In the most unexpected development to hit the cannabis industry in years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra shared his agency’s recommendation that, based on data and scientific analysis, cannabis, a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, should be reclassified as a Schedule III drug. The announcement was made on Wednesday, August 30.
HHS’ conclusion was sent by letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency with authority to reclassify how various substances are treated under federal drug laws. The HHS recommendation means that the nation’s top health agency no longer considers cannabis a drug that lacks medical value and carries the high potential for abuse.
The announcement comes just under a year after President Biden and his administration made a statement on cannabis reform. In that statement, which he made on Oct. 6, the president requested that the Secretary of HHS and the Attorney General (AG) initiate an administrative process to review how cannabis is scheduled under federal law, in addition to pledging to pardon all prior federal offenses of simple cannabis possession, directing the AG to develop an administrative process for the pardons and urging all governors to follow suit for state and local offenses. In a statement, Secretary Becerra said the agency acted “expeditiously” and completed the rescheduling process in less than 11 months, “reflecting the department’s collaboration and leadership to ensure that a comprehensive scientific evaluation be completed.” Indeed, the agency’s announcement reflects the administration’s desire to quickly resolve the country’s failed approach to cannabis reform, as prior rescheduling efforts have taken years. Few thought the federal government would move quickly on cannabis, let alone under a year.
The White House has chosen not to comment on the HHS recommendation as the “administrative process is an independent process led by HHS and DOJ and guided by the evidence.” During a press conference, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated the administration’s position, saying that the administration is taking a more hands-off approach and allowing the federal agencies to determine cannabis’s classification without political influence.
What Does This Mean for the Cannabis Industry?
Although a historic announcement, many industry members hoped for a report that would completely remove cannabis from the CSA. Rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule III drug could provide a route for the FDA to assume a more hands-on regulatory role, and it could open up opportunities for interstate commerce in cannabis. A Schedule III designation does not amount to federal legalization, which means the industry will continue to lack a comprehensive regulatory framework addressing the conflicts between federal and state cannabis laws. Rescheduling cannabis also does not address long-overdue concerns about decriminalization and the effect the war on drugs has had on incarceration rates and racial disparities among the imprisoned.
With the HHS recommendation out in the open and the ball firmly in the DEA’s court, concerns have shifted to the DEA’s timeline for considering rescheduling. No hard deadline exists for the agency to complete its review, and industry stakeholders already know that the rescheduling process can be grueling and lengthy. The last time the DEA rescheduled a drug, hydrocodone combination products (HCPs) in 2004, the process took nearly a decade. In fact, each time the DEA has previously considered rescheduling cannabis, in 2001 and 2006, the process took over two years and resulted in no changes.
While many stakeholders speculate that a decision will be made ahead of the November 2024 presidential election, others remain skeptical given the strict anti-drug posture hardwired into how the DEA operates. In fact, the HHS recommendation coupled with the DEA’s approach to drug policy has led some to speculate that the DEA may compromise by moving cannabis into Schedule II, a category reserved for medicines with high potential for abuse and dependence, including most common opioids.
Either way, the agency’s recommendation is a momentous moment for an industry that has been reeling from falling sales and rising costs. Rescheduling cannabis could open the floodgates to more and better research into cannabis. The Schedule I designation has severely limited scientists’ access to cannabis for research purposes. A Schedule III designation would also have a significant financial impact on cannabis companies that have been deprived of tax deductions and banking services on which most companies depend.
The DEA has confirmed that it received the HHS letter and recommendation and will initiate its five-factor review, which differs from HHS’s eight-factor criteria. It remains to be seen what the DEA will do or when it will be done, but thousands of cannabis companies across the country will be watching closely.
Many cannabis stocks across the market saw significant spikes in trading prices following the news of the recommendation. Industry stakeholders and trade organizations seem to share a similar sentiment across the board: Not quite exuberance and celebration, but cautious optimism. The move doesn’t mean the federal government is legalizing cannabis, but they are showing their willingness to work with the industry.
The current Schedule I status of cannabis means the DEA and the federal government see no medical value in it and a high potential for abuse, grouping it with heroin and cocaine. Moving it to Schedule III would mean the opposite, that they recognize cannabis does have medical value and does not have a high potential for abuse, which would put cannabis in the same classification as ketamine, testosterone and Tylenol with codeine.
Importantly, the move would remove the dreaded 280E tax burden that has plagued the cannabis industry with huge tax penalties. It would also lift many barriers to study cannabis that have hindered research for decades.
Out of all the quotes and statements flooding the cannabis media today, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) best summarized the feelings shared by many folks in the industry: “This is a step in the right direction but it is not sufficient. I hope it is followed by more significant reforms. This is long overdue.”
On December 20, 2018, Former President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act, stripped the DEA’s authority from hemp and gave states the ability to regulate hemp markets of their own, with approval from the USDA.
