Covid-19 and Responsible Vendor Training:
Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. With the nationwide death toll surpassing 240,000, nearly 2,500 from Colorado, the need for social distancing, wearing PPE, limiting group gatherings, and maintaining proper facility and personal hygiene has arguably never been greater.
Despite these circumstances however, some Colorado marijuana businesses wishing to maintain Responsible Vendor designation continue to seek out live and in-person training events. Often these events make proper social distancing all but impossible.
The state recommends limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people with constant 6 feet separation being maintained between attendees. And, some municipalities with known high case levels of Covid-19 have implemented even more restrictive measures.
The reasons leading to poor social distancing during in-person training are many. They range from the small physical size of many business establishments, to the desire to avoid additional costs associated with conducting multiple smaller (and therefore better social distanced) training events. The elimination of hassles associated with scheduling multiple events, and the need to oftentimes close the business for training, are other factors businesses consider in determining the size of live onsite training.
A practical solution to the Responsible Vendor Training social distancing dilemma is to choose a training provider that offers live interactive Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, Free Conference Call, or similar instructor-led conference call training. An even better solution is to choose a training provider that offers a fully interactive online training program. Online training enables employees to take courses when, and where they want, according to the needs and timelines of the business establishment.
But while online training solutions may better enable marijuana businesses to responsibly social distance to control the spread of Covid-19 today, they fall short of addressing many of the commonly heard criticisms of the program. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of those criticisms and to begin a discussion toward correcting them. At Cannabis Regulatory Solutions (CRS), we believe there is a better way.
Responsible Vendor Training Today:
The purpose of the Responsible Vendor training program is to promote the responsible handling and transfer of regulated marijuana through the promotion of uniform safety, security, integrity, and transparency standards. A primary objective of the program is to provide owners, managers, and employees with the knowledge needed to perform their jobs more effectively.
Participation in the program is voluntary. It is often reflective of a company’s desire to operate at the highest level of customer safety and care.
Marijuana establishments that wish to become Responsible Vendor designated businesses must adhere to certain minimum requirements. They must ensure that all controlling beneficial owners with day-to-day operational control of the licensed premises, management personnel, and employee licensees involved in the handling and transfer of regulated marijuana attend training by an Approved MED Certified Training Provider.
Each person must successfully complete a comprehension exam with a score of 70% or better. New employees must successfully complete the course within 90 days of hire. And all individuals must become recertified every two years.
Additional requirements are mandated for licensed hospitality businesses and those businesses with approved delivery permits. The MED further provides rules and guidelines for persons wishing to become a MED certified Responsible Vendor program training provider. The full set of requirements may be found in 3-500: General Standards for Responsible Vendor Program Provider.
Pros of the existing system:
First and foremost, Colorado’s Responsible Vendor program should be viewed as extraordinarily successful. It has proven beneficial to marijuana businesses and the promotion of social wellbeing. The program is so successful, that it has been used as a model in other states. The state of Massachusetts, for example, has nearly cut and pasted Colorado’s program into their rules.
But like any successful program, it can, and should, be continually improving. Excellence is not an end in itself. Excellence is a process that demands constant and determined nurturing.
As an approved MED/CDPHE Responsible Vendor Program training provider, CRS have first-hand knowledge of the great lengths that both the MED and CDPHE take when approving training provider programs. The process is rigorously thorough. Each program is critically reviewed with unapologetic correction demands being made to ensure the integrity of each program. Once approved, it is the individual training provider’s responsibility to keep programs current, which well-intentioned providers do, with varying degrees of success.
Cons of the existing system:
At Cannabis Regulatory Solutions, our tagline is, “Advocation, Education, and Compliance.”
Our advocation is the heart of everything that we do. Like all MED approved Responsible Vendor Program providers, CRS has a financial interest in the continuing success of the Responsible Vendor program. But we also have greater moral and social obligations as advocates, educators, and compliance specialist. We aim to continually improve the program irrespective of whether the improvement serves our financial interest. Advocacy for the industry shall always remain our number one priority.
It is in the spirit of our priority, that we offer the following criticisms, and forward-looking proposals, for the enhancement of the Responsible Vendor program. These may be broken into 4 broad areas. Each are further expanded upon below. They include:
- Real and perceived high costs.
- A need to improve government and industry efficiency while reducing management hassle.
- Less than optimum industry participation, and
- A lack of visibility and recognition systems for the achievement and maintenance of hard-earned responsible vendor status.
