At the time, Wisconsin’s health department had little information about why these young people were experiencing “unexplained breathing problems.” Less than a week later, reports of new illnesses popped up in neighboring Illinois and Minnesota and as far away as California, according to an Aug. 14 New York Times article.
During the next two months, health officials attributed hundreds of new cases, including dozens of deaths, to e-cigarette use and vape products containing THC. As of press time, Oct. 28, that number had ballooned to 1,604 lung injury cases and 34 deaths across 49 states (all except Alaska); Washington, D.C.; and one U.S. territory, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While many theories exist about why people are getting sick, no single cause has been verified by government agencies. Meanwhile, licensed manufacturers of cannabis products and state-legal retailers are grappling with a host of supply chain, quality and safety issues on a scale not previously experienced in the nascent industry.
The Cannabis Business Times staff has covered the issue closely since it was first considered a public health threat. Here, we recap some of this coverage, including the impact on the industry, how it’s responded to the crisis and what cannabis growers, producers and retailers can expect in the future.
The earliest theories on the cause of vape illnesses focused on the use of vitamin E acetate in illicit-market products. Vitamin E acetate is a preservative often found in nutritional supplements or beauty products. The New York State Health Department cited the chemical when calling out the flood of unregulated cannabis products that have hit streets around the Northeast, Midwest and beyond.
While most major news media outlets have picked up the department’s advisory on vitamin E acetate (including Cannabis Business Times), the actual public understanding of oil vaporization and degradation is a bit murkier.
Dr. Arup Sen, CEO of Infusion Biosciences, a biotech company focused on discovering and commercializing cannabis technologies, said in a September interview with CBT that legally manufactured vape products could contain substances that may pose risks, as well.
“Given the shockingly low bioactivities reported for THC and CBD preparations of the present day, I would not be surprised if we find compounds in the current preparations that are 100 to 1,000 times more potent than THC or CBD,” he said. “In fact, synthetic molecules similar to THC have been reported to be more than 2,000 times more potent in a number of cell culture assays that determine biochemical effects at the cellular level.”
Sen said he wasn’t “convinced that anyone really knows what vitamin E acetate preparation is being used and what impurities there might be.”
Not much information exists about the impact of heating primary substances in vape products and the minor components in cannabis liquids used in the vape pens, including propylene glycol, a common thinning agent in vape pens of all types. “Very little is known about the interaction between the materials used to make the cartridges and compounds present in vape liquids at high temperatures,” Sen said.
Of course, cannabinoids are far from the only chemical compounds found in the oil that cannabis consumers and patients are vaping. Much of the industry conversation has turned to terpenes—both organic and synthetic—and their role in the safety of these products.
“Terpenes can be dangerous,” said Dr. Robert Strongin, chemistry professor at Portland State University. “Their use should be limited.” He noted that his research shows terpenes degrade more rapidly during vaping than THC and that adding relatively large concentrations of terpenes to relatively pure cannabinoid distillates is not recommended based on his research team’s findings.
Mojave Richmond and Robert C. Clarke, CBT columnists and co-founders of BioAgronomics Group, said, “Not all terpenes are good terpenes.” Richmond added, “We should tread lightly when it comes to adding large quantities of what are essentially solvents into cannabis products.”
In early October, a new theory emerged related to the possible cause of the vaping illnesses. Following a recent report from Mayo Clinic researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists at Colorado Green Lab, a cannabis product development and consulting company in Denver, had begun publishing a blog series hypothesizing that the illness (referred to as vaping-associated pulmonary injury, or VAPI, or more recently named by the CDC: e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI), is due to metal fume exposure.
The Mayo Clinic researchers noted that VAPI lung micrograph images of patients from Illinois and Wisconsin appear to more closely resemble chemical burns.
“The underlying cause is now believed to be chemical exposure, and not an infectious disease,” Colorado Green Lab co-owners Frank Conrad and Cindy Blair wrote. “The VAPI syndrome is strongly correlated with the use of black-market THC vape cartridges, but the CDC has yet to conclusively identify a vaping product, or additive common to all cases.”
The lab posited that the exposure is due to cadmium in silver solder used in “lower-end vape pens” commonly found on the illicit market. Producers of these products use silver solder because it’s a low-cost material, the lab contends. But cadmium is highly toxic.
