Last week, GW Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: GWPH) announced they have entered into an agreement with Jazz Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: JAZZ) for Jazz to acquire GW Pharma. Both boards of directors for the two companies have approved the deal and they expect the acquisition to close in the second quarter of 2021.
GW Pharma is well-known in the cannabis industry as producing the first and only FDA-approved drug containing CBD, Epidiolex. Epidiolex is approved for the treatment of seizures in rare diseases like severe forms of epilepsy. GW is also currently in phase 3 trials seeking FDA approval for a similar drug, Nabiximols, that treats spasms from conditions like multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
Jazz Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company based in Ireland that is known for its drug Xyrem, which is approved by the FDA to treat narcolepsy.
Bruce Cozadd, chairman and CEO of Jazz, says the acquisition will bring together two companies that have a track record of developing “differentiated therapies,” adding to their portfolio of sleep medicine and their growing oncology business. “We are excited to add GW’s industry-leading cannabinoid platform, innovative pipeline and products, which will strengthen and broaden our neuroscience portfolio, further diversify our revenue and drive sustainable, long-term value creation opportunities,” says Cozadd.
Justin Gover, CEO of GW Pharma, says the two companies share a vision for developing and commercializing innovative medicines, with a focus on neuroscience. “Over the last two decades, GW has built an unparalleled global leadership position in cannabinoid science, including the successful launch of Epidiolex, a breakthrough product within the field of epilepsy, and a diverse and robust neuroscience pipeline,” says Gover. “We believe that Jazz is an ideal growth partner that is committed to supporting our commercial efforts, as well as ongoing clinical and research programs.”
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.
The news is intriguing in a world overwhelmed with pandemic news. THC Global, a Canadian-Aussie company now raising money and signing global deals, has just bought a “clinic network” of 30 prescribing physicians that will be able to supply up to 6,000 Australian patients this year.
In doing so, this entity is clearly beginning to establish a pattern of expansion in a new medical market not seen so far outside of Canada. Namely being able to obtain the all-important prescription for one’s brand at the doctor or prescriber’s office which is affiliated with a certain producer. Pharmacies and dispensaries downstream have no discretion for any other product to sell if the brand is written right on the prescription itself.
And this marks a new step in an industry frustrated with the high prices and high levels of red tape in other international environments where more widespread medical cannabis reform has come.
The Situation in Germany Germany represents, so far at least, the destination market of choice for Canadian cannabis firms (for the last several years at least). This is for several very sound business reasons (at least in theory).
The German medical market is the largest in Europe. Health reforms which swept the country at the time of reunification also created a system that is in its own way a hybrid of the more European (and British) NHS and American healthcare. Namely, 90% of the German population is on the system, but it is tied to employment and income. Freelancers, even of the German kind, must use private healthcare as must all non-passport foreigners. If you make over a certain amount of money (about $65,000), you must also pay for private healthcare. As the cannabis revolution rolls forward, many cannabis patients are caught in changing rules and a great reluctance by public health insurers to allow fast entry of any new drug, including this one. This is based on “science” but also cost.
Bottom line? Yes, the market is lucrative and growing, and yes, cannabis is covered under public health insurance, but the ability of any producers to be able to maintain a reliable, steady market of “prescribers” is highly limited. Furthermore, unlike anywhere else in the world, pharmacists play an outsized role in the process – namely because there are no chains (more than four brick and mortar outlets are verboten). Prices and availability vary widely across the country.
There are also no “online” drug stores where patients can send prescriptions in the sense that this vertical has developed in other countries.
Hospital dispensation is, for all the obvious reasons, highly expensive and generally prohibitive for the long term, if not serving much larger numbers of patients.
The Problem in the UK Like Germany, the UK decided to launch medical “cannabis” – or at least cannabinoid-related drugs under the purview of the NHS, but there are several issues with this.
The problems start with the fact that the system remains a monopoly for one British company, GW Pharmaceuticals. The medication produced by them, including Sativex and Epidiolex is expensive and does not work for many patients that it is produced “on label” for (such as MS or childhood epilepsy).
And then of course, the largest group of cannabis patients anywhere (chronic pain) have been explicitly excluded from the list of conditions cannabis can be prescribed for under public health guidelines in the UK. This, like Germany, has created a highly expensive system where those patients who obtain the drug on a regular (and legal basis) have to have both private healthcare and obtain help through private clinics. While there are several chain clinics now forming in the UK, this is not the same thing as “buying” patients in the thousands – the model seen in Canada from the beginning of 2014.
