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Cannacurio Podcast Episode 42 with Jim Thomas of ASTM International


ASTM International Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jim Thomas joins Ed Keating to talk about how his organization works to develop cannabis industry standards as well as how his team uses the Cannabiz Media License Database for research, sales, and business development.

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Cannacurio Podcast Episode 42 Transcript

Ed Keating:

This is the Cannacurio podcast by Cannabiz Media, your source for cannabis and hemp license news, directly from the data vault. So welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Ed Keating, and on today’s show we’re joined by Jim Thomas, vice president sales and marketing at ASTM. Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Thomas:

Thank you so much, Ed. Good to be here. Appreciate the time.

Ed Keating:

Excellent, excellent. So sort of a simple question but a very fundamental one. What does ASTM stand for?

Jim Thomas:

Well, at one point, if you’re talking about the acronym, at one point it was the American Society of Testing Materials. That’s when it originated back in 1898. It was really created to help with the railroad system in the United States. I think the first standards were in the area of steel. 

Over the years, the name is not any longer the American Society of Testing Materials. The official name is now ASTM International, and that was for a lot of different reasons. But to prove that ASTM is truly an international standards development organization, instead of putting an I in front of our name, we put the I at the end. That’s where we’re at with that.

Ed Keating:

Excellent, excellent. Yeah, I guess, sort of like how the AARP is now just the AARP.

Jim Thomas:

Just things change with time, you know? Things change.

Ed Keating:

That’s right, got to stay current, got to stay current. So bringing it to our space, how did you and ASTM get involved in the cannabis space? Because as I recollect, you started early on. It’s not like something you just picked up a few years ago.

Jim Thomas:

Yeah, well, early on at this point is within the last five years, right? So I believe it was either 2016 or ’17, I can’t remember what year it was, but at our board of directors meeting, it was a pretty long debate. I’ve been at ASTM for 16 years now. I think I’ve worked with the board of directors probably 10 of those 16 years. And I can say that the conversation around whether ASTM should be involved in cannabis was the most interesting conversation that I’ve ever been part of. 

In all the issues that we face, we represent 148 different industries at ASTM International, and I’d say that the conversations are always high level with our board of directors, but this one took on a whole different kind of feeling. And probably an hour and a half after the conversation was started, a vote was taken, and the vote came out that the organization was going to support technical committee D37 on cannabis activities.

And it was done for a number of reasons. It was done because it’s a public safety issue. The industry needs standards to be safe and successful. And we had a very good advocate for the program. He was either chairman of the board or on our executive committee of the board, Ralph Perley, Dr. Ralph Perley, up from the NRC Canada, National Resource Council, I believe it stands for. But he did a really great job advocating for why ASTM and our 100+ year history should be part of this evolution that’s happening in the world in the cannabis space. 

So it was really exciting. I got a lot of different perspectives from people. Some of them were reefer madness issues, others were just, how’s it going to work with it being a Schedule One illegal type thing? How are we going to do this in our workflow?

Ed Keating:

Right. So Jim, as somebody who used to work at a trade association and had to deal with the board, sometimes going from translating what happens in the board meeting to the membership level can sometimes have challenges. And I’m curious, how have the members embraced it and what is their role? Are there a lot of people involved in it in committees and whatnot, or do people have a hands off kind of view?

Jim Thomas:

No, no. I’ve got to tell you, in my 16 years and probably in the history of ASTM, I don’t know of a technical committee that has evolved, developed so quickly as committee D37. I think to date we have over 1,200 volunteers.

Ed Keating:

Wow.

Jim Thomas:

All over the world. I can’t think of another committee that has grown so quickly with so much energy. And the interesting thing is, you have people from all walks of the business. You have people that have been in the business one way or another for the last 30 years, you have current multi-state operators, you have regulators, you have people that are dealing with small mom and pop shops. You have CBD, you have hemp, you have THC, you have vape pens. 

You have literally everything that you can imagine, because it’s important that the industry has really scientific data and trusted industry driven standards to make it a safe industry globally.

Ed Keating:

Great. Now, as you were teaching me a little bit about how ASTM works, you pointed out that with the cannabis space, you’re taking a different approach where you’re actually working with other standards bodies and associations in the space. And what’s that been like? Because that sounds like that’s kind of a unique approach, different from how standards are often created and implemented.

