Imagine ... you are producing a food product for which no federal laws are applicable, product cannot be shipped across state lines, and state regulations change almost as fast as you can eat, say, a 50 mg THC-infused Dixie Roll chocolate. Oops, make that a 10 mg Dixie Roll ... the law just changed, a single serving size can have no more than 10 mg THC and must be distinctly divided as such. But, don’t take this as law just yet, it could be obsolete by the time this issue of QA hits your desk.
Across most of the food industry, food safety means protecting consumers from potential contamination caused by a pathogen, foreign object, pesticide residue, antibiotic, or other adulterant. But for Colorado’s nascent recreational marijuana-edibles industry, food safety goes a great deal further, with formulation, consistency, and consumer education all being critical control points.
If you were a cannabis-infused edibles manufacturer, you could certainly implement a HACCP plan and follow the SQF scheme of GFSI standards, as does Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, but you can’t be certified, because marijuana is federally illegal. That is just one of the challenges inherent in the federal illegality, the state’s rolling regulations, and the fact that less than a year ago, the non-medicinal manufacture, sale, and use of cannabis was a criminal act run primarily by drug cartels who, we can assume, are not exactly pleased that Colorado’s anticipated $1 billion in legal marijuana sales over the next fiscal year (medicinal and recreational) is coming directly out of their pockets.
Dixie Brands Founder and Owner Tripp Keber has been vetted by the FBI, IRS, and other federal agencies to ensure against criminal connections and track where money from the business goes. But, he said, the need for security against those cartels is one of the less glamorous aspects of being a leader in this growing industry. But it is a stimulating time and industry of which to be a part—even with its unpredictability. “We are in the midst of vast political, legal, and social change,” Keber said.
“It is challenging just because this has never been done before,” Keber said. “We are literally building the plane as we are flying it. It is an interesting experience.” It is also an interactive experience with industry working with government to keep things rolling smoothly. There are a number of industry groups and Keber, himself, was meeting with Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Divsion (MED) the afternoon of QA’s visit. “It is a very complementary process between government and industry,” he said.
Having begun the business in 2009 in a 400-square-foot woodshed, Keber takes great pride in showing his current 30,000-square-foot facility. The facility previously housed a commercial bakery, and some of the employees from that plant now work for Dixie.
The current renovation of the facility will include an exhibit hall to showcase the process, the history of Dixie, and the extensive media coverage. “About 10% of the population uses adult-use marijuana,” Keber said, noting that he prefers the term “adult-use” over “recreational,” as it is intended—and only legal—for those 21 and over. “We’ve been surprised at the voracious appetite for edibles, but there is also immense curiosity,” he said. “Our job is to demystify it.” The exhibit also is intended to debunk some of the banalities and clichés about marijuana edibles, such as, Keber said, “We don’t make pot brownies.”
Although marijuana manufacturing and sale is fully licensed by the state of Colorado, it is still illegal on the federal level. Thus, neither FDA nor USDA has jurisdiction over its production, so the state has had to take up the slack. As such, the Colorado Department of Revenue, through MED, is tasked with regulating and setting rules for the state’s medical and retail marijuana industries, with the state health department taking over inspections.
Cannabis Fast Facts
Start Low. Go Slow
1-5 mg New Consumer. If you have never experimented with edibles, you should start here. It is important to make sure your body can digest cannabis comfortably.
5-10 mg Occasional Consumer. This is considered a single serving. Eating more than 10 mg is not recommended.
10-15 mg Frequent Consumer. Reserved only for those with a high edible tolerance or medical needs.
Cannabis Alliance Organization
“In the beginning, though, no one would touch us,” said Chief Marketing Officer Joe Hodas. Neither federal nor state officials would come into the plant. Then about six months ago, he said, the state health department suddenly began coming in to do inspections and enforce food safety regulations, then the local departments started coming in as well. Because Dixie had decided from the beginning to be proactive, follow GMPs, develop SOPs as well as a HACCP plan, and implement federal requirements, Hodas said, “We were already preparing for it, so we didn’t have any issues.” The company continues to be proactive, including nutrition labels with caloric counts on their products, and staying informed about federal actions and regulations. “We are preparing for tomorrow before they ask us,” he said.
When Dixie began developing its edibles, Keber hired Ph.D. food scientists to do so—and not just for quality and safety aspects. Rather, he said, “We designed the products as if they would be reviewed by FDA.”
The federal illegality also can put radical limits on a company’s growth. Not only are sales limited to states in which marijuana is legal, but in order to sell in any state, the company must produce locally in each market, and have a facility and licensed person in each state in which it wishes to sell. Thus, Dixie has created a parent company, Dixie Brands, under which it plans to create separate state businesses—the local affiliate in Colorado does business as Left Bank. “It is one thing to be legal on paper. It is another to have an infrastructure for free trade of the product,” Hodas said.
