The Critical Role of Technology in the Cannabis Industry

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The cannabis industry has grown exponentially over the past few years, by any measure.

It has experienced growth spurts, just like children do, and with them, the exuberance of puberty. Now, the industry has come to that point which we all inevitably reach when it comes time to choose to remain stuck in immaturity or to begin adulting.

We have seen the community change gradually. There are fewer and fewer “flakes” and more and more serious professionals.

The fact is that unless we accept that we need to get real and professional, and “grow up” in our approach to this amazing industry, the fun will seep away as fines are levied, licenses are revoked, and the public loses confidence in the safety of cannabis products, and businesses fail.

It is becoming clear that transparent, conscientious growing and handling processes, validated test methods, certified laboratory testing, precision quality control, and accurate labeling must become the norm rather than the exception.

User-friendly, reliable, fair, and speedy payment and delivery must combine with these things to establish an unquestionable trust and confidence in the cannabis industry.

Anyone who does not embrace these standards will inevitably fail – and take part in the industry’s credibility with it. Anyone who has been paying attention can see this is already the case.

How do we avoid that and build quality and trust in the industry? The answer, just as in many other industries, is technology.

So what are the areas where technology can help establish integrity and trust and thereby establish long term success and sustainability for both your business and the industry at large?

Growers

The cannabis industry is growing, and the cannabis industry is about growing! The choices growers make affect availability, pricing, and quality all the way down the line, through distributors, retailers, and consumers.

If they get something wrong it has ripples. Equally, the things they get right can also improve the whole production and delivery process. Growers need to effectively control: quality, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness:

  • Seeds – Quality starts with the seeds. To be successful requires the best quality and good storage.
  • Cultivation – From there it’s about proper lighting and lighting duration, watering, fertilization, climate control, weeding, and pest and disease control. There are a lot of parameters to control in all of that, and getting the recipe right for each product, whether hemp, CBD or other cannabinoids, Indica or Sativa, and every strain and hybrid is a complex challenge.
  • End Product – The wide variety of products ranges from hemp rope to topicals, ingestibles of every description, whether nutraceuticals, medicinal, therapeutic or recreational, and inhalables. Each has its own important acceptable parameters of safety, effectiveness, usability and shelf life.
  • Tracking – Every state that allows THC products also has a track-and-trace program in place, except, for the moment, Florida. States are able to keep federal scrutiny at bay by showing that they have a firm grasp on the whereabouts of every last gram. Growers must comply with those tracking and reporting requirements. This is not currently the case in Georgia of course, but it would be as well to be ready when that time comes.

Solutions

Growers use everything from low tech careful, diligent monitoring and manual note-taking of water usage, temperature, humidity, light and fertilization and their effect on the crops as they measure growth, potency, etc., to higher-tech solutions that can include :

  • Smart Greenhouses, Buildings
  • Data Tracking and Reporting Systems

Some applications involved include:

  • Smart Phone Apps that can let you monitor and control multiple parameters of the growing environment remotely
  • Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) – Although primarily designed to manage lab data, there are a couple of very flexible, versatile LIMS that can manage all of your metrics, schedules, alerts and record storage, and calculate trends in their central cloud database. The added benefit of these is they can generate a wide range of reports as well. And they can be set to trigger events that work together with other systems. More and more, this kind of comprehensive data management scheme is becoming the preferred way to manage what is a highly competitive and data-driven industry, in order to ensure long-term viability.

The Technologies employed include:

  • Blockchain – This technology supports cryptocurrency, which is leveraged in cases where federally insured banks aren’t an option, and that usage is spreading into other areas. It is also a great way to provide high levels of privacy and security, since data are dispersed with no single point of full access or gain-of-function.
  • Cloud – This is no surprise. Cloud tech has become the standard across industries. It’s cheap, reliable, secure and very convenient.
  • Artificial Intelligence – AI is kind of like cloud computing was a few years ago. It is the darling of developers and is starting to be applied to everything. The value of technology that learns and improves its performance the longer it is employed is obvious. If only all our employees did that… And maybe our elected leaders in DC and the states…
  • The Internet of Things (IOT) – Anyone who has bought a refrigerator recently may have been surprised to find they can “talk” to it using an app on their phone. It alerts you when a door is left open or the temperature dips below a certain level. Same goes for your Nest home thermostat, Ring doorbell and camera, many medical devices, agricultural systems and more. These are just a few examples of the many types of appliances and other devices talking to us – and each other – via the Internet.

These technologies and their applications can also help growers monitor and predict demand and pricing for various products and adjust accordingly, delivering high quality products, while keeping themselves highly competitive and maximizing their revenues.

