Security experts suggest stringent health and safety protocols helped cannabis businesses manage COVID-19 better than most
By Alanna Fairey
While the world at large has been shaken up and turned upside down in recent months, the cannabis industry has experienced a limited amount of change and has continued to do business.
Jeff Hannah, founder and principal consultant of JH & Associates, notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has not significantly affected the cannabis industry, explaining that the pharmaceutical standard that the industry abides by was significant in terms of managing the health and safety precautions brought on by the pandemic.
“A lot of the existing [cannabis] businesses had to make the same changes that a lot of businesses made, but really if you know anything about those places they’re probably the safest workplaces you could be in right now,” Hannah says.
“Everyone is gowned up, you have masks on, everyone has got gloves on and there is constant hand washing.”
Hannah also shares that given the nature of the projects he was working on as the pandemic hit, he has not seen many projects moved to the back burner.
“A lot of my projects have to do with ones that are under construction and in most provinces they were able to sort of fit into that essential business category,” Hannah explains. “For the most part, these projects kept on rolling, and I was very lucky that a lot of my projects weren’t really affected by COVID.”
Mike Soberal, senior director of corporate security at Calgary-based Aurora Cannabis also shares that many of the company’s security programs have remained unchanged since the pandemic.
However, he notes that the company has implemented additional safety precautions.
“We have looked to national public health guidelines to inform security enhancements since the onset of the pandemic,” Soberal says. “Prioritizing the safety of our employees, we have altered our visitor and entry program by introducing new screening measures, including well-being and travel history questionnaires and temperature taking.”
Aurora has also implemented physical distancing protocols across all of their operations and have provided production staff with additional personal protective equipment (PPE), which he says exceeds the requirements of the Cannabis Act, a legal and regulatory framework for controlling the production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis in Canada.
As the COVID-19 situation continues to change, Soberal adds that Aurora will adjust their security measures as they see fit.
“As we look ahead, we are actively examining longer-term strategies for use at our facilities and will work to adapt to the evolving global understanding of a new normal,” Soberal states.
While COVID-19 has inspired a plethora of other restrictions and changes in the lives of Canadians, the cannabis industry has actually eased up on some of the regulations that were established when it was first getting underway in 2018.
“If anything, security in cannabis is becoming more relaxed. Initially it started out very strictly regulated,” says Hannah. “Things are getting a little bit easier as we learn more about what Health Canada expects as a regulator.”
Daniel Bear, a drugs policy researcher and professor on the Criminal Justice degree program at Toronto-based Humber College, shares that the production side of the cannabis industry has also become less restrictive in terms of security.
Health Canada previously announced that they will continue reviewing applications for new cannabis licences and security-clearance applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, though there may be delays.
Bear explains that Health Canada announced that if there were not enough staff who have security clearances because of either health-related issues or work from home requirements, cannabis producers can designate a non-security cleared person to take on roles that would normally require security clearance.
This is an interesting development, according to Bear, as these regulations have the potential to become a regular practice amongst cannabis producers once the pandemic subsides.
“Obviously, you cannot say that cannabis has no regulation and we are just going to let it do whatever it wants,” Bear stresses. “Time is potentially saying that perhaps we do not need to be as strict with these regulations. We can better deploy Health Canada oversight resources and companies can better utilize staff and production techniques.”
What lies ahead?
As the COVID-19 situation develops, it remains to be seen whether or not these less strict regulations surrounding cannabis production will be the new normal.
“We’re coming up with interpretations that are more practical and realistic, and then Health Canada can understand and endorse,” Hannah says.
It will all depend on whether businesses are able to safely grow and move their products from seed to sale, without all this heavy security clearance, says Bear.
“We have an opportunity to rethink how we regulate drugs and alcohol, and we have the opportunity to start and try something new,” Bear concludes.
The new normal
Navigating the new normal and adjusting to the changing climate has proved to be a challenge, but Soberal commends Aurora Cannabis’ staff for coming together during this time and continuing to get their cannabis products to customers across Canada.
Committed to operating in full compliance with the regulations in the Cannabis Act, Aurora has continued to abide by the government’s policies.
Soberal shares that at the beginning of the pandemic, Aurora was proactive in their response to the virus.
“Aurora immediately began assembling a response committee across functional teams to ensure swift and coordinated changes that have ensured we have been able to remain fully operational,” Soberal says. “We’re looking carefully at the future and continuing to assess new projects and opportunities to further strengthen our security strategies.”
Soberal explains that Aurora responded to the pandemic by increasing their PPE stockpiles and working with vendors to ensure that their supply chain remains uninterrupted and can continue to service their customers.
“I’m proud of how the Aurora team has worked together to make decisive pivots to adapt to COVID-19 and keep our staff safe,” Soberal says.
“I am encouraged by how resilient our company and our workforce is, and know that we will keep working together to have a bright future.”
While cannabis producers have undergone changes during COVID-19, the retail sector has also seen changes to regulation.
Back in April, Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario government announced that legal cannabis retailers in the province were granted permission to provide curbside pickup and delivery options — options that were not approved prior to the pandemic.
According to the government’s statement, no more than 30 grams of dried cannabis can be delivered or picked up. In addition, retailers are still required to check ID to ensure the person purchasing the product is of age.
Also, those handling delivery or curbside pickup must have completed the same training required for staff working in cannabis retail stores.
Daniel Bear, a drugs policy researcher and professor at Humber College in Toronto, says that deeming legal cannabis businesses as essential throughout Canada, has in turn resulted in the government having to rethink the heavy handed and limiting regulations around cannabis retail.
“It is going to be an interesting experiment to see if we really did need the very strict measures around cannabis retail that were initially put into place,” says Bear.