I have been writing about the recent reports of vaping related deaths and illnesses, and allegations that in some instances cannabis vaping could be a contributing factor, with a focus on the heightened risk of personal injury/product liability lawsuits. Amidst those reports it is now being reported that the Trump Administration is preparing to ban flavored nicotine products. Because THC is federally unlawful, it us unlikely that such a ban would explicitly prohibit THC vaping products, but it could include federally lawful hemp-derived CBD vaping. The absence of an explicit reference to THC vaping by the Trump Administration should not be deemed a clear runway for THC vaping manufacturers, as federal prosecutors who have discretion to take enforcement action for public safety concerns may use that power against THC vape manufacturers. Cannabis vaping manufacturers need to be very mindful of the current climate with respect to vaping. I will continue to monitor and update our Cannabis Industry Blog on this issue.
Yesterday, I blogged about a Washington Post article that reported that vitamin E acetate in marijuana vaping products is being considered as possibly being linked to alleged vaping related lung injuries. I cautioned cannabis manufacturers, processors and dispensaries, i.e., the cannabis supply chain, that articles like WP’s, which referred to vitamin E acetate in cannabis vapor as a “contaminant,” could be the impetus for product liability lawsuits.
Today, WP provided an update to yesterday’s article. WP now states as many as 450 vaping illness cases have been reported across 33 states. Up from yesterday’s report of 250 cases across 25 states. WP’s new article refers to the vaping related health claims as possible a “new lung disease” based on a study by the New England Journal of Medicine that reports about a possible lung disorder being experienced by certain consumers of vape. However, WP appears to acknowledge scientists have not yet identified a specific chemical in vape, or whether vaping of nicotine or marijuana, is resulting in an increased risk of the lung disorder reported by NEJM. Indeed, scientific research and investigation is needed in this area.
Nevertheless, as I explained yesterday, having represented pharmaceutical companies in product liability matters involving alleged “contaminants,” product liability lawsuits are often, if not usually, filed without any scientific proof of injury causation. Accordingly, the cannabis supply chain should be careful to ensure the safety of their products, and implement necessary compliance measures.
Likewise, cannabis consumers should be mindful that many of the reports of vaping related health issues concern “black market” vape products, not those manufactured by state-licensed cannabis companies who are required by law to maintain strict standards for their products.
Today, the Washington Post reported that federal and state regulators have identified the chemical vitamin E acetate as being contained in certain cannabis vaping products allegedly linked to lung injuries. According to WP, 215 cases possibly arising out of cannabis vapes containing the chemical have been reported in 25 states, and two deaths have been linked to marijuana vaping.
WP refers to vitamin E acetate in cannabis vapor as a “contaminant,” which is a loaded term that could get the attention of the plaintiffs’ product liability bar. Articles like this are often the impetus for lawsuits to be filed. Consequently, products’ liability claims may soon become a reality for the cannabis vape supply chain.
However, as even the WP article makes clear, whether vitamin E acetate in marijuana vapor can cause an increased risk of injury of any kind to vaping consumers is being investigated, and has not been proven. The article also identifies the fact that many users of marijuana vape also vape nicotine, which is likely one of many confounding factors. Thus, product liability claims asserting injuries from marijuana vaping brought now are likely to be unsupported by science.
Nevertheless, those in the cannabis supply chain, e.g., manufacturers, processors, and sellers, should be aware of the likelihood of such claims, as product liability claims are often asserted without any scientific evidence of causation. Those in the supply chain should know that a range of compliance measures can be implemented to better protect against against such claims.
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.
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.
Last week, I wrote about CVS Pharmacy’s decision to sell hemp-derived CBD products in eight states, Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee. Today, one of its competitors, Walgreens announced a similar decision – Walgreens will be entering the hemp-derived CBD space Walgreens in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, South Carolina, Illinois and Indiana, where it will sell CBD creams, patches and sprays in nearly 1,500 stores.
As with CVS, Walgreen’s decision to sell hemp-derived in CBD in select states, as opposed to rolling those products out nationally, is likely the result of the still developing federal regulatory framework for hemp, which includes forthcoming regulations and guidance from USDA and FDA, and differences in the laws pertaining to hemp and hemp-derived CBD products from state-to-state.
