Could better adherence to safety regulations and product quality guidelines help combat the stigma that remains against cannabis?
“We’re constantly fighting a stigma. And I think that as a state and as license holders we kind of forgot about the stigma we face and we stopped focusing on compliance and regulation and things that make us a legitimate business,” Suzanne Morrison told Rootwurks this week.
Morrison is the CEO of STL Cannabis Services, a Missouri-based company that provides training and compliance audits for cannabis companies. The company’s consultants' training and education on quality management systems is provided by CSQ - Cannabis Safety and Quality, which is recognized by Missouri's Department of Cannabis Regulation.
In an article she wrote for Greenway Magazine, Morrison said that STL Cannabis Services visits around four dispensaries every week, and that ever since recreational cannabis sales began in February 2023 there has been a serious increase in compliance violations.
“Somewhere the dollar signs became more important than continuing to fight the stigma around cannabis as a legitimate business,” Morrison wrote
According to Morrison, one of the most common violations in retail cannabis is the failure to scan patient/caregiver cards at the check-in station, in addition to the lack of signage on the dispensary sales floor stating that “these products are not regulated by the department [of cannabis regulation].”
In cultivation and manufacturing, Morrison said the most common violations involve visitor logs with blanks (typically the “time out” column) and violations of the Missouri food code. The biggest food safety violations in manufacturing include “PPE, product 6 inches of the ground and one inch from the wall, and sanitation practices,” according to Morrison.
When asked for a status report on the legal cannabis market in Missouri, Morrison cited the record-setting sales during the market’s first two months, but added that “of course, we didn’t plan appropriately so we ran into a supply and demand issue.”
She added that Missouri is “finally becoming a market where price competition occurs. Before you could just charge whatever you wanted because people just wanted product.”
Is hospitality easier than cannabis?
Morrison's career started in the hospitality business. This included working as a food safety inspector and director of training for corporate McDonald's, during which she was responsible for 27 stores.
When asked how cannabis differs from the hospitality industry, Morrison said “it’s a lot trickier because it’s almost like we’re still building the plane because the industry here is so new.”
In 2020, Morrison found a director of training opening at a cannabis startup and entered the industry.
But part of the push towards cannabis came from much closer to home. Suzanne’s brother is epileptic and moved from Missouri to Colorado 8 years before to have access to medicinal cannabis to treat his grand mal seizures.
And while Suzanne knows the true healing power that cannabis can provide, she acknowledges that this isn’t as clear to everyone else.
“Can we just get it to be seen the same way as alcohol? We got rid of the stigma [for alcohol] very quickly and people make tons of money on it and it's extremely dangerous with zero health benefits.”
Fighting stigma with compliance
Morrison believes that compliance adherence and best practices are key to fighting this stigma. She said that while the shift to recreational cannabis is something to celebrate, “I think it shifted our focus a little too much to the dollar signs and not so much around the safety of producing a quality and safe product anymore.”
When asked which compliance issues she sees most often in retail cannabis, Morrison mentioned a lack of awareness and training.
“In retail people don't understand the regulation and a lot of companies don’t put training as a priority and then they’re upset when their staff are violating regulations. But that’s because we never gave them the foundation to know how that regulation relates to their daily job and makes sense.”
Morrison cited examples such as budtenders addressing a medical cannabis customer by their full first and last name - a HIPAA violation. She also said they often don’t know what to ask customers and what types of recommendations to make.
“If I say I have lower back pain and I’m just looking for something to help me manage it throughout the day, they’ll say you need a Sativa, Indica will just make you sleepy. But cannabis is at a place in our world now that Indica and Sativa don’t exist anymore. Everything is a hybrid made from six or so different strains now.”
Morrison said that the industry is lacking people who understand adult learning.
“In an industry that is constantly changing, if you don't have a grip on the training and educating piece, they're [employees] never really going to have all the tools you need to be successful in your organization.”
Ultimately though, safety and compliance are the responsibility of the license holder.
“It’s the culture of the license holder at the top. Is food safety or personal protective equipment important to them? Because if it's not at the top then they're also not hiring people who are putting any kind of focus on those areas,” Morrison said.
‘Responsibility is at the management level”
“I think responsibility is more at the management level. I think a lot of it is that we’re so focused on making money and sometimes being compliant can cost a little more or take a little more labor to execute. And there seems to be a mindset of, well, we don’t have the resources for that right now. We’ll just have to take the hit if the state sees it.”
She said this sort of approach is a short-sighted one that doesn’t take into account the real cost of compliance failure - a suspended license.
There is also brand reputation, which can take a serious hit online, in particular on Reddit, according to Morrison.
To make compliance adherence successful, companies must make it part of daily operations, according to Morrison.
“I think it all starts with people not treating compliance as a separate department,” she said, adding that “it should be a part of everyday operations.”
And when it comes to building a culture of safety in the cannabis workplace, Morrison said it all comes back to the same source.
“It starts with a commitment from upper leadership. There needs to be a commitment statement that is posted in all of your facilities that shows you are committing to change. That’s the first step, to show that commitment from the people who sign the checks.”