The rule is a classic example of the federal agency’s resistance to cannabis reform. It states that legal hemp products can be converted to products containing more than 0.3% THC, the threshold established in the 2018 Farm Bill, thus becoming an illegal controlled substance.
Under the Interim Hemp Rule, the DEA could arrest and prosecute legal hemp processors if they are in possession of hemp or CBD oil that contains more than 0.3% THC at any time, even if only for a temporary moment in the extraction process. This creates a lot of criminal risk for hemp companies as it is an almost inevitable step in the extraction process.
Almost every state in the country has an established USDA-compliant hemp program and the NCIA believes the Interim Hemp Rule is in direct conflict with the USDA’s rulemaking authority. According to Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the NCIA, the DEA is overstepping its authority and going outside of its jurisdiction. “Given this agency’s history of doing everything in its power to maintain the criminalization of cannabis in any form, this rule was clearly not proposed to help the thousands of small farmers who are participating in approved hemp programs and could put them in unnecessary danger,” says Smith. “Failure to rescind it immediately is a clear violation of congressional intent and established law.”
By Seth Mailhot, Steve Levine, Emily Lyons, Megan Herr 1 Comment
On August 20, 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published an Interim Final Rule on industrial hemp and hemp derivatives (the interim rule), which immediately went into effect, to conform DEA regulations with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill).
The 2018 Farm Bill effectively removed industrial hemp from the definition of “marijuana” in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Additionally, tetrahydrocannabinols contained in industrial hemp, such as cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD), were also removed from the purview of the CSA.
The 2018 Farm Bill defines hemp as:
the plant Cannabis Sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.
Accordingly, because cannabis and its “derivatives, extracts, [and] cannabinoids” are not considered “marihuana,” so long as their delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration is at or below 0.3% on a dry weight basis, the regulation of hemp fell outside the authority of the DEA. However, the DEA’s interim rule attempts to draw a hard line in the sand as to when the plant, and any products derived therefrom, are considered “marihuana,” thereby still subject to the DEA’s purview.
Specifically, the interim rule promulgates the DEA’s position that hemp processors can convert otherwise legal hemp into illegal “marihuana,” thereby bringing it back under the DEA’s authority, if such processing and extraction increases the THC content above the 0.3% THC threshold, even momentarily. Specifically, the interim rule states:
[T]he definition of hemp does not automatically exempt any product derived from a hemp plant, regardless of the Δ9-THC content of the derivative. In order to meet the definition of ‘hemp,’ and thus qualify for the exemption from [S]chedule I, the derivative must not exceed the 0.3% Δ9-THC limit. The definition of ‘marihuana’ continues to state that ‘all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L.,’ and ‘‘every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant,’ are [S]chedule I controlled substances unless they meet the definition of ‘hemp’ (by falling below the 0.3% Δ9-THC limit on a dry weight basis) or are from exempt parts of the plant (such as mature stalks or non-germinating seeds) . . . As a result, a cannabis derivative, extract, or product that exceeds the 0.3% Δ9-THC limit is a [S]chedule I controlled substance, even if the plant from which it was derived contained 0.3% or less Δ9-THC on a dry weight basis.
Accordingly, the DEA’s stance creates a substantial risk for processors who will be considered to be in possession of a Schedule I controlled substance during the extraction process if the THC content exceeds the 0.3% THC threshold at any point during processing, an almost inevitable result of the extraction process. Nevertheless, the interim rule states:
the definition of hemp does not automatically exempt any product derived from a hemp plant, regardless of the Δ9-THC content of the derivative. In order to meet the definition of ‘hemp,’ and thus qualify for the exemption from [S]chedule I, the derivative must not exceed the 0.3% Δ9-THC limit.
Although the DEA impliedly recognizes the fact that hemp processing can result in a temporary increase in THC content, it still took the position that, should the THC content exceed 0.3% THC at any point during the extraction process, processors will be considered to be in possession of a Schedule I controlled substance, regardless of whether the finished product complies with federal law.
Consequently, the interim rule creates significant criminal risk for anyone processing industrial hemp, as the DEA has asserted that the processing of hemp into extracts, derivatives and isolated cannabinoids (which are arguably legal under the 2018 Farm Bill) can result in unintentional violation of federal law, thereby subjecting processors to the risk of significant criminal liability. That said, the interim final rule does not appear to be a shift in DEA policy since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill in December 2018, nor has DEA issued any warnings to industrial hemp manufacturers or otherwise signaled a change in enforcement policy by issuing the Interim Final Rule.
In addition, the DEA took several other steps in the interim final rule towards the deregulation of hemp products:
Adding language stating that the definition of “tetrahydrocannabinols” does not include “any material, compound, mixture, or preparation that falls within the definition of hemp set forth in 7 U.S.C. § 1639o”.