Notwithstanding the challenging regulatory environment, the mass marketing of hemp-derived CBD, now that hemp is no longer a federal controlled substance, provides a lucrative opportunity for the hemp-derived CBD supply chain – cultivators, processors, and retailers, including the major pharmacy chains. However, the “select state” approach Walgreens and CVS have taken demonstrates that careful is analysis of the federal and state laws and regulations at play is necessary before entering the hemp-derived CBD market.
CVS Pharmacy’s announcement that it will be selling hemp-derived CBD topicals, including creams, sprays, roll-ons, lotions and salves in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee, should really come as no surprise, as the mass marketing of CBD has been an eventuality since hemp was removed from the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of marijuana with the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill in December 2018. CBD’s therapeutic benefits, without the psychoactivity of THC, have made products containing CBD the darling of the cannabis industry.
However, as CVS’s decision to market hemp-derived CBD products in select states demonstrates, the 2018 Farm Bill was not a total green light. USDA has yet to establish regulations fully implementing the federal hemp program, which would allow states to establish their own rules for cultivation, processing and sale of hemp, meaning state-by-state differences in the laws concerning cannabis, including hemp, must be assessed before marketing products like hemp-derived CBD. Such federal regulations should be promulgated later in 2019, ahead of the 2020 growing season.
In addition to USDA, FDA has authority over CBD-containing products under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, adding another layer of regulatory complexity that makes the 2018 Farm Bill’s removal of hemp from the CSA more of a yellow light for marketing hemp-derived CBD. Thus, manufacturers and distributors of CBD products must assess how CBD fits in with FDA and state rules concerning drugs and drug approvals, active pharmaceutical ingredients, health claims and labeling, and foods and beverages. FDA has said it is evaluating CBD closely, and should be providing guidance later in 2019.
Because the light is still yellow on the marketing of hemp-derived CBD, manufacturers and distributors should carefully evaluate the federal and state regulatory framework before marketing their CBD products.
On December 27, 2018, the Northern District of California dismissed a civil RICO claim brought against the owners and operators of a Sonoma County cannabis growing operation and the operation’s landlord. See Bokaie v. Green Earth Coffee LLC, 3:18-cv-05244-JST, 2018 WL 6813212 (N.D. Calif. Dec. 27, 2018). The lawsuit was filed by neighbors who alleged that the operation’s “skunk-like stench” interfered with the enjoyment of their property and drove down their property values. The Bokaie court found that such alleged harms did not constitute a “RICO injury,” and thus dismissed plaintiffs’ claim (albeit without prejudice, allowing 30 days to amend).
The Bokaie case is part of a growing trend of RICO lawsuits filed in legalized states—to date, roughly a dozen have been filed in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon—that seek to exploit the tension between state law and the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). RICO defines “racketeering activity” to include CSA violations, and a civil lawsuit can proceed upon allegations that an enterprise’s pattern of racketeering activity caused damage to the plaintiffs’ business or property. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961(1), 1962(c), 1964(c). RICO’s civil remedy provision awards prevailing plaintiffs triple damages and attorneys’ fees, id. § 1964(c), thus giving “not in my backyard” plaintiffs and their attorneys a powerful tool against their neighbors. By alleging that the smell of cannabis interferes with the enjoyment of their property and drives down their property value, plaintiffs in these cases are effectively elevating common law nuisance claims into federal RICO lawsuits.
On August 15, 2018, Constellation Brands, which owns popular beer, wine and spirits products, such as Corona, Robert Mondavi and High West, announced it is investing $4 billion in Canopy Growth, which is one of the leading investors in the global legal cannabis market. The announcement boosted Cannabis market stocks in the US and Canada, and is likely to catch the eye of big alcohol, big tobacco, big pharma and larger consumer products companies that have been interested in entering the growing legal marijuana markets. More and more companies once-hesitant about doing so are finding that good counsel can help them navigate the regulatory hurdles that might otherwise stand in the way of profiting from this exciting market.