How the Pandemic Has Impacted the Invisible Workers of Cannabis

Four cannabis workers reveal how the pandemic has made already existing kinks in the cannabis supply chain even worse.
Four cannabis workers reveal how the pandemic has made already existing kinks in the cannabis supply chain even worse. / Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Who isn’t consuming weed in some form or another these days? Amidst a year shaping up to show the American public “a new normal,” the Bay Area cannabis industry has been hit in ways many people may not be aware of with the increase in ordering delivery over the course of the pandemic. Even before the onslaught of wildfires claiming lives and crops across Oregon and California, in the midst of dozens of cannabis grows, manufacturing facilities and dispensaries getting robbed and looted, kinks in the cannabis supply chain were showing themselves.  

The pandemic has only made things worse.

Like much of the knowledge surrounding cannabis, exact figures are hard to come by. As a dispensary worker in San Francisco, I saw first hand the changes in how business was conducted and product was accessed. Certain brands were impossible to find, and selection was limited. Demos and events were dead. Delivery and pickup have diminished the budtender consultation. 

The Bluntness spoke to four cannabis industry workers from different aspects and “steps” in the cannabis supply chain as cannabis and its products reach shelves or virtual menus for customers to browse.  

The Cannabis Grow 

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

It starts with a grow. For Neil Dellacava, the founder and marketing director of Gold Seal SF, it’s quality over quantity. He’s been growing for over a decade, serving medical marijuana clubs around the Bay Area, culminating in his own cannabis brand, Gold Seal SF, in 2015. 

Perhaps best known for strains like Cherry Cheesecake and Red Congolese (the latter thanks to a partnership with Dragonfish Farms), the operation remains relatively small. This has made it easier to adhere to safe social distancing and PPE standards onsite, but for Dellacava all of this has complicated the marketing methods he relied on - i.e. face-to-face engagement in the dispensaries carrying Gold Seal.  

“The marketing aspect has taken a hit. I miss the live demos and talking to dispensary staff and customers face-to-face. We shifted a bit to more social media, more videos and multimedia content, but I still feel like we could be doing more,” says Dellacava. How do we figure out how to get in touch with people to maintain the brand and keep it relevant? The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to keep putting out good weed.”

Dellacava also buys for two of local dispensary Urbana’s locations in the city. Diversity of product is dwindling. 

Covid has definitely changed the supply chain. We now see vendors who used to have a lot of product, now have very little—down to two strain offerings from 10, in one case for example. We've switched over to pre-ordering from on-demand. We've always had scarcity, now it's how do we lock it in before it gets grown? I don't like doing that, personally. 

Neil Dellacava, Founder Gold Seal SF

The Cannabis Extractor

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Once the flowers have “bloomed” and cured, they may get packaged, per compliance standards, and sent out with a sales rep to the dispensary. Or, that flower may make its way to a manufacturing facility to be Willy Wonka-ed into everything from gummies to chocolate to live resin dabs to cartridges to lotions to infused lemonades. 

Ryan St. George, CEO of Focus Concentrates, has nearly two decades of experience with cannabis and its extracted forms. He produces his brand of hydrocarbon diamond sauces out of Type 7, a manufacturing facility in Berkeley that also makes products for Kiva confections. Focus was born to bring headstash concentrates, the creme de la creme, to the mainstream consumer.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, St. George and his team have hired people rather than furlough them, as they also white label production for other brands which has kept them busy. 

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He feels lucky, but he knows plenty of smaller brands are suffering, because unlike salons or restaurants cannabis businesses don’t always have the means to diversify— and, cannabis business owners cannot access Federal SBA or PPP loans or crop insurance in times of economic crisis.

When you're suddenly designated an essential worker, it's a unique set of challenges for sure. This industry already comes with issues relating to banking or finance. So many places open now are relying on programs to help small businesses. Those don't extend to us in the cannabis industry.

Ryan St. George, CEO, Focus Concentrates

Due to supply issues, Focus’ own production schedule has been delayed for the year. The process, from accessing material to extraction to testing, to packaging and distribution, can take months.  