The market has a lot of potential, in other words, but like Germany, via very different paths to market than seen in Canada, in particular.
Why Is Canada Different? The development of the medical market came through federal change in the law around the turn of the century. Namely, after patients won the right to grow for themselves, via Supreme Court legal challenge, patient collectives gradually formed to grow and sell cannabis that was more “professionally” cultivated. This, in turn, became the right of private companies and indeed household names in the Canadian market saw buying patient pools as their path to financing on the equity markets as of 2014.
This is not widely popular within the industry. Indeed, the last legal challenge mounted by the industry to ban non-profit patient collectives fell apart in 2016 – the year that the larger Canadian companies began to look abroad to Europe.
It is also undoubtedly why, beyond the red tape they face in Germany and the UK if not across Europe, Canadian firms are looking to hybridize a model which worked well for them at least in the early days of capitalization of the private industry. And maybe Australia will be “it.” Stay tuned.
Europe continues to be the new frontier of medical and wellness developments in the cannabis industry, with various sources predicting that Europe will become the world’s largest legal cannabis market over the next 5 years. Key related statistics, include:
A population of over 740 million (over double US and Canada combined)
Total cannabis market estimated to be worth up to €123 billion by 2028 (€58bn medical cannabis (47%), €65bn recreational cannabis (53%))
Over €500 million has been invested in European cannabis businesses (including significant expenditure in research and development, manufacturing and distribution)
To reiterate this belief, this month, hundreds of industry experts and delegates will be attending Cannabis Europa in Madrid, to discuss the expansion of cannabis across Europe and the challenges facing the industry across the member states of the EU and the UK.
Global mainstream leans to European strength
Since late 2018, major global operators have made substantial moves into the cannabis sector. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company and maker of Budweiser, entered into a partnership to research beverages infused with two types of cannabis. Constellation, owner of Corona beer, announced a commitment for $4 billion investment in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. BlackRock Inc, through five actively managed BlackRock funds, has invested into Curaleaf Holdings Inc, a dispensary operator, for a not too insignificant investment sum of $11 million (as at March 2019). Such international investments prove that cannabis has moved from the fringes and into the mainstream.
When considering the impact of mainstream cannabis, it should be recognised that major European countries have approved or are planning on implementing, legalisation of medicinal cannabis. The UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands already have legal systems in place for medicinal cannabis and France and Spain are currently reviewing key legislative reform to align themselves with international practices. At present the German market is the third largest cannabis market (in terms of size) behind the US and Canada.
In addition to medicinal cannabis, several key European countries have systems in place, or are developing systems, or considering the reform of existing systems, to approve cannabis with THC content at a recreational level. The Netherlands already has a system and Luxembourg’s health minister in August 2019 announced the intention to legalise cannabis for Luxembourg residents. The Luxembourg government is lobbying EU member states to follow suit.
Whilst the EU has a labyrinth of laws in relation to edible CBD (as a novel food) which make the regulatory landscape complex, there has been an explosion of CBD products for vaping and cosmetics. Of course, with each of these products being subject to different local laws (some aligned between EU members states) in relation to vaping and cosmetic related regulations. The Brightfield Group has predicted a 400% increase in the European CBD market (including vaping liquid) from $318m in 2018 to $1.7 billion by 2023. There is also an expansion into applications for CBD with animals with many US manufacturers of CBD-infused pet food.
The European Parliament’s health committee has been calling for properly funded scientific research and there are motions to establish policies to seek to incentivise member states to advance the studies of medical cannabis, with a priority on scientific research and clinical studies – the first step necessary to drafting legislation, designed to better support the industry.
Where does the UK sit within cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis famously saw a legalisation, of sorts, by the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, who provided the authorisations for prescriptions for the high profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley. Subsequently, on 1 November 2018, this was codified into law by an amendment to Schedule 2 of the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations. This allows clinicians to prescribe cannabis as an unlicensed medicine.
There have, of course, been some high profile licensed medicines. The UK company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is the largest exporter of legal medical cannabis in the world, cultivating medical cannabis for production of cannabis-based medicines (e.g. Epidiolex & Sativex). Epidiolex (manufactured by subsidiary Greenwich Biosciences) became the first cannabis-derived medicine approved for use in the US for treatment of seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes (both severe forms of epilepsy).
