Whatever you think of cannabis consumption, the legal cultivation and distribution of marijuana in the United States is a remarkable recent chapter in business. Changes in laws for both medicinal and recreational cannabis use have rapidly transformed a previously underground, extremely illegal industry into a $10-billion-a-year phenomenon.
U.S. federal law still considers marijuana illegal across the board. As of February 2018, however, 20 states had legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes, and nine more states had given it the OK for both medicinal and recreational use. And the rise in demand for legally compliant marijuana cultivation and distribution has driven technology to regulate and optimize the industry.
Hunter Wilson is a community builder at the GrowersNetwork.org, an online, private community for cannabis professionals. As the industry has grown, so has the need for entrepreneurs to connect with reputable, complementary professionals across a wide spectrum. The Network aims to connect cultivators, dispensaries, laboratories, distributors, a variety of product manufacturers, service providers, and many others.
Wilson said the technology that drives the industry is “mind blowing.” It seems that every aspect of the multi-billion dollar industry has intense, specific tech needs.
“You have an entire chain going from your cultivators, your product manufacturers, your equipment suppliers, all the way to the consumer side on the dispensaries,” Wilson said.
While distributing cannabis has many of the same requirements as many other industries, it also has its own unique technological needs.
Seed-to-sale data tracking
“On the dispensary side, it’s very much your standard retail,” he said. “What they’re looking for as far as technology goes is inventory management, tracking, and customer behavior and patterns.”
One thing that’s unique about the industry is the requirement in many states to track the product from “seed to sale … where essentially they’re tracing every seed from the moment it’s what they call ‘popped’ or germinated all the way to when the finished flower buds are sold in the dispensaries,” Wilson explained.
This has inspired a lot of startups of offer cannabis-tracking tech. Wilson said two of the biggest are MJ Freeway and BioTrack THC. These companies offer tech and consulting services to dispensaries that need to track millions of retail products that require seed-to-sale tracking. Like in every other industry, new tracking technologies represent new bugs and security risks.
“MJ freeway had a major hack that caused severe outages at dispensaries and really slowed them down,” Wilson said. “They had to fill out everything by hand and record the statistics in a basic spreadsheet. That type of software is almost all-encompassing in the industry.”
Artificial intelligence to track customer buying habits is driving innovation on the dispensary side.
“Right now what’s going on is people are trying to track consumer habits and behaviors,” Wilson said.“There is a company called EyeChronic. They have a TV network dedicated to cannabis consumers, but it also comes with a package that logs people’s cell phones as they come and go. It’s tracking a unique number associated with the cellphone, not unlike a Mac ID. So they can actually track customer behavior. It anonymizes the data, of course, but that’s a new technology adapted from the restaurant business.”
Cannabis’ outlaw outlook
While in many ways its tech needs mirror those of earlier industries, its roots as an outlaw, counter-culture source of revenue also means that creating innovative solutions are an inherent part of its DNA.
“The marijuana industry started off mostly indoors or in ‘guerilla groves,’ [sic] outdoors under trees to prevent it from being spotted,” Wilson said. “The people growing indoors realized really quickly that they needed better technology because all the lights and equipment put out a lot of heat. The plants let off a lot of humidity. It becomes a nightmare if you’re trying to use your home A/C to control this all. Then it becomes a huge headache to control this environment yourself manually. Of course growers being growers, they start to innovate.”
While underground growers have been using devices like automated lights and humidifiers for decades, it’s gotten a lot deeper than that. Wilson explained that many large-scale operations depend on a Rasberry Pi or other computer tech to monitor and regulate an incredible range of data.
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“A lot of growers use a Rasberry Pi, which is programmed to respond to specific environmental conditions,” he said. “The Rasberry Pi can do a number of different things. It can activate a dehumidifier if it’s too humid. It can control watering functions. It monitors and adjusts the temperatures. It may even shut off the lights if it senses things are getting too hot.”
Editor’s Note: We also discussed other environmental controllers, but Raspberry Pi’s are open source.
“There’s all sorts of different farming automation techniques used to control some rather specific measurements,” he added. “For example, there is something called vapor pressure deficit, which is the controlled agricultural term. Essentially it has to do with how well water evaporates off of a leaf. And the more advanced systems are better at doing this.”
While in the past it would have been nearly impossible to do this level of monitoring without loads of experience, Wilson said this kind of automation tech has leveled the playing field. Now anybody can measure and regulate things like how much light a leaf is getting at a specific angle or how much light plants are actually receiving per day.
“Before you wouldn’t want anyone without a master’s or PHD doing the math,” he said. “Now there is all kinds of tech available to monitor these values and make suggestions about altering the values. You can program for a specific room, you can program them for specific strains. It’s mind blowing what they can monitor.”
The amount of automation in cannabis cultivation paints a picture of efficiency and a lean workforce that would be the envy of most industries.
“It’s almost to the point where you could build a facility that could do the grow by itself,” Wilson said.
Tag it and bag it
Perhaps the most ubiquitous aspect of the seed-to-sale data infrastructure are the Resource Description Framework (RDF) tags that follow each plant through its retail life cycle.
“RDF tags or ‘r-tags’ are used so the growers scan a barcode that’s essentially stuck to the stem of a plant,’ Wilson said. “And that will stay with the plant as it moves around the facility. When they harvest it, they’ll usually put the plant out to dry — and they keep the r-tag attached to it. And once it’s harvested, the barcode will be slapped onto whatever jar or packaging they’re using before they ship it off to the dispensaries.”
Tracking this epic amount of data is creating a growing need for IT expertise in the cannabis industry. But Wilson also warned that it’s an incredibly volatile industry. There is tremendous upside, but because it exists in a legal and cultural gray area, getting involved in cannabis is a risky proposition.
“There is an opportunity for IT pros, but you want to be careful,” Wilson said. “The industry is immature, and some of that hiding-from-the-government mentality is still there. You can find some very shifty characters. There are a lot of opportunities, but you need to protect yourself.”
“At the end of the day, it’s still federally illegal,” he added. “An IT pro would better off working somewhere that it’s already legal, like … Australia and Israel,” the latter of which permits it for medical use.
Note from the Author: The original article incorrectly stated that cannabis is legal in Canada. For current Canadian cannabis laws, refer to this link.
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About the Author
Mason Lerner is a journalist in Austin, TX. He has covered small business for the Houston Chronicle and was the business editor at the Killeen Daily Herald. Mason served as marketing copywriter/blogger for Austin based tech firm OWC, which specializes in manufacturing Apple components. He has covered tech trends in the lab, marketing and advertising industries for many publications. His work has also appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Vogue and the Jewish Daily Forward.