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CBD You in Court: Consumer Class Actions Involving Hemp-Derived CBD Products

By David J. Apfel, Nilda M. Isidro, Brendan Radke, Emily Notini, Zoe Bellars
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Consumer demand for products containing cannabidiol (CBD) is on the rise across the country, with industry experts estimating that the market for CBD products will reach $20 billion by 2024. This boom in consumer demand has outpaced the regulatory framework surrounding these products. While the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp, it left much up to individual states and preserved the FDA’s jurisdiction over dietary supplements, foods and cosmetics. The FDA has not yet issued any specific rulemaking for CBD products.

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

Against this background, it is not surprising that consumer class actions regarding hemp-derived CBD products are flourishing. Over the past year alone, the plaintiffs’ bar has filed approximately twenty putative class action lawsuits against manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD products. The cases are primarily in federal court in California and Florida, with additional cases in Illinois and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs challenge the marketing and advertising of a variety of CBD products, including oils, gummies, capsules, creams, pet products and more.

The cases so far follow a familiar pattern seen in prior consumer class actions, especially in the food and beverage industry. Read on to learn what plaintiffs have claimed in the CBD lawsuits, how companies are defending their products, and how best to position your hemp-derived CBD products in light of lessons learned from past litigation.

What These Lawsuits Are Claiming, and How Companies Are Defending Their Products

In most of the recent CBD lawsuits, plaintiffs claim either that: 1) product labels over- or understate the amount of CBD in the products; and/or 2) the sale of CBD products is inherently misleading to consumers because the products are purportedly illegal under federal law. Regardless of which theory underlies the claims, plaintiffs typically frame their claims as consumer fraud, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, and/or deceptive trade practices.

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

In most cases, defendants have filed motions to dismiss seeking to have the cases thrown out. In these motions, defendants argue that plaintiffs’ claims are “preempted” by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and that only the federal government can enforce the FDCA. Some defendants have additionally argued that if the court is not prepared to dismiss the claims as preempted, the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction” applies. This means that the issues raised regarding CBD are for the FDA to decide, and the cases should be stayed until the FDA finalizes and issues rules on products containing hemp-derived CBD. Many defendants have also advanced dismissal arguments for lack of standing, claiming that the individuals bringing the lawsuits are trying to sue for conduct that never harmed them personally (e.g., because they never purchased a particular product), or will not harm them in the future (e.g., because plaintiffs have stated they will not buy the product again). The standing arguments often apply to particular claims or products within the lawsuit, rather than to the lawsuit as a whole.

Current Status of the Cases

Of the approximately twenty consumer class actions filed over the last year, about half remain pending:

  • Five have been stayed pursuant to motions filed by defendants;
  • Two have motions to dismiss pending;
  • One has a pending motion to vacate a default judgment against defendants;
  • One was filed earlier this month, and defendant’s deadline to respond has not yet elapsed.

FDAlogoTo date, none of the cases (currently pending or otherwise) has proceeded to discovery, and no class has yet been certified. That means that no court has yet determined that these cases are appropriate to bring as class action lawsuits, rather than as separate claims on behalf of each individual member of the putative class. This is significant, because plaintiffs’ ability to achieve class certification will likely influence whether these CBD lawsuits will continue to be filed. Consumer fraud cases like these typically do not claim any physical injury, and the monetary damages per individual plaintiff are relatively low. As such, the cases often are not worth pursuing if they cannot proceed as class actions.

Of the cases that are no longer pending, all but two were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs. While the motivation behind these dismissals is not always announced, approximately half of the voluntary dismissals came after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, but before the court had ruled on it. One Florida case was mediated and settled after the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.1 A California court spontaneously dismissed one matter (without the defendant having filed any motion) due to a procedural defect in the complaint, which plaintiffs failed to correct by the court-imposed deadline.2

Early Outcomes on Motions to Dismiss 

Of the thirteen motions to dismiss filed to date, only five have been decided. So far:

  • No court has dismissed a case based on federal preemption grounds. Courts have either deferred ruling on preemption, or denied it without prejudice to re-raising it at a later time.
  • Four courts have stayed cases based on primary jurisdiction.3
  • Only one court has denied the primary jurisdiction argument.4
  • Standing arguments have been successful in three cases,5 and deferred or denied without prejudice to later re-raising in the other two cases.6 However, the standing arguments applied only to certain products/claims, and were not dispositive of all claims in any case.

These rulings show a clear trend towards staying the cases pursuant to primary jurisdiction. In granting these stays, courts have noted that regulatory oversight of CBD ingestible products, including labeling, is currently the subject of FDA rulemaking, and that FDA is “under considerable pressure from Congress” to expedite the publication of regulations and guidance.7

Any label claims need to meet FDCA regulations and applicable FDA guidance.

