From state to state, licensed cannabis and hemp businesses are required to test according to state guidelines and be transparent about their testing results. Laboratories should be very clear in the way they report those results. For example, in Florida, test results are displayed on a Certificate of Analysis (COA).
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AUTHOR: Heather Allman
PUBLISHER: CANNABIS LAW REPORT
Discussion with Masha Belinson Corporate Development, ACS Laboratory
ACS Laboratory, The Most Trusted Cannabis and Hemp Laboratory in the USA™, is ISO 17025 accredited, DEA licensed and CLIA licensed with the largest state-of-the-art facility in the eastern USA. ACS Laboratory is also contracted by the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDACS) as an “Official Designated Laboratory,” for testing Florida Hemp and deemed a “Certified Marijuana Testing Laboratory” by the Florida Department of Health (DOH).
There’s so many changes happening in the world right now, but the Cannabis industry has, of late, proven its adaptability and its stamina. The “Green Wave” isn’t crashing any time soon.
On November 5, 2020, I the opportunity to chat with Masha Belinson, Head of Corporate Development at ACS Laboratory to get her valuable insights on Cannabis right now, in this moment.
We talked about a vast array of topics –ranging from transparency and testing to edibles and the Florida market, and from COA reports to maintaining a trustworthy reputation. Masha has a Cannabis-focused mind and a head for business.
TOPIC— Transparency in testing and how cannabis companies test its product
Cannabis Law Report: How do we go about requiring transparency in testing?
Masha Belinson: From state to state, licensed cannabis and hemp businesses are required to test according to state guidelines and be transparent about their testing results.
Laboratories should be very clear in the way they report those results. For example, in Florida, test results are displayed on a Certificate of Analysis (COA).
All COA’s have a QR Code, which should be printed on the package label and displayed on the product page of the website.
Until there is a national standard, every state will operate differently. The best companies can do is be very transparent about their results and test to the highest standards with an ISO Accredited DEA Licensed Laboratory.
TOPIC— Smokable hemp regulations and testing for Vitamin E
CLR: Your view of current smokable hemp regulations?
Masha Belinson: Smokable hemp falls into two categories: flower and extract. If farmers want to sell across the country, they have to be mindful of the different testing requirements. Across the country, smokable hemp regulations don’t go far enough.
They don’t account for contamination issues caused by toxic packaging from China or for pollutants caused by environmental issues.
However, Florida’s smokable hemp the strictest testing standards in the nation. And I think that’s a great start.
For example, Florida tests for 67 pesticides, while other states test for much less. Florida mandates for a Vitamin E Acetate test in extracts, while other states do not. I predict smokable hemp will exceed tobacco eventually, but for the public safety of consumers, there needs to be more testing requirements.
For states with fires, there could be pollutants in the air that would affect the plants. At ACS Laboratory, we test for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH), which is not mandatory, but it is definitely valuable.
Because PAH’s are known carcinogens, we will offer a free confidential PAH test with a full panel for the month of November 2020 for any hemp farmers from Oregon, California or any other area blistered by fires to help raise awareness and elevate the industry.
TOPIC— The introduction of medical marijuana edibles into the Florida cannabis market
CLR: How will this new delivery method offering serve to reinforce the strength of the Florida medical cannabis market? The national cannabis market?
Masha Belinson: The edible marketplace will take a large percentage of sales, similarly to how flower did. Flower was 40%-50% of the marketplace. In that way edibles will capture the market. They are easier to dose and to consume.
They break through the stigma of smoking cannabis. You can give your grandma an edible faster than you can give her a joint.
Florida is full of grandmas and they are happy consumers. Florida is the biggest medical cannabis market in the country with over 400K patients. This becomes a powerful consumer base of 55+ being the fastest rising demographic.
As people discover that they can control their dosing and experience microdosing with edibles, consumption will increase overall across all ages thus strengthening the market.
From stigmatized to essential cannabis is moving up, in all aspects.
TOPIC— Understanding all components of a Certificate of Analysis (COA) for hemp products
CLR: How do we educate consumers effectively?
Masha Belinson: We can educate consumers effectively by creating a curriculum that not only educates on the health benefits of cannabis, but also helps remove the stigma surrounding cannabis.
This education will help consumers from being embarrassed or ashamed when discussing cannabis with friends or family, or fear of losing their employment.