Removing from Schedule V a “drug product” in an FDA-approved finished dosage formulation that contains cannabidiol (CBD) and no more than 0.1 percent (w/w) residual tetrahydrocannabinols (e.g. Epidiolex).
Removing DEA import and export controls for hemp extract that does not exceed the statutory 0.3% THC limit.
The consumer-facing CBD industry operates in a regulatory gray zone even as it grows in prominence. Illegal to market as an unapproved drug, dietary supplement or food additive under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, nevertheless, the CBD industry has flourished with ingestible products widely available. With the increased consumer interest in CBD, headwinds in the form of mislabeled or contaminated products and unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, combined with regulatory uncertainty, continue to be a drag on legitimate market participants and consumer perception of CBD products. The regulation of hemp-derived CBD falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its charge to protect the public health. Despite having jurisdiction to regulate CBD products, the FDA has done little to bring regulatory certainty to the CBD marketplace. However, the FDA, with the assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), recently took important steps that can be described as “getting their ducks in a row” for the eventual regulation of hemp-derived CBD in consumer products. Always looming is the threat of criminal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by the Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for plants and products not meeting the definition of hemp.
Prior to July 2020, the FDA’s regulation of the CBD industry was limited to a public hearing, data collection, an update report to Congress on evaluating the use of CBD in consumer products, and issuing warning letters to those marketing products for treatment of serious diseases and conditions. The FDA recognizes that regulatory uncertainty does not benefit the Agency, the industry or consumers and, therefore, is evaluating a potential lawful pathway for the marketing of CBD products. In furtherance of this effort, the FDA took several recent actions, including:
Producing a CBD Testing Report to Congress1
Providing draft guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research2
Sending a CBD Enforcement Policy to the Office of Management and Budget for pre-release review and guidance3
Not to be overlooked, the NIST announced a program to help testing laboratories accurately measure compounds, including delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD, in marijuana, hemp and cannabis products, the goal being to increase accuracy in product labeling and to assist labs in identifying THC concentrations in order to differentiate between legal hemp and federally illegal marijuana. These actions appear to be important and necessary steps towards a still be to determined federal regulatory framework for CBD products. Unfortunately, a seemingly innocent interim final rule issued by the DEA on August 21, 2020 (Interim Final Rule), may prove to be devastating to hemp processors and the CBD industry as a whole.4 While the DEA describes its actions as merely conforming DEA regulations with changes to the CSA resulting from the 2018 Farm Bill, those actions may make it exceedingly difficult for hemp to be processed for cannabinoid extraction without violating the CSA in the process.
FDA Report to Congress “Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated”
On July 8, 2020, the FDA produced a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations detailing the results of a sampling study to determine the extent to which CBD products in the marketplace are mislabeled or adulterated. The study confirmed what the FDA, Congress and the marketplace already knew – that in this regulatory vacuum, there are legitimate concerns about the characteristics of consumer CBD products. These concerns include whether products contain the CBD content as described in the label, whether products contain other cannabinoids (including THC) and whether products were contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides. With these concerns in mind, the FDA tested 147 CBD and hemp products purchased online for the presence of eleven cannabinoids, including determinations of total CBD and total THC, and certain heavy metals. The key tests results included the following:
94% contained CBD
2 products that listed CBD on the label did not contain CBD
18% contained less than 80% of the amount of CBD indicated
45% contained within 20% of the amount listed
37% contained more than 20% of the amount of CBD indicated
49% contained THC or THCA at levels above the lowest concentration that can be detected
Heavy metals were virtually nonexistent in the samples
Due to the limited sample size, the FDA indicated its intention to conduct a long-term study of randomly selected products across brands, product categories and distribution channels with an emphasis on more commercially popular products. In furtherance of this effort, on August 13, 2020, the FDA published a notice soliciting submissions for a contract to help study CBD by “collecting samples and assessing the quantities of CBD and related cannabinoids, as well as potential associated contaminants such as toxic elements, pesticides, industrial chemicals, processing solvents and microbial contaminants, in foods and cosmetics through surveys of these commodities.”5
Even though this report was not voluntarily produced by the FDA, rather it was required by Congress’ Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, it importantly solidified a basis for the need for regulation. With less than half of the products tested falling within the 20% labeling margin of error, this suggests rampant and intentionally inaccurate labeling and/or significant variability in the laboratory testing for cannabinoids.
NIST Program to Help Laboratories Accurately Measure Compounds in Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis Products
Proper labeling of cannabinoid content requires reliable and accurate measurement of the compounds found in hemp, marijuana and cannabis products. As part of NIST’s Cannabis Quality Assurance Program, NIST intends to help labs produce consistent measurement results for product testing and to allow forensic labs to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.6 As succinctly stated by a NIST research chemist, “When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10% CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number.” Recognizing the lack of standards due to cannabis being a Schedule I drug for decades, NIST intends to produce standardized methods and reference materials the help labs achieve high-quality measurements.
