“I really wanted an outlet for me, like someone like me, to be able to help out in this fight,” Wells said in a Harvard Crimson interview. “I knew I was, by far, not the only one who felt this way. And so what happened was, on the walk home from work that day from the lab, I thought, ‘Hey, I should try to organize something here in Boston so I could potentially be a part of a group that makes themselves available to health department officials or county officials.’”
Volunteers are made up of a mix of laboratory scientists, data scientists, software engineers, medical writers, CEOs and epidemiologists – from academic research institutes, national labs and private industry. Many state and local government agencies and organizations have already accessed the list for reference, including FEMA.
Members of the cannabis industry can help to combat COVID-19. “The cannabis industry relies on specialized laboratories that routinely perform qPCR-based microbial tests,” says Wells. “As a result, these labs have basic skill sets and facilities required to participate in community COVID-19 testing.” Quantitative Polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), is a common technique for determining if there are microbial contaminants in flower, concentrates and infused products.
Some cannabis industry leaders have already taken to the call. “With the trend in legalization, the cannabis industry has built an excess testing capacity in anticipation of an increase in volumes,” says David Winternheimer, PhD, CEO of Pacific Star Labs, a Los Angeles-based cannabis research organization with an ISO-accredited testing laboratory. “As an essential industry, cannabis companies are open to helping the wider population in a crisis like this, and testing could easily be adopted in labs with excess microbial testing capacity.”
Michael Wells and his band of volunteers are asking to help get the word out to other scientists who would like to sign-up at https://covid19sci.org and for anyone to help share the database link with any relevant person in government or health services. “Right now, it is all hands on deck. We need every lab, facility, and pair of skilled hands to be deployed in this fight against the most dangerous pathogen our species has experienced at this scale in our lifetimes.”
endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.
The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database is a database of over 8,000 scientists from all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam who are eager to volunteer our time, expertise, equipment, and consumables to help you respond to the COVID-19 crisis. They have aggregated our contact information, locations, and skills sets into this easy to use centralized database. Their members include experts in scientific testing, bioinformatics, and data management, as well as key contacts willing to donate lab space and testing supplies.
On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release to the public about their work on devising a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) products. The FDA also submitted a report to Congress on their rulemaking progress.
The main theme of the report is the same story we’ve been hearing from the FDA for a while now: They are still working on figuring out how to regulate CBD products and wants to do more research before they tackle the rulemaking.
The most intriguing new development from this report is the FDA’s newfound interest in regulating CBD products like dietary supplements:
“FDA is actively considering potential pathways for certain CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements. Under current law, CBD products cannot lawfully be marketed as dietary supplements, but FDA has the authority to create an exemption through notice-and-comment rulemaking that would allow products containing CBD to be sold legally as dietary supplements.”
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a recap: In June of 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharma’s drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. This allowed a drug containing CBD to go to market, but only through the agency’s drug approval process. When the 2018 Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) was signed into law in December later that year, the federal government removed cannabis (hemp) with less than 0.3% THC from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it on a federal level. Congress tasked the FDA with figuring out how to regulate the market. Without any FDA guidance in the early days, the subsequent market growth created mass confusion for the industry and consumers alike, with no one really knowing if selling CBD products is legal or not. In May of 2019, the agency held a comment period and public hearing on CBD, which included a lot of discussion around the benefits, the risks and further research on CBD. Throughout 2019, the FDA sent a large number of warning letters to companies marketing CBD products with unsubstantiated health claims. Towards the end of 2019, Congress passed a bill mandating that the FDA update them on their progress to regulate the market within 60 days. That deadline came and went, and then the FDA issued the public update and submitted the report mentioned above to Congress last week.
The FDA says they intend to take a number of steps towards providing some market clarity, while still protecting the public from unknown risks. Firstly, they want to educate the public more about potential risks associated with CBD. “We remain focused on educating the public about the number of questions that remain regarding CBD’s safety,” reads the update. “There may be risks that need to be considered before using CBD products outside of the monitored setting of a prescription from your health care provider.” Those concerns mentioned above include potential liver injury, drug interactions, reproductive toxicity and more benign side effects like drowsiness.
