Member Blog: Off The Backburner – Compliance During COVID-19
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Member Blog: Off The Backburner – Compliance During COVID-19

by Mark Slaugh, CEO and Co-Founder of iComply, LLC

Operational cannabis compliance has been a vital but often ignored part of many owners’ guides to success. With the hustle and bustle that is the ever-expanding nature of the cannabis business, most owners and operators want to believe they are compliant 100% of the time. 

However, anyone who owns a cannabis business and is honest with themselves knows that to understand the constantly changing regulatory updates is a constant challenge. Often, the needs of the business outweigh the time it takes to assess the best ways to remain compliant. Too often, the distractions of growing the brand, networking, and conferences distract us from what’s happening with staff, procedures, and operations behind the scenes. 

This has become alarmingly evident during COVID-19.

The pandemic began affecting how different operators in different States had to adjust various emergency procedures and restrictions on how cannabis could be bought and sold. From there, pandora’s compliance box released a torrent of issues to look at.

In our experience, 95% of the industry has a reactive approach to compliance management and will scramble to take time and pay expensive attorneys fees to dig them out of trouble once they are caught. 

And what you resist, persists.

During COVID-19, owners are already making procedural adjustments to remain compliant and are staying at home for a change – which has allowed them and their teams more focus and less distraction by avoiding conferences, travel, and in-person meetings as much as possible. 

What they are finding is that the compliance train has been off the tracks for a while.

Naturally, as the industry grows, so does the responsibility of mitigating liability and staying on top of the backburner projects in dealing with compliance. It is not the sexiest or most fun aspect of the industry (if you aren’t compliance nerds like us). 

People tend to resist being honest about it, managing it appropriately, or holding others accountable until it’s too late. 

COVID has at least provided some breathing room for owners and operators to put on their facemask and dust off their SOPs or untangle the strings around poor inventory management.

Some cannabis companies are asking themselves how they can use the boredom of COVID-19 (to some degree) and the extra time saved from travel, conferences, and meetings to re-examine their operational compliance infrastructure. 

We are finding that owners in the cannabis industry are lacking a transparent cannabis compliance plan that can be easily adjusted to stay ahead of regulators, rules, and to mitigate product liability. They lack accurate employee training to specific procedures with accountability and wonder why turnover is so high. They are starting to realize that inventory, books and records, and daily compliance management are creating more risk than is tolerable for a tangible reward. 

The word “decimation” comes from the Roman times and was considered a military punishment in which squads of 10 (deci) would draw stones from a bag. One black stone among the white ones meant beating that soldier to death by his fellows. While extreme, the lesson was an important one and is still relevant in the cannabis industry today.

Out of every inspection by the MED, in Colorado, around 10% of licensees were found in violation and administratively punished. Having come from a banking risk management background, it is shocking to see that level of risk be “ok” with most operators. 

No other heavily regulated industry tolerates such a high level of risk. Cannabis, in fact, tolerates 10x more risk loss on average than is acceptable in banking (less than 1%).

Some of the biggest backburner projects in compliance coming to the forefront are:

SOPs and Employee Training Manuals

It is crucial to have compliant procedures that are accurate to current operations. One cannot effectively and proactively run a cannabis company without valid and accurate Standard Operating Procedures and related documents. They are essential. 

What we find is that most established operators have to dust these SOPs off from whatever shelf they placed them on when they finally come around to looking at them. 

Inventory and METRC

Another big problem area is inventory inaccuracies which require regular reconciliation and clean up. As we all know, once the snowball effect of inaccuracy happens, it simply gets more entangled and difficult over time.

During COVID-19, regulators are doing fewer in-person visits and are relying more on their ability to look at seed to sale tracking systems to identify potential non-compliance to conduct their inspections and request specific information from operators.

Books and Records

Most cannabis companies think SOPs, audits, and inventory are compliance management in a nutshell. The detailed accountability over files, logs, and forms often escapes their mind as soon as the file is saved or placed into the file cabinet. 

Like dusting off SOPs, opening the file cabinet to ensure the accuracy of these documents can be best done during COVID-19 as well. Insight to this helps improve procedures and ensure accountability of staff members from visitor logs, to pesticide applications, incident reports, and manifests.

Staff Knowledge

For many of our medium to large clients, COVID-19 has affected their staff members. When one person is infected, many others may not want to come to work, and companies are forced to hire in additional labor to meet operational demand. If this hasn’t happened, consider you might want to be prepared for it as it takes away employees for a minimum of 2 to 4 weeks. 

COVID-19 is causing a wide gap due to faster training requirements and creating more risk for non-compliance, product liability, and workplace safety without proper education, knowledge and accountability for staff.

Challenges like COVID-19, rule changes, and human nature are greatly mitigated and proactively managed when cannabis companies commit to taking compliance off the backburner and putting it at the forefront. Taking the time now to do so may be better than any other time for experienced operators to better prepare for “normalcy” when it returns. 

An ounce of prevention is literally worth pounds of cure. And, during COVID-19, cannabis companies would do well to prevent the “decimation” of their very valuable licenses and operations by taking advantage of the extra time and energy to do the heavy lifting necessary to take compliance off the backburner.

Mark Slaugh, CEO and owner of iComply, works in the specialist sector of compliance for the medical, retail, and hemp industries and has over 12 years’ experience in cannabis industry development, consulting, and operational compliance and over 21 years’ experience in regulations and risk management. 

Due to his extensive background and education, Mark knows what it takes to move markets forward at political, policy, and operational levels. He has developed small and large startups, improved existing operations, and has protected some of the top companies in the field.

iComply provides operational compliance services and validation of over 200 cultivation, manufacturing and processing, and dispensing facilities since 2011 and iComply consults for a variety of communities, organizations, and governments. Engaging in legacy projects over the long-term, iComply builds trusted relationships to ensure industry integrity, standards, regulations, and best practices are implemented and adhered to within organizations. 




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