The lack of infrastructure also is evident in money handling. Because of the repercussions of handling “laundered” money, very few banks are willing take marijuana-generated cash. Although the U.S. Treasury Department has stated allowances for financial institutions to engage in banking relationships with marijuana-related businesses, many cannabis companies are able to deal only in cash. Dixie has been able to form some relationships, but, Keber said, “85% of our business is transacted in cash.” In fact, when the business was still getting off the ground and didn’t have the income to pay its employees, Keber took $10,000 cash out of his own pocket to cover payroll. It’s an industry in which you have to be flexible and adaptable. “I’ve sometimes felt as though I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” he said.
Being federally illegal also leaves some question about the state legality, because, in law, federal trumps state. In a letter of August 29, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it would continue to enforce the Controlled Substances Act in Colorado, but that it “will not challenge Colorado’s ability to regulate the Retail Marijuana industry in accordance with state law, based upon the expectation that the state and local governments will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests.”
However, the letter added, “The Department reserved its right to challenge the state laws at a later time, in the event any of the stated harms do materialize—either in spite of a strict regulatory scheme, or because of the lack of one.”
Additionally, many in the industry feel that until a Congressional mandate is passed, the businesses continue to face the possibility, even if remote, of federal closure and even prison sentences at any time. Because of this, there is some concern about the 2016 presidential election, and the possibility of a new Administration that is less accepting of marijuana legalization and state jurisdiction.
That said, the states of Colorado and Washington are continuing to move forward with self-regulation and developing the rules by which the cannabis industry must live. Unfortunately the forward movement is day-to-day and can feel as though every other step is one backward instead of forward. Take, for example, the regulations on packaging and serving size, both of which are evidenced in the bag of Dixie Rolls (below, right).
Following state regulations, the bag was developed to be tear-resistant and was heat sealed at the factory to ensure child resistance. Then the regulation rolled ... requiring that a package with more than one serving be resealable as child proof, or each item within the package be sealed in a child-proof manner.
So the package was redesigned. Then the regulation rolled ... this time focused on serving size. The state had already declared 10 mg to be a single serving, but then mandated a maximum of 100 mg per package for recreational use. Then in July, it adopted an additional emergency rule that all infused edibles must be easily and distinctly divisible into serving sizes. Thus, each of the 50 mg Dixie Rolls in this bag would need to be cut into five separate pieces instead, or have clearly distinct and separable markings denoting the five serving pieces of each.
“This will change the financials of the industry,” Hodas said. Companies will need to buy or build new molds for all non-complying items, change the formulation, or stop making a multi-serving product all together.
Another area of regulation in constant flux is that of testing. In July, product testing for pesticide and chemical residues was mandated, and October brings requirements for pathogen and heavy-metal testing. Additionally, to ensure serving-size compliance, a rule was implemented for potency testing. Unfortunately, the rule preceded the certification of labs to do the testing. Even with more labs now licensed and certified, Dixie plans to have some level of testing in-house in addition to third-party testing. However, the testing methods have not been standardized, and because the labs see their methods as proprietary, standardization is unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Director of Operations James Baumgarten, adding, “The margin of error in this industry can be as much as +20%.” Thus, he said, the company will be purchasing its own equipment for testing to ensure both accuracy and speed.
The medical and retail marijuana industries of Colorado each have separate and distinct statutes and rules under which they operate. However, for both, the entire process “from seed to sale” is highly regulated and traced. (See the Superior Traceability section, below.) It is a closed system—every grower, processor, and retailer must be licensed and listed in Colorado; every plant individually tagged and tracked; and processors can purchase only from licensed growers, and retailers only from licensed manufacturers.
- Cultivation. Although it is commonly known that marijuana plants have been illicitly grown across the U.S. in sheds and basements for generations, cultivating quality plants to produce the preferred strains of cannabis for commercial use is not a simple task. The plants require tending seven days a week, 12 hours a day, Keber said, adding, “It’s probably easier to take care of children.” At Dixie, the plants are grown in a medium made of sand and glass, similar to insulation, because, said Grower Ryan Hedrick. “it is very porous and allows a lot of water to run through. We don’t use soil because we don’t want to have bugs.” Additionally, Hedrick said, the plants are crossbred for “bigger, bolder, more powerful” production. The cultivation room currently houses 340 plants including nine different strains. But plans for the facility renovation include a 10,000-square-foot commercial cultivation center with 8,000 plants. This will enable Dixie to gain more control over its marijuana plants and use of all applicable parts.
- Extraction. The next step is extracting the cannabinoids and other active ingredients from the raw plant material. Specific constituents are extracted for specific purposes, e.g., THC produces euphoria while the Cannabidiol (CBD) is more medicinal in nature. Dixie uses only CO2 extraction, as it is the safest and most stable method, Keber said. But with the technology evolving as fast as the industry itself, the company is planning to integrate new equipment which will increase production of its elixir from current runs of about 850 bottles in an eight-hour shift to more than 6,000 per shift. As its flagship product, Dixie Elixirs bring in about 50% of the company’s revenue, Keber said.