Additionally, education surrounding the science and endocannabinoid system needs to go deeper. Many people don’t understand the difference between ‘Sour Diesel’ or ‘Banana Kush’ – those are the strain names of the flower.
It doesn’t tell the patient anything about what to expect. What’s missing is true patient navigation. What is the right product for me?
Cannabis brands are all about new customers/patient acquisition but there needs to be a focus on helping the person get the most out of their medicine.
At ACS Laboratory, we put a strong focus on education. We continue to demystify and simplify the Certificate of Analysis (COA). By knowing how to read the COA, one will know what is their cannabis and be able to figure out the right product for them.
We educate on how to read the cannabinoid and terpene profiles so if you were looking for a medicine to help you sleep, you would immediately look for a higher (terpene) Linalool content then Limonene content.
Empowered with the knowledge of how to read a COA. the consumer can create their own personalized cannabinoid pharmacy.
TOPIC— ISSUES AT HAND
CLR: Tell me about the 2020 cannabis year to date, and take on the current national Cannabis landscape, and please explain your perspective to the readers.
Masha Belinson: With the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis has become an essential business. There is ongoing research and information about how cannabis can help with ongoing symptoms and even be a preventative.
At ACS Laboratory, we have been following the research that has been happening with cannabis and COVID-19 since July 2020.
We follow 20 different studies from around the world. Some highlighted here:
|Eybna and Cannasoul, Israel||In Vivo Study April 2020||CBD + Terpenes reduce inflammation caused by Covid|
|Research Univ of South Carolina||Published in British Journal of Pharmacology||THC to treat Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)|
|Congo, Africa Task Force||Organized Study by King King Organics||CBG as preventive to strengthen immune system|
|Akseera Pharma||Canadian Clinical Trial||CBD + arrhythmias|
CLR: In case of our current crisis, Cannabis has been deemed an essential service. In the June 2020 edition of cannabis Business Times, 34% of respondent consumers have been using more cannabis, and thus more cannabis, since the COVID-19 crisis began.
With COVID-19, what has been the business impact so far?
Masha Belinson: Since cannabis has become an essential business, volume and sales in the industry have increased, which has resulted in us testing more medicine.
However, on the hemp side we have had some clients that were required to shut down initially and are no longer in business due to the pandemic. Other hemp business have been thriving.
CLR: With COVID-19, are you doing anything new or differently? How have things evolved at ACS? in Florida? Nationally?
Masha Belinson: Internally, we have always maintained a very high standard of sterility – such as utilizing gloves and masks – so that has not changed.
We have also implemented social distancing protocols, and changed some of our procedures to help our employees feel safe. Due to the increase in volume, we also added another shift in the laboratory and are building out a bigger facility.
One of the biggest changes has been not being able to see our clients face to face, or being able to go to any trade shows. Our business relies on relationships and all these zoom meetings are not always a good substitute.
CLR: How do authenticity and consumer trust factor into your current course(s) of action?
Masha Belinson: Brands in this new industry first and foremost need to prove they are trustworthy and authentic.
Consumers need to know that the products they are buying have the contents in it that they claim and are safe.
Since consumer knowledge of how products are tested is still a grey area, we have developed certification seals to show that products have been tested for all the compliant standards and most importantly are safe to use.
To receive our seal, cannabis companies will need to go through the most rigorous tests to test for any potential hazards that may reside in the making or content of their product.
For example, if someone tests for the potency of the product, but they do not test for heavy metals or pesticides, they receive a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from the lab cannabinoid potency only. However they would not qualify for our Certified Safe Seal. In order to receive the certified safe seal, they would have to go through our entire compliance test.
The goal of the Certified Safe Seal is for a consumer to look at the product and know that the product has passed the most rigorous tests and is certified as safe for use and that the stated cannabinoids are certified by a third party as well.
CLR: How does transparency factor into your current course(s) of action?
Masha Belinson: Our COAs offer full transparency about how the product tested. ACS Laboratory generates and delivers a unique QR code with every single COA.
We recommend that our clients take the print-ready QR codes and apply them to the packaging, linking the consumer directly to the COA.
Consumers can scan the QR code and the COA will pop up on their screen, rather than having to go to the website and typing in the batch number.
TOPIC— DEMAND AND BEHAVIOR
CLR: This is an industry that has grown primarily off consumer demand and consumer results.
What consumer demand do you currently see trending? What consumer behaviors or shifts?