Jim Thomas:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So our committee D37 is doing really fantastic work. They’re putting out test methods, they’re putting out standards, a lot of work items in place. But for a fledgling industry, like the cannabis industry that we’re talking about here, you’re going to need all kinds of people participating in its growth. 

So for example, there are other organizations out there that are developing standards in this space. It’s almost like I shouldn’t be saying that because I should just be talking about ASTM, right? But that’s not practical. We live in a world where it’s a multiple path approach to standards, and we have to recognize that other organizations are going to be creating valuable content in their wheelhouse. 

So for example, the Illuminating Engineering Society, they’re developing standards around lighting systems for growth, for more effective lighting and energy consumption. American Waterworks Association has a document that’s being referenced for obviously water related issues. ISO, you’ve all heard ISO as one of the biggest standards developing organizations in the world. They’re currently working on a technical committee to deal with, I believe, sustainability among other things. 

So as I’m reading the roadmap, if you will, for other successful industries, take oil and gas for example, one of the industries that’s the most heavily regulated on the planet. They have multiple standards organizations that need to be involved in order to make it a safe and sustainable industry. 

So from my perspective, ASTM is a great player in the cannabis space. We’re working on not just standards but proficiency testing programs. We’re working on training, we’re working on certifications. And then, we’re partnering with other organizations to talk about, how do we get your niche product that you’re focusing on? Like I said, we represent 148 different industries, so we can’t be all things to all people.

Ed Keating:

Right, right.

Jim Thomas:

We’re partnering with different people like Greenflower and Training Space. We’re partnering with a number of other different organizations in the space just to try to get more content out there because the industry’s going to need it. 

And the industry’s going to need it because eventually it will be federally legal across the board. And when that happens it’s going to be top down. And you want to show that the industry can regulate itself, that it’s working towards safety, that it’s working towards sustainability. And to do that you have to incorporate voluntary consensus standards, and I believe it’s going to come from multiple organizations, not just ASTM.

Ed Keating:

So Jim, you sort of hit to my next question, which is, what happens or what’s the risk to the industry if standards are not embraced and enforced? Because it sounds like if the industry can regulate itself or show that it’s perhaps a good citizen, I don’t know if that’s the right term, that the federal regulatory approach might be different. 

I’m not going to say it’s going to be hands off, but what happens if they don’t embrace these standards now? What does the future look like? You talked about that roadmap. I imagine there’s two roadmaps, one it’s embraced, the other it’s not. What happens if industry doesn’t embrace it or says, “Eh, we don’t want to regulate that yet or follow that”?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah. I’ve seen it, for all the years I’ve been in this industry, whether it’s working through a commercial aggregator, whether it’s been at ASTM, it doesn’t matter really what people want or don’t want. It’s going to be, “You have to do this. You have to have a product that’s tested to these standards. You’re going to deal with state regulations. You’re going to deal with local laws. You’re going to deal with federal.” 

And in my experience working in all these different industries is that there should be a partnership between government and industry and voluntary consensus standards organizations. Because what you don’t want to have happen if I’m the cannabis industry is you don’t want somebody that’s just working for a government agency putting what they think is the best thing for the industry out there.

You want to have collaborative effort, meaning that, let’s just say you’re talking about heavy metal contaminants or something like that. There could be multiple organizations out there that are developing industry standards right now. It could be a trade association, it could be an incredible standards body. It could be somebody who’s been in the business for a number of years that has a really great scientific output that they’re looking to have. But what has to happen is there has to be some kind of consensus in that this is the best for this state, this locality, this is the best at a federal level.

So I think it’s important to have that kind of private-government partnership, because a lot of times, what happens is in the Code of Federal Regulations, for example, they will write some kind of regulation. And inevitably, there will be a reference to an external document. Sometimes it’s ASTM, sometimes it’s ICC, sometimes it’s NFPA, what have you. And that’s done so that the government doesn’t have to recreate the wheel over and over again when they’re dealing with specific issues.

Ed Keating:

Right.

