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July 24, 2020

Why Cannabis Standards Matter: An Interview With FOCUS Founder Lezli Engelking

Lezli Engelking smiling The cannabis space is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, and nationwide legalization is just around the corner. As with any other consumer-facing marketplace, cannabis operators will need to commit to best practices specifically designed to both ensure product safety while simultaneously creating efficient and effective operations. Costly recalls, testing mishaps, and compliance challenges are just a few of the issues that have plagued this nascent industry from the start, leading to decreased profits and deflated consumer confidence.

Enter FOCUS, the first independent, third-party organization dedicated to developing and implementing cannabis-specific standards in the United States. Short for the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards, FOCUS aims to “protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry.” With over two dozen areas of the supply chain featured — from sanitation to professionalism — FOCUS exists to help set the nascent cannabis industry up for success on the national stage.

Challenges Beget FOCUS Founding

Lezli Engelking, who founded FOCUS in 2014, understands the critical urgency for best practices in the cannabis space. The former pharmaceutical sales rep helped open the first chain of medical marijuana businesses in her home state of Arizona. The experience was eye-opening, to say the least.

“When I was an operator I needed help; we made so many mistakes that cost us so much money and so much time,” Engelking told Green Flower. “That all could have been prevented if we had just implemented standards.”

Engelking knew she was not the only one in the industry suffering from growing pains (no pun intended). Realizing this, and drawing from her decade of pharma experience, Engelking set out to create a new tool to prevent others from dealing with the same issues she struggled through. 

Adopting standard operating procedures (SOPs) are commonplace in most industries, but the fledgling cannabis space was still flying by the seat of its pants. Instead of dealing with issues as they arise, companies could avert them altogether.

“The difference is being preventative versus reactive,” Engelking explained. “The entire industry right now works in a reactive state, which is why all these cannabis operators are struggling so much. They're so busy all the time because they're literally just drinking from a fire hose every day.

“There are so many wastes and mistakes that happen because people aren't following the same system all the time. There's product returns and recalls, and customer complaints. The fact is that just doing this will create cost savings that are based on eliminating waste and increasing efficiency.”

Cannabis Standards Pull From Agriculture, CPG, Medical Industries & More

To develop the 27 unique cannabis standards certifications, Engelking and her team drew from a wide berth of industries. After all, the plant is used in a variety of ways and delivery modalities.

“The true difference in FOCUS than any other cannabis certification that's out there now is that we followed international guidelines for standards of development through the voluntary consensus process,” Engelking said. “Cannabis is a food, and it's an agricultural product, and it's a supplement, and it's a drug. So we had to pull regulations from all different areas: we used the U.S. code of regulations for pharma, for supplements, for food, for devices, etc. Then we also used the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization guidelines for good agricultural practices, good collection practices, and good manufacturing practices.”

FOCUS soon became a top resource in the cannabis space, striking a distribution deal with the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO). Their practices have also been adopted by ASTM International, the world’s longest-running standards development organization.

Engelking, however, aims even higher with FOCUS than the traditional third-party standards organizations by cultivating lasting relationships with companies to ensure they’re successful now and in the future.

“FOCUS certification is a partnership that's designed to build your business into everything you want it to be and all the things that go along with that,” she explained, adding that the FOCUS team works with partners over the course of several years to help implement and monitor their practices.

Industry-Wide Standards To Become Norm Once Federal Legalization Takes Hold

Cannabis may remain a Schedule I narcotic in the eyes of the Federal government, but analysts believe it’s only a matter of time before the plant is legalized in all 50 states. After all, the majority of Americans now support marijuana reform following a decade of state-by-state approval of medical and/or adult-use. When national legalization does take place, industry-wide standards will certainly become mandatory as is the case with nearly every other product bought and sold in the country. This may be obligatory or come in the form of voluntary consensus standards, which showcases best practices operators can adhere to in order to show their commitment to quality.

Engelking argues that regardless of when reform occurs, adopting standards sooner than later will not only prepare cannabis operators and regulators for the inevitable but also lead to impactful results internally immediately.

“Even if federal legalization didn't come for 10 years, every business in this industry would be better off going through certification now because it allows them to really run their business successfully,” she pointed out. “Nobody budgets for quality and safety ... their most important budget item. The reality is that when they don't have that line item, those costs are all still showing up, they're just showing up as different things.”

Green Flower First & Only Provider Of FOCUS Training

In a move meant to better prepare companies for completing certification, FOCUS has elected to partner with Green Flower as the exclusive educational facilitator. Using their best-in-class instructional tools, Green Flower will provide the tools necessary for companies to comprehend and excel at their certification efforts.

“Initially, we were unsure if Green Flower was the right training partner for FOCUS,” Engelking admits. “Over the past 6+ years, we have been approached by all of the primary online education and training platforms from traditional industries. Somehow, none of those opportunities ever felt right. Ultimately, training is a key component to the success of FOCUS, our clients, and the cannabis industry as a whole, so we have been extremely cautious about making this decision.”

Engelking went on to say any hesitation quickly dissipated after meeting with Green Flower leadership.

“All that changed after Max (Simon) and his team invited FOCUS out to the Green Flower offices in January. It was clear from the minute we began talking, that while our respective companies occupy very different spaces in the cannabis industry, our values were amazingly well aligned. Not only did we find synergies around our visions and goals for the industry as a whole, but also our approach and beliefs around training were remarkably similar. While our collaboration started off slowly, the more we worked together, it became exceedingly evident that this was indeed the right partnership for both parties.”

Understanding the concern over the spread of infectious disease, Green Flower has opted to begin their FOCUS standards training series with Sanitation, Biohazard, and Recalls. With so many plants and factories being temporarily shut down due to outbreaks of COVID-19 (such as this facility in Tennessee where all 200 workers tested positive), it is more important than ever to adopt these types of standards.

“FOCUS has a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the Green Flower team and we look forward to continuing to work together to deliver much needed, standardized education and training to the global cannabis industry together,” Engelking said. 

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