When that Farm Bill became law, it paved the way for state-sanctioned hemp and CBD product markets and it seemed as if the floodgates were opening for legal CBD, but some caveats and gray areas remained. The same day the Farm Bill became law, the FDA released a statement asserting their authority, threatening enforcement actions for things like unsubstantiated drug marketing claims.
Last week, the FDA published a statement from Janet Woodcock, M.D., principal deputy commissioner, that says, to paraphrase, they’ve given up. Industry stakeholders have long agreed that the food and dietary supplements regulatory framework is adequate for CBD products, citing minimal public health risk and a pre-existing framework that CBD could fit into easily. “The FDA’s existing foods and dietary supplement authorities provide only limited tools for managing many of the risks associated with CBD products,” says Dr. Woodcock. “Under the law, any substance, including CBD, must meet specific safety standards to be lawfully marketed as a dietary supplement or food additive.”
The reasoning behind the agency’s unwillingness to regulate it as a dietary supplement is because of safety concerns, like potential liver damage, possible drug interactions and reproductive harm. Scientific data available to the FDA shows that they cannot say that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). “Today we are announcing that after careful review, the FDA has concluded that a new regulatory pathway for CBD is needed that balances individuals’ desire for access to CBD products with the regulatory oversight needed to manage risks,” says Dr. Woodcock. “The agency is prepared to work with Congress on this matter.”
Cannabis law in the U.S. is currently incoherent. What is illegal under the federal laws on the books bears little relation to what is actually happening in cities, states and counties where cannabis is legal for medical and adult use. Although legislators, lawyers and business interests are focused primarily on whether it is legal to buy, sell or grow the cannabis flower itself, the industry’s emergence is also affecting another manufacturing stalwart: packaging. If you can grow it, you can transport it. And if you can transport it, you need a container to sell it in.
As cannabis growers and retailers begin to recognize that attractive, compelling and moisture-retentive packaging can help market and sell their products to a wider audience, packaging companies are presented with an opportunity to expand into this Wild West industry. Seth Rogen is living proof that there is money to be made here: his cannabis company, Houseplant, trades on antique vibes, limited edition releases, celebrity artist sponsorships and old-school tobacco-adjacent products, splashing its unique and charismatic packaging across its website homepage.
But what do packaging industry executives need to know before venturing into the cannabis industry? Although manufacturing packaging that could be used to contain or transport cannabis products is not entirely risk-free, U.S. courts have generally refused in the past to hold manufacturers liable for making products that can be used later as drug paraphernalia. For packaging executives, two questions are of utmost importance. First, could I be held liable for producing drug paraphernalia? And second, what packaging standards must my company follow? This article will address these questions.
Criminal Status of Cannabis Under Federal & State Law
All cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC remains illegal under federal law and under the laws of many large states, including Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Iowa. But that’s not the full story. While facilitating cannabis production or trafficking is illegal, the federal government has enforcement priorities and restrictions on its resources. And many state and federal law enforcement officials have little incentive to pursue industries supplying trucks, packaging or lighting to a cannabis retailer in another state, as such products and services are not illegal and can be used for other industrial purposes. No law enforcement official is going to sue Staples for selling paperclips to a cannabis retailer.
Cannabis is still a “Schedule I” substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which is defined as substance having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment, and no accepted safe use.1 Cannabis was always a poor fit for this definition, given its efficacy in helping oncology patients cope with symptoms like nausea, but its continued classification as a Schedule I substance means that cannabis remains illegal under federal law. Despite this federal illegality, the federal government has little power—legally, practically and politically—to prosecute those engaged in the cannabis industry through activities that are legal under state law.
First, since 2014, Congress has banned the Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending a dime enforcing the federal cannabis law against individuals complying with state medical cannabis law via an appropriations rider.2 Courts have interpreted this language to mean that the DOJ may not prosecute individuals complying with state medical cannabis law,3 although there are still instances where individuals are convicted of violating the federal ban because they were found to have been out of compliance with state law.4 Though the rider only pertains to medical cannabis laws, the federal government has historically treated adult use cannabis regimes by states in a similar way.
Second, from a practical standpoint, no federal agency has the manpower to pursue even a tiny fraction of medical and adult cannabis users who are in compliance with state law, much less the industries providing support, logistics and inventory management. Though the federal ban is still on the books, no one has the power or the money to enforce it. The federal ban is thus becoming a dead letter.
Drug Paraphernalia Laws
Drug paraphernalia laws were written to provide law enforcement with other offenses to charge drug users and producers in addition to simple possession. The idea was to criminalize every aspect of the process of consuming and producing cannabis. While drug paraphernalia laws are written incredibly broadly, courts have been reluctant to apply them to companies producing packaging products.