Plaintiffs may be recognizing the trend towards primary jurisdiction as well, since there is now at least one case where plaintiffs agreed to a stay after defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting, among other things, primary jurisdiction.8 But some plaintiffs are still resisting. For example, in the first case to have been stayed plaintiffs have since filed a motion to lift the stay. The motion—which was filed after the case was reassigned to a different judge—argues that primary jurisdiction does not apply, and that the FDA’s recent report to Congress suggests no CBD-specific rulemaking is forthcoming.9 The motion is pending.

Lessons Learned From Food Industry Consumer Class Actions

The motions to dismiss that have been filed to date in CBD-related class actions follow a tried and true playbook that has been developed by defense counsel in other food and beverage industry class actions. For example, the primary jurisdiction arguments that have been gaining traction in the CBD consumer class actions are very similar to primary jurisdiction arguments that were successful years earlier in cases involving the term “natural” and other food labeling matters.10

Similarly, the standing arguments that have succeeded in the early motions to dismiss CBD consumer class actions followed similar standing arguments made years earlier in food and beverage class actions.11

Work with reputable labs to ensure the potency stated on the label is accurate

The preemption arguments that have largely been deferred in CBD consumer class actions to date could become a powerful argument if and when the FDA completes its CBD rulemaking. The preemption defense has been particularly effective when the preemption arguments focus on state law claims that require defendants to omit or add language to their federally approved or mandated product labeling, or where plaintiffs otherwise seek to require something different from what federal standards mandate.12 These arguments could be particularly compelling once the FDA issues its long-anticipated rulemaking with respect to CBD products.

Until then, primary jurisdiction will likely continue to gain traction. The FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme over food, dietary supplement, drug, and cosmetic products, combined with the FDA’s frequently-expressed intention to issue rulemaking with respect to CBD-products, and a need for national uniformity in how such rulemaking will interface with state requirements, converge to make primary jurisdiction especially appropriate for CBD-related class actions.13

How to Best Position Your Products

Until the FDA issues its long-awaited rulemaking regarding CBD products, companies can take the following steps to best position their products to avoid litigation and/or succeed in the event litigation arises:

  • Work with reputable labs to ensure the amount of CBD stated on product labeling and advertising is accurate;
  • Ensure that the product is manufactured according to appropriate current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs);
  • Ensure that any claims made on product labeling and/or in advertising are consistent with FDCA requirements and applicable FDA guidance to date – for example, if the product is a dietary supplement, avoid making express or implied claims that it can cure or prevent disease;
  • Maintain a file with appropriate substantiation to support any claims stated in product labeling and advertising;
  • Work with legal counsel to stay abreast of developments in federal and state laws applicable to hemp-derived CBD products, and how any changes might impact potential class action defenses; and
  • If a lawsuit arises, work with legal counsel to develop a strategy that not only resolves the current litigation as efficiently as possible, but also positions the company strategically for any future consumer claims that may arise.

References

  1. Final Mediation Report, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. July 30, 2020).
  2. Court Order, Davis v. Redwood Wellness, LLC, 2:20-cv-03273-PA-JEM (C.D. Cal. Apr. 10, 2020).
  3. Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020); Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  4. Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020).
  5. Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  6. Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020).
  7. Order on Motion to Dismiss at 12, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  8. Minute Entry, Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., 1:20-cv-00418 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2020).
  9. Plaintiff’s Motion to Lift Stay, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2020).
  10. See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
  11. See Miller v. Ghirardelli, 912 F. Supp. 2d 861, 869 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that the named plaintiff lacked standing where the products purchased by the putative class members were not “substantially similar” enough to those purchased by the named plaintiff); Colucci v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12-2907-SC, 2012 WL 6737800 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2012) (finding one of two named plaintiffs lacked standing because, even though the other named plaintiff (his fiancée) purchased the nutrition bars for him, he himself did not purchase any of the bars); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013); Robinson v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 11-2183 (JBS-JS), 2012 WL 6213777 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2012) (holding that there was no Article III standing because the named plaintiff had testified and stated in written discovery that he would not purchase the product in the future).
  12. See, e.g., Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423 (7th Cir. 2011); Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761, at *9-10 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013).
  13. See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
german flag

Where Is The German Cultivation Bid?

By Marguerite Arnold
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german flag

For those following the German cultivation bid drama, there appears to be a real light at the end of a now two year tunnel– driven by a domestic demand that essentially requires that there be no more delays.

Then again, given developments so far, who knows really what will happen in April. It could be a whole new “fresh start” for a much-beleaguered process or it could just go down as yet another “train” on the basis of a “technical fault.”

One thing is for sure: BfArM again appears to be cautiously optimistic. Yet they have been there before, too. Yes, there is a rising patient count. But there are also now many other import options and cheaper prices coming into the EU. As a result, there is still the likelihood, however implausible, that the German government will want to kick this can a bit further down the road.

