Lezli Engelking, Founder and President of Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) appeared as a guest on the Elijah Haahr show and spoke to the former Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives about the state of marijuana in Missouri.
Engelking is recognized as an industry expert in compliance and regulation, so much so that FOCUS is specifically mentioned by the Division of Cannabis Regulation as an industry standard for operations and quality management in the final rules published in May. FOCUS is a nonprofit that aims to address the shortcomings in quality, safety, and consistency that have emerged in a rapidly growing cannabis industry.
During the interview, Engelking called into question the training of DCR employees and leadership and how a lack of understanding impacts regulation while discussing the importance of standards when prioritizing health and safety. A stark contrast from the Division’s recent communications celebrating the successes of Metrc and Missouri’s testing regulations.
“From a health and safety perspective, there are real challenges with all of the state cannabis programs, and it’s something that I’ve been talking about and trying to bring attention to for over a decade now,” Engelking explained.
“We started in Colorado, and it was a new thing, and they did their best. What you would hope to see happen across the country is each state would create a program that actually works for their model and look at the intent of the regulations and the goals of the regulations and what that state needs. But instead, what we’ve seen is every single state copy the Colorado model, which was flawed to begin with, and then tries to make little tiny tweaks to improve it.
“Well, those little tiny tweaks end up being more and more rules that are more and more complicated and not really getting to their intent of protecting health and safety for consumers or the public, or creating a fair marketplace, any of those things.”
Engelking, whose background is in public health pointed at one glaring flaw in the process of regulating cannabis. “Looking at these cannabis regulations and going, how is it that all we’re doing is testing the end product and we’re not looking at the process? That doesn’t happen in any other industry. In food or pharmaceuticals or anything else, the operators have to control their process,” she said. “The state understands their processes and regulates around the process to ensure the safety of the end products. But in cannabis, [regulators] are not doing it. They just test the end product, and it’s creating a whole slew of problems.”
Missouri is the first state with a legal cannabis program in the country to require operators to establish quality management systems and abide by them, but those regulations don’t become effective until December. That lack of understanding, and a lack of understanding on the part of operators has lead to problems, Engelking said.
“To be fair to the businesses, they believe that following the rules leads to making safe products. That’s why the rules are there. I mean, if you think about cannabis, these businesses have such onerous regulations. They have more regulation than the oil and gas industry,” Engelking continued, “And so as an operator, you feel like, gosh, I’m killing myself to meet all these rules, to do everything that the state says, and then what? I’m not making safe products, too. That doesn’t make sense. Right? There’s a huge disconnect there. And I think that’s really what’s happening because states don’t understand the process.”
Engelking and Haahr pointed to the recent suspension of Delta Extractions as a prime example.
“DCR came in and they put all of their products on an administrative hold, and then a week later, maybe ten days later, they came out and they put a recall on them. But since August 2, the licensee Delta has been locked out of their facility, unable to work or make products and engaged in this litigation. And interestingly, and importantly, it’s caused so much havoc in the marketplace for other licensees because everybody co-manufactures and all the dispensaries carry lots of different products, but also in other states, because in cannabis, there are so many partnerships across state lines because the products can’t go across state lines. So if I’m in Arizona and I want to sell my products in Missouri, I find a business in Missouri that I trust to follow my procedures and make good quality products with my brand name on them. And then they make them and we sell them in Missouri. So there’s a lot of interstate relationships, which means that the problem in Missouri caused problems in Colorado and Arizona and Oklahoma and everywhere else, too.”
“That is one of the big challenges right now, and it’s a challenge in any new industry. There isn’t set training. “
“I think we need to have some qualifications for these folks that are working [as regulators] in the states. Cannabis is a natural plant product, but it’s science, and we need science. And what we’re seeing is state regulator agencies across the country just don’t understand the science. And even in this situation with Delta right now, part of the rules don’t make sense. They’re trying to regulate around substances that they don’t understand,” Engelking said.
“They start looking into things and they think they’re seeing things, but they don’t really know what’s going on because they don’t understand the process. And I think truly, until state agencies get trained and understand exactly how these products are made and what the different components are, and when you can introduce them, it’s going to continue like this.”
Just days after finalized rules became effective in August, DCR placed an administrative hold on hundreds of marijuana products around the state. The department would accompany the hold by suspending the licenses of three manufacturing operators, including Delta Extraction.
Days later following an emergency hearing before the Administrative Hearing Commission, DCR issued a recall of more than 62,000 marijuana product SKUs originating from Delta distillate, simultaneously publicly naming the company for the first time. At the hearing, the AHC had given DCR and Delta until August 21 to prepare for an additional hearing.
In the time since Delta has repeatedly contended in court proceedings that the company not only acted in a manner compliant with state regulations – the evidence pointed to by regulators during the AHC hearings and before the Cole County Circuit Court comes from 2022, prior to the implementation of emergency rules in February 2023; but the company also contends that they made communicated with DCR personnel and standard operating procedures accepted by the state outlined the company’s processes.
Engelking’s contention that undereducated regulators and enforcement agents result in a lack of understanding of the process and the data is a point that Delta has argued as well.
“How do you fix a problem like that in a state like Missouri, that only recently legalized medicinal and then recreational just here in the last few years?” Haahr asked. “How do you get people trained up in time for an agency like DCR, who it seems is having some growing pains in the process?”
“It’s a good question, and I don’t think anybody’s doing it, which is again part of the problem. Our company Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards, or FOCUS, has internationally accredited cannabis specific training for quality systems that we use within the industry. And we have offered that training complementary to any state regulator, inspector, or compliance officer that wants it. We have not seen a lot of uptake on it. There are a few states that have put their entire agencies through it, but Missouri is definitely not one,” Engelking told Haahr.
Listen to the interview in full here.