“We've been waiting for this coming harvest and this fall, but have been holding off on production. We were planning to stagger them in two rounds, but we’ve doubled down on other projects,” he says. “Very few brands and cultivators are making the margins for retail.” 

The Cannabis Lab

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Once the chocolates have been dosed or the distillate settled, it’s time to test. All legally-produced cannabis products must pass various forms of testing for potency, legitimacy and purity from pesticides, molds, mycotoxins mildew and microbiology.  But you can’t take your buds just anywhere.

Dr. Robert Martin founded his Oakland-based lab, CW Analytical in 2009 after years working for corporate giants like Coca Cola and Kraft. His intention was to bring science and standardization to a “Wild West” industry that lacked research and protocol for preventing tainted medicine from reaching patients.  

Very little peer-reviewed research on cannabis exists due to its Schedule I status, and Dr. Martin hopes to change that. In June the lab’s scientists were published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry with an article that examined how different food ingredients can compromise the dosage accuracy of THC-infused products.  

“We're here to try and make it safe,” says Martin. “Labs put a metric on perception.”  

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Day to day, little has changed in an environment already dedicated to pharmaceutical standards,  but Martin says the workflow's biggest change has been less material to test, and the fear from growers and brands themselves about their health and financial viability.  

The pandemic has slowed everything. Many [companies] have collapsed and fallen apart with new regulations, the pandemic, the competitive aspect of the industry. It is vicious, and the ongoing wildfires certainly don’t help. In the last fire, there were a lot of outdoor grows that had ash fall on them or burned up in the field. You lose 300 or more plants, that's hard.

Dr. Robert Martin, CW Analytical

Martin and his team have also begun consulting with local companies on their facilities’ sanitation standards and how to maintain them. He says he also offers free consulting for companies on how to improve their lab results.

“Our samplers were pretty much unaffected by COVID because they're already shrouded and masked before it all started. We’re microbiologists and chemists. But we have clients up North who just shut their doors down and haven’t come back. Perception is community based, and they're scared.”

The Cannabis Vendor

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

Once the bud gets approved and packed into some kind of childproof receptacle, it’s time to hit the shelves. Or rather, the hands of a distributor or sales rep to bring it to the shelf. 

Alex Bassi came into the cannabis industry from a background in grocers’ wine and spirits sales. He leads the sales team for Canndescent, a premium indoor flower company based in the Coachella Valley that identifies their strains by overall effect like “Connect,” “Create,” and “Cruise.” He says their “Calm” flower and pre-rolls have been flying off the shelves. 

“Demand is through the roof. I manage the sales team, and being able to walk in and see your favorite shops and butenders, that's over,” says Bassi. “A lot of these relationships are now over the phone. It’s a great time to be a flower company, but keeping up with that supply is hard.” 

Despite perception otherwise, Bassi insists they aren’t a big company. They haven’t had to lay anyone off during quarantine, although that’s because they had already downsized in 2019.  

“We had to condense and lay some people off last year because we saw we were too big. You scale, scale, scale, and you see there's a cap in how big you can be, there's a limit,” he says.

Canndescent produces their flower inhouse, so they haven’t had to worry about their own supply. Bassi says flower consumption is on the rise due to all the time at home, but production cycles have had to change with health guidelines.

We launched a brand at the beginning of the lockdown, Baker’s. Now you have a room of people rolling the pre rolls and you have to have 3 shifts instead of one to maintain 6 feet.

Alex Bassi, Canndescent

Even months later, anxiety of mass looting of cannabis dispensaries and facilities across the Bay Area lingers.

“I'm not risk-averse, but I like to look ahead. We [in the industry] started having all these break-ins. I have friends that have gotten broken into three times, and thankfully they were continuing to serve people their medicine.”  

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Despite tangible concerns, resilience comes up repeatedly—it was never about giving up. Like many scientists, these Bay Area cannabis leaders don’t see “the new normal” dissipating  for another year or so.

Many industry leaders would agree with Bassi saying, “This is not the worst thing the cannabis world has been through.”

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