Tag Archives: claim

Consumer Protection Laws & CBD Products—What You Need to Know Before Going to Market

By Jonathan C. Sandler, Alissa Gardenswartz
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By now, cannabis companies have heard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a slew of warning letters to sellers of CBD products for selling unapproved and mislabeled drugs and illegally adulterated food, as prohibited by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. However, companies marketing CBD products should know that making any health-related claims about their products also exposes them to liability under state and federal consumer protection laws. These laws additionally prevent CBD sellers from misrepresenting how much CBD is contained in their products, and even govern how companies communicate with their customers via text message. As the former head of consumer protection enforcement in Colorado and a lawyer routinely defending consumer protection class actions in California, we have seen firsthand how not considering these laws when developing a sales and marketing strategy can result in protracted and expensive litigation.

Consumer Protection Laws – Federal and State

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act provides that “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce . . . are declared unlawful.”1 The FTC enforces this law, and has clarified that “deceptive” practices involve a material representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer under the circumstances.In other words, a claim is deceptive if an average consumer would believe and rely on the misleading claim to buy something. With the rise of social media marketing, the FTC has also issued disclosure guidelines for companies and influencers promoting products online.3 Every state has some form of consumer protection statute that similarly prevents deceptive marketing, and is typically enforced by the state’s attorney general. Many state laws also allow for consumers to bring actions themselves.

Both the FTC and state attorneys general have used these laws for decades against companies making scientifically unsupported health claims about their products. Just this month, the FTC and the Maine attorney general filed a lawsuit against two dietary supplement companies who were claiming that their products were a “miraculous natural solution” for life-threatening diseases. According to the lawsuit, the companies violated a 2018 settlement that required them to not make any health claims about their products without first conducting at least one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to support the claims.4 While much of the enforcement around dietary supplements has focused on unsubstantiated health claims, other actions have been brought for improper “expert” endorsements as well as misrepresenting the amount of active ingredient contained in the supplement.5 In other words, these laws are used to police all manner of labelling and marketing of products, including those containing CBD. The FTC has already issued warning letters to CBD companies several times this year, and has stated that CBD sellers could be subject to enforcement for making unsubstantiated health claims.6

While consumer protection laws are largely focused on the content of advertisements, there are also laws that address how sellers can communicate with consumers. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restricts telemarketing and the use of automated systems to contact consumers, and applies to both voice calls and text messaging. Both the FTC and state attorneys general can enforce the TCPA, and consumers can bring private TCPA actions as well. Because the TCPA allows for courts to award $500 per violation—that is, per illegal call or text—companies can face judgments into the millions of dollars.

Recent Consumer Protection Lawsuits in the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation.All companies need to navigate consumer protection laws when they market their products, but class action lawyers may be pursuing cannabis companies in particular because of the products’ legal uncertainty, and because they provide opportunities for unique claims of deception. For example, a nationwide class of consumers recently filed a lawsuit in California against a CBD company that had received a warning letter from the FDA in November of this year, alleging that they would not have purchased the company’s CBD products if they knew selling the items was illegal.7 The consumers claimed violations of a variety of California and Arizona consumer protection laws, including those related to breach of warranty and unfair competition. Other lawsuits have been brought because products did not contain the amount of CBD as represented on the label, or because the product claimed to not contain THC when it did.8

Cannabis companies have been subject to TCPA class actions as well. Florida’s largest medical marijuana company has been accused of spamming customers with unwanted texts in violation of the TCPA.9 A dispensary with multiple locations in Colorado was also the subject of a TCPA class action complaint in Florida alleging that it did not obtain prior consent from consumers prior to texting them.10

Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation. However, companies can head off lawsuits by thoroughly vetting their marketing strategies with experienced consumer protection lawyers before going to market.


References

 

  1.  15 U.S.C. Sec. 45(a)(1).
  2. See FTC Policy Statement on Deception, October 14, 1983.
  3. See Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers at https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/disclosures-101-social-media-influencers.
  4. See https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/12/ftc-state-maine-file-contempt-action-against-dietary-supplement.
  5. See FTC v. Nobetes Corp., Case No. 2:18-cv-10068 (C. D. Cal) (complaint against supplement company for using deceptive endorsements); “New York Attorney General Targets Mislabeled Herbal Supplements,” https://www.npr.org/2015/02/03/383578263/new-york-attorney-general-targets-mislabeled-herbal-supplements. (detailing the New York attorney general’s investigation of herbal supplements, and finding that they did not contain the ingredients as advertised).
  6. See https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2019/09/making-cbd-health-claims-careful-disseminating.
  7. Fausett et al. v. KOI CBD, LLC., Case No. 2:19-cv-10318 (C. D. Cal).
  8. Potter et al v. PotNetwork Holdings, Inc., Diamond CBD, Inc., and First Capital Venture Co., Case No. 19-cv-24017, (S. D. FL); Horn v. Medical Marijuana, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-701-FPG, (W.D.N.Y.).
  9. Jaslow v. Trulieve, Inc., Case No. 4:19-cv-RH-CAS (N.D. Fla.).
  10. Stinnett v. Hobby Farms, LLC d/b/a A Cut Above, Case No. 9:18-cv-81449-RLR (S.D. Fla.)
FDAlogo

