Since the 2018 Farm Bill passed in December 2018, removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and thus legalizing it under federal law, consumer goods containing the hemp-derivative cannabidiol (CBD) have become exceptionally popular. With that growing popularity among consumers has come increased scrutiny by federal regulators whose mission is consumer safety and protection, such as the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission, and now by the plaintiffs’ bar, which files consumer class actions based on advertising. As the recent spate of warning letters and consumer class actions demonstrate, hemp-derived CBD product manufacturers and others in the supply chain for those products have to be mindful of the claims they make to consumers about their products.
Banking has been an impediment for the cannabis industry because the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA) and related regulations―which seek to prevent money laundering and other financial crimes―place onerous requirements on banks when a transaction is suspected to involve illegal activity. 12 C.F.R. Section 21.11. Notwithstanding billions of state-legal cannabis dollars exchanging hands, the commercial banking industry, which is largely federally regulated, is virtually nonexistent in the cannabis space. In 2014, the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) provided guidance intended to enhance the banking of cannabis-related monies by establishing a category of suspicious activity reporting for “marijuana related businesses.” But, according to FinCEN, as of June 30, 2019, just 553 commercial banks and 162 credit unions had filed an SAR for a “marijuana-related business.”
When the United States Department of Agriculture released the interim final rule for the hemp program in October 2019, many stakeholders—including businesses and state agencies—were caught off guard by certain testing-related requirements contained in the rule. Because hemp is now legal under the 2018 Farm Bill if it contains no more than 0.3 percent THC concentration, testing for THC levels is critical. However, significant questions and issues with the testing requirements must be clarified.
On November 20, 2019, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both from the state of Oregon, submitted a letter to the secretary of the USDA, in which they flagged—“in no particular order”—five controversial testing-related requirements and requested modifications to those requirements. Below, we have summarized the senators’ concerns and proposed solutions to three particularly controversial testing-related requirements in the interim final rule.
The past week has shown the challenges that the cannabis industry supply chain—manufacturers, processors, distributors and dispensaries—faces, as regulators target claims relating to the health benefits of CBD and media outlets report, without any scientific evidence, that cannabis vaping may be linked to lung illnesses, and, as of the issuing of this Alert, the Trump administration is reported to be poised to ban flavored nicotine vaping. These kinds of issues could spur claims against cannabis industry participants for consumer fraud, personal injury and products liability, and heighten the scrutiny of cannabis products by federal and state regulators.
On September 10, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had sent warning letters to three unidentified businesses “that sell oils, tinctures, capsules, ‘gummies,’ and creams” containing hemp-derived CBD, concerning health-related claims about the benefits of their CBD products. Although the FTC did not release the warning letters or identify the recipients, the FTC’s press release announcing the warning letters explained that the letters were issued to reinforce that “it is illegal to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease without competent and reliable scientific evidence to support such claims.”
On September 4, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in Big Sky Scientific LLC v. Jan Bennetts et al, the case involving the seizure of an interstate shipment of hemp that occurred after the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill. In a three-page opinion, the court sidestepped the substantive issues presented on appeal and held that the parties should pursue their claims in state court.
In January 2019, a hemp cultivator in Oregon attempted to ship a truckload of hemp to a processor in Colorado. But as the cargo passed through Idaho, the Idaho State Police seized the shipment and arrested the driver, alleging violations of Idaho state law. The Idaho police charged the driver with a crime and filed a civil complaint in state court against the hemp itself. The Idaho civil case was stayed pending resolution of the criminal proceeding.
On August 26, 2019, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a press release announcing “it is moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana in the United States.” This announcement comes in the midst of a growing demand for marijuana for medical and scientific research. Several years ago, in an August 11, 2016, press release, DEA first announced its intention to “expand… the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers” because “only one entity was authorized to produce marijuana to supply researchers in the United States: the University of Mississippi.” Since that announcement, 33 entities have applied to DEA for a marijuana manufacturer registration. However, the approval process was stalled during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ term in office, and to date no new applications have been approved. Meanwhile, the number of entities registered by DEA to conduct research on marijuana, marijuana extracts or marijuana derivatives has jumped from 384 in January 2017 to 542 in January 2019. Thus, while demand for marijuana for research purposes has increased sharply, the number of suppliers has remained stagnant.
On August 28, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judges Hawkins, McKeown and Bybee heard oral argument in Big Sky Scientific LLC v. Jan Bennetts et al.
To review the background briefly, Big Sky Scientific, LLC, a Colorado-based hemp processor, purchased federally lawful hemp from a state-licensed hemp cultivator in Oregon. The parties arranged to ship the hemp from Oregon to Colorado via motor carrier. En route to Colorado, the shipment entered Idaho, where the Idaho police seized the cargo and arrested the driver, alleging violations of Idaho state law. Idaho initiated a state court criminal proceeding against the driver, and a state court civil proceeding against the hemp itself, to ensure the hemp would not be returned to Big Sky. In response, Big Sky filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court to force the Idaho State Police to return the seized cargo and stop seizing hemp shipments that pass through the state. The District Court denied Big Sky’s motion, and Big Sky appealed. That appeal was the basis of the oral argument. Duane Morris filed an amicus brief on behalf of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp in support of Big Sky, arguing that an adverse ruling would have a serious negative impact on the hemp industry. (Duane Morris is the national law firm partner of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp.)
At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) public hearing on May 31, 2019 (read more about the hearing), over 100 people presented to a panel of FDA stakeholders and to over 500 attendees. Last week, FDA stated in a post that it recognizes the “significant public interest in these products, for therapeutic purposes and otherwise” but reiterated that “there are many unanswered questions about the science, safety, and quality of many of these products.”
The good news for the industry is that FDA “recognize[s] the need to be clear and open about where things stand, and about the efficient and science-based way in which we are moving forward,” including “being transparent and up-front” as they continue to collect data and information on CBD. FDA is taking an “Agency-wide, integrated, and collaborative approach” to regulating products made from CBD and is exploring potential pathways to market for CBD products. However, FDA still grapples with how to balance the desire for widespread availability of CBD products with the desire to preserve incentives for research and drug development of CBD products.
On May 3, 2019, the Florida legislature passed SB 1020, creating the state hemp program and authorizing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) to enact regulations to govern the program. The bill, first filed in the Florida Senate on February 13, 2019, passed with overwhelming support; the final version passed by a margin of 39-0 in the Senate after passing 112-1 in the House. Governor Ron DeSantis has until May 18, 2019, to veto the bill or it will automatically become law.
“The historic vote,” according to FDACS Commissioner Nicole Fried, is in response to the federal 2018 Farm Bill, which “removed the prohibitions on industrial hemp in place since 1937 and authorized states to create hemp programs.” Id. If SB 1020 becomes law, it will fundamentally alter the treatment of hemp and hemp extracts, including cannabidiol (CBD) products, under Florida law.
On May 2, 2019, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made available a new examination guide aimed at clarifying the examination procedure for trademarks used in connection with cannabis and cannabis-derived goods and services.
These guidelines are a direct response to the signing of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill) into law on December 20, 2018. The 2018 Farm Bill changes certain federal authorities relating to the production and marketing of “hemp,” defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” These changes include removing hemp from the Controlled Substance Act’s (CSA) definition of marijuana, which means that cannabis plants and derivatives such as cannabidiol (CBD) that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC are no longer controlled substances under the CSA.