Despite recent bipartisan calls on the FDA to regulate hemp-derived CBD products, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration appears to be adhering to the status quo, at least with respect to issuing warning letters to companies deemed noncompliant with existing regulations. Case in point: on September 18, 2019, the FDA issued a warning letter (posted to the FDA’s website last week) to Alternative Laboratories, a dietary supplement manufacturer based in Naples, Florida.
According to the letter, the FDA conducted an inspection of Alternative’s dietary supplement manufacturing facility over five days in May and June; the inspection focused on the adequacy of labels for certain products manufactured and distributed by the company.
The letter focuses on Alternative’s allegedly impermissible representation of 2-amino-5 methylheptane and Octodrine (DMHA) as a dietary ingredient in certain products. It also calls attention to the fact that Alternative’s product label for CBD oil distributed under the “Green Roads” brand name runs afoul of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act in that the product “cannot be a dietary supplement because … [the] FDA has concluded based on available evidence that CBD products are excluded from the dietary supplement definition under” the FD&C Act.
To support its contention that CBD products cannot be dietary supplements as defined by federal law, the FDA notes in its warning letter to Alternative that “CBD is the active ingredient in the approved drug product Epidiolex,” designed to treat certain rare, severe forms of epilepsy. Further, the FDA stresses that significant clinical research investigations concerning the use of CBD have been made public, including investigations related to Epidiolex and Sativex, a drug for the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis (MS) that has been approved for use in 25 countries (outside the U.S.) and for which the drug manufacturer, GW Pharmaceuticals, plans to seek FDA approval.
The fact that warning letters keep coming–from both the FDA and the FTC–signifies that although there may be a groundswell of public demand for regulatory reform and clarity on the issue of CBD products, the federal regulatory agencies appear to be staying the course. As such, companies operating in the space should remain vigilant and adhere to a compliance policy that reflects–for now–the reality of current regulations and restrictions.
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 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.)
On July 30, 2019, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law S.B. 57, legislation that overhauls Ohio’s laws concerning hemp. Significantly, the bill also contains an emergency provision, meaning that the bill, some critical aspects of which are discussed below, takes effect immediately.
One of the most important aspects of the emergency bill is its amendment of the definition of the word “marihuana” under the state’s Controlled Substances Act to expressly exclude hemp and hemp products. The bill defines “hemp products” broadly, providing that the term includes “cosmetics, personal care products, dietary supplements or food intended for … human consumption” as well as any other product containing hemp-derived cannabinoids (such as CBD), provided the product contains a THC concentration of no more than 0.3%. Moreover, the bill clarifies that the addition of hemp or a hemp product to any other product does not render the other product “adulterated.”
Further, the bill provides that the state shall issue licenses for the cultivation and processing of hemp in the state. However, because the process of license application and issuance has not yet been established, and further because the regulations implementing the new law have yet to be promulgated, Ohio farmers are unable to start growing hemp for the time being. That said, the Ohio Department of Agriculture stated that its “goal is to have farmers licensed and able to plant the crop by spring of 2020.”
In any event, the delay to be experienced by farmers is not likely to apply to retailers—according to the ODA, “[i]t is now legal to sell properly inspected CBD products in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Agriculture will be testing all CBD products for safety and accurate labeling to protect Ohio consumers.”
On July 22, the FDA issued a Warning Letter to Curaleaf with regard to Curaleaf’s “CBD Lotion,” “CBD Pain-Relief Patch,” “CBD Tincture,” and “CBD Disposable Vape.” The Warning Letter explains FDA’s view that Curaleaf’s CBD products are effectively “unapproved new and misbranded human drug products” because the claims Curaleaf has made about them on Curaleaf’s website and social media accounts demonstrate “they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease and/or intended to affect the structure or any function of the body,” but Curaleaf has not obtained prior approval from the FDA to market them as such. The Warning Letter also explains the FDA’s view that the subject products are not “dietary supplements” because (i) CBD has already been approved as an active pharmaceutical ingredient (epidiolex), (ii) CBD was not marketed as a dietary supplement or a conventional food prior to such FDA approval of CBD as an API; and (iii) the subject products are not “intended for ingestion,” which is a requirement of a dietary supplement. The FDA also warned about Curaleaf’s products with respect to animals, which I have not summarized. The FDA provided Curaleaf 15 days to establish a corrective action plan and to report such plan to the FDA. The Warning Letter demonstrates the FDA is actively monitoring CBD manufacturer websites and social media for over the line claims, and that CBD manufacturers need to follow the FDA’s guidance given the unsettled regulatory structure with respect to CBD.
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.
The cannabis industry is the next frontier, growing rapidly and becoming one of the highest grossing industries in the country. The problem is, through no fault of its own, it is also the “wild west” of industries in many ways operating without guidance or regulation from the federal agencies that have jurisdiction of its products.
On May 31, 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public hearing to allow stakeholders to share their experiences and challenges with cannabis or products containing cannabis-derived compounds. For this hearing, FDA requested information, scientific data, and stakeholders’ views on the safety of CBD-containing and cannabis-derived products. FDA hoped to obtain input on possible strategies that will allow for lawful marketing of CBD-containing and cannabis-derived products in a predictable and efficient manner, while still providing incentives for drug development with CBD and cannabis-derived compounds. Over 100 academic, industry, medical, and consumer stakeholders spoke or gave presentations at the hearing to a packed audience of about 500 attendees. In addition, over 1300 written comments have been posted to the FDA’s public docket FDA-2019-N-1482 for this hearing.
The hearing opened with remarks from Acting Commissioner Dr. Norman Sharpless. As expected, he made no new announcements about FDA’s current thinking about regulating products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds. He did restate the FDA’s current position that CBD and THC cannot lawfully be added to a food or dietary supplement and that FDA does not have a policy of enforcement discretion with respect to these products.