FDA Issues Warnings to 15 CBD Companies, Updates Safety Concerns

By Aaron G. Biros
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FDAlogo

On November 25th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out warning letters to 15 different companies for “illegally selling products containing cannabidiol (CBD) in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).” They also published a “Consumer Update” where they express concern regarding the general safety of CBD products. The press release also states that at this time the FDA cannot say that the CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). To see the list of companies that received warning letters, check out the press release here.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

While the FDA is still trying to figure out how to regulate hemp and hemp-derived CBD products, they published these releases to let the public know they are working on it, according to FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, M.D., Ph.D.:

“As we work quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds like CBD, we’ll continue to monitor the marketplace and take action as needed against companies that violate the law in ways that raise a variety of public health concerns. In line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation, and promote consumer confidence, this overarching approach regarding CBD is the same as the FDA would take for any other substance that we regulate. We remain concerned that some people wrongly think that the myriad of CBD products on the market, many of which are illegal, have been evaluated by the FDA and determined to be safe, or that trying CBD ‘can’t hurt.’ Aside from one prescription drug approved to treat two pediatric epilepsy disorders, these products have not been approved by the FDA and we want to be clear that a number of questions remain regarding CBD’s safety – including reports of products containing contaminants, such as pesticides and heavy metals – and there are real risks that need to be considered. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to fill in the knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products.”

The Warning Letters

The warning letters sent to those 15 companies all mention a few types of violations to the FD&C Act. Those include marketing unapproved human and animal drugs, selling CBD products as dietary supplements and adding CBD as an ingredient to human and animal foods. All 15 companies are using websites, online retailers and social media in interstate commerce to market CBD products unlawfully, according to the press release.

FDAThis is not the first time the FDA has sent out warning letters to CBD companies. Previously, most of the warning letters were sent out regarding companies making unsubstantiated drug and health claims. This new round of 15 warning letters reaches beyond just unsubstantiated claims and identifies a few new areas of regulatory oversight that CBD companies should be wary of.

Of the 15 warning letters sent out, some were sent to companies that are marketing CBD products to children and infants, some were sent to companies using CBD as an ingredient in food products, some were marketed as dietary supplements and one company marketed their products for use in food-producing animals, such as chickens and cows. With this press release, the FDA is saying loud and clear that the above list of marketing strategies are currently unlawful, that is, until they finish their work in devising a regulatory framework for hemp-derived CBD products.

Updated Safety Concerns

Regarding the FDA saying they cannot deem CBD as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), they published a fact sheet titled “What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out) About Products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-derived Compounds, Including CBD.” The key words there should be noted in the parentheses: And What We’re Working to Find Out. The FDA’s research is by no means over with and, if anything, has only just begun. Refer to the fact sheet to see why the FDA couldn’t say that CBD is GRAS.

Epidiolex-GWIn the FDA’s research, they have found a few potential health problems associated with taking CBD. During the marketing application for Epidiolex as a new drug, the only approved CBD drug on the market, the FDA identified a couple of safety risks. The first one is liver injury, which they identified in blood tests, but mentioned that it could be managed easily with medical supervision. Without medical supervision, potential liver injury due to CBD consumption could go undetected, according to the FDA.

The second health concern is drug interaction. During the new drug approval process for Epidiolex, they found that other medicines could impact the dose of CBD and vice versa. The other major health concern they have is male reproductive toxicity. The FDA says that studies in lab animals showed male reproductive toxicity, including things like decrease in testicular size, inhibition of sperm growth and development and decreased circulating testosterone. They do mention, however, that “it is not yet clear what these findings mean for human patients and the impact it could have on men (or the male children of pregnant women) who take CBD.” The fact sheet also some side effects that CBD use could produce including sleepiness, gastrointestinal distress and changes in mood.

What Now?

The FDA says they are actively researching and working on learning more about the safety of CBD products. They listed a couple risks that they are looking into right now: Those include, cumulative exposure (What if you use CBD products daily for a week or a month?), special populations (effects of CBD on the elderly, pregnant or nursing women, children, etc.) and CBD in animals (safety of CBD use in pets or food-producing animals and the resulting safety of human food products like milk or eggs).

While the CBD products market could still be classified as a bit of a gray market currently, the FDA says they are working on researching it more to develop an appropriate regulatory framework. What that might look like is anyone’s guess. One thing that remains clear, however, is that the FDA will not tolerate CBD companies marketing products in ways described above. Those include making unsubstantiated health claims, marketing to children, using CBD as an ingredient in foods and marketing it as a dietary supplement.

Soapbox

Where Does the FDA Stand on CBD?

By Nathan Libbey
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CBD Intro

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of over 1000 cannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant. CBD was identified as an isolate from Minnesota Hemp in the 1930s (Gururajan, 2016). Unlike many other cannabinoids and compounds found in cannabis flower, CBD is not adversely psychoactive. CBD, upon its discovery entered the field of vision for US regulators. There are two routes of regulation for the FDA under the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act – as a drug and as a food (Oconnor, 2018). The FDA has jurisdiction over drugs in a broad sense from border to border, intra and interstate. Their jurisdiction over food, however, only extends to food that crosses interstate lines. CBD therefore, because of potential food uses and medicinal uses, darkens what is already a muddy regulatory landscape.

