A conversation with Frank Traylor on COVID-19, his lab’s response, and the state of analytics in Colorado.
If you Google the word “news”, you’ll no doubt be bombarded with yet more COVID-19 coverage – the spread, or statistics, or rhetoric of the megalomaniac. I’ve done this and found some disturbing things. Some people are losing their minds, figuratively and literally. You might see the story of the vile woman who purposely coughed on useable groceries. Or that hundreds of Iranians tragically drank methanol that they thought would protect them.
Perhaps you’ve been having weird dreams lately, something apparently chalked up to life in isolation. If you’re dreaming of ants, or bugs in general, well, you’re not alone. There’s lots of conspiracy theories, too, like 5G is causing the outbreak. Or the train engineer who derailed his train on purpose, apparently hoping to take out a US Navy medical ship intended to provide relief from over-burdened hospitals. The engineer thought differently, suspecting that the ship’s presence was conspiratorial. Some are calling or an increased military presence to supplement already taxed police forces.
Fear, paranoia, isolation. Roadside signs that say, “stay home.” Amid all of this, we need a haven where we can regroup, focus, and extract as much as we can from these dire times such that we learn anything that might be valuable moving forward. On a personal level, maybe this means slowing down, pulling the parking brake on screen-sheltered lives, and changing some of our behaviors.
The challenges that many businesses face as some desperately try to tread water heralds the need to make some changes as well. Brainstorming on new perspectives that can be implemented to combat current isolation requirements might help find creative ways to stay afloat. This is even more relevant for the cannabis industry, especially when faced with early worries regarding whether the plants and products would be deemed “essential” or “life-sustaining”. And that’s in addition to the routine amendments to industry regulations. Recently, I spoke with Frank Traylor, CEO of Denver-based AgriScience Labs, a 3rd-party cannabis and hemp testing facility. The conversation that follows exemplifies how AgriScience converted challenges into change for the better.
The COVID-19 situation for Colorado cannabis was, at first, in flux. Initially, medical cannabis was deemed essential but not recreational. Then, recreational was labeled as essential, but dispensaries couldn’t have people in their stores, so there were roadside exchanges. Then, the state thought roadside vending required cameras and no cash transactions. And now, dispensaries can have shoppers inside the store, cash in hand, but they must be at least six feet apart from any given fellow shopper. Failure to comply could mean losing your license. (My question is, now that cannabis has been considered as essential, when does its Schedule I status get erased?)
“Getting entities to act in unison is really tough,” Frank said. “The most important thing for us was that we got ahead of it early. It’s actually brought our team closer together, even with the necessary distancing.”
“The communication and concern have been there,” he continued, “but the spectrum of concern must be normalized. Employees can have very different outlooks.”
The spectrum ranges from obsessive fear and paranoia to bewildering nonchalance. As with many things in life and nature, balance is best.
So, AgriScience implemented strategies to meld employee social distancing while still responding to client demand with as much normalcy as possible. They created two shifts with a gap in between and are now open seven days a week instead of five. Scientists access the network remotely such that they can set up new runs and process and interpret the data from home. “They can do anything they’d normally be able to do if they were physically sitting in front of the instrument,” Frank added. “Right now, the lab serves as a sample intake and prep center. The rest can be handled remotely.”
The data is entered into a cloud-based laboratory information management system, which, of course, can be accessed by staff and clients with appropriate credentials. Outside of internal communications, AgriScience has set up free platforms like Slack for visually engaging with their clients and have installed a phone system that allows anyone across the company to quickly answer incoming calls.
“The main disruption we’ve seen has been with our courier groups,” Frank said. “We’ve armed them with gloves and disinfectants and have been running fewer routes. Also, a lot of our customers are still using cash. If they didn’t, it would make things easier. But, regardless, many of the changes we’ve implemented will ultimately enhance our efficiency and stability moving forward.”
At this point in the conversation, we migrated away from the ubiquitous COVID-19 dialogue and focused on Colorado cannabis testing. There once was a time when medical cannabis wasn’t measured by Colorado labs. The main lab in the state was shutdown due to deficiencies identified by auditors. Outside of Colorado, stories about manufacturers shopping around for specific data continued the lines of mistrust. Many included analytical testing when labeling the industry as “The Wild West” and the trustworthiness of labs’ acumen and data was often called into question. But, the situation was never quite this bleak, despite ominous keywords.
“We have a tightly regulated cannabis market in Colorado,” Frank added. “While some places may facilitate lab-shopping for potency or turnaround time, you can’t send a sample off to five labs in Colorado and pick.”
“Colorado did it right with a ‘go-slow’ approach,” he continued. “There was a good medical market, but the recreational market was really taking off, so they started there. Testing for heavy metals has just recently been implemented. Our state has taken a step-by-step approach so everyone could digest it. If you introduce too many rules at once, many labs might not follow them, or be able to follow them, as has been the case in California.”
Implementing rules first and infrastructure later is an exercise fraught with obvious challenges, one of which is implementing appropriate sampling protocols. Given the small amounts of biomass measured considering a lot size, representative sampling is paramount for generating numbers with meaning. Sample handling during transportation is also vital. Then, of course, there’s method development and optimization.
“Developing a potency method for a lotion with lots of other botanicals, or a patch, or a gummy bear takes a significant amount of time,” Frank said. “In the past, some labs could be super sloppy with their methods and analytics and still get by.”
But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) began auditing labs, providing oversight to ensure compliance to evolving regulations.
“I don’t think that the CDPHE ever really jumped into this,” Frank commented. “Initially, they wanted to generate a state proficiency test and a library of methods in the push towards standardization. But I haven’t really heard a lot from them lately.”
An example of the need for someone to take charge and implement standardized methods regards the Colorado proficiency tests. Some labs weigh the sample “as-received”, meaning no additional drying out of the sample; others use the dry-weight of a sample, which, by the way, increases potency when reporting as a weight percent.
“The CDPHE basically said, ‘it’s not up to us,” Frank explained. “The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division said, ‘it’s not in the regulations.’ What we really need is a science czar in Colorado to pick what should be done.”
The fact that some state or federal regulators are not jumping at the chance to implement sound, practical guidance and leadership is unfortunate, but it presents opportunities for others to help navigate the stormy waters. Uncertain times, regardless of cause, can help us better prepare for our future if only we can steer around the debris.