Business

“The Spock of Cannabis” explains why industry standards matter

By Alex Halperin
Darwin Millard "The Spock of Cannabis"

As the cannabis industry — both marijuana and hemp — advances toward full normalization, it needs to adapt technical standards similar to those established in other industries. These best practices, guidelines and test methods, and other protocols, are not widely followed even within the industry, but they undergird much of how it operates.

To better understand some of these issues, I spoke to Darwin Millard, a Colorado-based mechanical engineer who has been dubbed by his peers “the Spock of Cannabis.” In his work, Millard helps clients improve their extraction and manufacturing practices.

He’s also Chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee, Vice-Chair of standards organization ASTM International’s Subcommittee D37.04 on Cannabis Processing and Handling, and Co-Chair of ASTM International Subcommittee D37.07 on Industrial Hemp, among other affiliations. This weekend he represented the industry at the annual conference of the U.S. National Council for Weights and Measures which assesses how to weigh commodities and which tools should be used.

In our conversation he discussed several of the ways, cannabis lacks the standards of more established industries and why that matters. 

The following points barely scratch the surface of the issues involved. But they are a thought provoking way to illuminate how far cannabis has to go before it operates with standardization and sophistication comparable to other consumer packaged goods businesses.  

Testing

Developing standards for testing cannabis products is among the most pressing issues the industry needs to determine. Simply put, there are no internationally recognized methods for testing cannabis products using the array of analytical systems available for doing so.

As a result, companies can visit different labs to obtain desirable results, such as higher THC  or CBD content. But it also means they may receive differing results from the same lab.

At the moment, for example, there is no method that is recognized internationally (or domestically) to test the THC content of an edible.

This can create enormous headaches for operators and regulators. To cite just one example, in the U.S., hemp plants are illegal if they contain more than 0.3% THC. But there is no accepted method for testing the THC content of hemp. Without a standardized process some test methods could greenlight a hemp farmer’s crop while another would effectively render it illegal.

Remediation

Remediation involves altering products in order to make them sellable or more attractive. As with testing it can have enormous consequences for cannabis operators, but there are not currently accepted standards for what kind of remediation is allowed or how it can be done.

To return to the hemp example above, if a hemp extract comes in at more than 0.3% THC, there’s no agreed upon method for removing the excess THC to make it legal. And what is the remediator supposed to do with the excess THC? That’s another question that requires standards to answer.  

Similarly, what kinds of contaminants — heavy metals, pesticides, microbials, etc. — can be removed from products to make them sellable? There are currently no accepted standards for what can safely be removed from cannabis products or how they should be removed.

Sustainability

Millard described sustainability as a “big nebulous cloud” of issues connected to the industry’s environmental impact. Just on farms, this includes everything from whether growers till the land and use a “cover crop,” to how they manage their water. As a result, whether a facility is environmentally sustainable is largely in the eyes of the beholder rather than something that can be quantified. “This is a hot button issue right now,” Millard said. “How to tackle it in a practical manner is what we’re trying to figure out.”

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Industry standards can have a huge impact on who gets to participate in an industry. For example, Millard said, if the standard requires farmers to use multi-million dollar harvesters, many communities will not be able to participate. 

Alternately, if a standard is so restrictive that only a few can comply, it can introduce unnecessary barriers to entry and stifle innovation. As standards emerge, many stakeholders will support guidance that supports broad inclusion in the industry, while others might find their business benefits from stricter guidelines which exclude their competitors.

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