When considering the level of research development and investment in the medicinal field, it is no surprise that the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis. Research published by the International Narcotics Control Board indicates that the UK produces over 100,000kg a year of medicinal cannabis.
Previous guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) indicated that further research is required to demonstrate the benefit of medicinal cannabis, citing its cost versus evidenced benefit. However, there is now renewed confidence in the UK following NICE’s approval of two cannabis-based medicines produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, Epidiolex (cannabidiol) oral solution and Sativex (nabiximols), for routine reimbursement through the NHS.
Following the re-categorisation of medicinal cannabis in November 2018, a number of clinics have been established where specialised clinicians can start the process of prescribing cannabis based medicinal products (CBMPs). Whilst this route is not fast, and challenges are well documented as to the satisfaction of prescriptions made in the UK, there is momentum behind the development of this as a means for providing genuine and established medical care. A significant step in October 2019, was the CQC registration of one such cannabis clinic, Sapphire Medical Clinics Limited.
The UK medicinal cannabis sector is establishing a research-based approach to expand usage in the UK and across Europe.
How North America compares to Europe
Canada, as a first mover within the cannabis sector, has a multitude of large companies which are well-capitalised and have substantial international footprints. The Canadian exchanges have large listed companies looking to Europe with the intention of acquiring or investing into European operations. As of the date of writing, the 10 largest cannabis companies in Canada have an aggregate market cap of over $23.5 billion (and all registered cannabis companies in Canada having an aggregate market cap of over $46.5 billion).
Listed companies have had a tough time over the last 6-12 months with a slowdown in the market as a natural re-balancing occurs – part of which is due to rapid expansion and heavy investment into cultivation by all the major participants in the market. Over the next 6 -12 months we can expect to see management changes (some of which will be voluntary and some of which will be imposed by institutional pressure) to introduce different skill sets at board and senior management level to facilitate the oversight and leadership necessary for large pharmaceutical companies. Many operations have expanded into highly regulated products and complex supply chains whilst still operating with fundamentally the same team that established the operations with entrepreneurial efforts but, perhaps, a lack of experience in these sectors. The recent announcements by Aurora Cannabis and Tilray demonstrate that these restructurings and costs reductions have already commenced. However, with increased experience at board level and an improvement of profitability focused on sustainable business practices, should come new opportunities on a global scale for these North American operations.
The US market, because of the complexity of state and federal laws not being fully aligned, is closer to its infancy than the Canadian market. This is not too dissimilar to the European market. That said, there are a number of well-funded and quite large US enterprises. A limited number of these, such as Tilray, are looking to expand into Europe.
Many of the companies in the US have, and continue to, expand quickly so we can expect to see a number of mergers and acquisitions. We are likely to witness Canadian and US entities merging with one another with the potential for acquisitions for operations within Europe. It is unlikely that the North American companies will risk their capital through organic growth so would be expected to be identifying “turnkey” solutions.
One of the major challenges facing US companies is the complexity of supply and distribution. This is largely a result of the complexities for state and federal laws interacting with one another as well as international importation and exportation with US states.
How you can invest within the UK and Europe
Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.The UK remains, despite the events of Brexit, a major financial hub for Europe. The London market has seen the growth of several investment and operation cannabis companies. This includes private companies such as; EMMAC Life Sciences Limited and the operations formerly trading as European Cannabis Holdings (now demerged into several new entities including NOBL and LYPHE) as well as publicly listed companies; including Sativa Group PLC (the first publically listed cannabis specific company in the UK) and World High Life Plc, both operating on the NEX Exchange.
The Medical Cannabis and Wellness Ucits ETF (CBDX), Europe’s first medical cannabis ETF fund, domiciled in Ireland, and which has been passported for sale in the UK and Italy, has also caused a renewed stir within the market with a further platform for listed investment.
As the regulatory framework evolves further there is an anticipation that more medicinal cannabis and CBD related enterprises should have the opportunity to list on public exchanges, whether in the UK or in European countries.
Despite a period of slow down following the natural rebalancing of the fast-growing North American markets for the cannabis sector, there is renewed confidence in the expansion of the industry. Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.