Federal law explicitly defines drug paraphernalia as “any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance, possession of which is unlawful under this subchapter.”5 There are 15 categories of items listed as “per se” paraphernalia, including roach clips, electric pipes, and bongs.6 Packaging products do not fit any of the “per se” categories. The statute also specifies that, in determining whether an item constitutes drug paraphernalia, the court must consider “whether the owner, or anyone in control of the item, is a legitimate supplier of like or related items to the community, such as a licensed distributor or dealer of tobacco products[,]” among other factors.7
In addition, federal courts have been reluctant to apply the drug paraphernalia laws to packaging products.8 In addressing the predecessor statute to the current federal paraphernalia law,9 the Second Circuit ordered an indictment dismissed against a producer of glass vials commonly used for crack cocaine: “Since congress in enacting the Paraphernalia Act deliberately omitted ‘packaging’, ‘containing’, and ‘cocaine vials’ from its definition of drug paraphernalia, we conclude that the plastic containers produced by Lin were not ‘drug paraphernalia’ as defined by the act.”10 The law is not uniform, but even if a zealous federal prosecutor wants to crusade against a cannabis supplier, he must contend with the appropriations rider and this adverse case law.
Nevertheless, the federal Controlled Substances Act does allow property used to manufacture narcotics to be seized.11 It is possible that if a company created packaging for cannabis products, and the customer then used that packaging to pack cannabis, the inventory and packaging could be seized by federal law enforcement. But the same obstacles to enforcement discussed above would apply.
Every state has different paraphernalia laws, but most packaging companies would likely have defenses to a suit alleging they are producing or possessing paraphernalia, including lack of intent to use the paraphernalia for illicit purposes and applying federal caselaw as a defense.
State law is the primary vehicle for regulatory guidance on cannabis packaging. Any packaging company selling to cannabis retailers will need to consider both state law and federal packaging standards, which are often incorporated by reference into state law.
Federal Packaging Law
The Poison Prevention Packaging Act is the primary source of child-resistant packaging law.12 This law does not currently apply at all to any sales of cannabis because cannabis is illegal in the eyes of federal law. There is no private right of action under this statute.13 That means that a packaging company cannot be sued by a private individual for violating the statute. At some point, if Congress chooses to loosen restrictions on cannabis, this would be a very easy statute to simply make applicable to sales of cannabis. The law already has a specific provision for liquid nicotine containers.14 But currently, this statute does not apply to cannabis at all.
State Packaging Laws
State laws are a different matter – each state that allows sales of medical or adult use cannabis has enacted different requirements for cannabis packaging. A comprehensive survey of state cannabis packaging law is beyond the scope of this article, but some state cannabis regulatory regimes explicitly incorporate provisions of the federal Poison Prevention Packaging Act.15 California has a similar requirement, as does Washington state.16 Producing a product that complies with all state standards at once (i.e., a “national” standard) might be a challenge. Contracts with buyers could include a representation that the packaging complies only with the laws of state X or Y.
Products Liability Issues
A detailed assessment of products liability is beyond the scope of this article. But in short, as this industry matures, packaging companies undoubtedly will be subject to the usual kinds of products liability issues for cannabis packaging. In other words, in a cannabis-tolerant state, a packaging company could theoretically be sued under a products liability theory if the cannabis is somehow spoiled by a manufacturing defect in the packaging or if the packaging product permits mold to grow and eventually be consumed by a user. Cannabis contract litigation is a complex subject given its unique legal status. One strategy to avoid these issues is to include a very specific dispute resolution procedure (e.g., mediation, arbitration or the like) in any contracts with cannabis companies in the U.S. It is also important to include a waiver of any defenses of the contract being against public policy due to the uncertain legal status of cannabis.
No transaction in the cannabis industry is entirely risk-free, and packaging executives should consult with local counsel in the states in which the packaging is manufactured and in the states in which they intend to sell products to ensure compliance with the law. But this industry is rapidly growing, and opportunity awaits for the packaging companies that are willing to work through the incoherence in the current laws.
United States v. McIntosh, 833 F.3d 1163, 1179 (9th Cir. 2016).
United States v. Trevino, No. 20-1104, 2021 WL 3235751, at *4 (6th Cir. July 30, 2021) (Michigan dispensary owner could never have been in compliance with Michigan’s medical cannabis laws given his prior felony conviction for cocaine possession).
21 U.S.C. § 863(d); see also generallyUnited States v. Assorted Drug Paraphernalia, 90 F. Supp. 3d 1222, 1229 (D.N.M. 2015).
21 U.S.C. § 863(d)(1).
21 U.S.C. § 863(e)(5); see also 21 U.S.C. § 863(f)(2) (specific exemption for items exported or sold through the mail, “and traditionally intended for use with tobacco products, including any pipe, paper, or accessory”).
Posters ‘N’ Things, Ltd. v. United States, 511 U.S. 513, 526 (1994) (“Similarly here, we need not address the possible application of § 857 to a legitimate merchant engaging in the sale of only multiple-use items.”) (head shop case where establishment was devoted substantially to drug paraphernalia).