CBD as a drug

FDAUnder the FD&C Act, a drug is defined as “any product, including a cannabis product (hemp or otherwise), that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim (Mayol, 2019). In 1995, Cannabidiol was identified as a possible solution to help combat epilepsy. Since 1995, studies have been performed to evaluate the effectiveness of CBD to treat epilepsy and lessen the frequency and severity of seizures. In 2018, the FDA approved the first cannabidiol drug, brand named Epidiolex (White, 2019). Drug approvals under the FDA jurisdiction require specific approval before they can be launched into market. That is, while Epidiolex has a specific approval, this approval does not lead to implicit approval of similar CBD drugs that treat other illnesses.

Bottom line: CBD is a recognized drug for use to treat epilepsy. Future use as a drug needs to be approved by the FDA.

CBD as an ingredient

What is seemingly the easiest route to market for CBD derived products is increasingly complicated. For ingredients, the easiest road to allowance in food is to be identified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). GRAS status is granted to ingredients that have been studied and deemed safe for human consumption by FDA-recognized experts. CBD, to date, is not GRAS. Without GRAS status, the FDA has similar mandates to CBD as a drug above. Ingredients must gain premarket approval prior to being offered for sale in interstate commerce.

Bottom line: CBD is not a recognized ingredient in food – it is neither premarket approved by the FDA nor accepted as generally safe for human consumption.

FDA Action

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

CBD product offerings continue to rise, ranging from CBD infused pillows to suppositories. While products containing CBD have increased in popularity, the FDA has stood at a distance until recently. The result of this lack of enforced policy has led to a scenario where upwards of 70% of all CBD products available online are mislabeled (Caroon, 2018).

This lack of enforcement and flexing of authority seems to be a thing of the past, however. In late November, the FDA sent a warning letter to 15 facilities that had engaged in interstate commerce with a CBD product. These warnings stemmed largely from non-compliant claims of health benefits, CBD use as a dietary supplement, and CBD used in food products offered for sale across state lines.

Until CBD is either identified as GRAS or a specific product gets preapproval, the current issues with CBD in food will remain. In the meantime, manufacturers must be aware of their ingredients, their claims, and the ramifications these may have on the FDA jurisdiction over their products.


References

Cohen, P., & Sharfstein, J. (2019). The opportunity of CBD — reforming the law. The New England Journal of Medicine, 381(4), 297-299.

Corroon, J., & Kight, R. (2018). Regulatory status of cannabidiol in the united states: A perspective. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 3(1), 190-194. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.neu.edu/10.1089/can.2018.0030

Gururajan, A., & Malone, D. (2016). Does cannabidiol have a role in the treatment of schizophrenia? Schizophrenia Research, 176(2-3), 281-290.

O’Connor, S. and Lietzan, E. (2018). The surprising reach of FDA regulation of cannabis, even after descheduling. American University Law Review 68, 823.

Mayal, S. and Throckmorton, D. (2019).  FDA Role in Regulation of Cannabis Products.  Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/media/128156/download

White, C. (2019). A Review of Human Studies Assessing Cannabidiol’s (CBD) Therapeutic Actions and Potential. Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 59(7), 923-934.

How to Protect Your Business from the Emerging Vaping Crisis

By Tom BeLusko, Kelly McCann
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The year 2020 may become a pivotal year for cannabis operators and service providers, including increased access to financial services, and increased exposure to product liability lawsuits. On a positive note, if enacted, the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (SAFE Banking Act) promises to enable cannabis businesses to gain access to financial services previously unavailable to them, including banking and insurance services. The House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 on September 25th, 2019. Skopos Labs, an automated predictive intelligence service, predicts there is a 52% chance of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 becoming law. A recent discovery that vitamin E acetate is likely the culprit in the vaping-related illness epidemic may increase the exposure to costly litigation that cannabis businesses face.

An uptick in litigation like that currently affecting the vaping industry may soon affect cannabis businesses. More litigation affecting the vaping industry is due in large part to the growing number of lung injuries and deaths linked to vaping. As of November 13th, 2019, the CDC reported 2,172 cases of lung injury, and 42 deaths linked to vaping. The cases of lung injury and death have predictably resulted in an increase in litigation facing the vaping industry. Most of the plaintiffs in these cases allege they became addicted to vaping but at least two lawsuits go further. In one, a Connecticut man alleges that he suffered a massive, debilitating stroke as a result of vaping, while in another the parents of a teenage girl allege in a proposed class action suit that their daughter has suffered seizures linked to vaping. On November 14th, 2019, the CDC identified vitamin E acetate as a chemical of concern among people with vaping use associated lung injury. Vitamin E acetate is an additive commonly used as a cutting agent in vape cartridges. About 86% of individuals who have either vaping-related lung injuries, or died due to vaping had used a product containing THC.

The increase in perceived exposure cannabis businesses face has increased their interest in obtaining insurance, but unfortunately insurers are not always interested in insuring them. There are at least two reasons that getting insurance can be difficult for cannabis businesses: (1) insurance industry appetite for cannabis risk is very low due to its status under federal law and (2) express coverage exclusions or limitations of cannabis exposures from standard-form coverage are becoming more common. However, even if cannabis businesses are able to obtain insurance, their insurance may cover them for far less than they believe.

