Someone approached me the other day, wanting to know what was the real story about hemp and CBD.
He said he had “a guy” who gave him a CBD salve as part of a study, supposedly “the good stuff,” to help his knee. He couldn’t understand why he was the only one out of 20 people in the group that felt no relief. He happened to have this CBD salve with him, along with a second brand that he hadn’t yet tried. The “good stuff” had slick, colorful packaging, a beautiful logo and powerful marketing messages about the phytocannabinoids and essential oils in the jar. The other CBD product was in a dull grey tin, an ugly duckling, and not nearly so impressive on the outside- I’ll call it “Homer’s Brew.” My friend dismissed Homer’s Brew outright, as not even worth trying. I told him that not all CBD products are created equal, that you can’t always believe the claims on the package, including the cannabinoid potency displayed on the label.
I told him to search for the Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each of the two products, specifically, lab test results validating the CBD dosage per serving, and also the breakdown of pesticides, heavy metals and microbials. He had to do a little digging and emailing, as it wasn’t readily available for either company, but the next day, results were in. The “good stuff” with the slick packaging and bold claims had mere trace amounts of CBD, with some hemp and essential oils- no tests for pesticides or contaminants of any kind. Hmmm, no wonder he was disappointed. Homer’s Brew’s COA came in with flying colors – a reputable lab had confirmed safe levels of pesticides, pathogens and heavy metals, and the CBD level was substantial, with a detailed cannabinoid breakdown in the lab report.
In spite of the varying legality of hemp-derived CBD products from one state to the next, consumers are gobbling up costly CBD salves, tinctures and edibles in markets, gyms and online. Like moths to a flame, they are pulled in by the CBD name and lofty promises, not always understanding what they are getting for their money. They trust that these products are safe, licensed, inspected and regulated by some agency, otherwise, “they wouldn’t be on the shelves, would they?”
In spite of the 2018 Farm Bill, FDA still has not recognized the legality of products containing hemp-derived CBD, but some states have gone ahead and given them a green light anyway- check with your own jurisdiction to be sure. In the meantime, hemp-derived CBD products are slipping through the regulatory cracks, depending on the state. It is confusing, for sure, and buyer beware.
Separate yourself from the pack of snake-oil salesmen. Test your products for safety and accurate cannabinoid potency, and make a Certificate of Analysis readily available to your customers. Boldly portray your transparency and belief in the quality of your products through this COA.
Providing this information to consumers is the best path to success- safe, satisfied customers who will refer to their friends and family, and most likely come back for more of your “good stuff.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to Curaleaf Inc., a multi-billion-dollar market cap company that is publicly traded on the Canadian Securities Exchange. The FDA determined, based upon a review of the company’s website and social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter), that several of Curaleaf’s cannabidiol (CBD) products are misbranded and unapproved new drugs sold are in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act1 (FD&C Act). The FDA also determined that Curaleaf’s “Bido CBD for Pets” products are unapproved new animal drugs that are unsafe and adulterated under the FD&C Act2. This action by FDA holds many lessons and cautions for companies already in or looking to break into the CBD market.
Unapproved New Human Drug Claims and Misbranding
The FDA identified a variety of statements in its review of the Curaleaf website and social media accounts that it said established the CBD Lotion, CBD Pain-Relief Patch, CBD Tincture, and CBD Disposable Vape Pen products as drugs. It is important to highlight that these claims were not made on the products’ label and, in some instances, referred to CBD generally. The FDA characterized these claims as demonstrating an intent to market the products for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease, as well as to affect the structure or any function of the body. For example, FDA asserted that Curaleaf made a variety of drug and disease-related claims that its products or CBD in general could be used:
To treat chronic pain;
To reduce the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia;
As a natural alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments for depression and anxiety;
To address eating disorders;
To reduce the severity of opioid-related withdrawal;
To deter heart disease;
As an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s; and
To kill breast cancer cells and counteract the spread of cancer.
The FDA stated that the Curaleaf products are not generally recognized as safe and effective for the uses described on their website and social media accounts and, therefore, the products are new drugs under the FD&C Act3. The FDA stated that, because the products have not received approval from the FDA, they may not be legally introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce.