21 U.S.C. § 863; see also 511 U.S. at 516 n.5.
United States v. Hong-Liang Lin, 962 F.2d 251, 258 (2d Cir. 1992); see also United States v. Big Apple Bag Co., 306 F. Supp. 2d 331, 334 (E.D.N.Y.), on reconsideration in part, 317 F. Supp. 2d 181 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (“[T]he Second Circuit has determined that trafficking in items that are used merely to package or contain drugs does not violate 21 U.S.C. § 863.”). But see alsoUnited States v. Main St. Distrib. Inc., 700 F. Supp. 655, 659–60 (E.D.N.Y. 1988) (no legitimate market for glass stirrers used in crack pipes, and where customs agent had placed dummy order using common street term for crack pipes; denying company’s motion to suppress).
21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(3) (“The following shall be subject to forfeiture to the United States and no property right shall exist in them: All property which is used, or intended for use, as a container for property described in paragraph (1), (2), or (9).”).
15 U.S.C. § 1471 et seq.; 16 C.F.R. § 1700.20(a)(2)(iii).
Doane v. Metal Bluing Prod., Inc., 568 F. Supp. 744, 746 (N.D.N.Y. 1983).
15 U.S.C. § 1472a.
See, e.g., Fla. Stat. Ann. § 381.986(8)(e)(11)(e) (“When processing marijuana, a medical marijuana treatment center must: Package the marijuana in compliance with the United States Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970, 15 U.S.C. ss. 1471 et seq.”).
Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 26120(a) (“Prior to delivery or sale at a retailer, cannabis and cannabis products shall be labeled and placed in a tamper-evident, child-resistant package and shall include a unique identifier for the purposes of identifying and tracking cannabis and cannabis products. If the cannabis or cannabis product contains multiple servings, the package shall also be resealable.”); Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 26001(i) (“‘Child resistant’ means designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open, and not difficult for normal adults to use properly.”) (identical to federal standard); see also Wash. Admin. Code 314-55-105(2)(b)(i) (all cannabis concentrates must be packaged consistent with the Poison Prevention Packaging Act).
The legalization of cannabis in the U.S. has been long in the making. Back in the early 1970s, states such as Oregon, Texas and Colorado began the process of decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis. Fast forward 50 years or thereabouts, and the momentum toward legalization is undeniable.
True, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, but state after state is legalizing the substance for medical and adult use. California was the first to do so for medical usage in 1996. Since then, several others have jumped on the medical cannabis bandwagon, and a total of 19 states have legalized cannabis for adult use. It seems, then, that it’s just a matter of time before the federal government follows suit.
A Bit of Background
There are two key federal laws concerning cannabis that criminalize its use: the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (CDAPCA) and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which is part of the CDAPCA. The CSA became effective in 1971 and grouped cannabis along with heroin, LSD and cocaine as Schedule I drugs that are tightly regulated and deemed illegal by the federal government. For its part, the CDAPCA, also enacted in the 70s, was an element of the U.S. “War on Drugs,” and served to significantly restrict manufacturing and distribution of cannabis, among other substances, and amp up related security laws.
Times have certainly changed over the decades, and so has public sentiment about cannabis use. In fact, over 91% of U.S. adults say that cannabis should be legal for adult use or medical use—this according to the Pew Research Center. Clearly, more and more states are hearing this message loud and clear given the uptick in jurisdictions legalizing the substance, be it for medical or adult use purposes.
The Booming Legal Cannabis Market
The legal cannabis business is on fire, with recent estimates suggesting that the size of the global market will climb to $84 billion by 2028. This is a staggering number that spells opportunity for budding (pun intended) entrepreneurs in the U.S. and beyond, not to mention tax authorities. It gets even better when taking into account the popularity of CBD products. CBD, which is derived from the cannabis plant but does not contain THC and is legal in the U.S., has become an integral part of the wellness industry. Experts predict that the global CBD market is on its way to reaching a value of $55 billion in years to come.
What This All Means for the Future of Cannabis at the Federal Level
No doubt about it, legal cannabis is big business. But that business is being thwarted by the failure of the federal government to change course and legalize the substance. With cannabis still considered a Schedule I drug, federal banks are unable to provide access to financial services for companies selling cannabis-related products. As otherwise stated, because federal law makes cannabis illegal, banks cannot do business with cannabis companies, which is problematic for so many reasons.
But good news could be on the horizon. The SAFE Banking Act of 2021, which would provide a safe harbor for banking institutions providing services to cannabis clients, was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and referred to committee. Whether the legislation passes in its current form is anyone’s guess, though our federal legislature does seem to be nearing the relaxation of existing cannabis restrictions.
This is evidenced as well in the U.S. Senate, where the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act was recently introduced and is currently pending. That legislation would, among other things, remove cannabis from the CSA, introduce regulations to tax cannabis products, expunge prior convictions, and maintain the authority of states to set their own cannabis policies.
Of course, there’s no certainty that 2021 will be the year when cannabis is finally legalized (or at the very least, decriminalized) federally. Still, we’re closer to that eventuality than ever before.
Remediation of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC) has become a hot button issue in the United States ever since the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released their changes to the definitions of marijuana, marijuana extract, and tetrahydrocannabinols exempting extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing 0.3% or less d9-THC on a dry weight basis from the Controlled Substances Act. That is because, as a direct consequence, all extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% d9-THC became explicitly under the purview of the DEA, including work-in-progress “hemp extracts” that because of the extraction process are above the 0.3% d9-THC limit immediately upon creation.
