Colorado Readies System for Monitoring Marijuana

rfid tag marijuana hbtv hemp beach tvHundreds of recreational marijuana shops are slated to open in Colorado on Jan. 1. Once that happens, every package of buds or processed products, such as marijuana-laced brownies, will have an RFID tag attached to it, intended to help the state regulate product and ensure that it comes from authorized sources.

In July 2011, Colorado’s Department of Revenue issued medical marijuana regulations requiring that the pot plants’ and products’ status and whereabouts be recorded throughout the supply chain. The agency also indicated that the state will eventually require the use of EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to authenticate and identify each product or plant (see Medical Marijuana Companies Use EPC Tags to Keep Things Straight). The rules resulted in the creation of what the state calls Marijuana Inventory Tracking Solutions (MITS)—a system that the Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division intends to use to track the pot from the greenhouse in which it is grown to the store where the drug is sold. MITS consists of software developed by Florida technology company Franwell.

The MITS software, residing on Colorado’s database, is designed to track each plant or package—beginning with the moment a marijuana cutting is first planted. To monitor what each cannabis plant or product consists of, as well as where it originated, the state is employing EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags supplied by Franwell. Marijuana growers must purchase these tags—available in various forms, including as a hangtag or an adhesive label—and attach them to the plants themselves, or to packages of processed marijuana.

The MITS solution, which will cost Colorado approximately $1.6 million for software and readers, is designed to help the state maintain control over an industry that has been historically clandestine and illegal, explains Julie Postlethwait, the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s the public information officer. Concerns on the state level focus on ensuring that a pot plant, once it begins growing, does not end up anywhere other than at a state-authorized retailer. In addition, the agency wants to know that what is being sold in the stores comes from an authorized grower. That provides accountability, according to Ron Kammerzell, Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division senior director, as quoted in an interview with KDVR Fox News.

The Fox-affiliated television station also interviewed Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, a trade association founded in 2010 to help protect and promote Colorado’s medical marijuana regulatory framework, and to safeguard the rights of medical marijuana patients. “It should be very exciting for consumers to know the product is going to be safer than it’s ever been before,” Elliott told the KDVR reporter.

The MITS system was first developed in 2010 by what was then known as the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, to better manage the growing, processing and sale of medical marijuana. A shortfall in state funding, however, kept the system from being adopted. The solution became part of a much larger project last year, when Colorado voters passed a referendum in November 2012 making recreational marijuana legal within the state. State-regulated stores will begin selling pot throughout the state as of January 2014.

Colorado requires that growers of marijuana, whether for recreational or medical purposes, purchase RFID tags and log into the MITS system via the Internet in order to update a pot product’s status. Marijuana can be bought and sold in amounts of no more than one pound. Currently, Elliott told RFID Journal, there are about 500 marijuana retailers registered in the state, as well as 126 “infused product” manufacturers (which also act as distributors) and 700 growers. To date, predictions are that far fewer than 500 retailers will be ready to open their doors by Jan. 1, as the entire industry struggles to get the necessary inventory-tracking system and labeling infrastructure in place. (Each label must be printed with a product’s details, including where and when it originated, in addition to any pertinent processing information.)

To manage their inventory, growers, stores and distributors presently use a system incompatible with Franwell’s MITS software. However, according to an article posted at Marijuana Business Daily’s website, Franwell has told some growers that the MITS software it developed would soon be compatible with other inventory-tracking systems. Franwell did not respond to requests for comment.

Marijuana plants are typically grown from stems rather than from seeds; each stem is taken from one plant and propagated to create another one. Once that process begins, the new cloned plant is issued a serial number married to a unique 24-digit ID number on an RFID tag, with the RFID number also printed on that tag. The grower reads the ID number printed on the tag and enters that information into the MITS system via the Internet. When harvesting a plant, the grower discards the plant tag and dries the plant’s flower buds, as well as its leaves. It then typically packages the buds and ships them directly to a retailer with a new RFID tag, along with a printed label to be read by state officers as they inspect stores. The printed label will include text related to the plant’s origins and multiple other details, while the new tag ID is entered into the MITS system and is linked to the product’s history, including the tag ID number of the plant from which the buds were harvested.

In the future, the grower could opt to install fixed RFID readers at doorways between rooms within its facility, in order to help it and the state track the stage of the process that each plants has reached. Different rooms are used for immature plants, flowering plants and harvesting.

The stems, leaves and other byproducts of the plant that are not high enough in quality to be sold as buds are instead sold to manufacturers of “infused” marijuana products, such as soft drinks, brownies or other edibles. A grower packs the leaves and other plant byproducts into bags, attaching an RFID tag to each bag prior to shipping it to an infused-products company. All marijuana products must also be tested for any signs of contamination, such as E. coli, mold or excessive pesticides. All individuals who process or inspect product must log into the MITS system and update data regarding the processing and inspection of the goods, thereby creating a history that is stored, along with the unique ID number, on the RFID label applied to each package.

Finally, the processed goods are distributed to retailers that then place them on the shelf for sale. State inspectors equipped with a handheld reader can periodically visit each retail site, where they can read the tags on each product and view that item’s history, ensuring that it meets all necessary processing and inspection criteria. According to a 2011 press release from Franwell, the Marijuana Enforcement Division was planning to utilize Motorola Solutions MC9090 handheld readers.

“This program is really intended to create transparency,” Elliot states. Although it has not yet occurred, he says that if there were a recall of marijuana due to illness or the detection of a contaminant, the system would help the state trace the drug back to the point at which the contamination may have been introduced, and thereby identify the location of any other potentially contaminated products.

The RFID tags do not pose a privacy issue for consumers, Postlethwait notes, since they are discarded after products are sold. The tags that industry members must currently purchase from Franwell cost 45 cents apiece for the version attached to a plant, and 25 cents each for the model used on a package. In the future, she says, other manufacturers’ tags could be included in the program as well.

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