The FDA further declared that the Curaleaf products are misbranded within the meaning the FD&C Act, because their labeling fails to bear adequate directions under which a layperson can use a drug safely and for the purpose for which it is intended. The FDA will frequently add this charge when citing a product marketed as an unapproved new drug. In its warning letter, the FDA noted that Curaleaf’s products are offered for conditions that are not inclined to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical professionals (e.g. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.). Therefore, the products would need to bear adequate directions for use, as well as obtain appropriate new drug approvals from FDA prior to being marketed as human drugs.
Unapproved Dietary Supplement Labeling
The FDA further concluded that Curaleaf intended to market their CBD products as dietary supplements. For example, under the disclaimer section of the Curaleaf products the FDA noted that it says that “Cannabidiol (CBD) . . . is a dietary supplement.” However, the warning letter reiterated the FDA’s longstanding position that CBD products do not meet the definition of a dietary supplement because they contain an active ingredient in a drug product that has been the subject of public research and drug approval by FDA. While the warning letter states that FDA is not aware of any evidence that counters the agency’s position that CBD products are excluded from the definition of dietary supplement, Curaleaf may present the FDA with any evidence that is relevant to the issue.
Further, the FDA noted that the Curaleaf products do not meet the definition of dietary supplement because those products are not “intended for digestion”. The CBD Lotion and the CBD Pain-Relief Patch products’ labeling states that they are intended to be applied directly to the skin and body, while the CBD Disposable Vape Pen is intended for inhalation. In addition, the CBD Tincture products contain a “Suggested Use” section on labeling that includes both edible and topical uses. According to the FDA, the addition of the topical use to labeling established that the tincture products are not intended for ingestion and therefore do not meet the definition of a dietary supplement.
Unapproved New Animal Drugs The FDA also concluded that Curaleaf’s “Bido CBD for Pets” products are unapproved new animal drugs as statements on Curaleaf’s website show that the products are intended for use in the mitigation, treatment or prevention of diseases in animals. For example, the company’s website states that its products will decrease dog separation anxiety, distressed feelings, anxiety and seizures, as well as reducing or stunting the growth of cancer, relieve muscle spasms and treat arthritis issues. The FDA stated that the products are “new animal drugs” because they are not generally recognized among experts qualified by scientific training and experience as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended or suggested in the labeling. In order to be legally marketed, a new animal drug must have an approved new animal drug application, conditionally approved new animal drug application, or index listing. As these products are not approved or index-listed by the FDA, these products are considered unsafe and adulterated.
What This Means to You
The FDA is paying close attention to companies marketing CBD products with unapproved drug claims for both human use and animal use. It is important for companies that currently market or are considering marketing CBD products to ensure that their marketing materials and labeling generally comply with FDA requirements and avoid making unapproved human or animal drug claims. Additionally, it underscores the fact that FDA will review more than just the label of the product, and will scrutinize statements made about the product on the company’s website and social media accounts to determine the product’s intended use. Even though the FDA is in the process of determining how to regulate CBD products, the agency will not withhold enforcement actions against companies that make unapproved drug claims, particularly those that FDA believes will steer patients from receiving approved treatments.
The receipt of an FDA warning letter may also potentially result in class action lawsuits based on state consumer protection laws or lawsuits by competitors under the Lanham Act or state competition laws. While the FD&C Act does not include a private right of action, publicly issued warning letters may form the basis of a claim that statements are false and misleading and actionable under state or other federal laws.
References to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act(FD&C Act).
For all the excitement about the “CBD” or “Cannabis-Lite” possibilities in Europe thanks to Switzerland over the last few years, the reality as of 2019 is proving to be a little different.
As of the end of May, Italy’s top court, the Court of Cessation, ruled that selling derivatives of cannabis sativa (from the buds and leaves to oils and resins) is illegal. Hemp of course, is excluded from this decree. And in fact, this decision was intended to close a loophole that was created in 2016 for so-called “Cannabis-Lite.” In other words low THC, CBD products and extracts that are showing up in the market as is or as an ingredient in something else (from food to makeup).
While this development is certainly a blow to those who were not in the know already, it is hardly surprising– especially given current events next door. German authorities just declared that they could find no use for “CBD”. This of course confuses the issue even further (since CBD is obviously found in both hemp and cannabis sativa.) Austria did the same thing late last year- and further did so on a level unseen anywhere else in Europe (namely putting cosmetics on the list too).Novel food regulation, at its heart, is all about the source of the plant and how it is processed.
In fact, and certainly in comparison, far from being nebulous, Italy appears to have taken, surprisingly, a rather scientific, if not clear-headed, approach to the issue in general. Not to mention a step that is absolutely in line with current EU policy on the same.