The legal ramifications of these changes to the definitions on the “hemp extracts” marketplace will not be addressed. Instead, this article focuses on the amount of d9-THC that is available in the plant material prior to extraction and tracks a “hemp extract” from the point it falls out of compliance to the point it becomes compliant again and stresses the importance of accurate track-n-trace protocols at the processing facility. The model developed to support this article was intended to be academic and was designed to follow the d9-THC portion of a “hemp extract” through the lifecycle of a typical CO2-based extract from initial extraction to THC remediation. A loss to the equipment of 2% was used for each step.
For this exercise, a common processing scenario of 1000 kg of plant material at 10% cannabidiol (CBD) and 0.3% d9-THC by weight was modeled. This amount, depending on scale of operations, can be a facility’s total capacity for the day or the capacity for a single run. 1000 kg of plant material at 0.3% d9-THC has 3 kg of d9-THC that could be extracted, purified, and diverted into the marketplace. CO2 has a nominal extraction efficiency of 95%, meaning some cannabinoids are left behind in the plant material. The same can be said about the recovery of the extract from the equipment. Traces of extract will remain in the equipment and this little bit of material, if unaccounted for, can potentially open an operator up to legal consequences. Data for the initial extraction is shown in Image 1.
As soon as the initial extract is produced it is out of compliance with the 0.3% d9-THC limit to be classified as a “hemp extract”, and of the 3 kg of d9-THC available, the extract contains approx. 2.8 kg, because some of the d9-THC remains in the plant material and some is lost to the equipment.
Dewaxing via Winterization and Solvent Removal
Dewaxing a typical CO2 extract via winterization is a common process step. For this exercise, a wax content of 30% by weight was used. A process efficiency of 98% was attributed to the wax removal process and it was assumed that 100% of the loss can be accounted for in the residue recovered from the equipment rather than in the removed waxes. Data for the winterization and solvent recovery are shown in Image 2 and 3.
Two things occur during winterization and solvent removal, non-target constituents are removed from the extract and there is compounded loss from multiple pieces of process equipment. These steps increase the concentration of the d9-THC portion of the extract and produce two streams of noncompliant waste.
Decarboxylation & Devolatilization
Most cannabinoids in the plant material are in their acid form. For this exercise, 90% of the cannabinoids were considered to be acid forms. Decarboxylation is known to produce a mass difference of 87.7%, i.e. the neutral forms are 12.3% lighter than the acid forms. Heat was modeled as the primary driver and a process efficiency of 95% was used for the conversion rate during decarboxylation. To simplify the model, the remaining 5% acidic cannabinoids are presumed destroyed rather than degraded into other compounds because the portion of the cannabinoids which get destroyed versus degrade into other compounds varies from process to process.
Devolatilization is the process of removing low-molecular weight constituents from an extract to stabilize it prior to distillation. Since the molecular constituents of cannabis resin extracts vary from variety to variety and process to process, the extracts were assumed to consist of 10% volatile compounds. The model combines the decarboxylation and devolatilization steps to account for complete decarboxylation of the available acidic cannabinoids and ignores their weight contribution to the volatiles collected during devolatilization. Destroyed cannabinoids result in an amount of loss that can only be accounted for through a complete mass balance analysis. Data for decarboxylation and devolatilization are shown in Image 4.
As the extract moves along the process train, the d9-THC concentration continues to increase. Decarboxylation further complicates traceability because there is both a known mass difference associated with the process and an unknown mass difference that must be calculated and justified.
A two-pass distillation was modeled. On each pass a portion of the extract was removed to increase the cannabinoid concentration in the recovered material. Average data for distilled “hemp extracts” was used to ensure the model did not over- or underestimate the concentration of the cannabinoids in the distillate. The variables used to meet these data constraints were derived experimentally to match the model to the scenario described and are not indicative of an actual distillation. Data for distillation is shown in Image 5.
After distillation, the d9-THC concentration is shown to have increased by 874% from the original concentration in the plant material. Roughly 2.2 kg of the available 3 kg of d9-THC remains in the extract, but 0.8 kg of d9-THC has either ended up in a waste stream or walking out the door.
Chromatography – THC Remediation Step 1
Chromatography was modeled to remove the d9-THC from the extract. Because there are several systems with variable efficiency rates at being able to selectively isolate the d9-THC peak from the eluent stream, the model used a 5% cut-off on the front-end and tail-end of the peak, i.e. 5% of the material before the d9-THC peak and 5% of the material after the d9-THC peak is assumed to be collected along with the d9-THC. Data for chromatography is shown in Image 6.
After chromatography, a minimum of three products are produced, compliant “hemp extract”, d9-THC extract, and noncompliant residue remaining in the equipment. The d9-THC extract modeled contains 2.1 kg of the available 3 kg in the plant material, and is 35% d9-THC by weight, an increase of 1335% from the distillation step and 11664% from the plant material.
