On July 21, 2020, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidance outlining the agency’s current thinking on the development of drugs containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds. The new guidance is disappointing to many in the cannabis industry because it does not provide insight into the FDA’s views on the marketing of nondrug, hemp-derived CBD products.
Three decisions staying CBD class actions in two months may signal a trend, especially considering that the Courts in these cases refer to the other’s decisions. Such a trend may keep the plaintiffs’ bar at bay, as it would cast doubt on the viability of consumer class actions asserting CBD violations, or at least it could make the cases less appealing to the plaintiffs’ bar because a stay makes the timing of a settlement or resolution even more uncertain.
As a commercial litigator who has handled a broad range of claims in highly regulated industries over the past 20 years — particularly in complex matters such as class actions involving claims brought by consumers and shareholders — and given my experience spearheading the development of Duane Morris’ cannabis industry group, which has included providing regulatory and business advice to a number of businesses and individuals with cannabis-related interests, I have been expecting the maturing cannabis industry to eventually mirror other industries when it comes to using commercial litigation to resolve disputes between businesses and to address claims of injury allegedly experienced by aggreived consumers and shareholders. It appears the time has come. Now, as opposed to even just a few months ago, not a day goes by when the daily legal news outlets that report on litigation matters filed in federal and state courts around the country do not include matters pertaining to adult use marijuana, medical marijuana, and/or hemp.
Today alone, legal news outlets are reporting about a shareholder deriviative action being filed against the manufacturer of cannabinoid-containing transdermal patches, a maker of mobile hemp dryers suing a distributor for alledgedly stealing trade secrets, a publicly-traded company that owns cannabis brands being sued for breach of contract by an MSO arising out of a failed merger agreement. Claims like these are among the many product liability, stock-drop and securities fraud, tradmark infringement, FLSA, and employment litigation matters to be filed in 2020 relating to cannabis; not to mention the federal and state regulatory cannabis-related enforcement actions also commenced. Just as in other industries, COVID-19 is likely to spur litigation in the space because of strains on resources and performance caused by business disruptions and the slower economy. To be sure, the plaintiffs’ bar has cannabis on its radar.
Thus, now more than ever, it is critically important for cannabis businesses to implement the necessary compliance measures, including making sure appropriate insurance coverage, e.g. premises, products, and D&O, has been obtained, that could protect their businesses from the cost and disruption of commercial litigation. Likewise, cannabis-specific nuances, such as the enforceability of contracts and jurisdictional questions, require careful evaluation by experienced counsel advising plaintiffs and defendants who are considering filing, or who have been brought into, a commercial litigation.
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.
Duane Morris partner Neville M. Bilimoria is quoted in the Law360 article, “CBD Rules In Limbo As FDA Grapples With New Cannabis Era.”
Hemp may have been legalized less than a year ago, but CBD derived from it is already on its way to becoming a multibillion-dollar industry. However, sales of everything from CBD gummies to lattes are occurring in a legal gray area as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struggles with regulating the largely unstudied ingredient. […]
“This is a watershed year for the FDA and its coming to grips with the increasing demand from the consumer public over marijuana, cannabis, CBD, hemp. It’s trying to catch up to what the consumers are touting as being therapeutic uses for CBD and THC,” Mr. Bilimoria said. “It’s basically saying, ‘Wait, everybody slow down. We’re the FDA. We rely on science before we can approve any uses and regulate any uses of cannabis or CBD.'” […]
Mr. Bilimoria said he can’t blame the FDA for “taking it slow,” but said doing so is frustrating when CBD is already all over store shelves. […]
To read the full article, visit the Law360 website (subscription required).
Among other key provisions, the new regulatory framework provides for USDA’s approval of State and Tribal Land hemp programs established under the 2018 Farm Bill, which will end debate as to whether hemp activities in a State or Tribal Land receiving such approval are federally lawful. To be approved, those plans will have to contain stringent requirements for testing the THC content of hemp to ensure it does not meet the definition of marijuana, and contain procedures for the enforcement of violations of the State or Tribe’s hemp program. Importantly, the regulatory framework provides for USDA’s granting of hemp production permits in states and territories that do not establish hemp programs for approval by USDA.