3 ways to avoid regulatory failure in marijuana cultivation

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(Editor’s note: This column is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals focused on the cannabis industry. Willow Groskreutz is the communications coordinator for TraceTrust, a marijuana and hemp compliance company based in San Francisco.)

There’s a lot more to growing cannabis in a regulated market than soil and water, and even one honest error can cause a severe regulatory failure.

Fortunately, newly legalized states have the advantage of learning from past mistakes and best practices of established legal markets.

1. Understand regulatory compliance laws

Above all else, being compliant with regulations requires understanding the laws in your state.

State regulations determine how a cultivation facility will operate and influences specific action steps needed to bring your final product to market.

Knowing the rules for each process, including the required safety tests, before setting up saves time and money.   

Understanding the rules will also make conversations with regulators, auditors, lawyers and law enforcement much more straightforward.

In new markets such as cannabis, mutual education and transparency are critical to ensure everyone is on the same page and can have a clear discussion that avoids miscommunication – or, worse – regulatory failure.

When both parties know what they are talking about, there’s less room for error.

Once all the requirements are understood, cultivators can take additional steps to protect themselves in the form of nonregulatory testing (also referred to as R&D testing).

Nonregulatory testing entails running in-house tests if they have the right equipment, which is very costly.

Establishing a good relationship with a testing laboratory to run sample tests can significantly reduce risk potential.

Overall, the more prepared you are, the less likely someone can accuse you of doing something that got people sick.

Instead, you’ll be able to respond with a firm “No,” because you checked beforehand.

For example, say you are looking to buy clones. Ideally, before purchasing, you should test a sample for persistent chemicals that could cause a compliance failure once the plant is mature.

2. Establish standard operating procedures

The best way to defend yourself against legal accusations and regulatory failure is to write detailed standard operating procedures, or SOPs.

An SOP articulates how employees perform every task – such as cutting a clone or transporting a plant – including all equipment, materials, reference documents, scope and purpose.

While SOPs can be challenging to write for an unbuilt facility, implementing general procedures is a good place to start.

SOPs don’t need to be perfect at first – instead, they are living documents each facility should continually refine over time.

Furthermore, there should be training programs to ensure all employees receive the most updated version and records of revision histories.

Having this information establishes quality in your facility and helps inform future behaviors to reduce potential economic crop loss from pest or disease risks, for instance.

Another way to avoid economic loss is to incorporate an Integrated Pest Management procedure, or IPM.

Pest outbreaks can lead to devastating consequences, such as microbial impurities or lower yields, if they don’t destroy the crop first.

Unfortunately, once you discover an infestation, it’s costly and often too late to remedy it, which is why having preventative measures is critical.

An IPM has five major tenets:

  • Identifying potential pests.
  • Continually monitoring the plants for pests.
  • Establishing action thresholds.
  • Implementing control tactics.
  • Documenting all results.

Control tactics include cultural, mechanical, chemical and biological controls. Cultural controls include things such as positively pressurized rooms, while mechanical controls focus on cleanliness and sanitation.

All other crops besides cannabis require a state-licensed individual on staff to oversee pesticide use for chemical controls. Adopting this tactic can help you avoid using chemicals that could cause failure later on.

Finally, keeping records on all pesticide use, pest outbreaks and every location a plant was in can enlighten you to trends and best practices as well as protect you against legal allegations.

3. Have an efficient facility design

Cross-contamination is a massive threat to cultivators, and the biggest culprit is an inefficient facility design.

Therefore, setting up your workflow properly and designing your facility with efficiency and compliance in mind will dramatically reduce the risk for cross-contamination.

Ideally, facilities should understand how much space they will need for each stage of a plant’s growth, limit foot traffic from contaminated areas into sterile ones and allow for a sensible workflow.

For example, placing an eyewash station nearby where you plan to mix pesticides.

Plus, if you don’t have an eyewash station, you ought to.

Having proper facility designs, training programs, SOPs, keeping regulatory testing in mind and testing along the way makes for a successful cultivation facility.

All of these practices are standards for large agricultural facilities and in U.S. Food and Drug Administration-regulated environments.

By mimicking them, cannabis cultivators can preventatively avoid regulatory failure.

In doing so, your operation will become more efficient, safe, profitable and trusted.

Willow Groskreutz can be reached at willow@tracetrust.com.

The previous installment of this series is available here.

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