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FDA Issues Warnings to 15 CBD Companies, Updates Safety Concerns

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

FDA

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

By Seth Mailhot, Emily Lyons, Steve Levine
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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)
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Warning Signs For CBD Food & Drink Manufacturers

By Jonathan C. Sandler
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CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.

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

The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.

CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.

FDAlogoIn the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.

It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.

It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.

An example of a warning letter the FDA sent to a CBD products company making health claims

In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.

The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.

Still, some states are trying to take matters into their own hands. For example, the California State Assembly recently passed bill A.B. 228 that permits the inclusion of CBD in food and beverages. Colorado has already passed a similar bill. Other states such as Ohio and cities such as New York City have gone the other way, prohibiting CBD from being added to food or beverages.

The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.