However, Conrad and Blair stressed that the CDC had not confirmed any correlation between specific causes and effects in the VAPI matter. “The full range of findings is conflicting, and no clear pattern has emerged regarding the source or cause of the illness,” they wrote.
Still, the hypothesis is noteworthy—especially when considered in the broader industry conversation already taking chemical constituents of cannabis oil into account (like vitamin E acetate, which remains at the center of the discourse).
The illnesses have sent a ripple effect throughout the industry, which faces increased scrutiny from regulators and the general public. On Sept. 26, Medicine Man announced that it was pulling cannabis vape cartridges containing propylene glycol or vitamin E acetate from its shelves. The dispensary business operates four adult-use storefronts and one medical cannabis location in Colorado.
The uncertainty around vaping has industry veterans offering words of caution to their peers and consumers as the crisis continues to unfold. “The devil is always in the details, and safety must come first,” Richmond told CBT in September. “Anytime we add new ingredients of varying quantities into the beaker we risk an explosion in the lab. So, let’s not use consumers and patients as guinea pigs and take a step backward before we tarnish cannabis’ reputation as a safe, beneficial, medicinal plant that has been an integral part of the human experience.”
In the same CBT article, Nick Jack, chief retail officer of Denver dispensary Diego Pellicer - Colorado, said consumers should stick with legal products only sold by licensed cannabis retailers.
“I would hope that the recent series of unfortunate events will persuade [illicit] market users to purchase products—if they’re available to them—that go through regulatory testing and compliance procedures that have been put into place in the legal cannabis market, rather than purchasing a product from unverified and unregulated sources,” he said.
States also are mobilizing. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced at the end of September that the state would become the first to enact a temporary ban on all online and retail sales of nicotine and cannabis vaping products and devices through Jan. 25, 2020.
Other states have focused on flavors. In an effort to immediately decrease interest for underage and casual consumers, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown rolled out a plan to ban all non-cannabis derived flavoring agents in both the nicotine and cannabis markets. Her office has stated that exemptions for additives like botanical derivatives that can prove inhalation safety will be considered in the future.
New rules in Colorado propose a ban on polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil) in cannabis concentrates or products meant to be inhaled. These additives are generally used as thinning agents to cut THC oil, rendering it able to be vaporized. As of press time, the State Licensing Authority had not yet signed off on the proposal; if it does, the new rules will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Emergency rules adopted by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in October require that cannabis licensees “disclose all compounds, including but not limited to ingredients, solvents, additives, preservatives, thickening agents, terpenes and other substances used to produce or added to marijuana concentrates for inhalation or marijuana-infused extracts for inhalation at any point during production and processing, regardless of source and origin.” The board also worked with “industry representatives and marijuana licensees” to develop vaping risk warning signs that will be posted at retailers selling vapor products that contain THC.
Ben Bodamer, an attorney in Dickinson Wright’s cannabis practice group, advises cannabis companies to examine their supply chains to ensure their products are safe and compliant. He noted that class-action lawsuits have emerged in the cannabis space, and it helps to identify and address weak spots in a business’s interactions with third-party vendors or other partners.
“First of all, we don’t really know enough to know the kinds of claims that will emerge,” Bodamer said. “I know that the plaintiff’s bar is creative, but they’re also attentive. And in this context, they’re going to be following the results of ongoing investigations at the state level and at the federal level. And to the extent that [those] investigations reveal specific sources, and if those specific sources have been supplying product to individual companies, if that supply chain is in any way illegal, … I think the ease with which the plaintiff’s bar could bring claims would go up significantly.”
Getting out in front of the national news narrative with public statements on social media is one thing; showing proof of Good Manufacturing Practices or other standards and certifications will make a clear statement to the consumer base—and to public officials and private attorneys interested in parsing businesses’ tangential roles to a story with an expansive reach.
“You’re going to see scrutiny and the emergence of good actors versus bad actors from a supply chain standpoint,” Bodamer said. “It’s incumbent on good actors to point out their best practices, but it's also incumbent on people to not be bad actors.”
Melissa Schiller is the assistant digital editor for Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
A look at how cultivators can leverage research to deliver products that meet specific consumer needs.
The terms cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids may not have the same market appeal as indica or sativa. But many industry experts say these secondary metabolites hold more value to cultivators and their customers than common strain names.