The product liability coverage (which is increasingly crucial for both growers and manufacturers given the mounting litigation facing the vaping industry) may cover far less than it at first appears. The interplay of exclusions and limited coverages in many cannabis-specific policies may leave a cannabis business uninsured.

It is vital now more than ever to ensure you are properly protected against loss.Crucial for cannabis businesses to appreciate is the distinction between “occurrence” and “claims-made” coverage triggers as it relates to both the premises on which cannabis businesses operate their business, and the products they sell.

Many cannabis businesses have an occurrence-based general liability insurance that might actually exclude: (1) product-liability risks; (2) any tobacco-related risks; and (3) any risk associated with governmental investigation or enforcement. These exclusions oftentimes concern cannabis businesses because there is a high likelihood one of these risks could manifest itself as an uninsured loss. Still, the costs of eliminating these exclusions in an occurrence-based general liability insurance policy is often large, assuming an insurer is willing to eliminate the exclusions on an occurrence basis at all. Therefore, cannabis businesses often pair their general liability insurance policy with a “claims-made” coverage trigger for products liability. Navigating the waters of managing the differences between “occurrence” and “claims-made” forms are best left to a qualified and experienced insurance professional.

Consult a local insurance professional that understands how to help your business become properly protected in what would be considered a tumultuous market for this burgeoning industry.

It is vital now more than ever to ensure you are properly protected against loss. As a first step, you must determine what your current insurance policy does and does not cover. After a loss, it is too late to change policies. Rely upon someone that knows the market of insuring this industry and has deep experience in managing both occurrence and claims-made policies.

FDA

FDA Warning Letter to CBD Company Provides Many Lessons for Burgeoning Market

By Seth Mailhot, Emily Lyons, Steve Levine
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FDA

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 Act(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.

FDAlogoThe 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).

  1. Sections 502(f)(1), 505(a) and 301(d)
  2. Sections 501(a)(5) and 512(a)
  3. Section 201(p)

Who’s Afraid of Biotech Institute LLC?

By Brett Schuman, Daniel Mello, Nicholas Costanza, Olivia Uitto
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While cannabis patenting activity is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, a lot has been written already about the cannabis patenting activity of an entity called Biotech Institute LLC (BI) of Westlake Village, California.1 BI is building a sizable portfolio of utility and plant patents covering various aspects of the cannabis plant. According to some commentators, BI’s patents have “many in the cannabis industry concerned.”2

But how concerned should members of the cannabis industry really be about BI’s patents? Generally, patents are susceptible to numerous challenges in multiple fora. From 2012-2016, approximately 80% of challenged patents were invalidated by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) each year.3 The PTAB was created in 2011 by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, 35 U.S.C. § 6, to create a process for eliminating improvidently issued patents. And the statistics suggest that the process may be working as intended by Congress.

BI may be building its portfolio by taking advantage of some unique challenges in the cannabis patenting area. First, even though cannabis has been cultivated and consumed by humans for thousands of years, there is a relative lack of published prior art available to patentees and patent examiners examining patent applications.4 Second, patent examiners are not as familiar with cannabis patent applications as they may be with other types of patent applications.

So, we examined carefully BI’s earliest and arguably broadest utility patent, U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554, and concluded that maybe the cannabis industry need not be so concerned about this and some of BI’s other utility patents. Although the ’554 patent is lengthy – 247 columns of text and over an inch thick when printed in hardcopy – there appears to be little if any novelty to the claimed invention. Alternatively, the patent appears to be obvious in light of the available prior art.

In a patent, the claims define the metes and bounds of the patentee’s intellectual property. Claim 1 of the ’554 patent recites:

  1. A hybrid cannabis plant, or an asexual clone of said hybrid cannabis plant, or a plant part, tissue, or cell thereof, which produces a female inflorescence, said inflorescence comprising:
  1. a BT/BD genotype;
  2. a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene;
  3. a terpene oil content greater than about 1.0% by weight; and
  4. a CBD content greater than 3%;
  5. wherein the terpene profile is defined as terpinolene, alpha phelladrene, beta ocimene, careen, limonene, gamma terpinene, alpha pinene, alpha terpinene, beta pinene, fenchol, camphene, alpha terpineol, alpha humulene, beta caryophyllene, linalool, cary oxide, and myrcene, and wherein the terpene oil content is determined by the additive content of the terpenes in the terpene profile; and wherein the terpene contents and CBD content are measured by gas chromatography-flame ionization detection (GC-FID) and calculated based on dry weight of the inflorescence; wherein a representative sample of seed producing said plants has been deposited under NCIMB Nos. 42246, 42247, 42248, 42249, 42250, and 42254.