There is an increased push for a public dialogue and consultation in relation to medicinal and recreational cannabis in the UK, backed by several mainstream media platforms. This is likely to be shaped in some parts by national debates in Luxembourg and other European countries as they consider their own domestic laws.
With European parliaments across the EU (including the UK) hopefully having time freed up to discuss other political matters now that Brexit is progressing, the next 18 months should prove an exciting time within the European cannabis sector.
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.
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.
This 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.
In 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.
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.
CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.
The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.
CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.
In the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.
It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.
It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.
In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.
The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.
The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.
Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published an Examination Guide to provide further clarity for how they assess the legitimacy of trademarks for cannabis products. For the uninitiated, the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law on December 20, 2018, removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. In order to register a trademark in the United States, the mark must be used in a lawful setting, meaning that the USPTO does not register trademarks for products that violate federal law- even if it is legal under state law.
In their guidance document, the USPTO identifies the distinction between hemp and other cannabis varieties as the basis for either issuing or refusing a trademark registration. This means that in the trademark application, companies need to specify that the cannabis product is derived from hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight.
The USPTO clarifies that applications for trademarks that involve CBD filed before December 20, 2018 will be refused, but if they amend the filing date to after that date, the registration will be examined. Below is a direct quote from their examination guide clarifying this:
For applications filed before December 20, 2018 that identify goods encompassing CBD or other cannabis products, registration will be refused due to the unlawful use or lack of bona fide intent to use in lawful commerce under the CSA. Such applications did not have a valid basis to support registration at the time of filing because the goods violated federal law. However, because of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, the goods are now potentially lawful if they are derived from “hemp” (i.e., contain less than 0.3% THC). Therefore, the examining attorney will provide such applicants the option of amending the filing date and filing basis of the application to overcome the CSA as a ground of refusal.
Under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), using a drug in a food or dietary supplement that is currently undergoing clinical trials is illegal (as is the case here- see Epidiolex for an example of CBD being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved clinical trial). According to the USPTO, this means that “registration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”
Regarding trademarks for services involving “cannabis and cannabis production,” the USPTO also issued guidance. This section of the Examination Guide pertains to companies applying for a trademark that fall in the category of ancillary services, such as growing supply companies, lighting, nutrients, pest control and packaging, among other service providers. Basically, this section boils down to the same distinction the Farm Bill made between hemp and other varieties of cannabis. An applicant for a trademark needs to make clear their identification of services offered as involving cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC.
The hemp industry is the marijuana industry’s half-sister. Both are variations of the plant Cannabis sativa and both were made illegal in 1937 with the passing of The Marijuana Tax Act. Despite this federal status, in recent years 33 individual states have legalized some type of medicinal marijuana use and 11 states now allow legal recreational marijuana within their borders. This prompted congress to modify the legality of hemp which was addressed in The Agricultural Act of 2014, but it only allowed hemp to be used for research purposes. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (known as the 2018 Farm Bill) that was signed into law on December 20, 2018 was a huge step forward for public access to hemp and hemp products. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the growing of hemp in states with a state-mandated hemp program and removed hemp and its derivatives from Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Schedule I status. Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote. Consumers and the cannabis industry alike were very excited about this legalization of hemp…. but that was when the confusion began.
FDA & Hemp
Within two hours of the 2018 Farm Bill being signed, the Commissioner of the FDA, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, issued a statement reiterating the FDA stance on cannabis products and cannabidiol (CBD) in products for human and animal consumption: “Congress explicitly preserved the agency’s current authority to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and section 351 of the Public Health Service Act.” Currently the FDA only permits CBD products submitted as an Investigational New Drug (IND) Application as a pharmaceutical. There is only one such accepted CBD product, Epidiolex, manufactured by G.W. Pharma. All other CBD products are illegal for interstate shipment.
Every product for sale in the US which is either ingested or applied to a human or animal body has a regulatory category in the FDA. Hemp-derived CBD products will have to fit into one of those categories or it will not be legal. Many hemp manufacturing companies will argue with the illegality of CBD products, but it will get them nowhere. If you manufacture and sell hemp products inside of a state with a state mandated hemp program, you are legal and protected under state laws, but the minute you sell across state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the federal government and, more specifically, the FDA. Section 10113 of the 2018 Farm Bill states that (c) Nothing in this subtitle shall affect or modify:
(1) the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 301 et seq.);
(2) section 351 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262); or
(3) the authority of the Commissioner of Food and Drugs and the Secretary of Health and Human Services- ‘‘(A) under- ‘‘(i) the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 301 et seq.); or ‘‘(ii) section 351 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262); or ‘‘(B) to promulgate Federal regulations and guidelines that relate to the production of hemp under the Act described in subparagraph (A)(i) or the section described in subparagraph (A)(ii).”