Any talk about quality or data management inevitably involves labs. In fact, that’s true for any industry you can name. Everything is tested. Everything we eat, everything we drink, anything we buy and use – from the seats you’re sitting on to the clothes we’re wearing to computer circuit boards and Lamborghinis.

In manufacturing, raw materials are tested to make sure they are the right grade and what they’re supposed to be. During production, they’ll be weighed, dropped, pulled apart, melted, set fire to and / or abused in any number of creative ways to make sure their safety, functions, quality, and reliability are up to acceptable standards.

A lot of data are collected, and accurate, comprehensive reporting is critical to avoid recalls, bad reviews, legal actions, or even injury or worse.

How much more critical are labs in a highly-regulated industry that lives or dies by its accountability and is trying to establish its credibility as a valid, respected and professional industry?

Nevermind that we’re dealing with substances that we often ingest and that we are still only beginning to learn about at many levels. Psychoactive or not, customers need to feel that products are safe.

A company that simply tells its customers what’s in their product and that it is safe and effective is going to lose out against one that provides a guaranteed lab analysis. The scientific level of assurance is what is sorely needed for this industry to ultimately survive and flourish over the long term.

Unfortunately, the industry has been guilty of trying to cut corners in this area. Instead of taking extra care to build trust and confidence, many labs have been slack or even worse, deliberately manipulating results to suit their clients.

Certification and standards have been haphazard. Sometimes a guy sets up some type of analyzer in his bedroom and calls himself a lab. But those days are fast coming to an end.

More and more, states are cracking down on sloppy or deceptive labs, levying massive fines, suspensions and license revocations. The industry cannot bear the heavy burden of suspicion and mickey-mouse amateur antics. The message is clear. Get professional or get out.

Like growers, labs must embrace technology to guarantee quality. But even more so, because data and metrics are a lab’s sole job. They exist for only one reason: to ensure quality and truth.

Laboratories are very much pivotal, the key, in fact, to building acceptance, respect, and legitimacy for the cannabis industry.

The laboratories that are engaged in research are helping us understand more each day about the effects and safety of the over 400 cannabis compounds, or cannabinoids, and how to provide even more useful products, nutraceuticals and medicines.

Solutions

The primary application for managing laboratory data is a LIMS, as we mentioned earlier. But just as the industry has generally fallen down in its standards for labs, labs themselves are often guilty of seeing a good quality, proven, professional LIMS as an afterthought or giving it no thought at all.

The simple fact is, it is the center of a quality system for the lab, and must be central in startup planning or extending existing capabilities as established labs move into the industry.

The same technologies listed before come into play. But the biggest features for professional standard lab testing include:

  • Secure – timed auto logout, encrypted database, single user logins
  • Flexible – ability to add or modify tests any time, set alerts, add or change workflows, etc. through UI
  • Interfacing – able to connect to instruments, other softwares / databases, reporting bodies (eg, state, T&T)
  • Established – has a (good) track record. Trusted in the lab industry.
  • Supported – Not proprietary, has good support services

Labs who skimp by going for low-cost or free LIMS suffer the consequences sooner or later. To provide quality, you have to invest in quality.

Wholesalers / Retailers

At the end of the day, it’s the customer-facing businesses that represent the industry to the world. It is to their advantage that the products they provide are safe and contain what the label says.

So if you’re a seller, your business is at stake, and at the mercy of the producers.

Where does technology come in for you?

Well, first, take the time to thoroughly investigate the products you want to sell. Find out exactly how they guarantee the quality and safety of their products. If they know the sellers are holding them to high standards, they will be more motivated to reach those standards.

Next, to compete successfully you need a good storefront website, with secure and effective e-commerce, and well worked-out stock management and, where applicable, delivery.

It’s a good idea to let technology help provide the level of quality you need in these areas, so you can account for every cent, every order and every item of stock. Good stock management apps can alert you when an item needs to be reordered – and even automatically order for you if you want.

Summary

The cannabis industry is at a crossroads. Things have happened fast since the first states began to legalize, and like growth spurts in teenagers, it can be a little ungainly until we manage to adjust to the changes.

Even though the emphasis has been on regulation and control so as not to force a run-in with federal law, because we’re dealing with new products and substances without substantially documented track records, many have tried to work around the rules, or haven ‘t taken the necessary steps to ensure they meet them.

Here is where we decide if we are going to continue doing what we have always done and expect different results – yes, that is a definition of a kind of insanity – or decide to start adulting, and invest our time, efforts, and yes, money, in the SOPs of quality, and the technology that helps us meet them.



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