In a historic vote earlier today, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) board of directors approved a proposal to allow the cannabis industry to begin the process of ASTM standardization. The vote allows the ASTM to oversee the creation of industry-wide standards in all aspects of cannabis production, processing, testing and sales.
In the absence of federal regulations, ASTM standards could build in a new level of industry certainty and consumer assurance.
In most medical marijuana states today, the cannabis available to patients exists in an environment not unlike most medicine in the days before the federal Pure Food & Drug Act. Or in other words, industry-wide standards around quality control don’t really exist.
For more than 100 years, the ASTM has never had a standard for cannabis. Until now.
Here’s one illustration. A 2015 survey of medical cannabis products from California and Washington state published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that only 17% of the products tested were accurately labeled for THC content. Most products—60%—were over-labeled (contained less THC than advertised).
That sort of variable consistency was once the norm in American enterprise. For most of the 19th century, products ranging from patent remedies to railroad track steel came with wide variability, depending on manufacturer and batch. In 1898 a determined group of engineers founded the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to create collaboratively determined, voluntary consensus standards for the steel industry. Many other industries followed. Today ASTM committees create standards for more than 12,000 products worldwide.
In its more than 100-year history, the ASTM has never produced a standard having to do with cannabis.
That changed earlier today.
Three Years in the Works
That’s great news for Lezli Engelking, founder and executive chair of FOCUS (Foundation of Cannabis United Standards), a not-for-profit organization that initiated its own cannabis standardization project in 2014. Engelking came to cannabis from the pharmaceutical industry, and immediately saw the need for formalized standards while executive director at Bloom Phoenix, the Arizona medical cannabis dispensary.
Now a member of ASTM International, Engelking initially fought resistance to standardization from her own professional peers. “When I first talked about standards back in 2014, I felt like I had a target on my back, because everyone thought I was pushing for more regulation,” she recalls. She countered those concerns by pointing to the National Technology Transfer and Investment Act of 1996, which directs federal agencies to use cooperatively drafted standards when developing their own regulations.
When industry leaders pro-actively create standards by consensus, Engelking says, it allows an industry to shape its own destiny. “I knew that the federal government wasn’t involved yet, but soon enough they would be. This is a system that works well for [government agencies]. They already use it in multiple other situations… my goal wasn’t to get federal regulation changed right away, but as things progressed we would have a system [in place] that worked.”
ASTM’s public interest in the cannabis space stretches back to a speech given by its current Cannabis Committee Chairman, Dr. Ralph M. Paroli, at a metrology conference held by NCSL International last July. But Paroli says ASTM has received a number of requests for cannabis standardization since 2005. After a preliminary organizational meeting held in Washington, DC, in February, ASTM officials announced seven different subcommittees for the larger cannabis committee. They are:
- Indoor and Outdoor Horticulture and Agriculture
- Quality Management Systems; Laboratory
- Processing and Handling
- Security and Transportation
- Personnel Training/Assessment/Credentialing
- Executive and Terminology
“They are not industry-specific. That could change as different stakeholder groups decide to engage more deeply,” stresses Paroli. “The process is really driven by those who engage, and that group continues to grow since the February 28th meeting.”
How Will This Affect Existing Brands?
ASTM’s call for industry stakeholders to participate lands within an industry previously cut off from long-established certification brands, notably USDA Organic. Rushing into the vacuum are certification programs such as Clean Green and FOCUS’s’ for-profit certification body. In addition, specialist certification bodies have also engaged with the industry. The Orthodox Union made headlines when it certified Vireo Health’s extract products as kosher for the New York market. And Demeter USA, prime designator of the uber-organic “biodynamic” standard prized by oenophiles, has certified a handful of American cannabis farms since Bay Area collective HerbaBuena premiered the produce for the medical market in 2015.
While the arrival of ASTM may render other standardization marks obsolete, Jim Fullmer, co-director of Demeter USA, says those alternative measures of standardization may survive if they serve the unique needs of a particular community. “We’re philosophy-driven,” he says. “Biodynamic for any crop, always has been and always will be kind of a niche and it’s not for every farmer, that’s for sure. So we’ll always be what we are, cannabis or otherwise.”
Ultimately, all the standards in the world mean little without the entire industry’s commitment to them—and without real consequences for those who transgress them.
That’s where self-regulation comes in. In post-Prohibition Nebraska, for instance, the Nebraska Brewers and Beer Distributors Committee withheld product from unsavory operators for flagrant code violations, a model quickly adopted by other states when developing their own liquor control models.
Leslie Bocskor, President, Electrum Partners
Leslie Bocskor, president of the cannabis business consultancy Electrum Partners, labored on organizing just such an endeavor for a number of years. He recently pulled back from that effort in order to concentrate his energy on federal cannabis policy. But Bocskor still possesses a clear vision of the organization that should put teeth into whatever standards ASTM develops: “Having the standards is not enough,” he says. “Having the [self-regulatory] body that have the buy-in of the industry is key, is critical… It will have to be a not-for-profit, I imagine. And it’s going to have to be funded through donations, at first. Until that happens, nothing will happen.”
Bocskor does admit we’re only at the “pregame show” stage. The next phase is tentatively slated for mid-June in Toronto. Paroli gives the range of an eventual ETA for professional standards somewhere between six months to two years. The speed of adoption is based on the members’ commitment and level of need.
The result, Engelking says, will put the industry another step away from the chaotic frontier. “What ASTM and this movement does is say to the cannabis industry, ‘Look, time to wake up. You gotta do things right, or you’re not going to be around.’”
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