While claim elements define the metes and bounds of the invention, typically only certain claim elements are intended to distinguish the claimed invention from the prior art. Other claim elements merely help to describe the invention. For example, the preamble in the ‘554 patent, or the part of the claim before subpart (a), describes the flowering part of the cannabis plant. This is not intended to describe anything novel about the claimed invention, but rather it simply describes the part of the cannabis plant that is relevant to the invention.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Before the priority date of the ’554 patent, it was known in the prior art that BT/Bgenotypes produce nearly equal amounts of THC and CBD (both are dominant; one is not recessive).5 Thus, it is not unexpected to have a CBD content greater than 3% in a genotype that can produce large amounts of CBD (known references state as high as 21% in CBD-dominant strains and 3%-15% in BT/Bgenotypes).6 Further, it was known in the prior art that terpenes generally constitute more than 1.0% percent by weight (usually between 2-4%) of the flower.7

As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.Claim element (b), reciting a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene, appears to be one of – if not the only – claimed element of novelty of the BI invention. Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced in plants, and the cannabis plant has more than 100 different terpenes. Claim element (e) simply lists the most abundant terpenes in the cannabis plant. A majority of cannabis strains express high levels of myrcene; however, there are known prior art strains that express high levels of other terpenes, such as caryophyllene, limonene, pinene, etc. Additionally, it is well known in the art that terpenes have different therapeutic effects. For example, pinene and linalool are known to have antidepressant activity.8 Thus, a prior disclosure of a BT/Bgenotype that has a terpene profile where myrcene is not the dominate terpene very likely invalidates this claim. And even assuming there is any novelty to a high-CBD strain where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, there is a motivation to breed for a dominant terpene besides myrcene.

Because cannabis has been and remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, previously known and used strains generally have not been chemically characterized, studied, researched, and the subject of publications that can be used as prior art for purposes of challenging cannabis patents. But that is changing. For example, the Open Cannabis Project (OCP) attempted to characterize and publish chemical details of cannabis plants. Even though OCP closed as of May 31, 2019, is database is still publicly available. Another example is CANNA, a non-profit initiative of the CANNA Espana Fertilizantes SL company, which carries out studies and conducts research on cannabis and its active compounds.9 In one study,10 CANNA found that some strains have terpene profiles where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, which could be relevant to a novelty-based or obviousness challenge to claim 1 of the ‘554 patent. As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.


References

  1. See, e.g.,Amanda Chicago Lewis, The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery, GQ (August 23, 2017), https://www.gq.com/story/the-great-pot-monopoly-mystery;  Brian Wroblewski, Utility Patents on Marijuana? Who is BioTech Institute LLC?, The National Marijuana News, https://thenationalmarijuananews.com/utility-patents-marijuana-biotech-institute-llc/; Eric Sandy, Biotech Institute Has Applied for Patents on 8 Individual Cannabis Cultivars, Cannabis Business Times(June 24, 2019), https://www.cannabisbusinesstimes.com/article/biotech-institute-cannabis-patent-applications/.
  2. Nicole Grimm, George Lyons III, and Brett Scott, Biotech Institute’s Growing Patent Portfolio — U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554 and the Path Forward, JD Supra (November 17, 2017), https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/biotech-institute-s-growing-patent-17433/.
  3. World Intellectual Property Organization, An overview of patent litigation systems across jurisdictions,World Intellectual Property Indicators 2018, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_941_2018-chapter1.pdf.
  4. Brett Schuman et al., Emerging Patent Issues In The Cannabis Industry, Law360(February 20, 2018), https://www.goodwinlaw.com/-/media/files/publications/emerging-patent-issues-in-the-cannabis-industry.pdf.
  5. Chandra, et al. Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology, pages 142-144, Springer, 2017 (citing de Meijer, Genetics163: 225-346 (2003)). See alsoMolecular Breeding (2006) 17:257-268, doi/10.1007/s11032-005-5681-x. 
  6. American Journal of Botany 91(6): 966:975 (2004). doi.org/10.3732/ajb.91.6.966; See e.g., Jikomes, Peak THC: The Limits on THC and CBD Levels for Cannabis Strainshttps://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/peak-thc-cbd-levels-for-cannabis-strains.
  7. PLoS One. 2017; 12(3): e0173911. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173911.  See also, Fischedick J. T., Hazekamp A., Erkelens T., Choi Y. H., Verpoorte R. (2010). Phytochemistry712058–2073 (2010). 10.1016/j.phytochem.2010.10.001
  8. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Sep 28;143(2):673-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.07.026. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
  9. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/about-us, on August 6, 2019.
  10. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/variations-terpene-profiles-different-strains-cannabis-sativa-l, on August 6, 2019.

CBD Health Claims Spur FDA Warning & Product Seizure Threats

By Greg Boulos
3 Comments

The 2018 Farm Bill gave cannabis businesses around the country a legal path to market and sell hemp and hemp-derived products. Despite the groundbreaking law, several regulatory uncertainties remain. The FDA has been a source of many of those uncertainties, but recent action suggests that the agency plans to impose heavy burdens on companies selling CBD products that claim to provide health benefits. Recently, the FDA held a public hearing during which it signaled that health claims associated with cannabis-related products was a primary concern. Congress subsequently pressured the FDA to develop a regulatory framework for the cannabis industry and the agency announced that it was expediting its efforts to do so, promising an update on its progress by this fall.