Jim Thomas:

So my only advice to people is, if you think that you’re doing it your own way right now, you’re making money, you’re not worried about, I don’t know, lab shopping or all the different things that we hear in the industry right now, you should be worried. Because inevitably, the rules and regulations will come. 

All it takes is one death, one injury, another major recall like we’ve seen in multiple states. The state I’m living in, Pennsylvania, we have a recall that happened, and I’m a medical marijuana patient here in the state of Pennsylvania. And one of the things that I have has been recalled. 

Now, as a person who’s in the industry, when I look at that, I recognize that potentially they’re right, potentially they’re not right. Because there’s a percentage that changed, and who tested it? How many people have talked about it? There’s just so many questions that I think that people would have based on the percentages that changed really in a short period of time.

So I won’t get into that because I’m not going to libel myself or anything because I’m not a scientist, but the interesting thing is I think that there’s going to be a tremendous amount of questions that don’t have answers. And that’s what I’m most worried about for this industry. 

If we don’t start taking seriously the role of standards and the importance of standards in this industry, then it’s going to happen. And somebody you don’t want developing the rules is going to be doing it. And then you’re going to wonder why you’re not able to do what you used to be able to do before it was regulated. [crosstalk 00:12:08] doesn’t last forever.

Ed Keating:

So Jim, in terms of the government or the regulator, I guess they can take many roles, but as I was thinking through this, and they can be an author often of regulations, they can be an enforcer, but it sounds like they can also be a validator, where they can point to those outside standards and say, “This is the law of land.” Is that often how it works across those three roles?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah. Historically it’s a good partnership – public, private, government, the whole thing. And that came about after, I believe, the COTS initiative happened, commercial off the shelf, where the government wasn’t making all of their own standards for hammers and toilet seats and all of that. And they started looking more towards the voluntary consensus community so that they can get things done quicker and more efficiently and save our tax dollars. 

So it’ll be interesting over the years to see, because right now there is no one master. So FDA has a part, USP has a part, USDA has a part. And then in each state, if you look, and we’ve done some work for a laboratory directory in the medical marijuana space, it was a really hard thing to do, to find. In each state, I think there’s 37 right now if I’m not mistaken, medical marijuana approved states, and each one of them is governed by a different entity.

It’s really hard to find who’s allowed to do what where because it’s all growing so rapidly. But from a public safety and reliability standpoint, we’ve got to start moving to some transparency in this, because a lack of transparency is going to be a big problem for the industry in due time.

Ed Keating:

Yeah, absolutely. Now, putting the focus back on ASTM for a minute, you talked about some work with labs. I’m curious, what has ASTM created in the space so far with those 1,200 volunteers and those relationships with other organizations?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah, they’ve done a real good job, as I said. The D37 committee, especially the management team around the D37 committee, they’re really experienced and they bring a lot of great industry knowledge to the committees. 

ASTM has been able to create a micro site, the site is astmcannabis.org. And on that microsite, we talk about not just standards that we’re developing, but as I mentioned before, our proficiency testing programs, our certification programs, all of those are listed on the microsite that we have. And then we also do some training seminars, webinars, things like that. 

So I think to date there is probably eight work items, I believe, in process right now. I think a few of the standards have already been published, but once again, it’s a newer committee. And the cycle for developing standards could be anywhere from 12 to 24 months.So they’re doing a real good job with what they’re putting out right now, but there’s more to come. Because what the industry needs is the full circle type perspective. 

It’s not just standards that you need. It’s to be able to make sure your laboratories know how to test specific things, that the new people coming into the industry, because let’s be honest, it’s the fastest growing industry that the country’s seen ever, potentially. 500,000 new jobs in this space, and you have people coming from all different walks of life. So how are you training these people? How are you training this new workforce when there are no rules, there are no regulations at that type of level? So you have OSHA requirements and different things like that, but in reality it’s all new. It’s really all new.

Ed Keating:

Right. Well, topically and locally, here in Connecticut where I am, there’s just a few labs that do cannabis testing. And the regulations in this state are, you need a CSL or controlled substances license. That’s pretty much the threshold. And most of the people who have those in Connecticut are police labs or universities, and you take those out and you’re pretty much left with two. 

