How the USA Tracks Legal Weed From Farm to Home

The cannabis saga

Cannabis is now legal for medical use in 33 U.S. (United States of America, or USA) states and the District of Columbia (DC), and for recreational use in 10 of those states and DC. However, the crop remains illegal at the federal level, complicating things for cannabis farmers, retailers, consumers, and the states that choose to legalize it.

One of these complications, is the need for accurate logistics – tracking the weed from the farm to the consumer in an effort to ascertain its quality, whether it’s from a legal source, etc. After all, legal cannabis is now a booming business in those states where it’s legal, and businesses must track their products.

Historically though, complications are nothing new to the relationship between cannabis and the U.S. The mother plant to both hemp and marijuana, Cannabis played a very important role in the New World as American colonies were being established. Cannabis was so significant that the Virginia Assembly passed a legislation in 1619 requiring all farmers to grow hemp on their farms. In fact, in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, hemp was actually used as legal tender. 

Hemp production hit a stall by the end of the American Civil War but the saga didn’t end there.  Hemp’s not-so-popular sister crop, marijuana – a now popular ingredient in all kinds of medicines and extracts – was climbing rapidly into the limelight.

The 19th through mid-20th century witnessed a spectrum of views – mostly negative – on marijuana use for both medical and recreational purposes. Marijuana use had gone from a staple in society to an upsetting social vice capable of landing one many years behind bars. In 1996, however, the tide took a turn when the state of California legalized medical marijuana for people suffering from conditions such as Cancer, AIDS, and other serious ailments. In that same year, the state of Arizona followed suit with a medical cannabis referendum of its own.


A Cannabis Plant. Source

With its roller coaster history in the U.S., the cannabis plant has landed in a new era of legalization. This history, in itself, is a journey of sorts – from legal tender to prohibition to legalization to who knows what’s next. But while most states have accepted the crop in one form or the other, its national illegal status still remains. This seems somewhat of a technicality, however, as the federal government’s policy is to simply turn a blind eye to the open practices of cannabis consumption in those states where it is legal.

The federal government’s acquiescence here is a boon to the business. It allows for the possibility of tracking legal weed from farm to home. Logistics is also important to any business, and cannabis has become a lucrative business in the U.S. For those states that have legalized the drug, quality and legality of the product must be checked – this requires knowing its source and following it all the way to the ultimate consumer.


How do different states track their legal weed?

With cannabis legalization being a volatile topic given its conflicting legal status between some states and the federal government, it’s important for those states where it is legal to keep track of their products. This is also important to help differentiate legal weed from illegal weed and ascertain quality. There is also an issue for neighboring states where the crop is illegal, as they become concerned about it spilling into their borders from states where it’s legal.

The logistics issue isn’t just important for states, but also for businesses. Just as other businesses find importance in tracking products from the warehouse to the consumer, so is it important for cannabis businesses to do the same.

While the laws for use and possession vary with the states, the overall tracking mechanism from seed to sale is relatively the same. In a number of states, warranted software called METRC (Marijuana Enforcement, Tracking, Reporting and Compliance) is used to track marijuana from its life on the farm to its final point-of-sales. Some of these states include:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Oregon and;
  • Michigan

Of all states where marijuana is legal, only three states do not use the METRC software:

  • Maine
  • Vermont and;
  • Washington


The M
ETRC Tracking System

The METRC Tracking System works by assigning marijuana products a unique bar code, which tracks each product from the farm to the dispensary. These bar codes are placed on colored tags which help differentiate medical from recreational marijuana; medical being yellow and recreational being blue.


Metrc Medical Marijuana tag. Source

In states like Michigan, a tracking number is not assigned to a plant until considerable root mass is established. All buds, flowers and leaves which grow on a specific plant belong to the assigned bar code when it is first assigned.

When the plants ready for harvest, they are cut down and sent in for immediate weighing. This weight is entered into the METRC database in conjunction with already allocated bar code. After the plant parts are dried out, they are weighed again and the database is updated.

As mentioned, every part of the plant bearing the METRC code retains its original code even when separated from the mother plant. Buds and flowers cut from the dried plant are wrapped and marked with a METRC tracking sticker containing the plant's assigned bar code. Leaves from the plant set aside for other marijuana-based products will carry this code as well.

Lab tests are then carried out on the flowers and their end results are uploaded on the METRC database. These tests are carried out mainly on medical marijuana to ensure that products are potent and also to monitor the levels of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol) present in them.

Should products fail testing, officials would be notified via the METRC software. These tests also determine the hygiene of the products as they ensure consumers that they are free of all forms of contaminants and pesticides.  Results of these tests are printed on packages.


Lab testing marijuana. Source

Once the tests have been passed, marijuana is transported by state-licensed companies to dispensaries, pot shops (called provisioning centers in Michigan) or processors. The transporting of these products is a strictly structured process where the products remain sealed throughout.

On reaching the dispensaries and pot shops, products are logged into the METRC system per unique bar code, showing that they have arrived at their designated locations.

Buds and flowers sent to processors are refined, and their extracts infused, into a myriad of cannabis based products. These include:

Once the tests have been passed, marijuana is transported by state-licensed companies to dispensaries, pot shops (called provisioning centers in Michigan) or processors. The transporting of these products is a strictly structured process where the products remain sealed throughout.

On reaching the dispensaries and pot shops, products are logged into the METRC system per unique bar code, showing that they have arrived at their designated locations.

Buds and flowers sent to processors are refined, and their extracts infused, into a myriad of cannabis based products. These include:

  • Edibles – brownies, gummy bears, chocolate, etc.
  • Lotions
  • Waxes
  • Ointments
  • Topical balms

No matter what product is made from the extracts, they will carry the unique bar code assigned to the original plant, buds, and flowers. Products, like flowers and buds, are then tested to make sure the extracts are potent in their composition and then labeled accordingly.

Depending on the state, weed users will then be able to access products medically (through the use of medical marijuana cards) or for recreational use at pot shops, dispensaries, and/or provision centers. When purchased, sales are recorded and uploaded to the METRC database for final consolidation.

This is the final tracking point of all marijuana based products in the METRC system.


Final words

The U.S. cannabis history is a journey in itself. The same is true for the logistics of the product. Given its illegal status on the federal level, a detailed tracking system is beneficial to both the states that have legalized the drug and the federal government. This helps assure quality and legality, as well as non-spillage across borders into neighboring states where it remains illegal.

Tracking is also beneficial to businesses, however, as they are able to keep detailed records of products journeying from the farm to the home. This, in turn, boosts consumers’ confidence in quality – that they are, indeed, getting the best bang for their buck.