The agency also wants to try and close knowledge gaps in the areas of safety and potential benefits. In this section of the update, the agency asks industry stakeholders for help. “We’re seeking reliable and high-quality data.” The agency is requesting data on sedative effects, impacts of long-term use, pharmacokinetics, safety of various drug delivery mechanisms, safety for animals, different processes for full or broad spectrum or isolate derivation, among other areas of interest. They plan to re-open the public docket from the public hearing back in May 2019, extending the comment period indefinitely as a tool for stakeholders to share information with the FDA.
As far as enforcement actions go, the agency wants to take a risk-based approach to it. While there is still no official enforcement policy, the FDA is working on it. Their biggest concern is with companies marketing CBD products using drug and health claims, which could “deter consumers from seeking proven, safe medical therapies for serious illnesses – potentially endangering their health or life.” The agency is also worried about potential contamination risk and consumer exposure to things like residual solvents and heavy metals. Their last concern in this area involves truth in labeling, like making false label claims, not listing every ingredient or incorrectly stating the amount of cannabinoids in the product.
“Our ongoing efforts related to CBD, including the steps we’re announcing today, are in line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation and promote consumer confidence. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to develop high-quality data to close the substantial knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products. We are committed to working efficiently to further clarify our regulatory approach to these products – as always, using science as our guide and upholding our rigorous public health standards.”
Overall, the public update and the report don’t disclose anything groundbreaking. They do, however, provide some much-needed guidance for the CBD market on how stakeholders can help the FDA’s efforts. The fact that they are investigating dietary supplements as a path toward a regulatory framework is the by far the biggest take away from all this.
The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.
But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.
Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:
Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher
After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.
That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.
Expect More M&A and Consolidation
With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.
New Markets & Regulations
The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.
How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.
Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations.
Credit Card Payments
While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.
While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.
The beleaguered CannTrust has been given a way out of the perilous mess that executive management created for the company – but such a salvation comes at a high cost. That said, the company was already in deep water with regulators and clients. Health Canada, in fact, cancelled the company’s license to produce and sell cannabis in September – essentially mandating mass returns two months after a whistleblower instigated what is probably the legal industry’s most egregious scandal to date.
Efforts to regain regulatory approval also include plans by the company to recover cannabis that was not authorized by its license, and improve inventory tracking – the full details of which will be delivered to Health Canada by October 21.
While the beleaguered pot company’s stock predictably surged again on the public markets, the question lingers: can CannTrust ever be trusted again? These were egregious violations.
A Changing Industry
As with most things in business, the issues plaguing CannTrust were not isolated to one company. This has ranged in the past from pesticide use to creative accounting. Not to mention all sorts of creative endeavors on the financial side that are, depending on which stock market you look at this from, less than legit or just this side of shady.
It was easy to throw the book at a company like this – not only for these specific violations, but also as a warning to others tempted to engage in similar tactics (or fail to clean those up that still exist).
CannTrust in other words, was a clarion bell about the change in the weather, driven not only by international treaties but the legitimization of the drug, on the ground. Globally. When large health insurers get involved (see Europe), the conversation begins to change. And it is, fairly drastically.
On the ground in Germany, there are two more cultivation sites underway with one now certified and functional. BfArM (the German equivalent of the FDA) is now on the front lines of a battle that so far, at least in Canada, has not been addressed at a level Europe requires. That said, this reality too is changing. One of the largest distributors in Germany, CC Pharma, now owned by Aphria, has started a supply chain compliance check that is overdue. And further, while focussed on the cannabis industry, in truth, is a problem that plagues pharma far from cannabinoids.
However, as this is the cannabis industry, the scandals that rip through headlines are that much more visceral.
Seed to sale traceability, and further in a model unseen in the industry so far, will also become a watchword that is still rippling through an international industry chafing at any sort of standards, let alone standardization required for pharmaceutical acceptance. The bar, in other words, has just been set much higher. And there are many who will not make the grade.