- Formulation. While formulation is always a key aspect of any food production, in the cannabis industry, consistency and homogeneity of the infused cannabis oils are a critical food safety factor as well, requiring accuracy in potency measurements for consumer health and well-being. Not only can every marijuana plant have a different potency level, but different areas of the same plant will vary. Thus, each time the oils are extracted from the plant, they need to be tested for potency, and Baumgarten said, “The formula changes every batch because the potency of the oil changes.” Despite this challenge, he said, “it is important to formulate for consistency in taste, but more importantly, for consistency in potency.”
- Packaging. As discussed in the previous section, packaging regulations are one of the most frequently changed, with the “rolling regulations” having a great deal of impact on a company’s financials. It is an area in which Dixie chooses to make no major investments and is often precluded from buying in bulk, as the packaging or equipment used today could be no longer viable tomorrow.
Although not a part of the technical process, Dixie sees customer education as a key food safety aspect of producing cannabis-infused elixirs and edibles. Notwithstanding the age-old, notorious homemade pot brownies that can vary in character as much as the cooks who make them, commercial edibles are a new thing and the “mg” measures of potency are little understood, despite the state’s declaration that 10 mg is a single serving.
So to help customers indulge safely, many in the industry feel a responsibility to educate them. “People don’t know what mg means,” Hodas said. Nor do they understand that edibles don’t take effect as quickly as does smoking. Because it can take 30 minutes to two hours for a person to feel the effects, people have been known to continue eating more to feel something, then, often, overindulging.
Thus, proactive education takes the form of brochures, literature, and infographics, as well as precautions and activation-time graphics on the product label. At the retail dispensaries, where medicinal and/or recreational marijuana and marijuana products are sold, consumers must be 21 and show ID to enter, and “budtenders” work with customers to discuss their prior experience and make recommendations. “The budtender becomes the conduit for the consumer,” Hodas said.
While much of the process of producing and regulating marijuana products is in its infancy and building to that of other food industry segments, the traceability system implemented for marijuana cultivation, manufacture, and sale surpasses that of the general food industry.
Each grower, manufacturer, and retailer must be licensed by the state. Manufacturers can purchase marijuana only from the licensed growers. And each step in the process must be tracked in the state-mandated, state-run Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance (METRC). Though developed as a means to “track all retail marijuana to eliminate diversion, inside and outside of the state, and to ensure that all marijuana grown, processed, sold, and disposed of in the retail marijuana market is transparently accounted for,” METRC enables a thoroughness of tracking and traceability “from seed to sale” that has long been a goal of the food industry.
It is a web-based tool that uses RFID technology that allows both the METRC user and the Colorado State Licensing Authority the ability to identify and account for all retail marijuana and product “from seed to sale.” Tracking of individual plants has been required for medical marijuana in Colorado since 2010, but it wasn’t until 2013—just prior to the legalization of recreational marijuana—that the digital METRC system was implemented.
Through the system, each seed or immature plant is tagged with an individual number. That number is input into the METRC system and follows the marijuana through all phases of production to its final sale to the consumer. No marijuana or product can be accepted from a cultivation facility or other manufacturer without an accompanying METRC identifier.
All numbers must be input to the system immediately upon receipt, and transactions must be reconciled at the end of each day. All waste materials, in addition to being rendered unusable and unrecognizable, must be identified, weighed, and tracked, with accurate and comprehensive records maintained “regarding waste material that accounts for, reconciles, and evidences all waste activity related to the disposal of marijuana.” The same type of accounting is required should a plant die.
In addition to this tracking, Baumgarten said, “The state has access to our security camera. They can log into it at any time.”
At Dixie, not only is every plant documented and tracked in METRC, but all the data is tied into Keber’s security badge. It is a tracking that is comprehensive and extremely serious. “If I can’t track this plant from seed to sale, my personal liberties are at stake,” Keber said. While it sometimes can be overwhelming, Keber understands the need for the tracking and the goal: “We are pushing organized crime out of the system,” he said.
The Future of Cannabis.
Keber sees today’s evolving legalization of marijuana as similar to the ending of Prohibition of alcohol in the 30s, and he said, “It’s not going to slow down.” Although cannabis is still considered a prohibited substance federally and by many states, the state of Washington also has legalized medical and recreational use and 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical use.
In Colorado, the rise of hundreds of producers and retailers has brought jobs to many who were unemployed, and, as passed by vote in 2013, the first $40 million of special excise tax revenues were to be used for the construction of schools. “The state is getting tax revenue, people are getting jobs, and schools are being built. That’s what I would call a perfect storm,” Keber said.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Curt Thompson and Lisa Lupo