Novel food regulation, at its heart, is all about the source of the plant and how it is processed. This entire discussion about CBD falls squarely within that- although of course, hardly limited to just this one cannabinoid or in fact, plant genus.
What Should Investors Be Aware Of?
There is, as always, a hype around CBD. That is true in almost every legalizing market, but Europe, with a much stricter regional regulatory regime and at least a four-year path to recreational, has seen an odd twist in all of this for the last two years.
There is the potential for a CBD play in Europe, but it is niche, and country-by-countryIn the EU, the distinction between hemp and cannabis-derived cannabinoids (including but not limited to THC), is a well-known fact for those with any stripes in either the cannabis, or beyond that, mainstream food and drug industry. The largest confusion, in other words, is strictly at the lower rungs of the biz. Not to mention all foreigners.
Proof of the same? Purvey the contents of even the most wide-ranging Dutch Seed shop catalogue, and you will be hard-pressed to find non-hemp products. And even though such entities know how to get around loopholes themselves (starting with the online sale across Europe of cannabis seeds from all over the world), novel food is not a regulation even these cannabis entrepreneurs want to cross.
In other words, there is the potential for a CBD play in Europe, but it is niche, and country-by-country in an environment where both local and regional rules are shifting. And further are likely to do so for some time to come.
And in the meantime, those who make the grade, are certainly freed from one pressing if not looming question. The market in Italy is, in fact, not only far from “illegal,” but opening up both in terms of import and export to cannabis products from all over the world. Including of course, Canada and the United States.
The novel foods discussion in Europe is a thorny one- and further one very misunderstood by natives, let alone those who would take Europe by canna storm. Within Europe, this discussion has festered and percolated for the better part of two years. Last year, despite a huge bump in sales in certain regions (see Switzerland), police were directly involved on the ground in Spain and rumblings of the same possibility took place in Austria at the end of the year. Early this year, further indecision at the EU level has continued to confuse the entire discussion.
In fact, the debate in this region of the world may drive not only European but UN policy. For that reason, the road currently is a thorny one, with lots of drama shaking out along the way in policy fights that still, at least in many European countries, involve the fuzz and what has been ostensibly packaged and labelled as “health food.”
It is for that reason that the most recent move by the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (or BVL), which said that CBD should not be sold in food at all, has gotten all the attention lately. Especially and more worrying for the nascent CBD industry across the continent, the agency also opined that it does not see a case where CBD-containing cannabis would be marketable in foods or health supplements.
Last month, on April 11, the European Industrial Hemp Association (IEHA) issued a sharp rebuttal to the same. As they have just been asked to serve in an advisory role in setting EU regulations on novel foods and hemp extracts, this is likely to move the conversation forward regionally. Including in the DACH region where this issue is all over the place.
What Exactly Does Novel Foods Regulation Cover?
Novel Foods regulation in Europe covers two things, and this is true far from cannabis. It is consumer rights legislation and guidelines that cover all plant-based food and supplements across the continent. It also covers beauty products (since the skin is the body’s largest external organ) although so far, this tiny part of a niche industry has largely escaped attention. Do not expect that to last.
Where this crosses with cannabis is an interesting discussion. Hemp and cannabis of course have been consumed in Europe for thousands of years. As such, food and extracts of the plant, from species that occur naturally here, normally would not raise a fuss. However, this discussion has also become complicated for a few reasons. Starting with the fact that the seeds and strains now being developed in the U.S. and Canada are not “native” to the European region.
In fact, the early exports across the Atlantic (and there have now been a few) are all on the hemp side of the equation. Currently hemp is the only plant containing CBD that is recognized as viable under novel foods. Cannabis sativa strains that are low in THC are where this whole discussion gets dodgy. The strain, Girl Scout Cookies, and its contents including CBD for example, would under this regime, never be allowed. Nor would cannabis strains bred for their low THC in the United States.
The second issue is how such plants are processed and the cannabinoids extracted. That is another issue that directly relates to how concentrates, tinctures and extracts are made in the first place. This is also in the room.
But that is also where the entire debate also spins off into other semantic hair-splitting that the industry so far has found not only tedious but largely impenetrable.
Why Is The German Announcement So Cynical?