CannTrust, certainly, was a victim not only of internal mismanagement, but a shifting environment that is rapidly upgrading on a level not seen so far in the entire North American industry – with a few notable exceptions.
Pharmaceutical Grade Is The Standard To Beat
Here is the reality now facing an industry coming into its own and on an international basis. The standards are tightening. The rules are not only being written but being enforced. And while there are sure to be a few more scandals along the way, the kinds of basic problems found at CannTrust are probably, finally, going extinct in the part of the industry that now knows it is being held accountable to far higher standards.
The reason? Medical grade and national food standards are in the room for every exporter now eyeing Europe. And that alone is resetting the debate everywhere. No matter how treacherous the path may be.
So no matter how harsh the penalties are now facing one company, even the regulators know that this is shifting territory. CannTrust, after all, is being given a second chance.
On July 18, 2019, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California served search warrants at 56 illegal cannabis cultivation sites. This operation was spearheaded by 390 law enforcement personnel, whose mission was to combat the ongoing problem of illegal cannabis cultivation sites throughout California.
The raids resulted in:
47,939 marijuana plants confiscated
2,132 pounds of processed cannabis
47 tons of cannabis plants disposed
2 Butane Honey Oil Labs located
The target of the operation was illegal cultivation sites. Individuals or licensed businesses with permits to grow cannabis legally were not affected.
Illegal cultivation is far from just a California problem. For example, if Oregon halted cannabis production today, the state would not experience a shortage as it has a six-year surplus.
The fear for investors and legal growers is that, if some growers turn to the black market to unload excess inventory, federal enforcement will come into play, which will set back the legal cannabis industry to the stone age. Oregon is currently making moves to limit licensure for legal production, but some active licenses may also need to be revoked, which would leave those licensees with vast investment losses. In other words, legalized cannabis’s massive economic market is not without financial problems of its own.
Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It
Several states have legalized recreational cannabis with the intention of reimagining this vast underground market as an above-board business that bolsters the state’s economy via transparent dealings. To date, however, the federal government has refused to budge regarding cannabis’s status as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. This classification puts cannabis on a par with opioids. As such, those states that have legalized recreational cannabis are extremely motivated to keep these businesses on the up and up and not to pique federal interest.
Black Market Vulnerability
One of the tenets of legalizing cannabis is stemming the proliferation of black-market suppliers and minimizing the negative effects that the “war on drugs”has had in minority communities. These positive impetuses have yet to flourish. As a result of the illegal status of cannabis at the federal level, cannabis-legal states are forced to operate as islands.
Generally, taking legally purchased cannabis across state lines – from a legal to an illegal state – is illegal, and this is not only confusing but is also a recipe for complications. This leaves cannabis-legal states vulnerable to black market activity. These pockets of legal recreational cannabis that are popping up around the country loosen the constraints of the cannabis movement while the legality of this movement remains problematic. The results are an environment that’s extremely hospitable to black market activity.
Supply and Demand
The reality is that – due to supply and demand – cannabis costs about half as much in cannabis-legal states as it does in states in which it’s illegal. Black market growers in legal states destabilize the market. Those legit companies which remain above board, pay their taxes and jump through every legal hoop, cannot compete with black market interlopers who eschew such niceties.
The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning.States that have legalized production have inadvertently made it easier for illegal producers to hide in plain sight, and the line between legal and illegal operations can become blurred. This creates new frustrations for law enforcement and naturally cuts into the legal cannabis trade. The situation has left some opponents to legalization demanding new crackdowns – others characterize such suggestions as amounting to a new war on drugs.
No Going Back
Detractors of legalized cannabis claim the somewhat chaotic effects related to the current patchwork approach to legalization are a result of opening the gates to legalization in the first place. However, putting the genie of legalized recreational cannabis back in the bottle simply isn’t feasible for operational, financial and political reasons. With the proliferation of attendant illegal operations, however, it is becoming more and more clear that leveling the playing field – via some form of federal legalization – is inevitable. The current state-by-state solution leaves too much wiggle room for the illegal transport of cannabis from those states with looser restrictions to those states with tighter protocols. If politics is choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, the billion-dollar cannabis conundrum is a great example. The question may no longer be should we legalize cannabis but, instead, how do we legalize cannabis.In other words, we need to find a path forward, and focusing only on the pitfalls that we’ve experienced so far isn’t going to get us where we need to be.
