This article was originally published on Medium.com by David Drake, founder and CEO of Cannabis Reports.
The multibillion dollar medical and recreational cannabis industry cannot rely on technologies that don’t communicate.
“There is no proper measuring, there is no proper quantitative analysis. They’re all differing according to store to store. So that’s where we run into the health and safety implications for the people that are utilizing these products. There’s no standardization amongst these products that are being either consumed by adults and/or children.”
— Acting Inspector for Toronto Police Service, Steve Watts
Spending money on technology is no joke on this little rock we’re all riding through the solar system called Earth. According to Gartner, who looks into things like this, we (yes, the collective one) are looking at spending $3,500,000,000,000 next year on technology.
That’s trillion with a “T”.
Putting that into some grim perspective, the accounts from Brown University’s ‘Costs of War’ project put the estimates for the 2003 war in Iraq at 2.2 trillion dollars; 62 percent of the efforts in technology next year.
Cannabis technology is complex and fragmented with closed standards and operations being adopted and created all of the time. It’s no wonder that a consistent complaint from law enforcement, medicine, researchers, consumers, patients, business owners, and government officials is the ineptitude of the industry in being able to provide some kind of standardization practices.
Yesterday on May 26th, 2016, the Toronto Police department completed an unprecedented raid on dispensaries in the city. Here’s the numbers for the people immediately affected:
43 executed warrants for storefronts. 90 people arrested with 186 controlled drugs and substance charges.
My condolescences to their friends, families, communities, and constituents for all of these locations. More victims of the war on drugs who will have their lives forever affected by this occasion.
When I said that cannabis technology is fragmented, I wasn’t exaggerating. With the recent states of Louisiana and Ohio finally coming to their senses regarding cannabis, over one half of the United States have enacted some sort of medical cannabis laws now.
For those who haven’t been following along, I’ll say that one more time:
What does this mean for cannabis technology? It means that all of these states are evaluating and enacting different methodologies and implementations for tracking cannabis within their systems. Since cannabis and cannabis products still can’t cross state lines, it means that every single implementation is wildly different.
Cannabis Technology is Complicated
RFID tags that sit in the dirt the moment a single seed or clone is started to create the flowering plant. Bar codes, scanners, local databases, remote databases, government mandated databases, all sort of talking to each other, when they aren’t down for hours or days. Scanners and printers of all sorts to keep track of these things.
Secure networks with HIPAA and restricted access since we’re dealing with medicine. Some of the most closed, horribly documented APIs you’ve ever seen. Wholesale, shipping, and distribution recreating the technology wheels we’ve had in place for decades regarding shipping everything else since traditional shipping isn’t available.
Testing labs with no universal standards for what they test for, how they test for it, or how the results are published and made available through their LIMS. Quality control nightmares requiring entire brands worth of products to be taken off shelves since there’s no specific identification.
How much of this data is made available to the public or other services for integration and analysis? Virtually none.
Cannabis technology is in shambles. It’s a mess, and it’s getting worse, not better. But, we’re new enough that there’s opportunity to fix it.
Cannabis Technology Companies are So New Compares to Other Industries
Folks familiar with technology are aware of something called NIH syndrome. For those not in the biz, it stands for “Not Invented Here” syndrome.
From Wikipedia: “In programming, it is also common to refer to the “NIH syndrome” as the tendency towards reinventing the wheel (reimplementing something that is already available) based on the belief that in-house developments are inherently better suited, more secure, more controlled, quicker to develop, and incur lower overall cost (including maintenance cost) than using existing implementations.”
Outside of programming and technology, we see this attitude at every single cannabis business convention. These ideas run rampant through cultures of cannabis technology companies big, small, new, and old. We have an industry-wide problem with NIH syndrome. More from Wikipedia:
“As a social phenomenon, this philosophy manifests as an unwillingness to adopt an idea or product because it originates from another culture, a form of tribalism.”
Max Simon, the head of Green Flower Media, which is an organization dedicated to information and education surrounding cannabis, speaks often about tribes. His soft-spoken demeanor guises a burning and palpable passion when he often talks fondly about the various cannabis tribes: technology, business, entrepreneurs, investors, and so forth. I like the way he looks at these things.
We, as a technology community, need to come together and start communicating more and working together as a tribe.
The “Us Versus Them” mentality born of the legalization movement isn’t about “Our Company Versus Your Company,” it’s about “Us” as humans seeking a better future versus “Them” who would stand in the way of progress.
Right now, we’re standing in our own way and we’re not being helpful. We’re making things harder on the folks who already work harder than most. Farmers, innovators, small business owners, big businesses trying to do right by their consumers, and everyone who services and is involved with these industries.
