To the uninitiated, a career working in quality assurance for the cannabis industry might seem like a bit of a lark.
"Because a lot of people think it means that we smoke a lot of weed and say how good it is — we get that joke a lot," said Chris Stone, director of quality at Vancouver Island-based Broken Coast Cannabis.
Reality is much different, explained Stone, who has a background in quality assurance for other regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals and food. Quality assurance in Canada's regulated marijuana sector is all about creating a controlled manufacturing environment, "so that if we've produced a product that the end consumer views as 'good' this week, we should be able to produce it again next week," he said.
Achieving that goal while complying with complex Health Canada regulations that govern everything from security clearances to record-keeping to pest management is a tall order. That's why Stone and others launched a new industry group, the C-45 Quality Association, in Winnipeg Thursday at the culmination of a three-day conference. Stone is the association's inaugural president.
The group is named after federal Bill C-45, which legalized marijuana for recreational use last October. The law has multiple goals, two of which have received the vast majority of media attention: keeping kids away from weed and curtailing the black market for the drug.
But another explicit purpose of legalization is giving Canadian adults a chance to access quality-controlled cannabis, said Tom Ulanowski, president of Coquitlam, B.C.-based Nextleaf Labs. His company is applying for Health Canada licences to process cannabis and research it, and plans to produce cannabis extracts from plants grown by other companies.
Quality assurance is "the foundation of this industry," said Ulanowski, who used to work in quality assurance for licensed producer Canna Farms.
"No product gets sold without our signatures," he said.
But Ulanowski thinks the general public probably doesn't realize how much work goes into producing regulated cannabis.
"They just assume it's just… growers growing and packaging and selling, but really, at every step along the process, we need to prove that what we've done adheres to the regulations, and makes the regulators happy."
Those regulations aren't prescriptive, meaning they don't instruct cannabis producers exactly how to grow their plants to Health Canada's satisfaction. Ulanowski said that can sometimes lead to ambiguity and trouble interpreting the government's wishes — but on the other hand, it leaves room for "creative compliance" with different cannabis producers developing unique production practices that suit their business models.
Ulanowski plans to join the nascent industry group, and hopes it will help his company and others improve their regulatory acumen.
"The point of this organization is for all of us on those front lines to come together and go, 'Yeah there's many ways to do things, but what's the best way?'"
More than 200 people attended the three-day conference in Winnipeg, said Jodi McDonald, president of Edmonton-based cannabis testing laboratory Keystone Labs and newly minted secretary of the C-45 Quality Association.
"The idea is that as an association, we can communicate with Health Canada as a single voice, collect common questions and provide them to Health Canada, instead of each individual person asking the same question multiple times," she said.
"Right now there's a huge backlog in communicating with Health Canada, and part of that is, we all have the same questions."
Stone said the group will help quality-assurance teams at cannabis producers share thoughts on regulatory interpretation, and compare notes on their interactions with the federal regulator.
The general public probably won't hear much from the association, added Stone, who explained that quality-control professionals are accustomed to working in the background, but he hopes the association will eventually help build greater confidence in the cannabis industry in Canada.
"And if that's a behind-the-scenes feeling, that they don't know why they feel better about it, but they feel better about it, I feel like we've done our jobs," he said.
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Updated on Thursday, April 25, 2019 at 6:35 PM CDT: Fixes typo