NIST’s efforts to provide labs with the tools needed to accurately measure cannabis compounds will serve as an important building block for future regulation of CBD by the FDA. Achieving nationwide consistency in measurements will make future FDA regulations addressing CBD content in products achievable and meaningful.
FDA Industry Guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research on Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds
On July 21, the FDA released draft guidance to the industry addressing quality considerations for clinical research of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds related to the development of drugs. These recommendations are limited to the development of human drugs and do not apply to other FDA-regulated products, including food additives and dietary supplements. However, by indicating that cannabis with .3% or less of THC can be used for clinical research and discussing testing methodologies for cannabis botanical raw material, intermediaries and finished drug products, the FDA is potentially signaling to the consumer-facing CBD industry how the industry should be calculating percentage THC throughout the product formulation process.
While testing of botanical raw material is guided by the USDA Interim Final Rule on Hemp Production,7 the FDA warns that manufacturing processes may generate intermediaries or accumulated by-products that exceed the .3% THC threshold and may be considered by the DEA to be Schedule I controlled substances. This could be the case even if the raw material and finished product do not exceed .3% THC. The FDA’s guidance may eventually become the standard applied to regulated CBD products in a form other than as a drug. However, through its guidance, the FDA is warning the CBD industry that the DEA may also have a significant and potentially destructive role to play in the manufacturing process for CBD products.
FDA Submits CBD Enforcement Policy Guidance to the White House
On July 22, 2020, the FDA submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget a “Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy – Draft Guidance for Industry” for its review. The contents of the document are not known outside of the Executive Branch and there is no guarantee as to when, or even if, it will be released. Nevertheless, given the FDA’s interest in a legal pathway forward for CBD products, the submission is looked upon as a positive step forward. With this guidance, it is important to remember that the FDA’s primary concern is the safety of the consuming public and it continues to collect data on the effects of ingestible CBD on the human body.
It is doubtful that this guidance will place CBD products in the dietary supplement category given the legal constraints on the FDA and the lack of safety data available to the FDA. The guidance likely does not draw distinctions among products using CBD isolate (as found in Epidiolex), full or broad spectrum hemp extract, despite the FDA’s expressed interest in the differences between these compositions.8 Instead, the FDA is more likely to establish guardrails for CBD ingestible products without authorizing their marketing. These could include encouragement of Good Manufacturing Practices, accuracy in labeling, elimination of heavy metal and pesticide contamination, and more vigorous enforcement against marketing involving the making of disease claims. The FDA is not expected to prescribe dosage standards, but may suggest a maximum daily intake of CBD for individuals along the lines of the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency guideline of a maximum of 70 mg of CBD per day.9
Identifying concerns in the current marketplace; promoting accuracy in testing; highlighting the line between FDA regulation and DEA enforcement; and proposing guidance to the industry all appear to be signs of substantial progress on forging a regulatory path for ingestible CBD products.
The DEA’s Interim Final Rule Addressing Derivatives and Extracts Could Have a Devastating Impact on the Cannabinoid Industry
The seemingly benign Interim Final Rule published by the DEA in August with the stated intent of aligning DEA regulations with the changes to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp could cut the legs out from under the hemp-derived CBD industry.10 Claiming it has “no discretion with respect to these amendments,” the DEA rule states that “a cannabis derivative, extract, or product that exceeds the 0.3% delta-9 THC limit is a schedule I controlled substance, even if the plant from which it was derived contained 0.3% or less delta-9 THC on a dry weight basis.”11 Under this interpretation of the 2018 Farm Bill language and the CSA, it is unclear whether processors of hemp for cannabinoid extraction would be in possession of a controlled substance if, at any time, a derivative or extract contains more than 0.3% delta-9 THC even though the derivative or extract may be in that state temporarily and/or eventually falls below the 0.3% threshold when included in the final product. It would not be unusual for extracts created in the extraction process to exceed 0.3% delta-9 THC in the course of processing cannabinoids from hemp.