The most common question that comes up when talking to folks about identifying cannabis is: “How can we be sure this is what it says it is?” Whether it’s talking about the various names of strains, or the contents of a tincture created for medical application, there’s so much uncertainty around cannabis that it’s impeding progress on all fronts.
According to Cannabinoid Dose and Label Accuracy in Edible Medical Cannabis Products, published in JAMA, June of last year, whatever we’ve got in place to help accurately “track” or “trace” is not working, by any stretch of the imagination.
Only 17% of cannabis edibles tested in various markets were correctly labeled for their contents. 23% of products were underlabeled, meaning there was more than it said. 60% of products were overlabeled meaning that the contents were not as high as advertised.
Imagine, if only one in five of the cold medicines on a shelf in front of you were accurately labeled. Cough syrup that actually contained more than what it said on the label, or allergy pills that contained none of what was actually said on the label.
What if the beer or wine you went to purchase had a 4 out of 5 chance of having less or no alcohol in it at all, or worse, more than you were expecting?
We’d be outraged, and rightly so.
But that doesn’t happen. We don’t doubt the 7% alcohol content label we see on beverages. We know there are technologies and standards in place that create a complex system of checks and balances to make this a reality. We shouldn’t have to doubt the labels for cannabis products either. But the technology isn’t up to the standards of 21st century ubiquitousness, so we do.
There are millions of dollars worth of human and technological implementations in place to prevent this from happening in the industry but it’s totally failing.
As a technologist and advocate for cannabis, that sucks.
Open Standards Can Let Us Start to Fix Things
Since we already said NIH syndrome is a huge problem, let’s not try to create some new defition of open standards. Let’s look towards the guidelines setup by organizations responsible for so many technologies we take for granted today. Wikipedia has an extensive page on “Open Standards” that can give you an idea of just how many have been adopted throughout different industries.
One of the organizations called OpenStand has a Joint Affirmation Statement that is signed by 5 of the largest governing bodies for the way we operate technology today: Internet Society, Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Architecture Board, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and IEEE Standards Organization.
Here is that affirmation statement:
“We embrace a modern paradigm for standards where the economics of global markets, fueled by technological advancements, drive global deployment of standards regardless of their formal status.
In this paradigm, standards support interoperability, foster global competition, are developed through an open participatory process, and are voluntarily adopted globally. These voluntary standards serve as building blocks for products and services targeted at meeting the needs of the market and consumer, thereby driving innovation. Innovation in turn contributes to the creation of new markets and the growth and expansion of existing markets.”
Like the fields of grain that are cultivated throughout the world that find their ways into our cereals, our pharmaceuticals, our beauty products, and our lives, cannabis is no different. Global production of cannabis is not decreasing, it’s increasing at a pace unlike anything else before.
Thousands of tax-paying companies and organizations are producing, processing, and distributing cannabis-derived consumable and non-consumable products, and there are thousands of technologies that make this possible.
But there is still not a standard way to identify anything in the global supply chain.
Ackrell Capital released their “U.S. Cannabis Investment Report 2016” where they begin to paint a picture of just a snapshot of companies participating in a global industry that has no standardized way to identify any products.
No globally recognized SKU system. No accepted Universal Product Codes. Just a new brand of identification and tracing with every new locale that is re-incorporating cannabis back into the human experience.
Wholesale technologies without the ability to normalize a chocolate bar amongst their vendors. Public websites purporting to help consumers find the products they’re looking for with normalization so bad, that we were able to find examples of companies with 12 products represented with nearly 2,000 different names.
Technology can do better. There’s no reason that other agricultural products like poultry, beef, or fresh fruits and vegetables can have global traceability and cannabis can’t. There’s also no reason we, as the cannabis community and tribe, can’t adopt global standards that still allow for innovation, healthy competition, and a safe and transparent way forward.
There’s also no reason we can’t do better than other industries before us and create an example for how a global agricultural industry can be redeveloped using the availability of today’s technology and information.
I want a future where I can look at the labeling of my product and with a single identifier, get access to information about who made it, where it came from, and what’s actually in it. I want a future where we take for granted that there are good principles in place so we don’t have to doubt whether the 23 mg of THC on a label is true or not. I want a future where this system is easy for myself and for the businesses associated to participate. I want to know that researchers can access and test these products and positively identify that a specific batch of chocolates on one shelf is the same batch of chocolates on 200 other shelves. I want tracking and tracing, to effectively communicate from state to state, and have information available for improved technologies to be developed. I want everyone to be able to build their startups, technologies, and businesses with equal access to information so they can all be the very best at doing what they do.
