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.
On November 25, 2019, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it had issued warning letters to 15 U.S. businesses engaged in the sale of products containing cannabidiol (CBD); that it had published a revised Consumer Update detailing safety concerns about CBD products; and that it “cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” for use in human or animal food. These actions and statements by FDA cut against industrywide hopes that FDA might soon realign its enforcement policy in light of market realities.
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.
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.
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.
With the enactment of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the 2018 Farm Bill), hemp-derived CBD appeared to be on the table for marketing all across the country. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) press release issued that same day put a hold on the jubilation, stating that FDA considered any and all cannabis-containing or cannabis-derived products as drug products and not food or dietary supplements, regardless of whether the CBD was hemp-derived.
On April 2, 2019, departing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement about FDA’s next steps to advance a regulatory pathway for cannabis-containing and cannabis-derived products. At the same time FDA updated its cannabis-containing products and cannabis-derived products Q&A. It is clear that, at this point, FDA has not changed its position.