Germany is following its DACH neighbour Austria to directly put the brakes on the CBD and THC discussion across the border with Switzerland. In contrast to its Teutonic trading partners, the Swiss have been experimenting with all kinds of CBD products, from all sorts of sources, and are now talking THC recreational trials (even if sold out of pharmacies).
In contrast, over the last six months, both Germany and Austria have come out with statements and official pronouncements not about hemp, per se, but rather CBD- a cannabinoid found in all instances of both hemp and cannabis sativa. While politically this might send a statement that both countries are not ready to engage the cannabis debate on the next level (beyond medical in other words), scientifically of course, this is a silly argument to make. A cannabinoid is a chemical compound that acts the same whether it comes from cannabis, hemp or synthetic sources (see the synthetic dronabinol).
In the meantime, CBD itself has not been declared a “novel food.” In other words, for all the legal regulatory “brakes” and excuses, the dust is starting to clear on the debate as both regional and international bodies finally take on the entire cannabis discussion, albeit in a plodding, multi-year way. That, however, is undeniably under way at this juncture.
In the meantime, look for political grandstanding about every cannabinoid under the sun and further such drama will not abate even with “recreational” reform. Even when Europe accepts full boat regulated, recreational, novel food regulation will still be in the room. Even if politicians no longer play games with individual cannabinoids.
That said, at this point, that is also unlikely. In other words, expect the battle on the novel food front to continue for the entire industry, and shift, when recreational comes, to merely another cannabinoid, unless policy makers address the bottom-line issues now.
Folks from around the country and the world tuned into the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website as they held a public hearing on Friday, May 31. Manufacturers and suppliers asked the FDA to regulate CBD like food or dietary supplements, while the FDA seemed to want more evidence on the safety of CBD products before giving the greenlight.
Background On The Hearing
For the uninitiated, after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law back in December 2018, Scott Gottlieb, now former director of the FDA, issued a statement the same day the Farm Bill passed, clarifying the FDA’s regulatory authority. In the statement, Gottlieb explained that Congress preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and its constituents under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
In April 2019, around the same time he resigned from the FDA, Gottlieb issued another statement, acknowledging the quickly growing industry throughout the country and total lack of federal regulatory guidance. This time around, Gottlieb laid out a handful of steps that the FDA plans on taking to address regulations around hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). Those included scheduling the public hearing for May 31, where written and oral public comments were submitted by stakeholders, sharing “their experiences and challenges with these products [hemp and CBD products], including information and views related to product safety.”
That statement also announced the formation of an internal agency working group to “explore potential pathways for dietary supplements and/or conventional foods containing CBD to be lawfully marketed; including a consideration of what statutory or regulatory changes might be needed and what the impact of such marketing would be on the public health.”
Fast-forward to May 31, the day of the public hearing, and all eyes in the industry focused on what all these stakeholders had to say to the FDA about CBD. The day started off with about two hours of oral comments, each speaker had roughly two minutes to deliver their thoughts.
Industry stakeholders representing cannabis businesses sang much of the same tune, clamoring for wise regulations on safety, testing, banking and interstate commerce, among other standards. NCIA Policy Director Andrew Kline’s comments included running through five major positions of the industry trade organization representing CBD companies. Those included recommending the FDA act quickly in setting up regulations, stressing the massive economic impact of the industry, saying that CBD products are generally safe, clamoring for voluntary, consensus-based standards and informing consumers of any potential risks. “The bottom line is this – an overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds present minimal health and safety concerns,” Kline told the folks at the FDA. “Time is of the essence. Hemp-derived CBD products are in very high consumer demand and the industry is eagerly awaiting FDA’s regulatory framework for these products. We strongly recommend that FDA act quickly to clarify the regulatory environment because there is significant confusion in the market.”
Anna Williams, representing the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), stressed the importance of testing for contaminants and adulterants as well as advocating for national standards on lab testing, instead of the state-by-state network of different standards.
Patients & Public Safety
After industry stakeholders had their chance to speak, the FDA allowed a group of advocacy organizations representing patients time to speak. That included representatives for the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Epilepsy Society, both of which were hesitant to throw their full support behind CBD as medicine. Kevin Chapman with the American Epilepsy Society said he wants to see clear warning labels, testing standards, more clinical trials and more studies before the group is ready to form a position on using CBD as medicine. Keith Fargo with the Alzheimer’s Association supports clinical trials to study it more, but thinks CBD is risky for patients without serious evidence of efficacy. A representative from the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance also echoed similar concerns. They want to see labeling of drug interactions on labels of CBD products.