What came to light recently is the two labs were certified by the state that it was okay to essentially have different standards, I think for a type of mold, aspergillus perhaps, I can’t remember which one it was. And people were kind of shocked, like, “Well, which lab do I use then? And how could that be all right?” And is this the kind of behavior we can expect or side effects we can expect if there aren’t clear standards nationally or through an association such as ASTM?

Jim Thomas:

Well, the other thing too is, I would ask if those labs are accredited by an accreditation body like ANAB. They’re accrediting laboratories in the cannabis space now. So these are the types of things why it’s very dangerous from state to state. It changes, the rules change from state to state. 

But what’s happening is established businesses like ANSI, ANA, when they accredit a lab, it’s for public safety. It’s for people to understand that this lab is accredited, it’s got the credentials, it’s got whatever it needs to be able to be an operator in this space. You should feel good that you’re working with a lab that has the proper credentials.

Ed Keating:

Right.

Jim Thomas:

Each state has to realize that. And from my experience being in this industry now for the last several years, and I’m coming at it from a different perspective, I’m coming at it from standards, right? People are now talking about adult use, they’re talking about vape pens. They’re talking about whatever the latest and greatest new consumable type thing is. And that’s all well and good and people are making money, and that’s fine. But in the background you need to have people working on the science part. 

You have to have people working on the safety, the safety of transportation. How long should something be on a shelf? All the different things that right now are different from state to state, and at some point it would be great if, like they did for alcohol, I believe a lot of the things from the ATF were done at a federal level. You have state different rules of when your liquor store can be open and you can buy them in a supermarket as opposed to a state store.

But at some point in this industry, if it’s going to be successful and profitable for a lot of people for a long time, you have to have something that is sustainable. You have to have something that is going to be consistent across the board. Because even the MSOs that are operating now, and they’re operating from state to state to state, just the fact that they have to do something different here, here, here, here, and here. How do you keep up with that and be profitable? The overhead’s got to be enormous.

Ed Keating:

Well, right. And going back to your point about people who are medical patients, suppose you are going to different states where your card has reciprocity. You can use it, let’s say, in Nevada or elsewhere, and they have vastly different or no testing standards. For a while we had some states that weren’t testing at all, or in New Jersey, it was testing at the state level. You just have all these different scenarios where people can get really inconsistent product because every state is a sovereign nation as we often say on this podcast. And that makes it difficult for the end user.

Jim Thomas:

It does really. And at one point in my life, I was excited when I was down in Washington DC and I saw some truck, it was an ice cream truck or something that somebody converted into a gifting station. So that was the deal. That’s still the deal down there actually, to be honest with you. “Here, if I give you $5, you’re going to give me a gift,” or let’s say $50, because nothing’s $5. “Here’s $50, and I’m going to have my gift.” And I take my gift, and, “Wow, this is awesome. I now have a brownie.” 

I have no idea what I just got. This could be crack. I have no idea what I just got. I was so excited that I saw something that was, it looked official and it looked like it was something like, “Wow, I can finally get an edible somewhere.” But now that I’ve been in this industry and I’ve joined the Pennsylvania program and things like that, and I look and I see the date it was tested, THC percentage, the CBD percentage, all the different things that as a consumer you want to know.

So I’m 45 years old now, I’ve got four kids, my days of just taking something from a window of a former Mr. Softie have to come to an end. But it’ll be important that from state to state, if you want to have these boutique things, if you want to have people, at least there’s got to be some kind of vendor license or something that says you have to have this tested by these accredited official labs or you’re just another knockoff. This is like selling fake bags or something like that. You’ve got to be real careful with that. So I can always get off on a little diatribe, but it reminded me, I was so excited that I think they still played the music on the Mr. Softie truck or whatever.

Ed Keating:

Yeah. It connotes a whole different thing now than it did when we were kids.

Jim Thomas:

Yeah.

Ed Keating:

Now, in terms of standards and industry formation, I’m just trying to get a sense, and I think I know the answer, but do standards lead the industry or are they a lagging indicator? Are you trying to catch up with the industry or are you ahead of the industry as it’s forming now?