FDAThen, on July 22, the agency issued a warning letter to Curaleaf regarding its claims that several of its products provide specific health benefits. The agency included a threat to seize Curaleaf’s products if the issues raised in the letter are not resolved. How the FDA ultimately regulates cannabis products going forward will have a significant impact on the industry as a whole. Indeed, the agency has significant powers over product manufacturers, including the ability to seize products through the U.S. Marshalls. This article will delve into the specifics on the FDA’s warning letter and address how manufacturers can limit the risks associated with making health-related claims.  

The FDA’s Warning: Beware of “Unsubstantiated” Health Claims

The FDA’s letter explained that it determined several of Curaleaf’s CBD products “are unapproved new drugs sold in violation of sections 505(a) and 301(d) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).” The letter goes on to say that one of Curaleaf’s pet CBD products “are unapproved new animal drugs that are unsafe.” Curaleaf has 15 days to respond to the agency’s letter. The agency cited the following health claims as problematic, among others.

  • “CBD has been demonstrated to have properties that counteract the growth of [and/or] spread of cancer.”
  • “CBD was effective in killing human breast cancer cells.”
  • “CBD has also been shown to be effective in treating Parkinson’s disease.”
  • “CBD has been linked to the effective treatment of Alzheimer’s disease ….”
  • “CBD is being adopted more and more as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments for depression and anxiety.”
  • “CBD can also be used in conjunction with opioid medications, and a number of studies have demonstrated that CBD can in fact reduce the severity of opioid-related withdrawal and lessen the buildup of tolerance.”
  • “CBD oil is becoming a popular, all-natural source of relief used to address the symptoms of many common conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety … ADHD.”
  • “What are the benefits of CBD oil? …. Some of the most researched and well-supported hemp oil uses include …. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and even schizophrenia …. Chronic pain from fibromyalgia, slipped spinal discs . . . Eating disorders and addiction . . ..”
  • “[V]ets will prescribe puppy Xanax to pet owners which can help in certain instances but is not necessarily a desirable medication to give your dog continually. Whereas CBD oil is natural and offers similar results without the use of chemicals.”
  • “For dogs experiencing pain, spasms, anxiety, nausea or inflammation often associated with cancer treatments, CBD (aka cannabidiol) may be a source of much-needed relief.”

The letter explicitly warned, “Failure to correct the violations promptly may result in legal action, including product seizure and injunction.” The FDA has a history of seizing products it deems non-compliant with its regulations. Recently, the U.S. Marshals, at the direction of the FDA, seized 300,000 units of a cosmetic company’s product. The impact of such a seizure on a business’ profits and operations is staggering. FDA action also has a direct impact on publicly traded cannabis companies’ stock price. When news of the FDA’s Curaleaf letter circulated, Curaleaf shares plunged 8%.

Balancing Regulatory Risk and Business Objectives

While the FDA’s letter appears to create a new risk for the cannabis industry, the stock market’s reaction is arguably overblown. The fact that the FDA would question a product’s ability to kill cancer cells is not surprising. I am not familiar with Curaleaf’s research efforts and it is not my goal to pass judgment on their claims. Rather, my point is that manufacturers need to make sure legitimate scientific studies underpin all of their health claims, regardless of the industry. Manufacturers will never be able to avoid regulatory scrutiny or even litigation regarding their health claims entirely. Instead, cannabis companies should take steps to ensure that they can credibly respond to regulatory scrutiny or present strong defenses in potential litigation. Establishing a robust research department is a start. But manufacturers must develop institutional knowledge of the most cutting-edge research regarding their products.Developing in-depth institutional knowledge regarding the state-of-the-art scientific research on your product is a must. 

Manufacturers that market products primarily for their health benefits should consider working with clinical researchers to study their products. There should be written policies and guidelines, as well as employee training, for conducting these studies and dealing with researchers in order to protect the quality of the study. For purposes of mitigating regulatory and litigation risks, the perceived quality of these studies can be just as important as their actual quality. Regulators and plaintiff’s attorneys can easily misinterpret (sometimes intentionally) written communications between a manufacturer and researcher in ways that suggests a particular study was outcome-driven and not a legitimate scientific undertaking. Manufacturers should consult with attorneys experienced in defending product liability and mass tort litigation so that their labeling and research practices are based on historical examples of successful (and sometimes, unsuccessful) product manufacturers.

Key Takeaways

Manufacturing consumer products comes with substantial litigation and regulatory risks. There are several historical and current examples of product labels, health claims, and warnings leading to thousands of lawsuits filed simultaneously across the country against a single manufacturer. Fees associated with defending against even meritless claims can force a manufacturer into bankruptcy. The regulatory risks can also have devastating effects on the day-to-day business operations of any manufacturer. Eliminating these risks is impossible, but addressing them upfront before a product launch, regulatory crackdown, or lawsuit is considerably less expensive than dealing with costly litigation or government seizure of entire inventories. Developing in-depth institutional knowledge regarding the state-of-the-art scientific research on your product is a must. Also, consider working with a clinical researcher to support any claimed health benefits or even discover new health benefits associated with your product. Finally, consult a lawyer with experience in product liability and mass tort litigation to strengthen your policies and procedures regarding research, develop credible health claims, and craft strong warnings.

