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Colorado Readies System for Monitoring Marijuana

The state requires that growers, processors and retailers of medical or recreational marijuana use EPC Gen 2 passive RFID tags to authenticate and identify each plant or product.
By Claire Swedberg

To manage their inventory, growers, stores and distributors presently use a system incompatible with Franwell's MITS software. However, according to an article posted at Marijuana Business Daily's website, Franwell has told some growers that the MITS software it developed would soon be compatible with other inventory-tracking systems. Franwell did not respond to requests for comment.

Marijuana plants are typically grown from stems rather than from seeds; each stem is taken from one plant and propagated to create another one. Once that process begins, the new cloned plant is issued a serial number married to a unique 24-digit ID number on an RFID tag, with the RFID number also printed on that tag. The grower reads the ID number printed on the tag and enters that information into the MITS system via the Internet. When harvesting a plant, the grower discards the plant tag and dries the plant's flower buds, as well as its leaves. It then typically packages the buds and ships them directly to a retailer with a new RFID tag, along with a printed label to be read by state officers as they inspect stores. The printed label will include text related to the plant's origins and multiple other details, while the new tag ID is entered into the MITS system and is linked to the product's history, including the tag ID number of the plant from which the buds were harvested.

In the future, the grower could opt to install fixed RFID readers at doorways between rooms within its facility, in order to help it and the state track the stage of the process that each plants has reached. Different rooms are used for immature plants, flowering plants and harvesting.

The stems, leaves and other byproducts of the plant that are not high enough in quality to be sold as buds are instead sold to manufacturers of "infused" marijuana products, such as soft drinks, brownies or other edibles. A grower packs the leaves and other plant byproducts into bags, attaching an RFID tag to each bag prior to shipping it to an infused-products company. All marijuana products must also be tested for any signs of contamination, such as E. coli, mold or excessive pesticides. All individuals who process or inspect product must log into the MITS system and update data regarding the processing and inspection of the goods, thereby creating a history that is stored, along with the unique ID number, on the RFID label applied to each package.

Finally, the processed goods are distributed to retailers that then place them on the shelf for sale. State inspectors equipped with a handheld reader can periodically visit each retail site, where they can read the tags on each product and view that item's history, ensuring that it meets all necessary processing and inspection criteria. According to a 2011 press release from Franwell, the Marijuana Enforcement Division was planning to utilize Motorola Solutions MC9090 handheld readers.

"This program is really intended to create transparency," Elliot states. Although it has not yet occurred, he says that if there were a recall of marijuana due to illness or the detection of a contaminant, the system would help the state trace the drug back to the point at which the contamination may have been introduced, and thereby identify the location of any other potentially contaminated products.

The RFID tags do not pose a privacy issue for consumers, Postlethwait notes, since they are discarded after products are sold. The tags that industry members must currently purchase from Franwell cost 45 cents apiece for the version attached to a plant, and 25 cents each for the model used on a package. In the future, she says, other manufacturers' tags could be included in the program as well.

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