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Revisiting SOPs in Massachusetts Cannabis: A Cautionary Tale

By Casey Leaver

Apr 10, 2023

The Massachusetts cannabis employee data breach made public last month by the Cannabis Control Commission, combined with recent announcements about the Commission’s “secret shopper” program and an increase in unannounced inspections at licensed facilities, presents a trifecta of reminders for marijuana establishments to revisit their standard operating policies and procedures (SOPs).

Regardless of licensing type or status, a deviation from—or failure to update—a marijuana establishment’s SOP can result in a spider web of negative consequences for employees, patients, customers, and communities. Public relations nightmare aside, businesses stand to lose revenue and lose a competitive advantage when they fail to prepare for inevitable and regular changes in regulations and regulatory guidance.

The industry is changing—so should your SOPs

In Massachusetts, changes in regulatory guidance and interpretation create the potential for licensed operators to think they were doing something correctly according to older guidance (or where there was no previous guidance) but is now wrong or insufficient. Guidance is also regularly released by key compliance and seed-to-sale software METRC, which means that businesses utilizing those platforms may need to adjust relevant training, testing requirements, and other SOPs.

Understanding the regulations and guidance, and maintaining good SOPs are just the basics when it comes to getting a license and then avoiding costly mistakes. In most incidents, a diversion from protocol or a gap in training can be to blame. Revisiting SOPs regularly and conducting a full compliance audit can help a business catch and remediate a mistake before it has a profound effect on a product or brand.

When should cannabis businesses audit their SOPs?

Be proactive, and protect your business and employees, by bringing in a third party to audit your operations and SOPs quarterly. The first audit may feel like a jagged little pill of reality with multiple issues to address. But for businesses that commit to a regular audit schedule and remain in compliance with their SOPs and employee trainings as they evolve, subsequent audits will become a simple matter of good business housekeeping.

Don’t wait until license renewal to reflect on SOPs: There’s too much fluctuation in the industry and you may find yourself playing catch-up and missing key guidance if you let the SOPs you submitted with your application or at inspection collect dust. Updating your safety policies and creating a safe, compliant workplace will also attract and retain your best employees, and help you gain or maintain a competitive edge.

What’s the worst that can happen?

All licensed marijuana establishments are required to have policies and procedures or a summary thereof as part of their application, inspection, and renewal processes in Massachusetts. If a violation is uncovered during an inspection because of an inadequate or non-existing SOP, the licensee or applicant will be issued a notice of deficiency, at minimum, and may be fined. (In other states, this can result in an immediate fine!)

In most cases, a plan of correction includes a new or updated SOP as remediation for the notice of deficiency. It’s important for the licensee to acknowledge the problem, explain how it’s been fixed, what the new policy is, and how employees will be trained. Sometimes, having a strong and current SOP can even support a licensee in explaining how their operation is not in violation of the regulations by showing that the team was trained and following a compliant SOP.

But make no mistake: Inadequate SOPs and employee training can result in fines, delays in licensing or renewals, product recalls, or worse. Think of your SOPs as your belt and suspenders and don’t let your business fall down because you didn’t tighten or adjust proactively.

So, are you down with SOPs?

As the market matures, and Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards inevitably come into play for businesses not previously subject to such standards, updating SOPs will be even more important for sustaining a business. You can prevent potentially disastrous situations from happening at your business by revisiting your SOPs with a third party auditor like Vicente LLP, and ensuring that your internal employee training materials and programs are updated to reflect changes in SOPs.

We are always here to help! Contact our Massachusetts compliance team to get started.

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