After those comments, some organizations had the chance to speak followed by comments from retailers and distributors. Patrick Bird, owner of PMB BioTek Consulting, spoke on behalf of AOAC International, where he primarily discussed public safety. He said they want cannabis products to be regulated with food safety in mind, asking for FSMA to apply to hemp products. They want to adequately ensure product safety with things like mandating HACCP plans, recall readiness, saying hemp products should be treated just like food products.
Retailers & Distributors
Peter Matz, representing the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the supermarket industry, said that regulatory ambiguity is a serious issue that needs addressing. “There is mass confusion in the marketplace for the public, suppliers, retailers and state regulators,” says Matz. “Demand for CBD products in human and animal use is growing rapidly. ¼ of American have already tried it. We are fielding questions from companies seeking clarity regarding the current federal regulatory framework.” He added, what many others also mentioned, that the FDA needs to move swiftly to provide a pathway to regulation.
Next on the docket came presentations from state government entities, including state departments of agriculture, followed by healthcare professionals. The state regulators that spoke mentioned a lot about food safety, standards, testing regulations, GMPs and things like that to protect consumer safety. “Currently states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts,” said Pam Miles, representing the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
One interesting aspect on their talks however was telling the FDA just how large their markets have gotten already and how they need guidance on how to regulate markets in their own states. Joseph Reardon, with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said they already have about 600 farmers growing hemp and thousands of processors working with the product in their state. “We urge the FDA to resolve the statutory issues improperly establish a legal pathway for CBD products to enter the market place,” Reardon commented. He also asked that the FDA extend the written comment period from July to August. “We are simply looking for a regulatory framework on the extraction, production and reconstitution of CBD or cannabinoid related products.”
Healthcare & Research
Healthcare providers, and physician testimony also echoed a lot of the same concerns, including the lack of research done, concerns about effects on at-risk populations and concerns about use as ingredients in dietary supplements and food. Some of the presentations also highlighted the room for nefarious activity in an unregulated marketplace. Some went as far as to mention cases where they found CBD vape juices with DXM in it (the active ingredient in cough syrup), CBD products found to contain THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids responsible for drug overdose deaths. Some advocates in the hemp and CBD community have equated these arguments similar to reefer madness.
The major takeaway from this hearing is that everyone wants to see more data. Researchers and healthcare providers want to study the efficacy of CBD used in medicine, regulators want public safety information, patient advocates want to see data about effects on at-risk populations, trade organizations want data to back up label claims and the FDA wants to see just how safe CBD really is.
Products using hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) designed for pets is not a new concept; Companies have been marketing CBD pet products for quite some time now, making their way into pet stores across the United States. Some pet owners have embraced the trend, using CBD oil to calm pets down, help alleviate joint pain as well as inflammation, while others are understandingly skeptical when it comes to using novel remedies for their furry friends.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine hope to find some answers to those questions, particularly regarding the efficacy of using CBD remedies for dogs. According to a press release, a team of researchers at University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center will perform the first major double-blind clinical trial to study the effectiveness of CBD in treating joint immobility in dogs. The trial will be led by principal investigator Dr. Kimberly Agnello.
According to the press release, this is the largest trial for cannabinoid therapy in pets so far. The trial will include use of the CBD-infused pet product, Therabis’ “Mobility.” Therabis is a subsidiary of Dixie Brands, Inc., a large cannabis infused products company in markets across the United States. Here are some of the details on the clinical trial, shared through the press release:
Dogs known to be suffering from inflammation secondary to osteoarthritis will be studied to determine whether those who receive the Therabis supplement achieve better outcomes than untreated dogs. One group of dogs will receive the formula for a proprietary veterinarian-specific formula Therabis product; a second group will receive Cannabidiol alone which previous studies have shown may have benefit in osteoarthritic dogs; a control group will receive a placebo. Study designers are targeting inclusion of up to 20 dogs in each group. The design of this study will provide valuable data defining the synergistic potential of the additional ingredients in the Therabis formula.
According to Dr. Stephen M. Katz, co-founder of Therabis, they think the data from the trials will show a positive outcome for dogs using their products. “We are honored to have a Therabis product selected by the world-renowned experts at Penn Vet for their first major study of the effects of natural hemp oil to reduce joint pain in dogs,” Says Katz. “Our experience in my clinic has shown that cannabidiol (CBD) is an effective treatment in reducing inflammatory response. We have a passion for improving dogs’ quality of life, and we look forward to learning all we can about therapeutic methods to achieve this.”