A Tale of Two Choices
The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning. As such, we have an important decision to make. A blanket prohibition of cannabis may no longer be practicable, so we’re left to choose between legal and overt practices across the board or a hodgepodge of semilegal practices with covert ops in tow. Fostering illegal activity is rarely in our nation’s best interests, which leaves legalizing cannabis at the federal level as possibly the most practicable solution.
Protecting Public Health
As more states embrace the legalization of recreational cannabis, public health concerns remain an issue. Many of these illegal cultivators use chemicals that are banned in the United States and do not properly dispose of chemicals or waste products that destroy the environment, contaminate drinking water and have the potential to harm or even kill residents and domestic animals. Not only is this activity harmful, growers often steal electricity and water from surrounding residents.
Cobbling together a pastiche of laws, however, inevitably bolsters black market activity and does nothing to help protect public health. Even the staunchest proponents of legalizing cannabis don’t want minors involved in the equation. Additionally, few debate that unchecked usage is a healthy option. Quasi-legislation at the state level (and on a state-by-state basis), however, provides neither a check nor a balance.
Onward and Upward
The most likely next step for safeguarding public health, for stemming black-market activity, and for generating maximum revenues is toward thoughtful and comprehensive national legalization that comes sooner rather than later. In the meantime, law enforcement should protect the public, legal operations, investors, and the environment from the black market.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Guidepost Solutions or its clients.
While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.
Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.
A Summary Of The Story So Far
CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.
Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.
What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.
But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.
As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.
A Surprise Or Inevitability?
That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.
The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.
And everyone knows it.
Accounting For Past Mistakes
For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.
That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.
The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?
After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.
Where Are The Proceedings?
This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.
There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.
As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.
By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.
But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.
There’s no denying that the cannabis industry is experiencing a boom. While it feels a bit like the wild west, many organizations are riding a wave of (mostly) positive publicity as opportunities increase for cannabis products and distribution.
From a public relations standpoint, relying on this initial excitement, however, is shortsighted at best. As regulations allow for increased competition in many markets such as cannabis dispensaries, manufacturers and distributors, we must find new ways to creatively garner positive attention while staying compliant with regulations.
But what do you do after the initial excitement fades? How do you individualize your company to make it stand out and sustain within the market? For many, the solution is held within a strategic community relations program.
No matter the size or reach of the organization, we encourage many of our clients, especially those in the cannabis industry, to engage with their immediate communities. Not only does this demonstrate that you’re invested in the well-being of your neighbors, but can provide long-term benefits, such as brand loyalty and improved public image.
Here are four reasons why businesses in the cannabis industry should be investing in community relations outreach:
1. Initial Publicity Only Lasts So Long
Like the gold rush, businesses are looking to help themselves to a slice of the cannabis pie. And understandably so. In 2018, the industry earned nearly $10 billion in the U.S. last year, creating 64,389 jobs, according to CNBC. With the newness of the industry comes a lot of excitement and media attention. While this attention is great for those first-to-market trailblazers, as competition increases, the newsworthiness will dwindle.So, what’s the best way to gain awareness without blatantly advertising? The answer is giving back.
For examples of this, look no further than the tech industry. Remember when apps (or websites if you want to go way back) used to be a big deal? In order to stand out in a crowded marketplace you must be different and have a story to tell. Making a meaningful connection through outreach will help you succeed long after the first wave of publicity fades away.
2. Regulations Rule
In many ways, your hands are tied when it comes to advertising or promoting a cannabis business versus a traditional retail product or location. In some states, it’s almost entirely off the table. So, what’s the best way to gain awareness without blatantly advertising? The answer is giving back. Community outreach programs through philanthropic efforts will help build your business, create brand awareness and bring people together. Community relations is a critical part of getting the word out even in the face of strict regulatory guidelines. And the best part – it can be inexpensive to do. As an added bonus, you make friends and create advocates in the process.
