozens of others in Colorado this year, all because tests found pesticides present in cannabis samples. When news spreads of cannabis recalls due to concerns of pesticide contamination, it paints a picture of worrisome problems rampant in the cannabis industry. Alarmists say continued recalls could have disastrous consequences like stalling legalization initiatives or slowing growth in new markets.
In the food industry, recalls are a part of routine business. The FDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated food products into the supply. In 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill made news when it sickened dozens with an E.coli outbreak and issued extensive recalls as a result. After that happened, the company reevaluated its practices and improved their food safety program to prevent future outbreaks.
When a recall occurs, it should prompt a surge in inquiries, responses and audits that need to be addressed and reviewed carefully. Ample proactive planning including HACCP, comprehensive risk analysis and validation studies or documents help prevent recalls from occurring in the first place. When recalls do happen, reactive measures should occur immediately with a strategy in place to deal with all of the regulatory compliance, quality, safety and branding ramifications.
When a recall occurs in the food industry, it generally means that there was a foodborne illness outbreak, followed by a reactive measure. That reactive measure, the recall itself, is what prevents foodborne illness outbreaks from growing or becoming an epidemic. Recalls in the food industry show that regulators are concerned about contamination and taking action to safeguard public health. In other words, when a recall occurs, it means that someone is watching.
I think recalls in the cannabis industry are a sign of the marketplace growing up. Recalls can be seen as a good thing, a sign of proper safety measures in place to prevent further contamination. Reporting recalls or failures means that professionals are beginning to pay attention to the safety and quality of processes in place at cannabis production facilities. Looking at the long-term sustainability of the cannabis industry, keeping quality and safety at top of mind will help businesses self-legitimize. Those not striving for the safest practices and the best quality will lose their ability to compete as the market continues to grow. Recalls can tarnish a company’s brand, but they also indicate that the industry has reached a point of legitimacy. Cannabis is now out of the closet and under a microscope.