Jim Thomas:

No, I would honestly say it’s not ahead of the industry. It comes when new people in industry realize that they can’t meet their objectives for production or trade, or there’s some kind of impediment that they’re experiencing because they don’t have the proper whatever it is. There’s a lot of different things that could drive it, but typically, industry will move and then they’ll try to play catch up, in my experiences with new industry. 

So established industries like the oil and gas, construction, things like that, they have a roadmap, they have plans. They have years and years and decades of developing consensus-based standards and rules and regulations and things like that. But I can say, honestly, from being in hundreds of meetings in the cannabis space at this point, the industry has moved so fast, and they’ve set their own type of standards. They’ve tried to make their own checklists. They’ve tried to make their own certifications. They’ve tried to figure out how to create their own standards development organizations.

So ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, for X amount of money and if you meet this checklist, you can be an accredited standards development organization. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you actually can do it. Because being a standards development organization is more than just saying, “I want to put some pieces of paper together, have a couple of people that are friends of mine, and we’re going to put something that could potentially go up and be influenced in a CFR or a state reg,” or whatever it is. And then we have a product or service that meets our needs and it doesn’t meet the needs of the entire industry. 

So you have to be real careful in standards development because you get people that try to load the deck because they want a competitive advantage and want to get to market faster. Just imagine changing something 0.5% on something, whatever it is, and the law moved and you already have your entire thing done, you already have the workflow done. Your first mover advantage is huge. So there’s a lot of things that go into why people either want standards or don’t want standards, because you get it on both sides.

Ed Keating:

Right, right. No, that makes a lot of sense, a lot of sense. Now, one of the things I learned in talking to you and learning about ASTM is, if you have good standards and they’re broadly adopted, it can actually improve the flow of commerce. And we talked about this actually, I think, internationally, where if the producing country and the receiving country are on, let’s say, similar standards, that seems to be a recipe for making commerce more frictionless. Is that right? Is that what can really happen if it works out well?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So for example, D37, the cannabis committee, the standards they push out, it’ll be really important from my perspective for ASTM to work with international national standards bodies. We have MOU, memorandum of understanding, agreements with over 115 different countries, their national standards bodies, at this point, I believe. And some of the things that they’ll do is they’ll take and establish ASTM standard and they’ll adopt that standard as their national standard. 

So from my perspective, what the strategy should be, and to make sure that the American companies that are in this industry have the ability to export their product, because that’s what’s coming next. Right now we’re talking about state to state, blah, blah, blah, all this kind of stuff. And you think about global commerce and people who build huge, successful businesses, they have to be able to export. And to be able to export you need that country to be able to import. And for them to be able to import, there has to be standards that are met and accepted internationally. 

So what I hope ASTM will do is work with those national standards bodies partners and really come together and say, “Hey, listen, we’re already doing all this work in this cannabis space. It includes hemp, it includes this, it includes that, it includes,” whatever it is. “Why don’t you just nationally adopt? Don’t worry about setting up your own committee and doing all that rework. Or have a committee, yeah, because you’re going to need something for your local and all that kind of stuff. But really use these established practices, these standards, as the basis of your national standards.” 

What that’ll do, that’ll make sure that the people who are manufacturing here in the United States and they’re following the rules here, that’ll make sure that what’s happening, what you’re able to export. There might have to be some changes or tweaks or whatever it is, but the foundation, the strength of this is being able to have a strong American industry that’s capable of exporting their products to multiple countries around the world. Because everybody’s changing, everybody’s realizing that this is going to be the next $300 billion industry.

Ed Keating:

Indeed, indeed. Now, we talked a lot about partnerships. You’re obviously a Cannabiz Media subscriber.

Jim Thomas:

Yes.

Ed Keating:

How have we been able to help you meet your goals?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So Cannabiz Media, from my perspective, I’ve done a lot of research. I’ve been approached by other organizations that have talked about, will get you the niche things that you’re looking for. Because if cannabis is a niche in 148 industries, dig down a couple levels, because standards are a micro niche. And the people that we need to talk to are even smaller.

So what’s been really great is that we’ve been able to strategically pinpoint the types of organizations that we want to work with. So for example, as we’re trying to grow our proficiency testing programs, we have a number of laboratories, 3,000, whatever it is at ASTM, that partner with us and use our services in the oil and gas space, in the construction space, established industries. But what we don’t necessarily have is a marketing list for those laboratories in the cannabis space.