The results from this clinical trial, to be published in an academic journal upon conclusion of the study, should be of great interest to the hemp industry. Brightfield Group estimates that the CBD-infused pet products market is a $199 million industry, expected to grow up to $1.16 billion by 2020.
CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.
The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.
CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.
In the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.
It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.
It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.
In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.
The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.
The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.
A steep spike in demand has created a race to the finish line in the hemp industry, but marketing a CBD product before FDA regulations are in place can be tricky. However, there is plenty you can do now to set your CBD company up for success.Let’s look at how CBD brands can get their marketing ball rolling in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Start With How You’re Different
Despite being a new market to many consumers, the hemp industry is well established and highly competitive. Leaders such as Charlotte’s Web and CV Sciences (AKA Plus CBD Oil) are publicly traded, but the market remains extremely fragmented with small mom-and-pop shops winning out in their respective locales. The number of competitors is intense and growing. In late 2018, Congress gave hemp its blessing by including it in the farm bill. As a result, “the market will continue to grow at a fast pace,” says Steve St. Clair, CEO of Enerhealth Botanicals. CBD is now officially mainstream. With thousands of competitors, it is of utmost importance that brands pull away from the pack.
Brand strategy is something that CBD companies should outline now. How is your product different? Why would a consumer pick your brand over another? These questions can be defined by talking to your current customers, observing holes in the marketplace and understanding the key advantages you have over other companies.
Consider how messaging varies for Colorado Hemp Honey compared to Epidiolex. The first leads with messaging centered around not just the quality of their honey, but why honey is a great source of fuel, especially for athletes (“Bee your best”). The latter speaks directly to families with children who suffer from seizures (“Seizures are shared. So is Relief”). While Colorado Hemp Honey might put an emphasis on attending extreme sporting events, Epidiolex would find greater benefits in focusing their efforts elsewhere.
That same brand strategy can be used when considering product extensions. According to Heath Thomson, director of business development at CFH, knowing how your company serves its customers can guide you toward product development. “There’s booming demand for CBD across consumer demographics, use cases and product types. While this presents immense opportunity, CBD is not a cure-all and not every product type that is in development or new to the market is appropriate for medicinal or dietary supplement use cases,” says Thomson. “For example, many CBD suppliers/manufacturers are chasing water soluble CBD, but do we really need CBD enhanced water?”
Nail Your Brand Online
Armed with a brand strategy, it’s time to build something consumer facing: your website. Mass market retailers are beginning to launch their CBD programs; however, they have dozens of brands to choose from when it comes to building stock. Brands with an established presence, clear purpose and consistent brand identity will have a leg up on fly-by-night companies.
In marketing, a brand’s website is considered its digital headquarters. Investing in a clean website with clear communication is a must. A strong website will establish trust among consumers (and retail partners) and further communicate how your brand is different from the rest.
Beyond branding, e-commerce functionality is an important revenue driver. A consumer may feel self-conscious purchasing CBD in store (there is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding the product), but clicking “check out” in the privacy of their own home is easy.“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders.”
Own Your Email List
When it comes to driving revenue, there is no replacement for email. Some marketers personally feel their inbox is too full and so they cringe at the thought of adding to the constant stream of media we all face. The stats are undeniable though: the ROI of the typical email program is 73%.
When it comes to email, you (the marketer) set the guardrails. Unlike with paid advertising, your account won’t be shut down simply due to the nature of your product. Even with a modest 20% open rate, you’re reaching far more consumers than on social media (where brands only get 1% organic reach), and in a much more meaningful way.
Build Your PR Strategy
Two weeks of trying to run an advertising campaign for a hemp company will teach you one thing: when it comes to CBD, paid media is a minefield. To date, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Amazon still do not permit promotion of CBD products on their platforms. As a result, brands must lean more heavily on earned channels, such as PR.
“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders. Press is more than just free advertising when it comes to hemp or cannabis. Consumers want to know that what they’re putting into their body is safe, and with so much legal grey area they’ll be even more wary than with other supplements,” says James Clark, co-founder of Room 214. “News coverage – especially in the right publication – is like a seal of approval for your product and reaches audiences currently blocked by advertising.”
Leaders in the CBD industry already play a strong game when it comes to PR, but there’s plenty of room for more.
