In the cannabis industry, seed-to-sale refers to a thorough process—manual or, more commonly, digital—of tracking cannabis and related products throughout the entire lifecycle, particularly to satisfy regulatory compliance requirements.
An international concept of using a "tracking and tracing" system for cannabis growth and sales as "a shift from prohibition to regulation and control" has at least been discussed as early as 2003. However, at least in the United States, this concept didn't begin to fully materialize until the late 2000s. In the summer of 2009, California-based Medical Marijuana, Inc. began marketing its Turnkey Collective Solution as a tool for the fledgling medical marijuana industry to "operate within the guidelines of all laws and regulations regarding the tracking of the marijuana from grow cycle to final distribution." Shortly after, in 2010 and 2011, a similar concept sprung up in Colorado in the form of BioTrackTHC and LeafTrack. BiotrackTHC COO Dr. Moe Afaneh describes that time period around 2010 as such:
In most states up to that point, seed-to-sale tracking still wasn’t required, and thus was viewed as a luxury for larger businesses who could afford it; in other words, it wasn’t really being used. Most businesses in medicinal states still didn’t know what cannabis seed-to-sale even was, but all that was about to change.
In July 2011, the U.S. state of Colorado's Department of Revenue mandated that medical marijuana products be tracked from seed to sale using radio frequency ID (RFID) tags. In November 2012, the state's voters approved recreational marijuana as well, and, wanting to track that as well, expanded its RDIF-based tracking system. And then by 2014 regulatory tracking software Metrc (Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance), made by the same company that provided the RFID tracking technology to Colorado, was being offered to other governments. These and other seed-to-sale systems arose primarily because of the legal and regulatory conflict between the U.S. government—which still declares cannabis illegal at the federal level—and states which have approved legislation making one or more types of cannabis legal, with states needing "to show [the] federal government that it is preventing the spread of cannabis into other states and to vulnerable groups such as minors."
The seed-to-sale tracking concept varies slightly among governments and software developers, but overall it focuses on a few key areas:
- signature markers: This may come in the form of a barcode label or an RFID tag, but some means of unique identifier is required to track ingredients and products throughout the distribution process.
- audit trail: The scanning of signature markers along the distribution chain creates a record of action, and that record must not only be available for review but also unalterable by the average individual. Any alterations by authorized individuals must also be clearly documented, showing the before and after. This audit trail provides proof of compliance.
- inventory management: By extension, being able to more readily track inventories—whether at the grow operation, testing laboratory, or retail point of sale—is incredibly useful, not only for regulation-mandated ingredients and products but also the additional materials that go into growing, testing, and selling those ingredients and products.
- workflow management: Laws, regulations, and even standards can force cannabis-related industries alter their workflows, potentially changing entire business processes. Workflow management tools that take into account specific laws, regulations, and standards can help industry better shape their business processes while remaining in compliance.
- analytical tools: Growers need to be able to correctly identify strains, laboratory professional need to analyze constituents and contaminates, and retailers need to track and analyze sales. Analytical tools help with all of these tasks and more.
- security mechanisms: Access restrictions are important to meeting regulatory and legal requirements, as well as protecting cannabis businesses' longevity. These mechanisms may include role-based access and biometric technology.
- point of sale: Growers and dispensaries sell their products, and a point of sale (POS) system assists those operations by making related workflows more streamlined and trackable.
Some retailers have voiced concerns about software that doesn't function as intended, whether it be extremely slowly or with multiple errors. In multiple U.S. states in 2017 and 2018, instances of slow connections, hacks, security breaches, insufficient features, and other performance issues have been reported, frustrating vendors and consumers alike, or even costing them revenue. IEEE Spectrum author Robert Charette suggests that similar to healthcare IT systems, "marijuana tracking systems look to be very tempting targets to cybercriminals to exploit," which will require software vendors to apply additional focus to security and stability.
Additional criticisms include:
- The inclusion of a chemical compound or agent to cannabis for tracking purposes creates questions about consumer safety and black/gray market use for illicit means.
- Seed-to-sale tracking in the U.S. "only fuels the continuation of years of stigma around marijuana"; this is in part due to federal regulation against cannabis forcing the hand of states to use seed-to-sale, which in turn fuels an underground market because some in the industry "are not equipped to work with complicated compliance systems."
- Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (18 September 2018). "Massachusetts Seed-to-Sale Guidance" (PDF). https://mass-cannabis-control.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Seed-to-Sale-Tracking-Guidance-09182018-v-FINAL-for-Web.pdf. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
- Shortt, D. (21 September 2017). "Washington Considers Recreational Homegrown Cannabis". Canna Law Blog. Harris Bricken. https://www.cannalawblog.com/washington-considers-recreational-homegrown-cannabis/. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
- Lusky, M. (29 August 2017). "Member Blog: Belly Up to Cannabis Barcode Labels". National Cannabis Industry Association.
- Verbora, M. (31 October 2018). "What Does from Seed to Sale Mean in the Cannabis Industry?". Canabo Medical Corp. https://www.canabomedicalclinic.com/what-does-from-seed-to-sale-mean-in-the-cannabis-industry/. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
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