There is nothing unclear about this issue. The same 2018 Farm Bill that hemp manufacturing companies use to justify the legality of hemp and CBD products is the same bill that spells out the authority of the FDA in this matter.
The mission of the FDA is “to ensure the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices.” The agency also is responsible for “the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.” Health or medical claims not supported by clinical proof will not be tolerated. An unsafe, unclean or untested product will also not be tolerated in the marketplace.
CBD Oil vs. Isolate
Then there is the matter of CBD as either a full spectrum oil vs. an isolate…Unlike marijuana flower which is a very popular product, hemp flower is very rarely sold at the retail level. Full spectrum oil is extracted from the plant, and depending on the solvent used, produces an oil with the same, or close to the same, naturally occurring chemicals from the plant. The oil therefore, includes all the cannabinoids present along with any terpenes, lipids or other compounds present in the plant. Full spectrum oil is a botanical extract and is a dark thick oil. Isolate is produced by separating the constituents of the full spectrum oil by molecular weights or boiling points to have very pure chemicals in the 95%+ purity range. CBD isolate is a white crystalline substance and bears the greatest resemblance to a synthetic raw material and at its purest form cannot be distinguished as coming from a plant in the dirt or a synthesized chemical. Epidiolex is produced from hemp isolate and was approved by the FDA as a pharmaceutical. Full spectrum hemp oil is a botanical extract, often as an ethanol extraction. Full spectrum oil bears the greatest resemblance to a botanical dietary supplement. It remains to be seen what the FDA will allow in the future.
The FDA has made it abundantly clear in numerous warning letters issued to the cannabis industry that drug claims (articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease) regarding CBD, oil or isolate, cannot be made without pharmaceutical approval of the Drug Facts (Epidiolex) lest there be enforcement consequence.
The labeling of other types of products are less clear. Dietary supplements are a category of foods with the FDA and as such both the labeling of dietary supplements and foods are dictated in 21 CFR 111, Food Labeling. Botanical dietary supplements frequently call out a chemical constituent within a particular botanical material or extract on the Supplement Facts Panel: Milk thistle seed extract containing standardized and labeled silymarin is such an example. Is this strategy acceptable for CBD with the FDA? What about “naturally occurring” CBD? Food claims are indicated in the Nutrition Facts, what can these be for CBD? Cosmetic product claims can only address articles intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the body’s structure or functions. What is the purpose of CBD in a cosmetic?
FDA guidance would be very beneficial in all of these labeling areas, and there is hope. The FDA is promising public hearings this spring to discuss a path forward for having hemp food and dietary supplements. The FDA will ask for public comment and hopefully, there will be a lot of public comments provided to them. The public’s huge demand for CBD products will bear pressure on the FDA to at least listen and consider.
cGMPsRegulatory compliance will be difficult, and it will be expensive.
Those currently in the hemp manufacturing industry should pay attention and take the FDA seriously. If the FDA allows hemp products with CBD to be sold in the future, it will be the FDA who makes those regulations and those products will have to fit into an already existing FDA category: human food, animal food, dietary supplement, pharmaceutical or cosmetic. If you are a hemp product manufacturer, you must learn the applicable requirements for Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) by hiring experienced FDA compliance personnel, and/or seeking out FDA regulatory consultants, to develop and implement a quality system accordingly:
21 CFR 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Rick-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food
21 CFR 507, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Rick-Based Preventative Controls for Food for Animals
21 CFR 111, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packaging, Labeling, or Holding Operations for Dietary Supplements
21 CFR 210, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Processing, Packing, or Holding of Drugs; General
21 CFR 211, Current Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals
FDA Draft Guidance for Industry, Cosmetic Good Manufacturing Practice, June 2013
I believe in this industry and I am rooting for the pioneers who have taken all the risk thus far, but the level of denial of the FDA’s authority that I am hearing in the hemp industry community is disturbing to me because those companies will not manage the transition to a regulated future. Most don’t understand it and they don’t think it applies to them or their products. Regulatory compliance will be difficult, and it will be expensive. The hemp pioneers deserve to benefit from their labor and the risk they have taken. For those hemp product companies that do not think compliance is worth the effort or cost, there are many FDA-compliant human food, animal food, dietary supplement, pharmaceutical, or cosmetic companies that are waiting to take your business…
Editor’s Note: While Cannabis Industry Journal typically does not use the term ‘marijuana,’ the author here is speaking from a regulatory point of view and creates an important distinction. Peyton chose the word “marijuana” instead of “cannabis” because the FDA has chosen “cannabis” to refer to both marijuana and hemp.
