Cannabis Industry 'Drinking Out of a Fire Hose'

For many, it's one emergency to the next — but FOCUS is trying to change that.

Editor's note: Download the audio version below. 

This week, Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) discusses why she left her successful career running a dispensary to create an organization dedicated to developing cannabis-specific good manufacturing practices. 

As Bloom Dispensaries went from single-digit employees to a staff in the triple digits, Engelking realized that the Arizona company desperately needed business help. If her vertically-integrated company suffered from turnover, training and operational problems, it was very likely that her industry cohorts were experiencing the same dilemmas. In one example, the air conditioning went out in a grow room, and with no standard operating procedure (SOP) in place, no one was notified and the company lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory. 

Engelking sold her shares and started a nonprofit health and safety foundation in 2014. FOCUS writes standards and provides third-party certification to those standards, as well as assistance with consulting and applications. She is driven to promote integrity in the cannabis industry. 

FOCUS standards cover everything in the industry, top to bottom. They build a plan for companies to protect themselves by creating a management system for documentation and processes. The standards identify risks and offer plans to mitigate them, as well as an SOP for when they happen anyway — everything from hiring and training to operations, waste, and health and safety. 

Engelking says, “people are drinking out of a firehose in the industry, all the time,” moving from one emergency to the next. 

Beginning in 2014, Engelking took two and a half years and worked with 300 volunteers to identify the shortcomings in quality, safety and consistency to develop the initial standards. 

Engelking based the FOCUS business model on methadone clinics at the onset of the heroin epidemic in the 1990s. As clinics popped up around the country, they operated under different state, city and county regulations, without any federal oversight or GMP standards to guide the industry. In 1997, the Commission on Accreditation of  Rehabilitation Facilitates (CARF), a not-for-profit organization, emerged to serve all organizations (local, state, and federal) and develop voluntary-consensus standards, training, and a third-party certification program for methadone clinics. 

Cannabis is in a similar spot, and Engelking hopes that her unified standards will be ready to answer the call if and when federal legalization becomes a reality. 

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