German Parliament Building

What is the newest development? In late January, BfArM, the German equivalent to the FDA and the agency in charge of oversight and regulation of all medicines and medical devices, issued a press release about the status of the cannabis cultivation bid they are tasked with overseeing.

If things are not taken off track by the next still pending lawsuit (due to be heard by the high court in Dusseldorf on 10 April of this year), the agency will award the bid. Not before, as the press release also states categorically.

The Highlights

There is no award date yet of course. However, if the court case is decided in favour of BfArM this time (namely defending their exclusion of a bidder even though the deadline was delayed again for seven weeks last fall), there is reason to believe the public airing of that final list of license holders will be released soon after. That means the bid decision could come as soon as the next day and certainly by the end of April.

There were over 200 questions asked of the agency this time by around 79 bidders who submitted a total of 817 bids for a total of 13 cultivation lots. No more than five lots can go to any one bidder or consortium.

The amount to be cultivated under this first bid is 10,400 kg over four years (up from the first amount). Even this is expected to be too low to meet a clear and increasing domestic demand. That said, there is clear expectation that the remainder between what is cultivated domestically and consumed will be taken up by imports (although from where was not explicitly discussed).

The agency also stressed that they are responsible only for the administration of the tender itself. They will not receive, store or redistribute the cannabis or cannabis products. Further, BfArM also stressed that they are not responsible for the regulation of the final retail price at pharmacies.

Finally, the target date for the delivery of the first crops is a conservative estimate which says two things. One, BfArM are not tipping their hand in favour of Wayland (who at present has the largest licensed GMP facility in the country), and second, they are leaving themselves and bid respondents a little more wiggle room. Just in case. For whatever reason.

As the bid states, successful respondents do not need to have suitable real estate under contract until the finalists are announced, but if they are awarded the bid, they will have to not only move fast to secure a facility, but also set up a grow facility that can be certified in the next interim period.

By way of contrast, Wayland announced its purchase of the Ebersbach facility in the summer of 2017. They have just received, 18 months later, their GMP certification. Anyone starting from scratch, in other words, would have to move at least as fast as Wayland has. If not a bit faster, considering that Wayland is already up and running, and at this point certified.

Between The Lines

The entire cannabis legalization discussion has been caught up in the cultivation bid since the beginning. Patients in fact, lost their temporary right to grow if they could not afford the expensive cannabis being sold in pharmacies before 2017. After the law changed, only licensed and regulated operators were allowed to distribute the imported variety and then only from Holland and Canada.

Since then, the first cultivation bid went down in a legal challenge, the price of cannabis at the retail end has effectively increased at least 1,000 euros a month and there are as many as 80,000 German patients taking some kind of cannabinoid, mostly for chronic pain.

It is insurers, in other words, at least as much and now more than patients who are now on the sharp and expensive end of the stick.

Then again, until the actual announcement from the Dusseldorf high court if not BfArM itself, expect late breaking developments and drama until the very end.However, the interim frustrating period auf Deutschland plus the continuing needle of political reform just about everywhere (certainly in Europe) has changed the scenery dramatically in just two years. There are cultivation operations in Spain and Portugal with crops ready to be exported to the German consumer. Eastern Europe and Italy are also cultivating. Greece is preparing to. And Israel finally allowed its producers to jump into the medical game globally.

Prices will inevitably come down. The German government and insurance industry beyond that are two powerful drivers to insure the same. And a big part in bringing that price down is setting a bid reference price to begin with.

The situation, in other words, is being staged to move into the next “four-year plan” where Germany begins to understand how widely effective cannabinoids can be, for what conditions and what kind of delivery mechanisms work best for different patients.

It also aligns the country’s medical program perfectly with Luxembourg’s own four-year medical trial and now stated timeline of ensuring there is recreational reform by 2022.

All of which, in other words, also spells victory and potentially the end game to the first part of the German medical cannabis cultivation question and a larger first step for the EU beyond that to finally end medical cannabis prohibition.

Then again, until the actual announcement from the Dusseldorf high court if not BfArM itself, expect late breaking developments and drama until the very end.

Stay tuned.

labsphoto

EVIO Labs Expands Ahead of California Testing Deadline

By Aaron G. Biros
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labsphoto

In a few short weeks, the regulations in California’s cannabis market will expand to include more laboratory testing. The previous exemption for selling untested product will be eliminated come July 1st, meaning that every product on dispensary shelves will have to be tested for a number of contaminants.

EVIO labs photo
Pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing will be added come July 1st.

According to William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs, the state is currently finalizing a revision to the existing emergency rules, which is designed to target the potential supply bottleneck situation. “To help alleviate the bottleneck, the state is eliminating the field duplicate test on every batch of cannabis or cannabis products,” says Waldrop. “This will give the labs additional bandwidth to process more batches for testing.” So one test per batch is the rule now and batch sizes will remain the same. This, of course, is contingent on the state finalizing that revision to the emergency regulations.

