Earlier this year, the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) made an announcement that could one day be viewed as a turning point for the cannabis industry, second only to any future decisions coming from the federal government.
In April, ASTM declared that it will create technical standards and guidance materials for the production and sale of cannabis. And just this past week, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) both announced plans to collaborate with ASTM in developing these standards.
Why does having one of the world’s largest standards developing organizations matter to cannabis cultivators, processors, and retailers? Because having uniform standards will not only be good for consumers, but great for business.
One of the many consequences of marijuana being illegal under federal law is that its products are not held to uniform health and safety regulations. Products like edibles, supplements, and pet treats that would otherwise be required to conform to federal standards for cultivation, pesticide use, production, and labeling are instead governed by an inconsistent patchwork of state oversight.
As a result, the content, purity, and potency of cannabis products varies widely, potentially putting consumers at risk and harming the ability for the cannabis industry to reach its potential. Creating uniform standards—whether through ASTM or another organization—will give consumers confidence and policy-makers assurance, allowing the industry to continue to flourish.
Building quality into your products will save money and protect your brand
Producing quality cannabis products is essential for the industry to evolve as a regulated industry. While social acceptance continues to spread, given the industry’s tenuous legal status, all it would take is one terrible story to place everything in jeopardy. A company that markets a cannabis product that makes a consumer ill, for example because of harmful pesticide residues, super-potency or a food-borne illness, will give ammunition to federal lawmakers already wary of the industry to oppose any meaningful reform.
The good news is that companies are looking to do things the right way. Other FDA-regulated industries like foods, drugs, and dietary supplements must adhere to good manufacturing practices. These “GMPs” are essentially just a system to ensure that products are consistently produced according to pre-established quality standards. If cannabis companies incorporate these principles now they can expect them to translate into considerable cost savings down the road.
When it comes to GMPs, it is much less expensive to proactively build quality assurance into manufacturing practices. Issues with manufacturing can lead to contaminated products and recalls — which can strike directly at a company’s bottom line and reputation with consumers. Building quality systems at the outset puts a company at a substantial advantage. The problem is that many companies operating in the cannabis space want to do the right thing and build quality into their products, but are unsure how to do so in a way that doesn’t break the bank.
ASTM’s role in the cannabis industry
So how could ASTM help? Here are four ways:
1) In additional to being one of the oldest and largest standards organizations, it is international in scope with members from more than 140 countries. ASTM can therefore leverage scientific information and expertise lacking in the U.S.
2) It is a consensus-based organization. This means that ASTM’s process for developing and approving standards seeks input from a cross-section of interested parties to ensure a balance in the approval process between producers and users. Currently, ASTM is considering issuing standards in six technical areas: indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture, quality management systems, laboratory, processing and handling, security and transportation, and personnel training, assessment, and credentialing. Collaborating with FOCUS and AHPA will only help to broaden the range of perspectives represented.
3) ASTM is a recognized name and carries a level of authority that the cannabis industry should readily welcome. ASTM standards are used and accepted worldwide and cover major industries, including energy, consumer products, and electronics. As states continue to refine their standards, having something akin to a uniform code will make the life of regulators and the regulated industry much easier.
4) Because the organization allows companies to market their products as conforming to an ASTM standard (assuming the products do actually conform to the standard), companies will be able to distinguish themselves in an increasingly saturated marketplace. This lies in stark contrast to many of the labeling claims currently being made which are ambiguous and often misleading.
Will having uniform cannabis industry standards be a panacea for all of the industry’s pains? Of course not. But it’s a step in the right direction. With state legalization showing no signs of slowing, mandatory minimum standards can be used to serve as basis of manufacturing, management, procurement, codes, and regulations.
Uniform standards could help guide states and the industry to protect the health and safety of consumers and the environment—and provide the good actors a level of reliability and predictability, while weeding out the bad actors.
Emily Leongini is an associate in Arent Fox’s Washington, DC office. As a member of the firm’s FDA Practice, Emily focuses her practice on a wide array of regulated products, including laws governing prescription, generic, and over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, foods, alcoholic beverages, and cannabis.
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