For those in the cannabis industry who have missed the latest “Trump Trade Deal“- this time with the UK, don’t slumber too long before at least getting a summary update soon.
The implications of the agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump sees as great for business (namely increasing access to the UK market for pricey U.S. pharmaceuticals) are not uniformly welcomed everywhere, and for various reasons.
The impact, however, on the U.S. cannabis industry, and beyond that, both the Canadian and burgeoning European one, will be significant, no matter what happens with the details of Brexit. There are a number of scenarios that might play out at this point. And how they do will certainly direct the future of the cannabis industry as it develops in the UK.
The one piece of good news out of all of this is that the industry will also certainly continue to flourish no matter what- and no matter where the product comes from. Even a hard Brexit will not roll the prohibition clock back.
Brexit Might Not Happen
There is this recurrent fantasy still in the room that the status quo will be retained just because (fill in the blank), but generally motivated by facing realities caused by basic survival. Let’s indulge it for a moment, presuming that British Prime Minister Theresa May does not survive her leadership post and Parliament comes to its collective senses. All of the splits right now in both the Labour and Conservative parties over the looming disaster continue to complicate things. Failing a hard Brexit disaster, however, look for things like “customs unions” and all sorts of “exemptions” to make the entrance into the UK for European food and medicine a permanent backstop. See the just announced Belgian-based emergency supply drop and alt import routes into the UK as just one example of what is likely to develop no matter what. This will also conveniently prevent the UK from starving and running out of medicine.
In other words, the trade deal will not do much to those cannabis firms who get into the market and reach end users with highly competitive pricing and smart entry strategies. U.S. producers and Canadians importing product across the Atlantic will lose on price to both homegrown British, Irish and EU produced crop. European producers will be far more competitive than U.S. firms just because pre-negotiated drug prices are not going anywhere anytime soon in the rest of Europe.
March Madness On the EU side of things, countries are prepping for worst case Brexit. It is, after all, just next month. Which is now less than a week away from starting. This means that anything related to ex-im, no matter the “trade deals” in place, is going to face delays, problems and paperwork of the additional kind. Inevitably. Even if it is just confused customs personnel uncertain of the new rules. Whatever those are. Or even if there are new rules and routes. Borders, even without walls, are respected at least in Europe.
Short of dedicating the new runway at Heathrow exclusively to food and drug imports of the emergency kind, however there is no way to avoid a few predictable and looming shortage crises. There is friction in other words, in every direction. Cannabis producers will not get a pass.
The Deal Is Aimed At Destroying The NHS On the British side of the discussion, the new UK-US trade deal has not been popular since it surfaced last summer. Why? The government would either significantly water down or lose entirely the ability to pre-negotiate drug prices in bulk (and thus hold drug company profits down). That means no more “public” health care. That alone may cause social unrest. Particularly given the shrewd marketing of the Leave Campaign that promised to “save” the NHS. Perhaps the criminal inquiries into the politically dodgy social media campaigning and fundraising techniques used to trigger the entire mess will manage to do in the courts what Parliament so far refuses to face. Then again, maybe not. American cannabis producers in particular face no particular “wins” here in the current regulatory environment. Cost is still going to be an issue.
The Business Bottom Line Beyond the morality of this (let alone Trump or Brexit beyond that) there is the business analysis of the deal. It could well be good for some American pharmaceutical companies, although that is still a big if along the other ones. People have to be able to afford their meds, particularly if the NHS (or private insurers) do not pay.
That does not count out the cannabis industry at this point. See Tilray, for starters. Also remember that the first details of this deal began to be discussed last summer – right before GW Pharmaceuticals began exporting Epidiolex into the U.S.