Real and Perceived High Costs:
One of the most often heard reasons for non-participation in the Responsible Vendor program is that companies simply cannot cost-justify it.
The marijuana industry is highly taxed, banking and insurance costs are high, and the negative implications of IRS 280e tax rules have many small businesses stretched. Yet these same small businesses, some without compliance specialists, are the very businesses that would benefit most from Responsible Vendor designation.
When company managerial costs associated with Responsible Vendor training are taken into account (labor paid during training, recordkeeping, scheduling, potentially closing the business for training), some businesses would rather face the uncertain risk of future fines (a potential future cost) versus the certain expense and hassles associated with training today.
It should be noted that the cost of training is not limited to marijuana businesses. Training providers are also being impacted. With so many approved providers available today, discounting within Colorado is at a feverous pitch. And this is despite rising costs brought about by Covid-19. The very real costs to build, maintain, and host online programs (that better ensure safe social distancing) have margins razor thin for some training providers.
Government and Industry Inefficiency:
As of October 22, 2020, as posted on the MED website, there are 13 MED approved Responsible Vendor Training Providers. That says nothing of the number of new applicants that could be in process at any given time.
Because programs must be re-approved every two years, the number of programs under review can, at times, be daunting. The work is continual. And (in our opinion) an inefficient use of government resources.
Marijuana businesses would benefit from a simpler system. The hassles associated with interviewing perspective training providers, negotiating pricing, scheduling training, and ultimately conducting training are management hurdles that must be considered by every marijuana business seeking Responsible Vendor designation.
Due to the non-existence of a government or industry supported record keeping system, businesses must create their own. Most are highly manual and paper intensive. Some incorporate spreadsheet functionality. But virtually all are time consuming and prone to error.
Less Than Optimum Participation:
The fact that participation in the Responsible Vendor Program is 100% voluntary results in what would otherwise be much greater participation. And, given the high quality of the Responsible Vendor curriculum today, it is a shame that the program is not more fully utilized.
As previously mentioned, some financially struggling businesses find Responsible Vendor designation difficult to financially justify. Many large and financially successful companies, on the other hand, develop their own training programs.
All well prepared and presented company training is good. But it should be noted that company-centric training programs may, or may not, meet the general requirements of the Responsible Vendor Program. Many no doubt focus on “company” or “internal operational” issues. But whether these programs rigorously review the “underlying compliance and safety and health issues,” as established in today’s Responsible Vendor Certification Curriculum, is another question entirely.
It has been the experience of CRS that some marijuana businesses have little incentive to pay external sources for a voluntary program that (for them) delivers arguably nebulous rewards. (See below).
Still other marijuana businesses fail to participate in the program because not all Responsible Vendor program providers continually maintain their programs to the same high degree of quality as do others. And low training provider margins can be a disincentive to keeping programs up to date. That only exacerbates the problem.
In the experience of CRS, these factors can, and do, lead to a large proportion of the industry opting out and failing to take full advantage of the program.
So, let’s get back to basics. The purpose of job training, any job training, is to prepare employees for roles and responsibilities that they were hired to fulfill. The curriculum of the Responsible Vendor program prepares employees for positions within the marijuana industry. But more so, it also includes an invaluable public health and safety curriculum, as established by the CDPHE, for the promotion of public health and safety. Today’s Responsible Vendor curriculum does all of this and more.
Logic therefore tells us that the industry, and society at large, would benefit from greater overall industry-wide participation in the Responsible Vendor program. That does not necessarily mean Responsible Vendor training should be made mandatory. Although that would certainly help. It only means that regulators, industry participants, and other stakeholders should continually work toward removing causal factors that lead to lower than optimal participation.
Lack of Visibility and Recognition of Responsible Vendor Status:
A criticism of the Responsible Vendor program is the lack of visibility and recognition of companies who achieve and maintain Responsible Vendor designation. Without which, achievement goes largely unrecognized and unrewarded.
It is true that the MED may take Responsible Vendor designation as a mitigating factor when assessing fines and penalties. But for many businesses, that potential reward is outweighed by the financial costs and extra managerial effort needed to achieve and maintain Responsible Vendor designation. In the eyes of too many, Responsible Vendor training is considered a cost. Nothing more.
And why would that not be the case? Very few people outside of marijuana dispensaries, including cannabis users, local and state officials, emergency responders, and other industry stakeholders have ever heard the term, “Responsible Vendor.” Most would be hard pressed to describe how the Responsible Vendor Program works, what the benefits of achieving Responsible Vendor designation are, or how the program addresses risks of consumption and the promotion of public health and safety.
