Quality Standards, Certification Program for Medical Cannabis Businesses to Debut in Fall

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Americans for Safe Access will launch a standards and certification program for medical cannabis businesses across the country this fall, a long-overdue move that could boost the industry’s legitimacy, credibility, transparency and professionalism significantly.

The Patients First Program incorporates the best practices and general product standards designed by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) for its industry, but tailors them to MMJ. Americans for Safe Access plans to roll out the program and begin accepting applications from the general cannabis business community in September.

The third-party certification program covers four main areas: dispensary operations, cultivation, lab testing, and manufacturing/packaging/labeling. The goal is to set operational standards for these types of businesses and assure patients that the quality, strength and composition of medical cannabis products – as well as the reliability of related services – meet certain criteria. (Here’s a link to the official Patients First Program Guide with extensive details and an application.)

The program is also intended to help doctors feel comfortable recommending cannabis in general, as they can advise their patients to seek out products/services that have been certified. Additionally, ASA hopes the program will help lawmakers craft MMJ regulations and laws.

The implications for the cannabis business community could be huge. If the program takes root and becomes widespread (which is no guarantee given that similar attempts by other groups have failed in the past), it could draw a clear line in the sand between quality and questionable businesses.

And many consumers may very well seek out certified businesses over those that have not met the criteria or do not participate. Certified companies will be able to use a seal of approval in advertisements and packaging as well as on their websites, giving them an advantage over competitors who don’t participate. They’ll also receive discounts for ASA programs covering everything from raid and robbery preparedness to employee training, as well as government relations and marketing support.

The credibility of any certification program is tied to the methods and processes used to vet companies and their products as well as the objectiveness of the process. That will ultimately determine whether the industry adopts these standards as its own and enough businesses participate.

ASA said its program is comprehensive and extensive in that regard, and officials stress that the third-party nature of the certification process should alleviate concerns that larger industry players will influence the criteria in their favor.

The first big step in the process is making sure the business is in compliance with state MMJ laws.”We have a database of all current laws on medical cannabis,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access. “We can see what laws are in place, and we’ll then ask for paperwork to identify that the business has met those standards.”

Businesses must also submit to one or more independent audits/inspections, train employees, submit their product for testing, and take corrective actions if needed. ASA will review materials and formulations and assess manufacturing and/or management processes to ensure they meet safety, quality and performance standards.

The entire process could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Americans for Safe Access will work closely with businesses that don’t meet the criteria by giving them time to implement changes and fix the deficiencies.

“We really want as many businesses to qualify as possible,” Sherer said. “This isn’t something intended to create divisions or benefit only some businesses. These standards were written by the industry” to help the the sector as a whole.

In terms of costs, certification will run $5,000 a year on the low-end to $20,000 annually on the high-end. The exact amount depends on several factors, most notably the size of the operation and its client base as well as the number of staff.

Much of the costs to administer the program will be directed towards dealing with complaints from customers about a certified business, Sherer said. If a company has relatively few complaints in its first year, its certification costs will be lowered substantially.

Here are some highlights from the vetting process for each business group:

Cultivation operations – The certification process will include document review, a label review to verify product and marketing claims, a contaminant review, testing to ensure there are no unsafe levels of contaminants, and a facility inspection.

Manufacturing, packaging and labeling – Companies must verify the identity and quantity of ingredients declared on the product label; demonstrate that the product does not contain undeclared ingredients; and certify the product does not contain an unacceptable level of contaminants.

Dispensaries – MMJ centers must demonstrate that they are committed to state and local compliant dispensing practices and verify adherence to currently recommended Good Distribution Practice for the medical cannabis industry.

Testing facilities – The certification process will include document review, equipment and standards review, testing verification, and a facility inspection.

For more information, contact program director Jill Lamoureux at jill@safeaccessnow.org