3. Combat the Stigma
In some states and communities, cannabis still faces a bad rap. Currently only 33 states have legalized medical cannabis, while 11 states have legalized cannabis recreationally. And even with growing legalization and acceptance, the industry must still combat outdated stigmas and misgivings. By making your business a reputable part of the community you will build trust and loyalty. Take this as an opportunity to educate the community about the facility and meet staff members.
4. Stay in Good Graces
Community relations is a great way to create ambassadors out of community leaders and influencers. Simply put, people are more interested in supporting an organization that supports them in return. Show that you’re invested in your neighbors and ingrained in the success of the local business community. As an added bonus, community involvement will also help boost public image and build the morale of employees. This is important for long-term success of your company as well as employee retention.
No matter what your reason for implementing a community relations initiative, you’ll find it to be a great addition to your public relations strategy.
The best part- community outreach doesn’t have to be extravagant, either. Coat drives, food drives or volunteering time with local events are all great ways to show your support for the community while raising your own profile.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and competition increases, you’ll feel good about setting the bar high as a responsible and thoughtful invested member of your local business community.
Folks from around the country and the world tuned into the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website as they held a public hearing on Friday, May 31. Manufacturers and suppliers asked the FDA to regulate CBD like food or dietary supplements, while the FDA seemed to want more evidence on the safety of CBD products before giving the greenlight.
Background On The Hearing
For the uninitiated, after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law back in December 2018, Scott Gottlieb, now former director of the FDA, issued a statement the same day the Farm Bill passed, clarifying the FDA’s regulatory authority. In the statement, Gottlieb explained that Congress preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and its constituents under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
In April 2019, around the same time he resigned from the FDA, Gottlieb issued another statement, acknowledging the quickly growing industry throughout the country and total lack of federal regulatory guidance. This time around, Gottlieb laid out a handful of steps that the FDA plans on taking to address regulations around hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). Those included scheduling the public hearing for May 31, where written and oral public comments were submitted by stakeholders, sharing “their experiences and challenges with these products [hemp and CBD products], including information and views related to product safety.”
That statement also announced the formation of an internal agency working group to “explore potential pathways for dietary supplements and/or conventional foods containing CBD to be lawfully marketed; including a consideration of what statutory or regulatory changes might be needed and what the impact of such marketing would be on the public health.”
Fast-forward to May 31, the day of the public hearing, and all eyes in the industry focused on what all these stakeholders had to say to the FDA about CBD. The day started off with about two hours of oral comments, each speaker had roughly two minutes to deliver their thoughts.
Industry stakeholders representing cannabis businesses sang much of the same tune, clamoring for wise regulations on safety, testing, banking and interstate commerce, among other standards. NCIA Policy Director Andrew Kline’s comments included running through five major positions of the industry trade organization representing CBD companies. Those included recommending the FDA act quickly in setting up regulations, stressing the massive economic impact of the industry, saying that CBD products are generally safe, clamoring for voluntary, consensus-based standards and informing consumers of any potential risks. “The bottom line is this – an overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds present minimal health and safety concerns,” Kline told the folks at the FDA. “Time is of the essence. Hemp-derived CBD products are in very high consumer demand and the industry is eagerly awaiting FDA’s regulatory framework for these products. We strongly recommend that FDA act quickly to clarify the regulatory environment because there is significant confusion in the market.”
Anna Williams, representing the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), stressed the importance of testing for contaminants and adulterants as well as advocating for national standards on lab testing, instead of the state-by-state network of different standards.
Patients & Public Safety
After industry stakeholders had their chance to speak, the FDA allowed a group of advocacy organizations representing patients time to speak. That included representatives for the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Epilepsy Society, both of which were hesitant to throw their full support behind CBD as medicine. Kevin Chapman with the American Epilepsy Society said he wants to see clear warning labels, testing standards, more clinical trials and more studies before the group is ready to form a position on using CBD as medicine. Keith Fargo with the Alzheimer’s Association supports clinical trials to study it more, but thinks CBD is risky for patients without serious evidence of efficacy. A representative from the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance also echoed similar concerns. They want to see labeling of drug interactions on labels of CBD products.
