With this weeks passage of Proposition 64, all marijuana products hoping to hit shelves and display cases in California will eventually be tracked and traced by the state government, but the test so far has been whether the system will work for a well-established cultivation industry.

In that regard, Humboldt County is acting as the state’s first guinea pig after it began the first track-and-trace pilot program in August. The county’s tracking system is now being eyed as a model for the state and even other countries. So far, the participating cannabis businesses and government officials are finding it to be working in their favor.

“We wanted to be out on front of this and give an opportunity to Humboldt County producers to be successful and establish their brand and name in the wider statewide marketplace,” said Humboldt County Agricultural Commission Jeff Dolf, who oversees the county’s tracking program. “Whatever is developed at the state level needs to work for industry here because Humboldt and other cultivation counties will be as much or more impacted by the decision they come up with than the rest of the state will.”


The county’s track-and-trace program is multi-functional, serving to detect whether marijuana has been diverted into the black market and whether tax fraud has occurred. For Humboldt County, marijuana business owners like Nathan Whittington’s Ferndale co-op Ladybug Herbal Sanctuary, the tracking system also protects Humboldt County’s reputation as a cottage cannabis cultivation hub and the patients it serves.

“We’re building trust right now between the industry and the government,” Whittington said. “This protects the Humboldt name and it protects the patients because now they can stand behind knowing what they’re holding in their hand is being regulated by a robust track-and-trace system administered by the government, not the people in the industry.”

The pilot project began in August with 15 local marijuana businesses currently participating. The international product-tracking company SICPA is currently running the program and is hoping to take on the track-and-trace duties for the marijuana industry statewide as it already does for tobacco products.

But even with its experience of tracking products throughout the world, the company had to rethink its model when it comes to regulating the state with the largest marijuana output in the nation.

“The scale of the operations is going to dwarf anything a state has had to consider in terms of getting this technology ready for the industry, but also for the government side,” SICPA Vice President of Business Development Alex Spelman said. “No other state has faced this.”


One might think the tracking system for cannabis would be similar to tobacco, but Spelman said their test program in Humboldt County is actually closer to how they track wine and cheese production in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta region. Coming full circle, Spelman said Italy is now interested in using Humboldt County’s track-and-trace should the country legalize recreational marijuana.

The pilot program works like this: Cultivators give the Department of Agriculture a crop declaration which includes the cultivation area, the expected number of plants that will be grown and the expected crop yield. An agricultural inspector comes by the farm to verify whether the farmer’s declaration was accurate. Should any plants have to be replaced due to pests or other reasons, the cannabis farmer must let the Department of Agriculture know.

When it comes time to process and package the marijuana is when the track-and-trace system really kicks in. As the marijuana is packaged into containers, each container has an identifying stamp placed on its seal. Locally, the stamp comes complete with a scannable QR code, color code identifier and the Humboldt County seal.

“That’s the key, because when you’re anywhere down the line, you can verify that product you’re holding in your hand came from this county,” Whittington said. “It’s a lot better than trying to brand the county.”

But it goes farther than that. Customers who buy the product are able to scan the QR code or type the stamp ID into the county’s Proof of Origin web application. There it will tell them which farm the product came from, the THC content, when the product was registered in the system, the amount of product and the type of strain to name a few. Whittington said this could be expanded in the future to include the producer’s website and other data such as the CBD content.

Since the county’s pilot project began, Whittington said participating businesses have experienced sales boosts in dispensaries throughout the state just because of the stamps.

“Any product that has been legitimately stamped by the program is getting added value and people are having trouble keeping it on the shelves,” he said. “Right now, we’re at a point where we need more people to supply track-and-trace products to the marketplace because people are buying it up because of that.”

And if he’s pulled over by law enforcement while transporting his product to a dispensary, Whittington said the stamps make it easy to prove that the product is legitimate — as long as the seals aren’t broken.

As of Oct. 30, more than 15,000 stamps have been used on over 970 pounds of Humboldt County marijuana, according to the county Agricultural Department’s most recent figures.

As the industry expands throughout the state, Whittington said it may come to a point where the stamps will represent different regions of the state, such as the Emerald Triangle.

As a start, the city of Eureka is seeking to join the county’s track-and-trace program, Dolf said. The county might also look to expand the pilot program through February, Dolf said.


Humboldt County’s “batch-and-lot” tracking model differs from the “seed-to-sale” approach the state government wants to have in place by 2018. In a seed-to-sale system, each individual plant is tagged to ensure no plants or their product are diverted into the black market.

“That was something that the growers said was labor intensive, time consuming and still does not deliver what it claims it does in Colorado — it does not prevent the diversion of product,” Dolf said.

Dolf said there could be a compromise where plant tagging is only used for businesses like plant nurseries.

“We’re trying to, through our pilot, help illuminate that there is another approach that can work for this industry that is just as effective as plant tagging,” Dolf said.

This article was first published at Times-Standard.com.