CBN Creation – THC Remediation Step 2
For this exercise, the d9-THC extract was converted into cannabinol (CBN) using heat rather than cyclized into d8-THC, but a similar model could be used to account for this scenario. The conversion rate of the cannabinoids into CBN through heat degradation alone is low. Therefore, the model assumes half of the available cannabinoids in the d9-THC extract are converted to CBN. The entirety of the remaining portion of the cannabinoids are assumed to convert to some form of degradant rather than a portion getting destroyed. Data for THC destruction is shown in Image 7.
Only after the CBN cyclization step has completed does the product that was the d9-THC extract become compliant and classifiable as a “hemp extract.”
Throughout the process, from initial extraction to the final d9-THC remediation step, loss occurs. Of the 3 kg of d9-THC available in the plant material only 2.1 kg was recovered and converted to CBN. 0.9 kg was either lost to the equipment, destroyed in the process, attributable to the mass difference associated with decarboxylation, or was never extracted from the plant material in the first place. All of these potential areas of product loss should be identified, and their diversion risk fully assessed. Not every waste stream poses a risk of diversion, but some do; having a plan in place to handle waste the DEA considers a controlled substance is essential. Without a track-n-trace program following the d9-THC and identifying the potential risk of diversion would be impossible. The point of this is not to instill fear, instead the intention is to shed light on a very real issue “hemp extract” producers and state regulators need to understand to protect themselves and their marketplace from the DEA.
On January 15, 2021, the USDA published its final rule on US hemp production. The rule, which becomes effective on March 22, 2021, expands and formalizes previous guidance related to waste disposal of noncompliant or “hot” crops (crops with a THC concentration above .3 percent). Importantly for the industry, the new disposal rules remove unduly burdensome DEA oversight and provides for remediation options.
Producers will not be required to use a DEA reverse distributor or law enforcement to dispose of noncompliant plants. Instead, producers will be able to use common on-farm practices for disposal. Some of these disposal options include, but are not limited to, plowing under non-compliant plants, composting into “green manure” for use on the same land, tilling, disking, burial or burning. By eliminating DEA involvement from this process, the USDA rules serve to streamline disposal options for producers of this agricultural commodity.
Alternatively, the final rule permits “remediation” of noncompliant plants. Allowing producers to remove and destroy noncompliant flower material – while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds – is an important crop and cost-saving measure for producers, especially smaller producers. Remediation can also occur by shredding the entire plant to create “biomass” and then re-testing the biomass for compliance. Biomass that fails the retesting is noncompliant hemp and must be destroyed. The USDA has issued an additional guidance document on remediation. Importantly, this guidance advises that lots should be kept separate during the biomass creation process, remediated biomass must be stored and labeled apart from each other and from other compliant hemp lots and seeds removed from non-compliant hemp should not be used for propagative purposes.
The final rules have strict record keeping requirements, such rules ultimately protect producers and should be embraced. For example, producers must document the disposal of all noncompliant plants by completing the “USDA Hemp Plan Producer Disposal Form.” Producers must also maintain records on all remediated plants, including an original copy of the resample test results. Records must be kept for a minimum of three years. While USDA has not yet conducted any random audits, the department may conduct random audits of licensees.
Although this federal guidance brings some clarity to hemp producers, there still remains litigation risks associated with waste disposal. There are unknown environmental impacts from the industry and there is potential tort liability or compliance issues with federal and state regulations. For example, as mentioned above, although burning and composting disposal options for noncompliant plants, the final rule does not address the potential risk for nuisance complaints from smoke or odor associated with these methods.
At the federal level, there could be compliance issues with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and ancillary regulations like Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition to government enforcement under RCRA and CERCLA, these hazardous waste laws also permit private party suits. Although plant material from cultivation is not considered hazardous, process liquids from extraction or distillation (ethanol, acetone, etc.) are hazardous. Under RCRA, an individual can bring an “imminent and substantial endangerment” citizen suit against anyone generating or storing hazardous waste in a way the presents imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Under CERCLA, private parties who incur costs for removal or remediation may sue to recover costs from other responsible parties.
At the state level, there could be issues with state agency guidance and state laws. For example, California has multiple state agencies that oversee cannabis and hemp production and disposal. CA Prop 65 mandates warnings for products with certain chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals and THC. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the evaluation of the environmental impact of runoff or pesticides prior to issuing a cultivation permit. Both environmental impact laws permit a form of private action.
Given the varied and evolving rules and regulation on hemp cultivation, it remains essential for hemp producers to seek guidance and the help of professionals when entering this highly regulated industry.
In a press release sent out this week, Trichome Analytical, based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, announced two new developments for their business: They have achieved ISO 17025:2017 accreditation and they are officially registered with the DEA for hemp compliance testing.
The press release also mentions their collaboration with Shimadzu, who supplies 80% of the lab’s equipment and supports the Trichome’s operations with technical guidance.