And, given the restrictive prohibitions on marijuana marketing and advertising, many business owners question their ability, and/or the appropriateness, of advertising their commitment to operate at the highest level of customer safety and care. These reservations keep their hard-earned Responsible Vendor status “hidden in the background.” And that only serves to stymie public education and awareness of the program. It helps to support the wrongful notion that Responsible Vendor designation is a cost, and nothing more.
The Future of Responsible Vendor Program
Once again, CRS would like to reiterate the overwhelming success of the Responsible Vendor Program. And, since 2016, we have been proud to be part of that success. Irrespective of these facts however, we make the following recommendations, as industry advocates, educators, and compliance specialists for the continued advancement of the program.
CRS also wishes to stress that no attempts have been made to address how industry and stakeholder acceptance to these recommendations would be sought. Nor have we attempted to describe how the recommendations may be enacted. The recommendations are simply given as viable means of addressing real and perceived shortcomings of today’s Responsible Vendor Program. We present these as long-term goals to aid the direction the program should be migrating toward.
Recommendation Number 1:
Transition away from the requirement to use MED Approved Responsible Vendor Training Providers with the development of a single MED/CDPHE owned and supported Online Responsible Vendor Program (or hire a third party to do it for the state). Implementing this recommendation will significantly reduce costs, reduce hassles, better ensure updates are continually and religiously maintained, and improve overall participation in the program.
The cost of continual reapproval activity by state officials, likely by far, outweigh the cost of the MED and CDPHE simply developing and maintaining their own cost-effective programs and stream-lined solutions. It is just simpler and less expensive to maintain one program than it is to maintain each of the 13 training provider programs currently authorized today.
And by eliminating many of the company managerial costs associated with Responsible Vendor training (negotiating pricing, labor paid during training, recordkeeping, scheduling, potentially closing the business for training, etc.), management costs would also greatly decrease.
Plus, online programs are much more convenient for the student to take. During the times of the pandemic, online training promotes proper social distancing. Online training is far less management intensive to arrange. Courses may be taken practically anywhere, at any time, according to the needs of the individual business owner. All things being equal, given lower cost and much greater convenience, participation in the Responsible Vendor Program should therefore increase.
Implement a requirement that individuals and companies seeking Responsible Vendor Certification take and successfully complete a mandatory MED/CDPHE online certification exam.
The implementation of this recommendation will achieve two important goals.
First, it will change the time-consuming focus of the MED/CDPHE away from 2-year Responsible Vendor Training Provider recertification to a more manageable and far less time-consuming focus of keeping a single program and certification exam up to date.
Second, it will allow individual marijuana businesses to either develop and maintain their own responsible vendor training programs, or to simply use the on-line program as established by the state. No haggling and negotiating with third party training providers required.
Both solutions could be provided at a far lower cost and much greater convenience. The economic forces of price and volume associated with all companies using the same single platform would likely reduce the price per course to a much lower level.
Companies who choose to continue using third party training providers may continue to do so. But, at the end of the day, all third party programs must be of such a rigorous nature and high quality that students are able to take and successfully pass a certification exam that is controlled by the state. Because records of testing (pass and failure) will be continually maintained, online testing records will continually expose which programs meet the muster and which do not.
The State Certification Exam will therefore help to ensure the long-term integrity of the program. It would naturally be designed in such a manner as to be easily updated as often as appropriate.
Implement an industry-wide reporting and recordkeeping system.
At Cannabis Regulatory Solutions, we understand the importance that regulatory compliance, employee development, and customer-oriented programs have on name recognition, company image, corporate culture, and ultimately market perception and financial profitability. These factors are inextricably linked. That is why we are advocates for the development of industry-wide reporting and recognition systems that rewards businesses (if only for marketing purposes) for their dedicated participation.
The development of an industry focused recordkeeping system would not only greatly eliminate the hassles of Responsible Vendor recordkeeping, but it would also provide the MED and CDPHE with real time training records from which to gauge the ongoing effectiveness of the program. It would be used to promote those businesses who go the extra mile by earning and maintaining Responsible Vendor designation. And conversely, by their conspicuous absence, it will show those companies who do not.
The database would also provide clear and unambiguous data that new employees receive training within 90-days of hire, and that all individuals be retrained every 2-years. As such, the database provides real time evidence as required to prove the achievement and ongoing maintenance of Responsible Vendor designation. Without such a tool, the achievement and maintenance of Responsible Vendor designation, will continue to remain suspect and, when necessary, subject to audit.