It didn’t take long after taking the helm of an Arizona medical cannabis company for Lezli Engelking to notice that there were no universal safety standards for the industry. She was alarmed by this because of the potential negative health impacts on both medical and recreational consumers.
“If a product is not safe, if it has pesticides or mold and you’re giving that to somebody with a compromised immune system, that’s not actually helping them," she said. It’s hurting them; same for someone using it recreationally."
"We don’t want to turn those people into patients just because they’re using cannabis," said Engelking. "There has to be some way to assure that it’s safe.”
She discovered there were challenges that didn't confront nationally regulated industries like food and pharmaceuticals.
“Everything else, be it food or drugs or pharmaceuticals, [operates under] mandated or recommended processes and procedures," she said. "But since cannabis is still federally illegal here… all the regulations are written on a state level and they’re different in every state and they really only address the who, what, when, where and why.
“What I was looking for was how to run my business better, how to not have the same problems happening all the time, how to make sure the product was consistent every time and that there weren’t any problems in the grow or management.”
It struck Engelking as a messy system, so she decided to clean it up.
It’s been three years since Engelking began laying the groundwork for what is known today as FOCUS – or the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards.
Based on the business model of the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) and drawing from the guidelines used by major bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and various government branches including those dedicated to cannabis regulation, FOCUS bills itself as “the only independent, third-party, non-profit, international cannabis standards development organization created to protect public health, consumer safety and safeguard the environment.”
While there are other groups out there attempting to set standards for the industry, Engelking said FOCUS is the only one considered “third-party and impartial.” Other groups either advocate openly for cannabis legalization, or they only consulted cannabis businesses in the development of their standards.
“We’re here to legitimize the cannabis industry, not legalize it,” said Engelking. “Legalization is coming either way, so our goal is to turn this into a global, sustainable, safe industry.”
Engelking added that FOCUS is soon to be the only group with universal accreditation from the American National Accreditation Board (ANAB); this is because her team followed the procedures and policies laid out by ANAB and the American National Standards Institute required for developing standards.
All of this careful calculation has set FOCUS up to do three things, said Engelking: to work with states in helping them run their programs, to work with federal governments here or abroad to establish regulations, and to work directly with business owners to meet the FOCUS guidelines.
“We’re here to sort of hold a business’s hand through their entire lifecycle and build their business into whatever they want it to be,” said Engelking.
“We’ll go through the certification process with them… and if they meet the criteria… they’ll get a quality and safety seal on their products to show they’re consistent, they’re made well, there’s a recall process in place and everything’s tracked and traced. It makes consumers and patients more comfortable with the product.”
Engelking anticipates that FOCUS will certify its first cannabis business by January, with hopes of eventually becoming the go-to set of standards for the cannabis market worldwide. She said the organization is currently working with roughly 40 businesses and there’s growing interest from outside the country.
She believes that as knowledge of the importance of universal standards expands, as will demand.
“Standards are the international language for trade," she said. "You can’t import or export if there’s nothing to gauge the safety or quality of a product... so eventually this should be the international standard for cannabis.”