Masha Belinson: The largest consumer demand we are seeing right now are edibles and beverages. When selling flower and telling consumers about the strains ‘Gorilla Glue’ or ‘Girl Scout Cookie,’ consumers don’t know what experiences they will have.
However, when selling edibles, consumers know what edibles taste like. The variations with edibles are endless, and they will trickle down into other products.
We’re also testing quite a few hemp beverages right now. We aren’t testing THC beverages because there are no rules for THC beverages in Florida right now. However, we do test for hemp in 44 states and have been testing hemp beverages nationally.
I believe you will see many big box brands going into this industry and creating a new SKU. We have several different interesting beverage brands. Some are using nano emulsion technology, which have developed highly sophisticated methods for testing.
Another trend is Delta8. Delta8 is not regulated like Delta9, but the secret is that it still gets you high; high but not as confused – it’s like Delta9’s smarter cousin. Also CBG is very popular, as are the acids CBDA, THCA.
As more media portrays cannabis in a positive light, it appears more and more people are coming out of the green closet, especially women and mothers.
There needs to be more emphasis on breaking through the stigma but it does appear as though behavior is shifting.
CLR: What corporate behaviors or shifts?
Masha Belinson: Corporate cannabis has arrived! The industry feels more and more like corporate America in many states. Big corporations continue to merge and acquire the smaller operators, and are run like massive enterprises.
CLR: How did you earn your reputation of trustworthiness? Of market prediction and trajectory?
Masha Belinson: We have gained our reputation of trustworthiness by always treating our customers right, providing high quality and transparent results, working with our clients to solve any problems that they may have, and delivering our clients with prompt, personal attention.
As our President Roger Brown says, “We always take the high road and do the next right thing.”
CLR: What are the biggest challenges that cannabis currently faces?
Masha Belinson: Some of the biggest challenges that the cannabis industry currently faces includes no federal banking, lack of national standards for testing, the stigma surrounding the industry: absence of research studies on humans and acceptance from insurance providers.
One of the things I am excited about is that we have a CLIA License at ACS Laboratory, which means we can do human trials and pharmacokinetic studies. Pharmacokinetic is the movement of drugs within the human body.
I think research will be the new “.com.” We are in discussion with a pharmaceutical company to do pharmacokinetic studies. As a Laboratory with a CLIA license and DEA license we are seeking other research partners to conduct studies on cannabis and psychedelics.
CLR: Something people don’t realize about Cannabis investing in a federally illegal — state legal divided country? Anything especially difficult?
Masha Belinson: Many people don’t understand the difference been plant-touching investments and ancillary investments.
Plant-touching investments, for example, are Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTC) – they touch cannabis from growing and cultivating to extracting and selling.
Then, there are ancillary investments which are the cannabis laboratories, software companies, lighting companies, transportation companies, etc. If a person invests in a plant-touching company, they cannot invest in an ancillary company as well.
Plant-touching investments are not bankable so when they make money, investors cannot put it in the bank.
It is also important to know the different cannabis regulations because each state has different regulations and laws. When it comes to the state of Florida, we have a monopoly, where a company has to handle all aspects of the process from the cultivating, extracting, delivering and retailing. It is a closed-market in Florida.
As an investor, one must understand all the components of the supply chain and realize that they could be investing in a holding company that has licenses in multiple states rather than just a small shop.
Lastly, it’s important to understand 280E, which says no deduction or credit shall be allowed in running a business that consists of trafficking a controlled substance. This can impact investors income statements and balance sheets.
TOPIC— FUTURE FOCUS
CLR: How do you envision the future of U.S. cannabis in the coming year, 2021? Next 3 years?
Masha Belinson: The cannabis sector is still in its infancy. In 2021, the numbers are predicted to increase by 40%, partly due to becoming an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic. The market value of the U.S. cannabis sector is projected to reach $30 billion annually by 2025, per New Frontier Data.
This projection comes at a time when cannabis remains federally illegal despite the legalization of medical marijuana by 33 states and Washington, D.C., and the legalization of adult-use cannabis (sometimes called recreational use) programs by 11 states and Washington, D.C. During this election 4 more states will try to pass full scale legalization.
The future of cannabis and all its supporting ancillary business is very bright.
CLR: How do you envision the courts managing cannabis (investing, et al) —state vs federal?
