Could the future of the international cannabis industry lie in molecular technology-based tracking? The teams at Flora Growth and Applied DNA Sciences say that such technology is not just the future for cannabis brands, but the present – and the focus of their partnership. At this year’s Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo (CWCBExpo), the companies joined forces to present their innovative DNA tag-and-track systems to a diverse array of cannabis professionals who will soon find that going global means thinking micro.

How Does Applied DNA Sciences Use Molecular Technology-Based Tracking?

“The beauty of DNA is, it’s a great way to capture data,” said John Shearman, Vice President of Marketing and head of the Cannabis Unit at Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS). He and the team see molecular technology as the best solution for tracking products through domestic and international shipping, and for protecting branding and IP. Flora Growth, an internationally-focused cannabis company, is one of ADNAS’s primary customers using the technology to authenticate products from their family of brands.

“We’re concerned about having our product and materials being [traceable] around the world because we work with brands big and small,” explained Jason Warnock, Flora’s Chief Revenue Officer. “Our consumers want to know everything… You may need to know what our farms in Colombia are producing; you may be selling that [as CBD] in cosmetics in the United Kingdom… Our growth facilities, manufacturing facilities, distribution, sales channels. It may be touching fifteen hands before it reaches the store. So your seed to sale technologies usually use RFID or barcodes. This [technology from ADNAS] is the evolution of that, all the way down to tiny parts per billion and they use our Flora Growth signature, which means I can track the code. I can tell at exactly any point where I bought it and where it’s been.”

John Shearman of Applied DNA Sciences and Jason Warnock of Flora Growth at CWCBExpo (C) Jaime Lubin / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

Why is Applied DNA Sciences’ Technology Good for the Cannabis Industry?

While ADNAS is constantly developing new solutions for DNA-based tracking, their most celebrated method yet – and the one that Flora utilizes – is ultrasonic fogging. The glass case Warnock and Shearman displayed at CWCBExpo, with white clouds of fog billowing out its open top, drew attention as event attendees wondered if it was a new vaping or dab device. But the process of “fogging” actually involves microscopic pieces of inert plant material that attach through the vapor to whatever is placed inside the case. Like a barcode sticker on a piece of produce, these bits of plant material imprint a code that can be read on any cannabis product from oils to edibles to accessories and enable brands to protect their property.

“Any industry where you have a high chance of counterfeit or liability can use this,” said Warnock. He noted that because the cannabis space has unique issues with merchandise copycatting and authenticating materials used in various products, due to the plant’s ever-changing legal status, the industry particularly needs molecular codes to help with cross-jurisdiction shipping. “The sophistication of counterfeiting is amazing. But this is essentially an unbreakable technology that cannot be replicated by the legacy market [or by any illegal channels]. So it would be a very strong deterrent to counterfeiting if it was instituted at a state or federal level.”

Citing 2019’s “Vapegate,” where the federal government cracked down on vape manufacturers due to an overwhelming amount of devices with unhealthy Vitamin E acetate levels on the market, Warnock added that cannabis businesses must concentrate on maintaining standards. “When you build a medicine, you can’t take the chance that it’s [inconsistent].”

How is Applied DNA Sciences’ Technology Used in Cannabis Processing?

That’s where the ADNAS expertise comes in. As the anchor tenant of Stony Brook University’s Long Island High Technology Incubator, ADNAS runs a full-service lab in New York with over 100 employees, and the company’s most prominent project has revolved around PCR testing to help manage and contact-trace in the COVID-19 pandemic. Shearman and Warnock pointed out that the molecular “stickers” from the ultrasonic fogging will show up in PCR scans.

Additionally, Warnock stated, the material used to create sticker-signatures can be incorporated into cannabis products during the processing phase. “You can add this to distillate,” he said, “or you can add it to crude, and you can actually mix it in the isolate phase as well.” There are even ways to print it into ink used on a product’s packaging.

“This technology is one of many that will come together in the cannabis industry,” Shearman said. “[It will] make an ecosystem of technology as they’re contemplating the infrastructure [of a regulated market]. We all love the sexy products coming out of great dispensaries, but you need the blocking and tackling to get there. The blocking and tackling is this – working with a True Trace [system] and with leaders like Flora Growth to understand how people are struggling. People are learning from one another.”

Will Cannabis Legacy Brands Benefit from Applied DNA Sciences’ Technology?

One of the biggest questions facing the cannabis industry now, as the possibility of federal legalization looms, is how legacy operators (entrepreneurs and brands developed in the illicit market) will transition to regulation. Many legacy growers have cultivated proprietary strains and products now considered staples of the sector. How could molecular tracing technology affect them?

According to Warnock, it’s beneficial for small growers and legacy brands, because the technology allows them to protect their genetics and provide more legitimacy as they market their products. For smaller operators seeking to move into the next phase of the market, it could give them a leg up as they compete with corporate multi-state operators.

Where Flora is concerned, Warnock concluded, “We don’t want to operate in just one market, we want to be global. We want to be able to attract [diverse] brands… How do I know [impure sourcing] isn’t coming in here? Well, I can prove it all the way. I hope that most people find the benefits of the plant and find different things until we break problems in the supply chain down, like markets in the East and in North Africa and Asia. This is helpful to legitimize it.”