For the hemp industry, pre-harvest testing for THC levels is a requirement and labs are required to get registered with the DEA in order to perform that testing.
These announcements are somewhat timely, given the results of the election. Voters in New Jersey approved adult use cannabis legalization just last week.
It was 1996. I was four years old. California Proposition 215 passed and for the first time, legal medical cannabis became available. I don’t remember it honestly, but that moment triggered a reckoning of outdated and ineffective efforts to control cannabis, which continues on November 3rd.
The moment in 1996 created for me and my generation of millennials a new, decriminalized lens for which to view cannabis and its potential. In my lifetime, from first experimenting with cannabis after high school and then earning my PhD in plant biochemistry, advancing cannabis research, to starting an agtech company dedicated to the genetic improvement of cannabis, we continue this march toward legalization. But another march hasn’t started yet.
The cannabis we consume today is still largely the same (albeit more potent today) as the cannabis that was legalized in 1996. There’s been little advancement in our scientific understanding of the plant. This can and should change. I believe the future and legitimacy of the cannabis crop in the medical field and in farmers’ fields is on the ballot this November.
In 33 states, medical cannabis is currently legal and in eleven of those, including my home states of Nevada and Washington, legalized adult-use recreational cannabis is generating millions in tax revenue every month. But compared to every other commercial crop, cannabis is still decades behind.
We are seeing a glacial cadence with cannabis research. As voters in five more states consider this November whether to legalize cannabis, that same tipping point we reached in 1996 comes closer to being triggered for cannabis research.
Here’s what cannabis scientists, like me, face as we work to apply real scientific methods to the long-neglected crop: I published one of the most cited papers on cannabis research last year, titled, Gene Networks Underlying Cannabinoid and Terpenoid Accumulation in Cannabis. But, as per university policy, we were unable to touch the plant during any of our research. We could not study the physical cannabis plant, extracts or any other substantive physical properties from the plant on campus or as a representative of the university. Instead we studied cannabis DNA processed through a third-party. Funding for the research came from private donors who were required to be unassociated with the cannabis industry.
While we were conducting our heavily restricted, bootstrapped cannabis research, the university lab in the next building over was experimenting with less restrictions on mice using other drugs: cocaine, opioids and amphetamines. (Quick note, marijuana is listed as more dangerous than cocaine, which is a Schedule II drug.)
I get it. Due to the federal prohibition on cannabis as a heavily regulated Schedule I drug, universities cannot fund research without the risk of losing all of their federal funding. While the USDA does not support research and SBIR grants are all but impossible, one government agency does allow research, from cannabis grown only in Mississippi. It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and any research conducted using its crop is as ineffective as you’re imagining. Relevant research is likely impossible using the crop which dates back to a 1970’s strain with a potency that’s about 30 percent of today’s commercial cannabis offerings.
To change this anti-research climate, do what those in California did with Prop 215 in 1996. Vote.
Vote for legalization of cannabis if you’re in those five states where legalization is on the ballot; that’s Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi. The more states that align with cannabis legalization, the stronger the case becomes for the federal government to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I controlled substance. Currently cannabis is listed as a Schedule I alongside heroin. The DEA claims cannabis has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Both are not true, just listen to the scientists.
Those outside of the five states putting cannabis on the ballot can still play a role in creating a Congress that is more receptive to cannabis reform. This Congress is the oldest, one of the most conservative and least effective in our country’s history. Younger, more progressive representation will increase our odds of advancing cannabis research.
Cannabis holds far too much possibility for us to allow it to be an unstudied “ditch weed.” THC and CBD are just two of nearly 500 compounds found in cannabis which, when scientifically scrutinized will harvest – I believe – vast medicinal and commercial benefits and the tax windfalls that accompany both. But first you have to vote.
If cannabis and your representatives are not on the ballot, do something millennials have built somewhat of a reputation for failing to do; pick up a phone and call your current representative. Tell them cannabis deserves scientific attention and investment. There’s too much potential in the cannabis plant to wait any longer.
As of this writing, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GW Pharma’s CBD drug Epidiolex for treating profound refractory pediatric epilepsy syndromes (Dravet syndrome and Lennox Gastaut syndrome) as well as for treating seizures associated with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) in patients one year of age or older. The product is a very simple, orally-administered formulation comprised of 100mg/ml cannabidiol (CBD), dehydrated alcohol, sesame seed oil, strawberry flavor and sucralose – basically, an alcohol-based solution with sesame seed oil to help solubilize the CBD oil, flavoring and sweetener.
On April 6th, 2020 GW Pharma performed a regulatory miracle when they succeeded in convincing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to deschedule Epidiolex (i.e., remove it from the Schedule 1 and Schedule 5 lists of substances that the agency regulates due to concerns regarding safety, potential for abuse or both) for all indications – including indications for which it has not yet been approved by the FDA.1 The benefit to GW of having their product descheduled is incalculable. This status change removed potential barriers to insurance reimbursement and made the need to set up and administer an expensive REMS2 drug safety program less likely. In part because of this regulatory coup d’état, the drug recently posted yearly earnings of nearly $300 million.
