“The frequency of fungal infections associated with cannabis is unknown but is a growing concern as more states legalize its medicinal and recreational use,” observes a new study from the CDC1. The study’s results indicate a 3.5x increase in the incidence of fungal infections in cannabis users versus non-users. The researchers note that while they cannot determine the exact source of the increased rate of infections, they offer as one possible causality that “contaminated cannabis has been previously implicated in aspergillosis, mucormycosis, and cryptococcal meningitis.”
The implication here is that regardless of whether cannabis is used by medical patients or for recreational use, every operator should be sufficiently motivated to adopt the most stringent and proactive preventative disinfection and disease suppression methods. However, in the US market there is a gap between operational standards and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for disinfection, as required in similar industries regulated by FDA/USDA, to the actual practices used by most cannabis operators.
Without a more universal commitment to GMP and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that require daily, preventative disinfection, both patient health and the industry’s legitimacy will continue to be, unnecessarily, at risk. Each time an operator attracts publicity for preventable violations or when spot-checks in dispensaries find unacceptably high incidences of locations positive tests for mold or other pathogens2, the question of legitimacy for the cannabis industry is given more oxygen.
For a nascent industry, who’s very legitimacy and permissibility remain controversial, the question of viability continues to balance, as if upon a knife’s edge, precariously positioned between diligent operators serving the best interests of their patients’ health (while simultaneously aiding the pro-legalization movement), and the more capricious and reckless cultivators whose financial, regulatory, product quality, and safety failures lead to collateral damage for all operators. For as easily as anti-legalization activists utilize false justifications or specious arguments to try to keep the cannabis industry from attaining greater support, careless industry constituents far too often play the role of accomplice. They aid the anti-cannabis crusaders through perfunctory operational policies and oversight, most notably those concerning otherwise preventable mold and fungal issues which can put patient, customer, and employee health in real jeopardy.
Imagine if states, the medical community, or the FDA decide that the risk of harm to medical patients in consuming cannabis is greater than the benefits and decide to forbid its legal medical use again. The fallout for children with Dravet or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, or for cancer patients with significant nausea, chronic pain sufferer, or those with social anxiety or PTSD, would be devastating.
There is a collective responsibility in growing, manufacturing and distributing compliant cannabis that every operator must approach with the utmost seriousness and a sense of urgency, especially when it comes to the elimination of mold and fungus.
Pathogen-related issues are neither new, nor are they unique to cannabis. Commercial and industrial-grade disinfection and disease suppression have been evolving for hundreds of years. Food agriculture and processing, where consumers’ health and wellness are tied to products that are consumed, provides an apt equivalent for cannabis. Manufacturers should adopt scientifically verifiable and peer-reviewed preventative pathogen management best practices that stand up to international standards, either in anticipation of more stringent federal or state microbial testing regulations or because it is simply the right thing to do for employee and patient health. This includes following GMP and other equivalent standards and regulations as promoted by organizations such as FOCUS, ANSI, the FDA, and EPA.
The widespread adoption of best practices is in direct contrast to today’s use of less rigorous reactive disinfection methods which is nothing more than a “proxy of convenience.” Every day, operators rely upon remediation as a failsafe for ineffective disease control procedures. Reactive methods include haphazard or non-daily treatment schedules, treatments only after visible signs of mold and fungus, increasing the frequency of treatments after failed tests, repeatedly processing intended flower using oil extraction, and manipulating environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, in order to fend off contaminants. All of which sacrifice product quality and safety.
Preventative, daily protocols are typically not adopted because they are seen as too labor-intensive and too expensive. Workforce constraints and the lack of proper budgeting leave operators without the resources necessary to suppress disease effectively and consistently.
It can be easily demonstrated, using an individual cannabis company’s own data, that net profitability actually increases with preventative disinfection for mold, mildew, fungus, viruses, and other pathogens.
The key to more effective pathogen management and realizing increased profitability is first viewing preventative disease suppression through a more holistic lens. When this is done, it becomes apparent that implementing preventative practices is neither the bane of EBITDA margins that many on the finance side fear, nor does it consume excess labor resources when deployed using advanced systems. When operators are provided this validation, it makes choosing preventative disinfection protocols a proverbial “no brainer.”
