Medical marijuana seed-to-sale tracking system already worrying advocates -- but should it?

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In August, the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division awarded a $1.5 million contract to Franwell Inc. to institute a seed-to-sale marijuana tracking method for Colorado MMJ enterprises using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. And while the system isn't expected to be in place until early 2012, at least one advocate is raising alarm about expense and the possible creation of new crimes. Should operators be worried?

According to a Franwell release about the Colorado contract, "RFID tracking of marijuana will capture information on the approved 6 plants allowed per patient, each stage of plant growth, distribution and final sale. Whether a patient requires smokeable product or marijuana infused products (MIP) such as ice cream or salsa, RFID will track that patient's product and allowance in accordance with state regulations."

Language like this prompts objections from the Cannabis Therapy Institute's Laura Kriho on a number of fronts. "RFID technology is going to be another expense for the dispensaries," she says. "And these tags could be $3 apiece. They send out a signal saying what's what, but the tags are going to have to be constantly reprogrammed, and it's going to be a huge administrative expense -- and it could be another crime. If you're caught with cannabis from a dispensary that doesn't correspond to the RFID chip in your medicine bottle, that's another way for people to go to jail." How does MMED spokeswoman Julie Postlethwait respond to these assertions? Corresponding via e-mail, she explains that "early on we determined that use of Radio Frequency Identification tags is the most effective and cost efficient way to track this product. Franwell was the successful bidder in a highly competitive process and we look forward to working with them to build a system that meets our regulatory needs and is easy to use for the industry."

Regarding Kriho's concern about $3 tags, Postlethwait offers reassurances, if not specifics. "We are only in the early planning stages of the system," she writes, "but costs to the industry will be limited as much as possible."

She also dismisses the idea that a dispensary might be criminally charged for accidentally hanging the wrong tag on the wrong plant, or some other similarly benign error. "Industry members will not face criminal charges for making a mistake," she stresses. "However, if investigation brought evidence to light that illegal activity had taken place, the MMED will pursue criminal and administrative sanctions."

If statements like this last one bother Jake Browne, marketing director for Colorado Dispensary Services, he doesn't show it -- and he sees Kriho's criticism as premature. "They're still doing rulemaking on this -- which is why any kind of talk about punishment is purely speculative at this point," he says. "When anything happens at MMED, they have to promulgate rules to bring it full circle, and RFID is a discussion going on. But there's been nothing posted about these outlandish punishments."

In addition, he believes the $3 per tag estimate "is pure hyperbole. The cost for the tags themselves will be five to ten cents apiece. It will be more if you factor in the cost of the machines [that make them], which cost roughly $1,500 to $1,700. But if you can't afford the printing cost, you should be able to have your tags printed by the Department of Revenue."

Moreover, he feels that cost-savings elsewhere balance out the seed-to-sale expenses. "Initially, they wanted multiple HD cameras with a ten-times zoom at each facility, so they could zoom in on a bar code and scan it. That would have been eight grand a pop. But they decided RFID was a much cheaper way to do this. This is another example of MMED working with us and finding reasonable compromises."

Browne believes such cooperation will remain in place when the system launches. "There's going to be a large learning curve, as there's been with everything in this industry," he notes. "But at the end of the day, we haven't found MMED to be unjustly punitive. They have a stake in making sure their regulations work, and they're open to having a dialogue to make sure everyone's job is easier."

As for the system itself, Browne thinks its comprehensiveness will help convince the Drug Enforcement Agency not to unduly hassle Colorado MMJ businesses in ways that are happening in other MMJ states.

"True seed-to-sale alleviates a lot of the diversion concerns on the federal level, as opposed to California, where everything is grown outdoors and is rarely tagged or organized through the same kind of structure we have here," he says. "The federal government has large concerns about diversion there, because in California, it's still legal to walk in with a backpack full of medicine and sell it without any kind of paperwork. That's why Colorado's system is something the country is looking at, especially after seeing the problems in California.

"The U.S. Attorney here hasn't taken the stance his colleagues have had to in California to deal with black market issues," he goes on. "And simply overreacting to what a number of U.S. Department of Justice officials do in another state only undermines what we've been able to build here, which is a comprehensive regulatory scheme that's only to this point weeded out bad apples -- no pun intended."

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Colorado to formally ask DEA to designate pot Schedule II controlled substance."

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