It is important to note that the DEA descheduled the Epidiolex formulation and not cannabis-derived CBD itself. Thus, GW Pharma is now in the enviable position of being the only company that can legally sell cannabis-derived CBD. More importantly, because the DEA descheduled the formulation and not the active ingredient, other companies who wish to market cannabis-derived CBD pharmaceutical formulations will have to repeat whatever it is that GW did to get Epidiolex descheduled.3 The DEA effectively gave the company a huge head start with respect to competitors who are developing other cannabis-derived CBD formulations that would compete with Epidiolex. That advantage will remain in place unless and until cannabis-derived CBD itself is descheduled or cannabis is legalized at the federal level.
GW Pharma’s attorneys demonstrated considerable virtuosity in devising this approach. However, there is another aspect of the GW Pharma story – one that could have profound implications for the exploding CBD consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act4 (FFDCA) prohibits the introduction into interstate commerce of any food to which has been added an approved drug or a drug for which substantial clinical investigations have been instituted and made public.5 Because CBD was and is still the subject of clinical trials run by GW Pharma and others, even hemp-derived CBD is currently illegal to use as a food additive or dietary supplement under the FDCA
The FDA has recently re-started the public commentary stage of a long process that will hopefully result in the creation of a regulatory pathway for CBD to be used as a food additive – something that would seemingly be a straightforward matter given the copious amounts of safety data being generated from all of GW Pharma’s clinical trials. However, as long as the FDA continues to drag its feet in providing a regulatory pathway for CBD CPG products, CBD, regardless of its source, will remain illegal to use as a food additive or supplement under either the CSA or the FFDCA despite the existence of safety data obtained through the Epidiolex clinical trials. If, as many people in the industry anticipate, the agency decides to begin enforcement action, this could have a hugely negative impact on the industry.
In addition to the potentially disastrous effect that federal law could have on an important new industry, the federal regulatory scheme introduces unnecessary regulatory complexity and cost by imposing two different regulatory schemes depending on the source of the CBD. CBD derived from hemp is chemically identical to CBD derived from cannabis. Despite that identity, the 2018 Farm Bill nonsensically exempts only hemp-derived CBD from the Controlled Substances Act. If a regulatory pathway is created for hemp-derived CBD, but the DEA insists on maintaining cannabis-derived CBD as a schedule 1 substance, then the same molecule will be subject to two different regulatory schemes. This scenario would require tracking and certifying CBD sources and thereby impose regulatory and economic burdens that are entirely unnecessary from a public health point of view.
An alternative, economically disastrous scenario: given the pharmaceutical industry’s formidable lobbying power, it is entirely possible that the FDA could decide to limit the use of CBD exclusively in prescription drug formulations. This could kill the entire US hemp CBD CPG industry, currently estimated to reach $22 billion by 2022.6
Overall, the current state of affairs is unfair, expensive, uncertain and entirely unworkable over the long term. The CSA must be amended, ideally to deschedule both hemp and cannabis entirely, but at least in the short term, to deschedule CBD and preferably all non-THC cannabinoids regardless of their source. Further, the FDA must provide a regulatory pathway to allow the use of low doses of cannabinoids shown to be safe, either by existing clinical trial data or future testing pursuant to the NDIN submission process.
A 2019 Gallup poll found that 14% of Americans – 1 in 7 – use CBD products.7 The demand is there, the industry is thriving, and adequate safety data exists to justify a regulatory system that allows low-dose over the counter CBD products provided those products are produced using Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) for food and dietary supplement manufacturing prescribed by the FDA and that such products undergo regular testing that demonstrates they are safe, unadulterated and accurately labeled. It is time for the industry to collectively fund a New Dietary Ingredient Notification (NDIN) submission that would provide safety data sufficiently compelling to force the FDA to either recognize CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids as being GRAS substances regardless of their source, or in the alternative create a regulatory path for CPG products containing low-doses of CBD and other non-THC cannabinoids.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of its author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Cannabis Industry Journal, its editorial staff or its employees.
Clincialtrials.gov lists 256 different clinical trials in which Epidiolex has been, is being or will be tested for a wide variety of other indications, including but not limited to opioid use disorder, several types of prostate cancer, alcohol use disorder, musculoskeletal pain, and a host of others.
REMS – risk evaluation and mitigation strategy – are drug safety programs that the FDA requires in cases where mediations pose serious safety concerns with respect to potential abuse and other adverse effects.
Exactly what they did isn’t clear, and won’t be for a long while given the snail’s pace at which FOIA requests are filled.
Title 21 United States Code Chapter 9
Title 21 United States Cod Chapter 9, Sections 331(ll), 342(a)(1) and Section 342(d)(f)(1)
“Exclusive: New Report Predicts CBD Market Will Hit $22 Billion by 2022” Rolling Stone Magazine, September 11, 2018, citing cannabis industry analysis from the Brightfield Group.
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