In the September 2019 issue of Cannabis Business Times, senior editor Brian MacIver explored some industry myths and how science is changing the way cultivators make strategic decisions (see the cover story “The Science Void”). It’s a topic that CBT also explored during the 2019 Cannabis Conference.
Andrea Sparr-Jaswa, now science editor at CBT and sister publication Cannabis Dispensary, addressed some of these key issues as the moderator for a panel on “Science That Sells: Debunking the Sativa and Indica Myths and Instead Focusing on Terpenoids, Cannabinoids and Flavonoids” at the 2019 event, which featured Jeremy Plumb, director of production science for Prf Cultivar; Jeremy Sackett, founder and chief science officer of Cascadia Labs; and Dr. Dominick Monaco, general manager at GB Sciences Inc.
Here are some highlights from the panel discussion and a glimpse at what’s to come for Cannabis Conference 2020 taking place at Paris Las Vegas April 21-23, 2020. (Note: the following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Plumb: We’ve worked for a long time to try to be more relevant at both Farma and now at my role at Prf Cultivar, to try to … expose the ingredients. But the big issue is this: There’s morphology—like the plant structure. And when we look at narrow and broad leaves, from a plant morphology perspective, we can’t easily correlate that with the kinds of chemistry the plant produces. Really, this morphology was the basis for the original taxonomy.
And it’s gone through many waves. But the reality is, we’re in a new era where we have really distinctive features for phytochemistry on one side of the equation and then distinctive features for the morphological development of the plant on the other. But the giant issue happens when we try to connect the two. And really, [we] can never say that the narrow-leaved sativa plant is producing these focusing and euphoriant effects. That’s really going to come down to the molecules and the inventory and the chemistry in that plant.
Sackett: We’ll never find this perfect archetype of (indica/sativa) in the commercial market now. There’s a third category that’s often used, which is “hybrid.” The problem is … they’re all hybrids. These categories that have become popularized … are a bit unfortunate. You see … we have this moment in history to really change people’s lives with the inventory of phytochemistry, [and] we’re seeing really unfortunate labeling of the ingredients or misrepresentations altogether.
Sparr-Jaswa: Yeah, hybridization in the market and just this constant evolution of perpetuating new genetics—which is incredibly exciting—has completely rendered the [indica/sativa] dichotomy meaningless.
Monaco: If we don’t actually start collecting that [phytochemical] data, we don’t know if it’s actually having effects on therapeutic value for our patients or our customers. There could be a phytol, a sterol, an ester in there that’s causing all of these actual great therapeutic effects. Metabolomics [the study of metabolites’ effects on cells] is definitely where we’re going to find out exactly where the plant and body meet. We always talk about seed-to-sale, right? But we need to talk about seed-to-outcomes … because that’s where we’re going to get all of this actual data … where we’re going to push this forward.
Sackett: And, you know, that outcome at this juncture, as you mentioned, is really patient-based and empowering the patient or adult consumer to really understand what they are consuming. It just takes a little bit of motivation on the retail end. And then, hopefully, empowering the consumer to start tracking their outcome based on these sets of terpene and cannabinoid information that they now have.
Plumb: [Data allows us to] really meet people’s needs and take care of them in a more targeted way. … It always comes back on us to actually report and collect that data in a wholehearted way—to make sure it’s transparent and make sure that it’s not adulterated in any way, and that it’s analyzed correctly. Because, you know, if we start correlating things that aren’t correlatable, then we’re back to square one.
Plumb: The reality is, if you are a producer as I am, you would see an unbelievable range of phytochemistry from one plant as a result of small changes in the environment. So, the kinds of things that contribute to affecting the secondary metabolite profile of drugs the plant is making include: temperature, relative humidity, light intensity, light wavelength, frequency of irrigation, nutrition programs, harvest timing—all sorts of things beyond the genetic material itself.
… So, for people who advocate sun-growing—which I am a huge fan of—we need to absolutely ecologically produce cannabis as … our carbon footprint scales. … But, on the other hand, we really need targeted effects and plants that can produce consistent arrays of phytochemistry in order to meet diverse people’s needs. So, there’s a really important role to play in controlled environment agriculture—in precision agriculture.