And I can say that the list that you guys have in Cannabiz Media is fantastic. So we’ve been able to really incrementally grow some of our programs specifically targeting the laboratories in your space. And that’s a tremendous value from my perspective, I’m the vice president of marketing and sales at ASTM, and growing this business is tough because people are still learning why it’s important to use standards. 

So as we’re advocating and we’re educating, we have to be able to find the right people to give them this information because they just don’t know. A lot of people just don’t know. New lab managers are coming in, they’re brand new, and they might not know all of the things that they could be offering their staff for efficiency and improvements and competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Ed Keating:

Excellent. So Jim, you’ve been through this process before in other industries, you’ve seen the dynamics of how standards are developed, evolved, and adopted. What advice would you have for our listeners in terms of what you see coming next? Sort of the crystal ball question, like what do the next couple of years look like from the standards perspective, and how will they impact the industry over that time?

Jim Thomas:

Yeah. You know, my phrase lately for a lot of things is evolution, not revolution.

Ed Keating:

Yeah.

Jim Thomas:

And what I’m seeing in the standards space is, I’m cautiously optimistic that we, as a community, will take the opportunity to go across the aisle, so to speak, and make sure that we all know what’s happening. 

And when we talked the other day, I mentioned to you the need for a non-denominational type space to be able to communicate with multiple standards, multiple stakeholders, multiple government agencies. And this is where the cannabis forum came in that my wife actually started last year. What is it, thecannabisforum.org, and really what it is, it was put together just like the standards technology forum that she started about five years ago.

There’s an advisory council that she’s putting together of different stakeholders. So the standards technology forum that we have has an advisory council of standards development organizations and national standards bodies. So we have ASTM, we have AFNOR, we have ISO, we have BSI, we have ASME. There’s a number of other, INORN in Netherlands. So there’s a tremendous amount of international representation on that advisory council for the standards technology forum. And what we’re going to do is do the same type of thing for the cannabis forum. 

So we’re hopeful that other organizations in this space like UL, ISO, ASTM, IES, whoever, we can invite them to be part of the advisory council. Then we can actually also invite other organizations, people that are dealing with regulation, people that are dealing with state rules and the departments of weights and measures and things like that.

Because as a 501C3 not for profit, it’s tough for us to be able to talk to certain people because we’re not supposed to lobby. We’re not a lobbying organization. So we have to educate the best we can, but in a non-denominational space, it’ll be good to bring together everybody. Because when you’re dealing with an agency, you’re dealing with them as that organization. 

So ASTM deals with USP, ASTM deals with USDA. And what we don’t know is what everybody else is doing. The problem that we have is that we’re kind of in our way, we’re in our own way to getting this thing done faster, because there’s so many people with so many different agendas and so many different stakeholders and things like that, that my only hope with the cannabis forum is that we can just get some stuff on a whiteboard. And if you’re working in that space, maybe we can partner.

If you’re not working in that space, we’ll do it. Let’s take an all hands on deck approach to this, because if we don’t, as an industry, something’s going to happen. I told you this the other day, Ed, something’s going to happen, God forbid. But rules and regulations will be forced down upon the industry unless we figure out how to do it and work together before that happens.

Ed Keating:

Yeah, that’s a good ending part, because it’s one of those things. If you’re not part of the process, the decision’s going to be made for you, and nobody likes to be on the receiving end of that.

Jim Thomas:

Yeah. And there’s still people that don’t believe that’s going to happen. What’s today’s date? February 28th, 2022. I don’t want to have an “I told you so” moment with anybody, but I’m telling you it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. So volunteer, be part of it, that’s why the ASTM committee with 1,200 members, it was awesome to see. It’s just staggering to see the interest in this industry.

Ed Keating:

Well, excellent. Well, Jim, thank you so much. I’ve learned a lot today, and I’m sure our listeners have as well. And you heard it here first. It’s coming down the pike, it’s just really a matter of when. So thanks again for being on the podcast. I’m your host, Ed Keating. Stay tuned for more updates from the data vault.



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