The global cannabis future is already upon us, we’re just keeping it from being effective through closed systems and APIs, proprietary technologies and databases, and consumer information sources wrought with advertising and promoted listings preventing equal and open access to everything in the industry.
I want an open cannabis future and you should too.
When I started Cannabis Reports as Smoke Reports in 2008, I was on a mission to introduce specificity into the ways we identify and talk about cannabis strains.
Seed companies had already been working for decades, traveling the globe to find complex varieties of cannabis, and working for years on breeding them together to stabilize flavors and effects to bring you the strains you know and love today. Cultivators had been keeping mother plants alive and well from generation to generation for years to create clones that would allow for exact genetic copies to be cultivated and made available to consumers.
Yet the people, organizations, and stories about the family trees for these strains were being lost.
“My dealer said it’s Blue Cow O.G. Deadhead 49er Kush. Apparently it’s a sativa with 37% THC and 5% CBD. But I really have no idea.”
We created distrust in our own ability to accurately identify what we were consuming and it’s time to gain that trust back.
To combat this distrust, and allow for specific identification, we’ve created and maintain the Universal Cannabis Product Code (UCPC). The UCPC is a specific, open, identification and codification scheme for everything in the cannabis industry whether it is consumable or not. It was created to address the complexity of identification and mis-identification of cannabis by allowing for additional specificity of where cannabis came from, who it was produced by, and accounts for the fact that batches of cannabis can differ from cycle to cycle.
Starting with the strain, we do not simply identify a strain as Blueberry Muffin. We identify the strain as Blueberry Muffin from Rebel Grown, or Blueberry Muffin from Sequoia Seeds, or Blueberry Muffin from Humboldt Seed Company.
Next, we identify the company that created the product. Whether it’s the plant form as seeds, clones, flowers, or shake, or the extract, edible, or non-consumable product derived from it: the specific strain identification remains the same.
The fourth section accurately identifies the individual product. And the last section allows for specificity about the individual batch of product. There, a lab test and date of production can be attached and specifically identified.
By not just having a record that says “Blue Muffin,” but a record that says “Blue Muffin flowers, from a specific seed or clone provider, cultivated by a specific producer, associated with the date and batch of production,” we can be specific. Just like it’s possible to have chardonnay from multiple sources, cultivators, or wineries, we need to have a system where “Blue Muffin” can be varied as well.
This means it’s okay that Blue Muffin over here isn’t quite the same as Blue Muffin over there. We’re accounting for the differences properly and we can do something about it.
We Are On the Way and Invite You to Join
All product, production, and company data on Cannabis Reports is available freely for all to use. Our fully documented API offers access to normalized data for nearly 40,000 different strains, flowers, extracts, edibles, and non-consumable products from thousands of companies; we’re well beyond getting started.
Opening to the public on April 20th of 2015, our API is being utilized all over for all kinds of things. As of this writing we’ve had 3,312 unique IP addresses from around the world interact with our API to utilize the data available through it. We’ve heard from data researchers, app developers, businesses, marketers, investors, medical professionals and more that the database has helped them. Heck, we have thousands of others utilizing the data for reasons we don’t even know about and we’re totally okay with that.
Involvement in open standards and open technology is not mandatory, but it certainly can make things easier.
While our team and technologies are capable of continuing to research and normalize the data out there, we also offer businesses the opportunity to take control of their information and data so that others may have a correct and accurate source to build upon. We offer business tools and insights that allow for organization, tracking, and involvement in an open cannabis future. And we don’t charge many hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for access.
We’ve started down the journey of creating open standards for Cannabis Supply Chain Traceability and are releasing them under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License so that we can all come together and discuss the basic necessities that we all need to communicate together. It’s not full of checklists of 100 different terpenes to check, or what sorts of fertilizer you can or can’t use. These standards aren’t meant to replace government-mandated technologies, although they could certainly be adopted and supported. It’s also not perfect, but it’s a start.
These standards are meant to be the very basic information and definitions we need along the global supply chain for technologies to be able to effectively communicate together.
Whether you’re in the technology of tracking and tracing, education, information, medicine, research, production, delivery, retail, reporting, analytics, or simply consumer sites for people to have fun: we have the opportunity to come together, right now, over cannabis.
“Let’s create an open cannabis industry we can be proud of for this generation, and the next generation.
David Drake is the Founder and CEO of Cannabis Reports. Their mission: to improve the relationship between human beings and cannabis through education, outreach, and open technology.