By Rick Schettino • September 4, 2018

Cannabis and Barcodes, a Match Made In Heaven?

This age of technology can be simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming. Today we consume data from a wide variety of digital channels and devices — often all at the very same time. The fast-growing number of interconnecting "smart" devices might give you the impression that barcode scanners are plug-and-play. While this for retail UPC barcode scanners, but it is not the case for the majority of workflow scenarios.

In industry, barcode scanners need to manage far more data more than just price and inventory levels. To further complicate matters, they also need to deal with a variety of different types of barcodes and barcode-like technologies and symbologies such as QR codes and RFID tags. These challenges have a way of weeding out less capable barcode scanners. If you’re doing your homework you’ll quickly see the value in having a more capable scanning system.

Does this happen to you? You’ve got a handful of different codes that need to be scanned. In order to get a good scan, you have to cover all but one code at a time while you try to get the right read — over and over again. What if you could scan them all at the same time and capture all the data at once? That might save you some time — and money.

Time and money aren’t the only factors that matter when it comes to making sure you have the best barcode scanning system — especially in the cannabis sector. Having good software hardware and software helps assure consumer are getting the right products. And then there’s traceability. Most state regulatory agencies require the ability to track every seed, every plant, every harvest, indeed every single product on store shelves through from see to sale. Each of these levels of tracking has its own particular requirements.

The Secret Life of Barcodes

An international non-profit organization known as GS1 is responsible for setting barcode standards and administering a central database of barcodes.

Barcodes provide a graphic representation of an identifying number. Each individual code is tied to a specific record and field in a database. The UPC-A code that we are all familiar with is the standard used in the United States to identify individual retail products.

The number of kinds of information that can be stored in a barcode or QR symbol is literally infinite. Graphic codes can identify individual products, a batch of products, a supply chain source, or even one particular web page out of the billions of pages available on the Worldwide Web.

Understandably, the most common use of barcodes is inventory control. Even this, which on the surface seems quite simple, can provide a treasure trove of data. A product identifier — usually an SKU code — can bring up related data such as the batch the product was produced in, how many of the item are in inventory and exactly where they can be found. it can reveal inventory irregularities and identify potential theft. It can bring up the item’s price and any discounts or coupons associated with it.

The Role Of Barcodes In Compliance

The Cannabis industry is in a state of rapid change and States are quickly shifting regulations and requirements. Commercial cannabis growers, processors, labs, distributors, and retailers are required to keep track of literally everything. An average commercial grower keeps about 600 plants at any given time, each one of which must be accounted for. This includes tracking every detail from sewing of seeds to selling of the final products. Growers are generally required to keep tabs on each plant, including its origins, strain, use (medical/recreational), placement within the growing facility, and even the names of employees that have handled the product at all stages.

In this evolving environment, utilizing a barcode-based seed-to-sale traceability system is paramount. A robust tracking system will not only help to track products and pricing, it will also keep growers, processors, labs, and retailers up-to-date with regulations and requirements for product handling and tax reporting for each state, country, and city.

“The cannabis industry is often referred to as the most highly regulated industry in the world,” says Justin Dufour, an expert in seed-to-sale systems at Viridian Sciences, a leading cannabis industry seed-to-sale ERP solutions provider. “Its regulations are more strict than the those of alcohol and cigarette industries, and even the pharmaceutical industry in many cases,” adds Dufour.

In a motherboard.vice.com report titled, “The Big Business of Making a Cannabis Surveillance State,” the author points out, “There are a number of advantages of having a barcode for cannabis growers, producers and retailers. The most important is proper inventory control – which is mandated, in Washington, by the Washington State Liquor Control Board… The reasoning behind implementing these cannabis surveillance systems is pretty straightforward. Since cannabis is still illegal on a federal level, the burden is on the states that have legalized weed to prove that legalization has not aided black market activity.”

“This harnessing of an information technology to track the cannabis market is key to Colorado’s forceful march towards creating a thriving legal marijuana industry,” reads a report by Forbes magazine titled, Tracking America’s Cannabis Industry Through Big Data. “Crucially, the state’s ability to use tracking and Big Data could provide a reference point for other jurisdictions interested in the regulatory potential offered by tracking. This ‘closed loop’ ‘seed to sale’ inventory tracking system embodies a ‘full traceability’ mode… Whatever the context, whether it is a regulator or us doing the tracking or whether it is marijuana or us being tracked, the technology is an essential part of contemporary commercial and regulatory life.”

Viridian’s Justin Dufour knows well how the hardware and the software work together to assure compliance. He points out that a barcode-based seed-to-sale tracking system, when used properly, can help cannabis-touching businesses avoid regulatory violations in two ways. “First, all regulatory requirements are built right into the system as are auditing and reporting tools. This makes compliance, audits, and reporting a breeze,” he says. “Second, it also helps with accurate reporting of taxes.”

“Walk into any licensed cannabis grow op in Colorado and one of the first things you'll notice are the barcodes,” says Motherboard contributor, Daniel Oberhaus. “Every plant has a brightly colored tag… zip-tied to its stalk or planted in its soil, and each tag bears a barcode and a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip... Employees will likely be wearing badges that allow a computer program to track their movement from room to room. Perhaps you'll run into an inspector from the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division, who showed up unannounced to verify the amount of flower produced by the grow op matches with what the state has recorded in their real-time inventory systems.”

According to Randy Ferguson, Product Marketing Manager at a company called Code, makers of high tech barcode scanners, “Barcodes are more than keeping track of inventory, or appeasing the man, they eliminate the innate human error with manual data entry.” And they’re not just for use in the warehouse says Ferguson. “Instead of laboriously typing in a patient’s information from their ID, simply scan the barcode on the back, the scanner will parse and format the data into your software without a single keystroke.” He points out that data integrity starts with input, and the old adage of 'garbage in, garbage out' has never been more true. “Cannabis compliance software is only as good as the data that is input, don't let input errors jeopardize business,” he warns.

Without the lowly barcode, all of this would be impossible. But a barcode alone won’t do the job. It’s the marriage of advanced barcode reading hardware and powerful seed-to-sale tracking software which elevate the barcode to it’s venerated place at the heart of the cannabis industry.