Monaco: You know, having cultivated 1.5 million grams every year out of our local Las Vegas facility, I can attest to the fact that it’s very difficult to get batches to be the same. We’ve noticed variance from room to room, time of year. … And having that laboratory data to come and back-end your actual production data to say, “OK, so my VPD went off here or my light shut off here or my CO2 went off and I had to switch out a tank for that day.” ... Knowing those kinds of things and then correlating it with the actual laboratory data is absolutely key if you want to fine-tune your operation.
Sackett: And speaking to the standardization of testing labs … there are many national organizations working to set those standards. … The general quality practices of any laboratory are consistent to a food laboratory, a pharmaceutical laboratory. But I’ve sat in rooms where [strain] names were changed just because the marketing team thought it would sell better under this name. I think ... what is in that name is really those phytochemicals. Using that profile to navigate both consumer choices as well as those breeding and cultivation choices is super important.
Plumb: We’re still at a moment where there is an incredible amount of genetic diversity. … And we have an opportunity to actually do an honest inventory and start to represent the products more accurately to consumers. So clearly diminishing the relevance of the strain name is a fundamental part of that and really moving forward the chemovar … is really the most important thing I see happening in terms of being more relevant to a mass market.
Sackett: Moving a product forward with those different claims of experience is a little bit early in my opinion. … And, ultimately, a dream that I have is that somebody can walk into a retail shop and be drawn to a terpinolene-dominant section, a caryophyllene-dominant section, a pinene-dominant section and have those grouped together and be able to make better choices.
So, I really think that we’re at a place where it’s just going to take a while, and we have to be humble and use great science and collaborate and be mature as an industry. And recognize what we don’t know and where we have to go to be able to serve the most people at the deepest level.
Learn more about the fourth annual event, which will take place at the Paris Hotel & Casino April 21-23, 2020, by visiting CannabisConference.com.
When Danielle Rosellison learned that two employees working in the trim room at Trail Blazin’ were taking premium buds from the tops of plants and hiding them in their gloves, she took swift action and terminated them.
“In this business, we’re always thinking about how to mitigate risk,” says Rosellison, CEO of Trail Blazin’, a producer-processor in Bellingham, Wash. “Theft—both internal and external theft—is one of those risks.”
Scant data exists on how often growers and dispensaries are victims of crimes—and even less is known about how often employees are the perpetrators—but there is no question that the high-value, easy-to-sell product is vulnerable to theft.
To complicate matters, traditional risk mitigation strategies, such as insurance, might not offer protection. While cannabis cultivators face multiple risks in their operations, including employee theft, insurance companies exclude coverage for losses from criminal conduct and illegal activities, according to a 2019 report from Finance Markets, Institutions and Instruments. In at least one case, a federal district court declared an insurance policy void because cannabis is still considered illegal at the federal level, according to the report.
The lack of available remedies for theft suggests that prevention may be the best way cultivators can protect themselves from related losses. Cannabis Business Times recently spoke with several growers and security experts who offered these nine security measures that cultivators can adopt to protect themselves against employee theft.
1. Go beyond the basics: State-mandated security regulations, such as video surveillance, are not enough to prevent internal theft, according to Barry Davidson, director of strategic engagement for 3 Sixty Secure Corp., a global security company based in Almonte, Ontario, Canada, with expertise in the cannabis industry. Davidson suggests cannabis companies first conduct a risk analysis with a security professional to determine which technologies are appropriate for their operations. A combination of systems, including access control, motion sensors and alarm monitoring, are often necessary to safeguard against various types of threats, he says. “Multiple layers of security are critical, and while a lot of these decisions come down to dollars and cents, creating a plan and investing in it now could lead to big savings down the road if it prevents even one instance of theft.”
2. Hire the right people: When it comes to hiring staff, Rosellison believes solid hiring practices are the first line of defense against internal theft. Rosellison places a premium on applicants who appear to be optimistic, dependable and hardworking over those with specific skill sets to work in Trail Blazin’s 10,000-square-foot indoor grow. Focusing on desirable personality traits creates a culture of trust and collaboration, which lessens the incentive to steal, she says.
At Sunnabis Farms in Humboldt County, Calif., CEO Wendy Kornberg conducts background checks on all prospective hires. The practice, she believes, helps filter out those who could pose a risk to her operation. “If you got arrested for weed, it doesn’t mean you won’t get the job,” she says. “But if you got arrested for armed robbery, I’m probably not going to hire you.”
