Track and trace systems are, by now, integral aspects of regulatory oversight within the cannabis ecosystem. The various government-mandated systems fit snuggly into place between third-party testing and producer licensing. Without track and trace systems, like the Metrc system in California, the cannabis world would likely still be floundering in murky operations and legal grey areas.
While the industry often bemoans the frustrations caused by track and trace, these regulations are partially why the plant and the industry have gained such legitimacy in recent years. Cannabis, as medicine, poses unique challenges to patient safety, and traceability is one crucial means of protecting patients.
The current systems, including those in California and Washington, are far from perfect. With the growing popularity for the plant in both recreational and medical environments, the oversight and paperwork required for proper traceability are not about to get any easier.
For patients, traceability is paramount. Tracking the whereabouts and processing of the plant legitimizes it as medicine. It also improves the consistency and predictability of the consumer’s experience. If and when issues occur, they can be handled in a timely and legitimate manner, as you would expect from pharmaceutical or food industries (e.g., recalls, testing, and more).
With the industry set to explode globally, the importance of the track and trace system for patients is worth a revisit. There are unique challenges presented by the plant, and these challenges are why it’s so important for traceability to exist within the world of medicinal cannabis.
What is Track and Trace in Cannabis? (Seed to Sale)
The first element, the “track” of track and trace, covers the chain of custody. At any given time, regulators can determine exactly where a product is within the legal ecosystem. If a plant enters into the system, it should stay within the system until sold to the consumer (or patient).
The other element, “trace,” focuses on public health. Traceability covers mold, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, or improper handling all along the chain of custody. It facilitates product recalls when necessary, due to product contamination or production irregularities. Most importantly, traceability is designed to keep patients safe and their experiences predictable.
Challenges of Traceability in Cannabis Today
The global cannabis marketplace is predicted to reach $66.3 billion by 2025. At such a scale, tracking and tracing is no laughing matter. With an industry continuously exceeding all growth expectations, there is a lot of product to track—and lots of room for error. The problem of scale is a question already on the minds of policymakers and businesses across North America.
An Observer article published in July of this year asked: “Can California Really Track All the Weed in the World’s Largest Cannabis Marketplace?” The piece highlighted many of the issues plaguing the systems already in place, including the “reams of paperwork, often filled out by hand” in California, the frustrations in Washington as the entire track and trace system failed, and the simmering suspicion by many that the “mandated massive inventory control” was simply a ploy to get cannabis legislation passed.
The sheer size of the industry is only one of the obstacles facing traceability in cannabis. Another is the nature of the plant itself. More than most other plants grown for human consumption, cannabis’s unique characteristics are highly volatile and influenced by minute changes in the environment.
From one crop to the next, slight changes in temperature, lighting, nutrients, or any number of other environmental influences can impact the cannabinoid and terpene profiles (chemotype). Although extremely interesting for horticulturalists, it’s a dilemma for the medicinal side of the industry. Medicine must be consistent to be trusted, but unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, cannabis doesn’t always produce consistent results.
Furthermore, beyond the cultivator, chemical profiles degrade over time. Cannabinoids, when exposed to oxygen, light, and heat, transform into new molecular structures. For example, THC turns into CBN with oxygen exposure. The chemical composition at the time of testing may not be the same at the time of consumption. It’s a dilemma for the patient as well as the producer.
Because of the plant’s chemotype variability, traceability is especially crucial to legitimizing it as medicine. Any variance can have severe repercussions for the patient. Patients and providers need to know prescriptions are consistent, to have product confidence.
Improving Patient Confidence with Track and Trace
Ask any medical cannabis patient, and they’ll have a story about a time where the effects of the plant took them by surprise: a mislabeled potency, a homemade edible, or a cannabinoid profile that didn’t sit comfortably—cannabis is a plant with many facets.
Switching brands, the timing between harvest and extraction, the temperature during consumption, or an ignored expiration date can all lead to different medicinal outcomes. Because of these variations (and the failure of the industry so far to address them), cannabis is a long way from reaching the same kind of trust seen with Aspirin or Tylenol.
Pharmaceuticals are naturally easy to track and trace. Produced in commercial facilities, with synthetic or highly processed ingredients, their elements are stable and predictable. There is no reason why every single batch cannot be exactly like the others.
Cannabis, however, is a highly mutable crop, especially for outdoor and greenhouse growers. There are issues of consistency of product because each strain, each crop, and each plant can produce slightly different chemical profiles. And different chemical profiles mean different medicinal properties and different effects for patients. Patients (and providers) don’t like surprises in medicine.
Solving this variance, with better tools and better research, is one way to improve people’s confidence in the plant.
Solving the Traceability Issues in Cannabis (Seed to Consumption)
No matter how far the industry has come, it’s still shrouded in a certain level of distrust and confusion. Reducing the inconsistencies among products, improving patient confidence, and making each experience predictable is crucial to pushing the plant forward in the field of medicine.
The team behind RYAH Medtech has combined an AI-powered data aggregator with commercial-grade, dry herb cartridges to combat some of these questions of traceability. Our focus is on patient dosing control, efficacy feedback, predictability, and ultimately -better medicinal outcomes.
Every single cartridge filled by our partners receives a detailed, batch-specific QR code based on test results and production dates. The code serves several purposes: the first is to give the patient notes on the strain, production dates, and cannabinoid profiles. This helps patients and providers determine which cartridge is appropriate for which medical condition.
The second layer of data could prove useful for an unprecedented level of traceability, and one especially useful for dispensaries and producers. By gathering details on strain data, including complete lab testing source and results, lab test date, harvest date packing expiration dates (among other data points), the businesses behind the product could trace back through potential issues.
For example, did patients report different effects after a certain date post-harvest? Did the timing between harvest and packing dates change the medicinal benefits? Clearly, the data collection at the strain and cartridge level may eventually prove extremely useful for improving traceability. It’s a possible route for investigating changes in medicinal outcomes, adverse reactions, and more.
Patient Confidence Built Through Data Collection
The variability of cannabis is part of what makes it a beautiful and medicinally valuable plant. However, based on the current track and trace systems in place, these plant-specific nuances and crop inconsistencies make it difficult for regulators to keep on top of the information. Patients and providers need greater attention to detail than the current system is capable of providing.
Patients demand predictable results, whether they choose plant-based medicine or conventional options. To improve the plant’s medicinal legitimacy in the eyes of patients, providers, and policymakers, the industry needs to focus on consistency, predictability, and traceability.