Cannabinoids, in other words are already in the room, and might in fact have been a figleaf gesture, President to Prime Minister, where at least in the latter case, May has now personally benefitted financially, all along. No matter what happens with Brexit. Or even if there is one. This is not the first time Trump has used the cannabis card to further political means. See the delay of Israeli cannabis to the global market for two years in exchange for moving the Israeli capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem just one year ago.
Bottom line, no matter how proud President Trump and the PM are over their “deal” and indeed, whether the larger disaster will actually occur to trigger it, end users also known as patients are going to look for options based on price and accessibility. And the companies who succeed here are going to have to look for ways to address that.
The majority of this cost will not be picked up by private health insurers but rather the federal governmentActually, according to industry analysis, this is about 70% more than the price of one comparable drug (Onfi), and slightly more expensive than Banzel, the two competing (non-cannabinoid based) medications now available in the U.S. for this market.
Here is the other (widely unreported) kicker. The majority of this cost will not be picked up by private health insurers but rather the federal government, which is also not negotiating with GW Pharma about that high price (unlike for example what is going on in Europe and the German bid).
Why the difference?
Two reasons. The first is that Epidiolex has obtained “orphan drug” status (a medication for a disease that affects fewer than 200,000 patients in the U.S.) The second is that the majority of the insurance that will be picking up this tab is Medicaid. The patient pool will be unable to afford this. As a result, the bulk of the money will remit not from private insurance companies but rather federal taxpayers. And, unlike in say, Germany, none of this is pre-negotiated in bulk.
Co-payments are expected to range from $5 to $200 per month per patient after insurance (read: the government) picks up the tab. This essentially means that the company plans to base participation at first at least on a sliding scale, highly subsidized by a government that has yet to reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I in the U.S.
Creating, in other words, a new monopoly position for GW Pharmaceuticals in North America.
A Hypocrisy Both Patients And The Industry Should Fight
The sordid, underhanded politicking that has created this canna monster is hardly surprising given the current political environment in both the U.S. and the U.K. right now. The people who benefit the most from this development are not patients, or even everyday shareholders, not to mention the burgeoning legitimate North American cannabis industry, but in fact highly placed politicians (like British Prime Minister Theresa May). Philip May, the PM’s husband’s firm is the majority shareholder in GW Pharma. Her former drugs minister (with a strong stand against medical cannabis) is married to the managing director of British Sugar, the company that grows GW Pharma’s cannabis stock domestically.
So far, despite a domestic outcry over this in the UK (including rescheduling), there has been no political backlash in the United States over this announcement. Why not?
Look To Europe For A More Competitive Medical Market
This kind of pricing strategy is also a complete no go in just about every other market – including medical-only markets where GW Pharma already has a footprint.
For example, German health insurers are already complaining about this kind of pricing strategy for cannabis (see the Cannabis Report from one of the country’s largest insurers TK – out earlier this year). And this in an environment where the government, in fact, does negotiate a bulk rate for most of the drugs in the market. Currently most German cannabis patients are being given dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC which costs far less.
On top of this, there are also moves afoot by the German government to begin to bring the costs of medical cannabis and medicines down, dramatically. And this too will impact the market – not only in Europe, but hopefully spark a debate in every country where prices are also too high.
The currently pending German cultivation bid for medical cannabis has already set an informal “reference” price of at most 7 euros a gram (and probably will see bid competitors come in at under half that). In other words, the government wholesale price of raw, unprocessed cannabis flower if not lightly processed cannabis oil is expected to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3-4 euros per gram come early next year. If not, as some expect, potentially even lower than that.
Processed Cannabis Medicine vs. Whole Plant Treatment
The debate that is really raging, beyond pricing, is whether unprocessed cannabis and cannabis oil is actually “medicine.” At the moment, the status quo in the U.S. is that it is not.
GW Pharmaceuticals, in other words, a British company importing a CBD-based derivative, is the only real “medical cannabis” company in the country, per the FDA. Everyone else, at least according to this logic, is placed in the “recreational camp.” And further, hampered still, with a lack of rescheduling, that affects everyone.
If that is not an organizing issue for the American cannabis industry, still struggling with the many issues inherent in the status quo (from insurance coverage and banking to national distribution across state lines) leading up to the midterms, nothing will be.
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