Cannabis labs help in pandemic

Published on April 2, 2020 by David Wylie

Illegal less than two years ago, cannabis companies are now proving themselves to be essential in more ways than one.

Last week B.C. joined a growing number of places that have declared cannabis an essential service. That means retailers and producers can continue their operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring medical patients and recreational customers have access.

Now other sectors of the industry are being asked by the federal government to go above and beyond.

Health Canada is asking cannabis laboratories to shift into providing testing services needed in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

Rod Szarka, vice-president of marketing and business development at Keystone Labs, said the company has been actively testing much-needed sanitizers.

“For the last two weeks, we’ve been getting calls non-stop from people that have developed hand sanitizers or disinfectants and want to have them tested,” said Szarka.

“We do have the capabilities in-house to do that.”

Keystone, based in Edmonton, Alta., does a variety of testing for the cannabis industry.

The company was one of many cannabis labs to receive a letter from Health Canada asking if they had the capacity and interest in helping with coronavirus-related testing.

Szarka said they don’t have the capability to process tests specifically for the virus. However, they can certify sanitizers and disinfectants, for example to be 99.9% effective on bacteria.

Keystone, which started in 2005 as a pharmaceutical testing company, was granted a cannabis licence in 2015. The company does a lot of production facility testing, including helping licensed producers ensure their facilities are sterile after each new production cycle. They have also been doing stability testing to help designate best before dates on oils and Cannabis 2.0 products.

Cannabis companies are also proving to be good neighbours.

With front-line health care workers facing a critical shortage of personal protective gear, such as masks and gloves, some cannabis producers have offered their own stock.

The generosity is a silver lining to the shutdown of Canopy Growth’s two massive greenhouses in B.C., as they were able to donate thousands of items.

Challenges ahead

Even as legal retailers celebrate the provincial government’s historic declaration, they worry that staffing shortages will become an issue.

BDS Analytics, which specializes in cannabis market and trends reports, surveyed retailers all over North America. They found store owners have a strong resolve to stay open, but are facing increasing staffing challenges.

For now, retailers have generally been able to cover the holes by assigning more hours to remaining staff or operating with fewer employees, said the firm’s vice-president of operations, Greg Shoenfeld.

“If the staffing becomes tighter, that will be a constraint,” he added. “To the best of their ability, they are planning to stay open.”

Nearly 60% of retailers said they have so far experienced staffing constraints. This number continues to increase.

In the Okanagan, local retailers have said staff members who are at higher risk of falling severely ill from coronavirus or who fear passing it along to family members are already staying home. Some stores have been forced to close their doors.

For the lucky ones that have been able to remain open, sales are unprecedented as people stock up.

Shoenfeld said retailers have seen “tremendous, tremendous sales. Some characterized it as being as (busy), or busier, than 4/20.”

Good old-fashioned bud is the product of choice right now, especially in large formats, like ounces.

“By and large, the most common product category that retailers are indicating is moving fast is flower, some particularly called out CBD-heavy flower as going first,” he said.

Edibles are also proving highly popular.

BDS co-founder and CEO Roy Bingham noted cannabis consumption is clearly on the increase among consumers.

“They’re anxious about the future, they’re going to be spending a lot of time being home alone,” he said. “You can’t go to the gym, or do other things you might do to relax.”