States turn to tech for tracking marijuana

States with legalized marijuana industries need technology to track plants from seed to sale and from doctors to patients. Tech companies are answering the call in creative ways -- adapting much of the technology from industries with similar needs. Here are a few examples of the approaches states are taking and the technology being fielded.

Maine and Hawaii: Streamlining registration, from hunting permits to marijuana

Regulating newly legal marijuana use is giving states heartburn. Tracking “from seed to sale” is proving particularly difficult, but there is progress on implementing systems that document the doctor-to-patient portion of the distribution process.

In partnership with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, NIC, an egov services provider, developed an online service that allows doctors to issue a marijuana certification to patients that is watermarked for authenticity, which the patient can then take to a distributor. Some information is collected in the process, including the physician’s name and ZIP code, and whether the patient is over age 18. The state then uses that information to assess where distribution centers should be located.

Dan Andrews, the Maine portal's general manager, said the system was developed to prevent fraud -- an easy crime to commit using the former technology. Originally, he said, “it was basically just a Word document that providers would fill out and give to the patient. There was a lot of confusion. With the online service, it gets printed on official paper that gets watermarked.”

NIC, which developed the registration system for Maine and Hawaii, is a company that started in Kansas in 1992 to focus on streamlining government licensing and registration processes, from big-game hunting permits to motor-vehicle services -- and now marijuana regulation.

Washington and New Mexico: A plant tracking system based on pharmaceutical distribution

Washington state uses BioTrackTHC’s marijuana seed to sale traceability system -- software based on some of the parent company Bio-Tech Medical Software’s other products designed to track pharmaceuticals and prevent abuses such as doctor shopping.

The tracking system using barcodes, enabling immediate traceability with a quick scan. “If it [a plant] was found on the street, a law enforcement officer could scan it and find out instantly where it came from, where it’s going and whose it is,” said BioTrackTHC CEO Steven Siegel.  And while Siegel admits the technology isn’t “sexy,” he said it is a “very serious business” to help states regulate who is growing what and who possesses it.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board's Brian Smith, who says his state's system is working, explained the series of steps a plant must go through to get to the sale point. “I’m growing it. I’m plugging it in to the system. I’m coming up to a harvest date. I’m sending a lot sample to the lab and putting it in a travel manifesto to where the marijuana is going.” Then the marijuana travels from a processor to a retailer, where taxes are assessed and paid. “We could trace where a product needed to be recalled all the way back to that particular lot that it came from.”

New Mexico has also signed a contract to implement the BioTrackTHC system for monitoring that state's medical marijuana.

Colorado: RFID tracking moves from cucumbers to kush

When Colorado put out its request for proposals for a system to regulate marijuana plants, it cited radio frequency identification as the preferred technology.  Getting to a functional system took a while -- a 2011 contract was shelved because of budget shortfalls, and both state officials and growers were still scrambling as legalization took effect on Jan. 1, 2014 -- but Colorado's Marijuana Inventory Tracking Solution now requires every plant and every bag to be tracked with an RFID tag.  Growers are responsible for tagging their inventory and logging the data into the state's online system.

Franwell, a firm that specializes in RFID, used technology the company had developed for air cargo and fresh food tracking and created a system for tracing Colorado's marijuana plants.

Franwell CEO Jeff Wells explained that tracking marijuana is different from other products because it requires such a high level of regulation. “In all of our experience, and we’ve been working in supply chains for a few decades, I don’t know another system that exists where a regulatory body is assigning a serial number for each and every box of cucumbers, for example. But, then again, it’s not dangerous enough . . . it's not federally illegal [to grow and ship] cucumbers.”

Growers in Colorado have complained about the cost of the tags and the hassles of logging their inventory data with the state, but Wells said RFID speeds up the inspection process and that RFID tags are difficult to counterfeit. “Someone can take a handheld to a facility and do a spot check a lot easier than with a bar code. They can read many, many plants in seconds and quickly verify against what they have reported in the system.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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