The implications of the rule may have a chilling effect on those involved in, or providing services to, hemp processors. It is known, as revealed by the Secretary of the USDA to Congress, that the DEA does not look favorably on the legalization of hemp and development of the hemp industry. The DEA’s position is that the rule merely incorporates amendments to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp into DEA’s regulations. In doing so, the DEA made explicit its interpretation of the Farm Bill’s hemp provisions that it presumably has held since the language became operative. What is not known is whether this changes the DEA’s appetite for enforcing the law under its stated interpretation, which to date it has refrained from doing. Nevertheless, the industry is likely to respond in two ways. First, by submitting comments to the Interim Final Rule, which will be accepted for a 60-day period, beginning on August 21, 2020. Anyone concerned about the implications of this rule should submit comments by the deadline. Second, by the filing of a legal challenge to the rulemaking on grounds that the rule does not correctly reflect Congressional intent in legalizing hemp and, consequently, the rulemaking process violated the Administrative Procedure Act. If both fail to mitigate harm caused to the CBD industry, the industry will have to look to Congress for relief. In the meantime, if the hemp processing industry is disrupted by this rule, cannabis processors holding licenses in legal states may be looked upon to meet the supply needs of the CBD product manufacturers.
The Interim Final Rule also addresses synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols, finding them to be Schedule I controlled substances regardless of the delta-9 THC content. This part of the rule could impact the growing market for products containing delta-8 THC. While naturally occurring in hemp in small quantities, delta-8 THC is typically produced by chemically converting CBD, thereby likely making the resulting delta-8 THC to be considered synthetically derived.
The hemp-derived cannabinoid industry continues to suffer from a “one step forward, two steps back” syndrome. The USDA’s highly anticipated Interim Final Rule on hemp production (released Oct. 31, 2019) immediately caused consternation in the CBD industry, and continues to, due to certain restrictive provisions in the rule. Disapproval in the rule is evident by the number of states deciding to operate under their pilot programs for the 2020 growing season, rather than under the conditions of the Interim Final Rule.12 With signs of real progress by the FDA on regulating the CBD products industry, yet another interim final rule could undercut the all-important processing portion of the cannabinoid supply chain by injecting the threat of criminality where there is no intent by processors to violate the law. It is not a stretch to suggest that both the USDA and FDA are being significantly influenced by the DEA. The DEA’s Interim Final Rule is just another troubling example of the legal-illegal dichotomy of cannabis that continues to plague the CBD industry.
U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated (July 2020).
U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds Quality Considerations for Clinical Research: Guidance for Industry(July 2020).
U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy: Draft Guidance for Industry (July 2020).
Implementation of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, 85 FR 51639 (Aug. 21, 2020) (to be codified at 21 C.F.R. §§ 1308, 1312).
U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Collection and Analysis of Products Containing CBD and Cannabinoids, Notice ID RFQ_75F40120R00020 (Aug. 13, 2020).
Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334, title X, 10113 (codified at 7 U.S.C. §§ 1639o-1639s).
U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Cannabidiol (CBD), p. 14 (March 2020).
U.K. Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Agency Sets Deadline for the CBD Industry and Provides Safety Advice to Consumers (Feb. 2020) at https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/food-standards-agency-sets-deadline-for-the-cbd-industry-and-provides-safety-advice-to-consumers.
Secretary Perdue made the announcement in a YouTube video titled “USDA’s Hemp Policy.” Later in the week, an interim final rule formalizing the program will be published in the Federal Register, according to the USDA’s website. “The rule includes provisions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve hemp production plans developed by states and Indian tribes including: requirements for maintaining information on the land where hemp is produced; testing the levels of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol; disposing of plants not meeting necessary requirements; and licensing requirements,” reads the press release. “It also establishes a federal plan for hemp producers in states or territories of Indian tribes that do not have their own approved hemp production plan.” The interim final rule will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register, which should be by the end of this week.
You can watch the YouTube video and read the announcement he made below:
Hello everyone, as I travel across this great country of ours, I hear a lot about a strong interest in a new economic opportunity for America’s farmers: the production of hemp. Which is why today I am pleased to announce the USDA has published the rule establishing the US domestic hemp production program. We said we’d get it done in time for producers to make planning decisions for 2020 and we followed through. We have had teams operating with all hands-on-deck to develop a regulatory framework that meets Congressional intent while seeking to provide a fair, consistent and science-based process for states, tribes, and individual producers who want to participate in this program. As mandated by Congress, our program requires all hemp growers to be licensed and includes testing protocols to ensure that hemp grown under this program is hemp and nothing else. The USDA has also worked to provide licensed growers access to loans and risk management products available for other crops. As the interim final rule, the rule becomes effective immediately upon publication in the federal register. But we still want to hear from you. Help us make sure the regulations meet your needs. That’s why the publication of the interim final rule also includes a public comment period continuing a full and transparent rulemaking process that started with a hemp listening session all the way back in March 2019. At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets. And I encourage all producers to take the time to fully educate themselves on the processes, requirements and risk that come with any market or product before entering this new frontier. The Agricultural Marketing Service will be providing additional information, resources and educational opportunities on the new program. And I encourage you to visit the USDA hemp website for more information. As always, we thank you for your patience and input during this process.
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