3. Cultivate a strong company culture: At Legacy Nursery, a wholesale cannabis nursery in Modesto, Calif., owner Jennina Chiavetta works hard to treat employees well. She believes that fair pay, good benefits and treating workers with respect helps ensure that the staff working at the nursery feel valued. “If someone doesn’t feel like they’re being treated well, that’s when theft happens,” she says. “You want to make the work and the environment appealing enough that theft isn’t something that is constantly on their minds.”
4. Monitor, monitor, monitor: State regulations often require cameras in all areas of a cannabis operation. Davidson calls cameras “overt preventive measures” because workers know they are being watched, which lessens their motivation to skim cash or crops.
Kornberg mounts trail cameras in strategic spots outdoors to monitor Sunnabis’ farm and greenhouse. The cameras might not prevent theft but, she says, “At least we’ll know who did it.”
At Trail Blazin,’ all areas are under 24-hour surveillance. Rosellison says cameras allow her to see what’s happening in all areas of the operation—from trimming to packaging. From her office, she can see feeds from all 48 cameras on the screen.
5. Hire armed security: For Chiavetta, a solid security plan includes hiring armed guards for both her indoor and outdoor facilities. Protecting the plants from would-be thieves, she believes, is worth the investment, but protections need to be put in place to ensure the guards do not make off with the goods. “The guards know all of the security protocols,” she says. “Hiring two guards, who hopefully aren’t in cahoots, lessens the risk that one could flip.”
6. Lock it up: Kornberg knows cannabis growing on her farm and greenhouse are harder to protect than cannabis grown in a warehouse for one simple reason: Locks. You can lock up a building and install keypads on doors, but outdoor grows are more vulnerable to theft. Alarms can also be deterrents, but Davidson warns that alarming each door might be more of a problem than a solution, explaining, “There is potential for false alarms, and if you get too many, the human response will be to ignore them.”
7. Invest in a vault: Thanks to the growing number of credit unions in Washington State eager to work with cannabis businesses, the number of cash transactions is falling, according to Rosellison. In fact, Trail Blazin’ receives checks for almost 95% of its transactions—but when cash comes in, it goes straight to the bank.
California’s financial institutions aren’t so cannabis-friendly: All of the cash collected at Sunnabis Farms is stored under lock and key. “Leaving cash strewn about it just a bad idea,” Kornberg says. “No matter how trustworthy someone seems, that level of temptation might be too much.”
8. Track transportation: Both cash and cannabis are vulnerable during transport, says Clint Bryer, sales manager for Safety Vision. The Texas-based mobile surveillance company works with multiple cultivators to install cameras that record all of the happenings both inside and outside the vehicle. “Preventing employee theft is the No. 1 reason cannabis companies want the technology,” Bryer says. “When employees can see the cameras and know they’re being watched, it prevents something from happening.” When Legacy Nursery starts production in 2020, Chiavetta plans to handle all of the deliveries as a precaution against employee theft.
9. Protect your intellectual property: The hard work that goes into breeding quality genetics and bringing back classic strains has Chiavetta concerned about theft of intellectual property. All employees who work at Legacy Nursery sign both non-disclosure and non-compete agreements as part of their onboarding paperwork, and Chiavetta worked with an attorney to file trademarks, licensing agreements and patents to protect her intellectual property from ill-intentioned employees. “If you’re robbed before you make a dollar, there goes all of your planning,” she says.
The bottom line, says Davidson, is that no security measure will prevent internal theft on its own, explaining, “Technical measures [such as alarms, vaults and cameras] need to work hand-in-hand with process measures [such as strong hiring practices and standard operating procedures] to protect against theft.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelancer who covers the intersection between agriculture and business.
^ In an Oct. 7 op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title and physician, lawyer and research fellow at Harvard Medical School Michael S. Sinha argued that vaping bans would not stop the recent illness outbreak, as those bans only drive patients and consumers to the illicit market. Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer
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^ Mary Lynne Vellinga, spokesperson for Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, said the city’s top elected official will be reviewing the city’s cannabis licensing process following the revelation that Andrey Kukushkin, a Ukrainian-born man indicted in a campaign-finance scheme along with two associates of President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, is an officer in a Sacramento cannabis dispensary controlled by a local businessman with a considerable share of the city’s cannabis business. Source: Sacramento Bee
Cannabis Business Times’ interactive legislative map is another tool to help cultivators quickly navigate state cannabis laws and find news relevant to their markets. View More
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