William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs
William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs

In addition to that change, the state will expand the types of testing requirements come July 1st.  New mandatory pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing are added in addition to the other tests already required.

With July 1st quickly approaching, many in California fear the rules could lead to a major market disruption, such as the previously mentioned bottleneck. Waldrop sees the elimination of duplicate testing as a preventative measure by the state. “It is a good move for the industry because it allows labs to test more batches, hopefully reducing the bottleneck come July,” says Waldrop. Still though, with only 26 licensed laboratories in the state as of March, testing facilities will have to meet higher demand, performing more tests and working with more clients.

EVIO Labs is preparing for this in a number of ways. They already have a lab in Berkeley and are working to expand their capacity for more analyses. In addition to their lab in Berkeley, the company is working to get three more locations operational as quickly as possible. “Right now, EVIO Labs is expanding through the identification of new market locations,” says Waldrop. “We have announced the acquisition of a facility in Humboldt and we are outfitting it for state-mandated testing. We have secured a location in LA, and licensing for LA just began as of June 1stso we are going through the local licensing process at this time. We are still moving through the licensing process for our facility in Costa Mesa as well.”

EVIO Labs photo
Labs will soon have to deal with higher demand, meaning more samples and more clients

“In the meantime, we have expanded capacity of personnel in our Berkeley facility to support our client base until these other locations come online,” says Waldrop. “We are refining our business, bringing on additional equipment and more resources.” While the rules haven’t been implemented yet, Waldrop says he’s seen an uptick in business with licensed operators requesting more testing for the new July 1st standards.

While some might feel a bit panicky about how the new standards could disrupt the market, Waldrop says his clients are looking forward to it. “Our clients are very happy with the proposed new rules, because it reduces the cost of testing per batch, which will inherently reduce wholesale costs, making cannabis more affordable for patients and recreational users.”

BioTrackTHC To The Rescue: Contingency Plan for Washington

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published this morning, BioTrackTHC successfully implemented their Universal Cannabis System (UCS) in Washington State, a temporary solution for the state’s seed-to-sale cannabis tracking system, while the new system is yet to be deployed.

BioTrackTHC had a contract with Washington State for four years, which expired just weeks ago at the beginning of November. Back in June, after a few minor hiccups, the state announced that MJ Freeway would be the successive software platform used for the state’s seed-to-sale traceability system.

The deadline for the new software to be ready for deployment was set for November 1st, when the BioTrackTHC contract would expire and the MJ Freeway contract would begin. Between when the contract was awarded and the deadline for implementation, MJ Freeway made headlines for a series of security hacks and systems failures. Subsequently, MJ Freeway said they could not deliver the software platform until January of 2018, leaving a two-month gap where businesses have no state-mandated software to use for the tracking system.

The contingency plan that the state laid out consisted of business owners manually inputting data in excel spreadsheets. When first pressed for a Band-Aid solution, representatives of BioTrackTHC cited security concerns related to MJ Freeway’s hacks as reason for being hesitant to extend their contract through the interim period.

In an open letter to the Washington cannabis industry back in October before the end of their contract, Patrick Vo, president and chief executive officer of BioTrackTHC, laid out an explanation for what went wrong and provided an alternative solution, essentially a private sector version of their government-mandated traceability software system.

The open letter to the Washington cannabis industry, written by Patrick Vo

Announced this morning, the new system, UCS, is being used by over 1,600 of the 1,700 cannabis licensees in Washington. The UCS has so far submitted 39,000 individual excel spreadsheets to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB). “After the WSLCB announced that their replacement system would not be ready in time and that the only other option was for all 1,700 licensees to submit their seed-to-sale data via manual spreadsheets, BioTrackTHC created the UCS—a privatized clone of the government system—within a few days and deployed it minutes after the termination of the old system to minimize the impact on all licensees,” reads the press release.

The UCS allows business owners to streamline data recording, instead of manually entering information into spreadsheets. It is also integrating with 3rd party software competitors such as WeedTraQR, GrowFlow, Mr. Kraken, TraceWeed, GreenBits, S2Solutions and DopePlow. “After the WSLCB’s announcement, we knew that we had only a few days to provide a universal system to which the whole industry could submit compliance data and enable communication across the supply chain between licensees and their seed-to-sale system,” says Vo. “Our priority was to ensure that licensees could continue to operate in the absence of a government seed-to-sale system. Not having that system in place could have left Washington licensees vulnerable to noncompliance in a variety of ways, not to mention the potentially crippling volume of extra work needed to manually track a business’ entire inventory.”

Washington State’s new traceability software system by MJ Freeway is expected to deploy in January of 2018.