FDAlogo

FDA Sends Warning Letters to Curaleaf

By Aaron G. Biros
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FDAlogo

Curaleaf Hemp, a well-known and publicly traded cannabis company, made headlines this week for all the wrong reasons. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Curaleaf President Joseph Lusardi for making unsubstantiated health claims and for misbranding their products as drugs.

FDAThe health claims in question appear to be removed from their website and social media accounts. In the warning letter, the FDA cites numerous claims made on Curaleaf’s website, Twitter and Facebook accounts. You can check out the health claims they found here, but it’s essentially a list of instances where Curaleaf said their products can be used to treat specific conditions. They claimed their CBD vape pen can be used for chronic pain and said another one of their products is a “[S]oothing tincture for chronic pain.”

For most of the health claims the FDA cited, it appeared they were articles or blog posts on Curaleaf’s website. Take a look at some examples of statements that should not be posted on a CBD products website (taken from the warning letter found here):

  • “CBD has also been shown to be effective in treating Parkinson’s disease.”
  • “CBD has been linked to the effective treatment of Alzheimer’s disease . . ..”
  • “CBD is being adopted more and more as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments for depression and anxiety.”
  • “CBD can also be used in conjunction with opioid medications, and a number of studies have demonstrated that CBD can in fact reduce the severity of opioid-related withdrawal and lessen the buildup of tolerance.”
  • “CBD has been demonstrated to have properties that counteract the growth of spread of cancer.”
  • “CBD was effective in killing human breast cancer cells.”
  • “Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States each year, and CBD does a number of things to deter it. The two most important of these are the ability to lower blood pressure, and the ability to promote good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol.”

While the FDA is expediting their push to roll out hemp and CBD regulations, companies should still be cautious when marketing their products for interstate commerce. Dr. Amy Abernathy, Principal Deputy Commissioner and Acting CIO, said in a series of tweets earlier this month that the FDA is eager to get to work and plans to report on their progress by the end of summer. The public hearing they held back in May helped jumpstart their efforts to begin investigating regulation of the market.

Still, companies need to be careful when marketing CBD products. The FDA has made it abundantly clear in a lot of warning letters that drug claims are not allowed. Here are two articles that give advice on how companies should proceed with marketing and how to go about properly labeling their products.

How Half-Baked Labels Can Destroy a Cannabis Business

By Greg Boulos
2 Comments

Cannabis manufacturers and consumers are currently in a honeymoon phase. Consumers love their CBD gummies and believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of cannabis-related products. But it is only a matter of time before industrious plaintiffs’ lawyers take a close look at ways to attack manufacturers. We know from other industries that product labels tend to be the entry point for plaintiff lawyers eyeing manufacturers and looking for easy targets. Any company in the business of manufacturing cannabis-related products needs to devote significant time and resources to developing labels that minimize the risk of bet-the-company litigation down the road. Most notably, manufacturers need to think through whether there are any adverse effects associated with their products of which consumers should be aware. Also, manufacturers must scrutinize any “all natural” or “organic” claims on their labels to ensure that they are not misleading consumers.

Failure to Warn of Potential Detrimental Effects

Most manufacturers are well aware of state mandated labels for cannabis products. And, based on the recent FDA public hearing on cannabis, the industry will likely see FDA labeling requirements in the near future. However, simply complying with these requirements does not insulate a manufacturer from litigation, particularly failure to warn claims. One example, dating back to the 1970s, relates to OSHA’s regulation of asbestos-containing products as it became more and more clear that certain types of asbestos could cause a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. Among other things, OSHA required manufacturers of asbestos-containing products to add a warning to all packaging. The mandated warning included very specific language. Manufacturers largely complied and added the OSHA-mandated label to their product packaging.

FDAFast-forward 40 years and today, several of those manufacturers are now bankrupt due to litigation based on their alleged failure to warn consumers that asbestos can cause cancer. Plaintiffs have been successful in bringing these claims because the OSHA label only warned that asbestos could cause harm, but it did not mention the word cancer. Some juries have found that the language in the warning was not sufficient to caution end users of the increased risk of developing cancer. While there have also been numerous defense verdicts in asbestos litigation and many asbestos-related cases lack merit – especially against certain defendants – the plaintiffs’ verdicts and legal fees to defend these cases are staggering. Recent plaintiffs’ verdicts have ranged from $20 to $70 million.

Of course, asbestos is an extreme example since CBD has not been associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. But there are other health concerns that manufacturers should consider. For instance, one group of doctors claim to have linked consuming cannabis before the age of twenty-five to development delaysAnother study purports to link cannabis consumption to increased risk of premature birth. If there are legitimate studies underpinning these concerns, manufacturers can become the target of potential lawsuits. Beware that when plaintiff law firms find a manufacturer to target, they often file thousands of cases around the country – not just one. Even if the claims are entirely bogus, the legal fees to merely defend these cases are crippling and can lead to a swift bankruptcy.

While there are risks involved with failing to warn consumers of possible adverse effects of a product, manufacturers should not try to mention every alleged adverse effect on its labels. Rather, manufacturers must do their due diligence and investigate whether claimed adverse effects are legitimate, then warn of those that appear to be based on valid scientific studies. Each manufacturer’s research department should assess the credibility of any study linking cannabis use to an adverse health effect and have a candid discussion with their attorneys on whether a warning is warranted. Do not fear lawsuits, they are unavoidable. Rather, work toward ensuring that the company and product(s) have a strong, defensible warning in the event litigation arises.