With $12.2 billion in US cannabis sales in 20193, using EPA-regulated disinfectants that are proven safe, effective, and that do not harm the chemical profile of the plant structure, is a critical choice. Equivalent industries, such as food manufacturing and water treatment provide apt comparisons for successful EPA-registered disinfectant use due to their large-scale, high pathogen-load environments where human consumption is expected. Non-regulated air-quality devices and other new disinfection products without analog use-cases are best suited for secondary, ancillary, or backup remediation. There is too much at stake, in terms of human health and profitability, to trust daily disinfection protocols to anything but the most reliable and thoroughly tested agents. Benefits accrue rapidly when scientifically validated, peer-reviewed and EPA-regulated disinfectants are deployed.
Operators will find that disease-related yield losses shrink, strains remain on-profile, operations become more efficient, the probability of recalls diminish, and the potential for negative publicity and compliance infractions disappear. Furthermore, staff turnover no longer interrupts key business operations, injury risks and liabilities for disinfectant handling lessen considerably, and labor costs related to full-facility daily disinfection protocols are almost completely recaptured.
Studies regarding certain detrimental effects associated with cannabis use, as in the CDC study, will continue. This does not make cannabis a uniquely adverse product when it comes to public health. The consumption of alcohol, sugar, bad fats, excess carbs, soft drinks, tobacco use, and a variety of other legal substances have been shown to have similar, and in most cases, more deleterious effects than cannabis on human health. The difference is those industries are not so new that they are still seeking federal legalization and legitimacy. Cannabis industry operators would be wise to make sure that they do not add to the already significant challenge in front of them by perpetrating an ongoing series of self-inflicted wounds.
There is a popular business philosophy that is designed to manage the expectations of clients and customers. You’ve likely heard it: “under promise and over-deliver.” The rationale goes that by setting low expectations, a prospective client should be pleased when you provide a product or service that performs in excess of this artificial, low bar.
For the cannabis industry, this philosophy does not work.
Medical patients, recreational users, the public, and states, as well as those with a vested interest in the politics and outcome of legalization, rightfully demand more. They want to see that the cannabis industry can perform at an extremely high level that is in line with the responsibility of being a steward of public health.
At the end of the day, whether cannabis is being used medically or recreationally, the cannabis industry must address public and employee health and safety, first and foremost, to demonstrate its legitimacy and long-term viability.
There are five (5) key elements that must be included in disease suppression protocols to ensure maximum effectiveness and increased profitability:
- Use of EPA-Registered, Gas & Liquid Phase Disinfectants– we already touched on the importance of choosing an EPA-registered disinfectant in terms of having a track-record of safety and efficacy. Using a disinfectant capable of being deployed in a gas-phase, in addition to liquid application, is crucial in cannabis cultivation. A gas will evenly fill the entirety of any space, allowing it to reach all the “hard to get to places” such as the underside of grow tables and kitchen equipment, cracks and crevices in structural materials, the airflow between biomass, etc. The density of canopy is a constantly changing, multi-layered surface where the properties of a true gas are unparalleled versus any other tool for suppressing mold and fungus.
- Biosecurity Checkpoints Are Enforced– Entering any area where biomass is present, such as grow rooms or dry/cure, personnel should be directed to consistently walk through properly monitored and maintained foot sanitizer units containing EPA-registered disinfectants. This is crucial to preventing cross- or outside-contamination of a facility.
- Daily Disinfection Protocol for Critical Spaces– cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection are the three base levels of commercial hygiene that are performed on varying schedules. To properly ward off the most threatening pathogens (powdery mildew, botrytis, fusarium, other molds, e. coli, etc.) you need to avoid facility contamination in the first place. Daily disinfection of spaces with organic materials and those used to access them should be disinfected every day.
- Automate Daily Disinfection– operators can ensure that daily disinfection consistently occurs with little to no reliance upon existing labor by using automated treatment systems. With workforces typically constrained by size and availability, automated systems free up personnel for other tasks, reduce human error during the treatment phase, and reduce injury risk associated with handling and mixing chemicals. Additionally, efficacy in fighting mold, fungus and other disease is no longer impacted by frequent staff turnover.
- Airborne Disease Levels Should Be Monitored-deploy an “early warning detection system” that identifies airborne pathogen loads prior to seeing visible signs of outbreak on plants.This means that key stakeholders can be notified via push alerts if disease thresholds are rising in any location throughout a facility and that preventative disinfection treatments can be adjusted in frequency or concentration, if necessary, to ensure effective disease suppression.
Illustrating proficiency in manufacturing a product free from mold and fungus should be the minimum promise that operators make to the public. In order to deliver on that promise, cannabis must be cultivated in an environment where mold, fungus, and other diseases are as unwelcome as overwatering or not getting enough light. Daily protocols and standardized practices for preventative disinfection are critical to ensuring adequate protections for the long-term health and safety of patients, consumers, employees, and the public.