Masha Belinson: Law enforcement can’t tell the difference between hemp and marijuana when someone is stopped, and it is such a low level misdemeanor – courts would almost rather not deal with it. Courts will continue to treat it more and more of a misdemeanor.
CLR: What do you see in the Cannabis landscape that needs to be improved, perfected, or achieved in the future?
Masha Belinson: This is more of a cannabis economy rather than an industry. It feeds itself and has an entire ancillary economy that runs off of the main economy. It needs better infrastructure.
It needs to be accepted by health insurance but first and foremost it needs to be made Federally legal across the country so that States of the Nation can leverage each other resources and create an economy of scale to benefit the consumer.
When the state of Florida goes from medical to recreational; verticals will be broken and we will have an entirely different economy. In Florida, there is also no approved centralized seed-to-sale system, like METRC in California. Every MMTC has its own track and trace process. Without a centralized system, there is inefficiency.
Switching gears, a little bit–within the cannabis economy, companies need to treat their employees better.
Right now there is a huge turnover rate because employees are overworked and underpaid. The cannabis sector still has a startup mentality and there’s a lot of grind with little payoff for many hardworking people.
Cannabis companies also need to be able to offer health insurance to its employees. These are important factors for recruiting talented and fulfilled individuals.
Other than the obvious fact that Cannabis needs to be bankable so that there is less friction when making payments, Health insurance providers should cover it as they do other medications. That for me are the two biggest detriments.
CLR: How do we get there from here?
Masha Belinson: It starts with legislation. Cannabis has to become bankable. Once bankable, health insurance has to cover cannabis. That would be game-changing.
TOPIC— WORDS OF WISDOM
CLR: What one thing you do in your line of work that you feel makes the most impact? Why does this make the most impact?
Masha Belinson: The most meaningful part to me is my interaction with patients. I talk to patients all the time from cancer patients who are finding relief with cannabis to people who need help getting a medical card. When I can offer them useful advice, I feel immensely satisfied.
From a business standpoint, I love talking to farmers and hemp entrepreneurs about how they can structure their testing strategies and how Research and Development testing can impact their businesses. I get satisfaction from these conversations, because I’m contributing to raising the bar on quality testing standards.
CLR: What is the best advice you can offer to other individuals or companies wanting to invest in the current Florida cannabis space? the U.S. Cannabis space?
Masha Belinson: The best advice I can offer individuals or companies wanting to invest in cannabis is to really look into the team of executives of the license holder and in the holding company, if there is one. I would also advise people be cautious about investing in less open markets, like Florida.
In this type of market, I would recommend staying away from plant-touching companies for the next year or two. Instead, I would invest in ancillary businesses because they are not constrained with by supply/demand of cannabis and can sell their products, services, technology over state lines.
CLR: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your industry insights with us!
- About Masha Belinson:
In her role with ACS Laboratory, Masha oversees marketing, strategic partnerships, education; manages content strategy, SEO/PPC, lead-generation, acquisition and retention. ACS Laboratory tests cannabis in Florida and hemp from 44 states. It just launched the Hemp Clippings program for Florida Hemp Farmers. Clients include Florida cannabis companies (MMTCs) and hemp farmers, processors and extractors from across the country.
It’s her job to understand the science of cannabinoids as well as compliance regulations across the industry and how they impact businesses overall.
- About ACS Laboratory:
ACS Laboratory is The Most Trusted Cannabis and Hemp Laboratory in the USA™, earning more Emerald Test Badges for accuracy in testing last year than any other laboratory. ACS is ISO 17025 accredited, DEA licensed and CLIA licensed with the largest state-of-the-art facility in the eastern USA.
Compliant with the USDA’s rules for hemp testing, ACS Laboratory is also contracted by the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDACS) as an “Official Designated Laboratory,” for testing Florida Hemp and deemed a “Certified Marijuana Testing Laboratory” by the Florida Department of Health (DOH).
Beyond compliance, ACS is committed to innovation, which is why it tests for more cannabinoids than any lab in the eastern USA and continuously develops new protocols to analyze lesser-known toxins. Its 17,500 sq. ft facility utilizes industry-leading ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry technology and proprietary protocols to ensure accurate detection. The in-house dedicated scientific team is continuously developing new technology, refining current methods, procedures and protocols.
ACS Laboratory’s continued commitment to educating farmers, manufacturers, makers and consumers can be seen in its content-rich blog series. Visit on the web at acslabcannabis.com, or call (813) 670-9157.