Questionable “All Natural” and “Organic” Claims

It seems like every CBD product on the market has an “all natural” or “organic” claim on the label. If the product is truly organic, fantastic. Flaunt that organic label. But several food companies have landed in hot water with these labels when there is a hidden ingredient that is not natural. What’s more, manufacturers have been sued when their product contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These lawsuits come in the form of class actions at the state and federal level. Class action litigation is very expensive to defend. And they typically result in settlements for beaucoup bucks – typically multi-million-dollar settlements. Plaintiffs lawyers love these claims because their fees typically also end up in the millions. One example of this kind of class action is a case involving the well-known Kashi brand. Kashi was accused of misleading consumers by including the words “All Natural” on some of its products. Plaintiffs asserted that the products contained bio-engineered, artificial and synthetic ingredients. The class action was settled for $3.9 million.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

How can all natural or organic claims lead to millions of dollars in damages? Here is an example of how these cases usually work: A group of consumers determine that an “all natural” product is not “all natural.”  Let’s call this Product A and assume it sells for $5 per unit. The consumers then find a similar product that is not labeled “all natural.” That product is $2 per unit. The consumers argue that they overpaid for Product A by $3 per unit because they thought the product was all natural. Three dollars may not sound too bad, but if the class consists of two-million consumers, each entitled to $3, that’s a $6 million damages claim against a company. That does not count the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on legal fees defending the class action.

Cannabis manufacturers should not use all natural labels loosely and should consult with an attorney experienced in product labeling class actions to determine whether they should forgo these labels. The same is true for any labels that claim a product provides unique health benefits. 

Key Takeaway

When manufacturers are excited about introducing a product to the market, trying to compete with other manufacturers and already dealing with miles of regulatory red tape, it may be tempting to avoid self-imposed labeling requirements. But to ensure their businesses are sustainable over the long-term, manufacturers need to take necessary steps now that will limit future litigation risk.  The cost of taking preventative measures to develop a meaningful label is considerably less than the types of product labeling verdicts and settlements affecting other industries. Focus on warnings and the use of all natural labels as a starting point. Then speak with an attorney about the unique aspects of your product, potential adverse effects and the adequacy of your warning. We are here to help.

Clearing Up the Haze Surrounding Cannabis Product Liability Risks

By Susan Preston, T.J. Frost
1 Comment

When a thriving cultivator purchased additional cannabis from a wholesale grower to meet the 5,000 pounds he was short, he was left holding the bag. A customer complained of a strong sulfur taste, and soon it was discovered that the wholesaler had applied the wrong pesticide concentration, rendering the cannabis unusable. The cultivator had to pull contaminated cannabis product from the shelves, a move that cost the company $3.5 million.

This story is not unique. When running short on product, cannabis businesses will often turn to other suppliers and partners to help them fulfill their orders. Unfortunately, improper vetting and a lack of understanding and compliance with state regulations and other requirements may lead to a loss of product integrity and costly product liabilities. Product liability can include more than just the cannabis itself, such as the equipment – vape cartridges, batteries, and lighters. This can quickly inflate the risk and, of course, the cost of a product liability claim. It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance.

Top Three Product Liability Exposures Facing Cannabis Cultivators and Distributors

Three key areas of product liability exposure face cannabis business owners. It’s important to understand how each will affect your business.

  1. Product contamination.When cannabis is sold in an edible form, business owners could face claims of food poisoning or illness. If the product is smoked, there are exposures to contamination, product mislabeling or misrepresentation, and possible health hazard claims related to long-term exposure to potential contaminants.
  2. First party claims. Claims made in the event of an accident, injury or loss, whether caused by the business owner or someone else, will create another set of exposures, including manufacturing defects, failure to warn users on potential product usage hazards, improper labeling, or any product-related defect such as mold or odor.
  3. Third party claims. Cannabis business owners could be liable for claims stemming from the use of their cannabis product that result in a DUI, property damage, loss of wages, medical expenses and bodily injury.

It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance. While there are multiple lines of product liability insurance, you’ll want to make sure you choose one designed specifically for the cannabis industry. These policies may provide coverage for the following exposures:

  • Product contamination
  • Bodily injury damages
  • Fines and penalties for non-compliance with state regulation
  • Bodily or property injury caused to others by product misuse, or by a third party
  • Manufacturing or product-related defects

While product liability insurance covers a number of cannabis risks, it doesn’t cover them all. Cannabis operations require a variety of coverage – property, crime, general liability, worker’s compensationand crop insurance. Insurance carriers will differ in definitions, policy exclusions and coverage language for each policy.

Because designated cannabis product liability and business operations coverage is fairly new and the marketplace features a wide range of options, make sure to work with a broker who understands the fine print of your policies, and your unique needs. The right broker can provide advice and loss control to help you reduce product liability exposures, make product and risk management recommendations that best mitigate your exposures to prevent loss, and ensure the proper coverage to address potential claims.