Prepare for Constant Change
This point cannot be stressed enough: over the next two to three years, everyone in the hemp industry needs to buckle up. The constant change in this ever-budding market means you must be ready to make quick turns and adjustments. This is even true in the exercise of writing this article, as every morning I wake up to news about new regulations in various states and motions from the FDA to hold hearings.
The impact constant change has on paid media is not to be underestimated. Over the course of just a few weeks, an advertising vendor may change their policies regarding hemp products. My team has seen this happen time and time again. They would spend a day getting a campaign rolling, see great success within a few days and then see the account had been suspended shortly after. While there are cannabis-specific advertising platforms such as Mantis, mainstream networks are still turning down hemp-based brands.
This sort of up-and-down movement requires patience, and a strong “try, try again” attitude. Applying the Dunkirk Marketing Model will help brands keep their eyes on the horizon while faced with these daily obstacles. With your focus on end goals, you must also be prepared for quick adjustments and split-second decisions.
Get Started Now
While CBD companies face far more obstacles than other CPG companies when it comes to promotion, your marketing should not take a back seat. How you build your brand today will position you to earn the trust of consumers tomorrow. Spend time building a solid foundation by getting to know your core customer. Outline a messaging plan and your brand’s positioning, and invest in owned and earned channels such as your website, email marketing and PR.
Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published an Examination Guide to provide further clarity for how they assess the legitimacy of trademarks for cannabis products. For the uninitiated, the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law on December 20, 2018, removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. In order to register a trademark in the United States, the mark must be used in a lawful setting, meaning that the USPTO does not register trademarks for products that violate federal law- even if it is legal under state law.
In their guidance document, the USPTO identifies the distinction between hemp and other cannabis varieties as the basis for either issuing or refusing a trademark registration. This means that in the trademark application, companies need to specify that the cannabis product is derived from hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight.
The USPTO clarifies that applications for trademarks that involve CBD filed before December 20, 2018 will be refused, but if they amend the filing date to after that date, the registration will be examined. Below is a direct quote from their examination guide clarifying this:
For applications filed before December 20, 2018 that identify goods encompassing CBD or other cannabis products, registration will be refused due to the unlawful use or lack of bona fide intent to use in lawful commerce under the CSA. Such applications did not have a valid basis to support registration at the time of filing because the goods violated federal law. However, because of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, the goods are now potentially lawful if they are derived from “hemp” (i.e., contain less than 0.3% THC). Therefore, the examining attorney will provide such applicants the option of amending the filing date and filing basis of the application to overcome the CSA as a ground of refusal.
Under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), using a drug in a food or dietary supplement that is currently undergoing clinical trials is illegal (as is the case here- see Epidiolex for an example of CBD being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved clinical trial). According to the USPTO, this means that “registration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”
Regarding trademarks for services involving “cannabis and cannabis production,” the USPTO also issued guidance. This section of the Examination Guide pertains to companies applying for a trademark that fall in the category of ancillary services, such as growing supply companies, lighting, nutrients, pest control and packaging, among other service providers. Basically, this section boils down to the same distinction the Farm Bill made between hemp and other varieties of cannabis. An applicant for a trademark needs to make clear their identification of services offered as involving cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC.
President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law late in December of 2018, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signing HB0171 means that the state intends to regulate the cultivation and sales of hemp-derived CBD.
Scott McDonald with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture told Wyoming Public Media that once the bill is signed, the state has 30 days to show their plans for regulation to the federal government. “We were kind of hoping to get something in place this spring for this growing season,” McDonald told Wyoming Public Media. “But we’re not sure that’s going to happen or not. There’s some uncertainty there, so it might be next year.”
McDonald also discussed the next steps that the WY Department of Agriculture needs to take to follow through on the bill’s promises, including figuring out a way to distribute licenses to hemp farmers, licensing laboratories to test hemp, insuring it has less than 0.3% THC and implementing a remediation plan for when crops test above that threshold.
According to Charlotte Peyton, a consultant with 30 years of experience in FDA regulations and experience working in the hemp industry, it is important to keep in mind that as soon as products containing hemp-derived CBD are sold across state lines, the FDA maintains regulatory authority. “If you manufacture and sell hemp products inside of a state with a state mandated hemp program, you are legal and protected under state laws, but the minute you sell across state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the federal government and, more specifically, the FDA,” says Peyton.
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