After those comments, some organizations had the chance to speak followed by comments from retailers and distributors. Patrick Bird, owner of PMB BioTek Consulting, spoke on behalf of AOAC International, where he primarily discussed public safety. He said they want cannabis products to be regulated with food safety in mind, asking for FSMA to apply to hemp products. They want to adequately ensure product safety with things like mandating HACCP plans, recall readiness, saying hemp products should be treated just like food products.
Retailers & Distributors
Peter Matz, representing the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the supermarket industry, said that regulatory ambiguity is a serious issue that needs addressing. “There is mass confusion in the marketplace for the public, suppliers, retailers and state regulators,” says Matz. “Demand for CBD products in human and animal use is growing rapidly. ¼ of American have already tried it. We are fielding questions from companies seeking clarity regarding the current federal regulatory framework.” He added, what many others also mentioned, that the FDA needs to move swiftly to provide a pathway to regulation.
Next on the docket came presentations from state government entities, including state departments of agriculture, followed by healthcare professionals. The state regulators that spoke mentioned a lot about food safety, standards, testing regulations, GMPs and things like that to protect consumer safety. “Currently states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts,” said Pam Miles, representing the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
One interesting aspect on their talks however was telling the FDA just how large their markets have gotten already and how they need guidance on how to regulate markets in their own states. Joseph Reardon, with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said they already have about 600 farmers growing hemp and thousands of processors working with the product in their state. “We urge the FDA to resolve the statutory issues improperly establish a legal pathway for CBD products to enter the market place,” Reardon commented. He also asked that the FDA extend the written comment period from July to August. “We are simply looking for a regulatory framework on the extraction, production and reconstitution of CBD or cannabinoid related products.”
Healthcare & Research
Healthcare providers, and physician testimony also echoed a lot of the same concerns, including the lack of research done, concerns about effects on at-risk populations and concerns about use as ingredients in dietary supplements and food. Some of the presentations also highlighted the room for nefarious activity in an unregulated marketplace. Some went as far as to mention cases where they found CBD vape juices with DXM in it (the active ingredient in cough syrup), CBD products found to contain THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids responsible for drug overdose deaths. Some advocates in the hemp and CBD community have equated these arguments similar to reefer madness.
The major takeaway from this hearing is that everyone wants to see more data. Researchers and healthcare providers want to study the efficacy of CBD used in medicine, regulators want public safety information, patient advocates want to see data about effects on at-risk populations, trade organizations want data to back up label claims and the FDA wants to see just how safe CBD really is.
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.
The Canadian federal government is going where the U.S. (for now) is not: namely allowing provinces to channel federal agricultural funds into commercial cannabis production on the provincial level. The program is called the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (or CAP), which is a $2.2 billion annual initiative designed to support agricultural businesses across the country.
Even more intriguing of course, are other programs that tie into such agricultural subsidies (including government support for exporting product). See Europe for one.
These programs are of course nothing new, including in the United States.
What is new, different and intriguing, is that unlike the United States, for the first time such government funds are being used to support not only the domestic cultivation of cannabis, but its global export. If there ever was the beginning of a “green new deal” then this might be it.
Canadian companies are certainly seeming to benefit from this federal largesse at the production point. For example, in the first weeks of April, CannTrust Holdings Inc. announced that its entire 450,000 square foot, perpetual harvest facility in Pelham, Ontario is fully licensed and will be online by summer 2019. THC BioMed just announced that it received Health Canada’s permission to begin additional production at its flagship location in Kelowna, B.C. And Beleave has just commenced sales of cannabis oil products at licensed facilities in Hamilton, Ontario.
The Rise of Government Funding In a “Publicly Owned” Company Environment
One of the more intriguing impacts of the rise of government funding for the industry comes at a time when the industry itself, certainly coming out of Canada, is facing a bit of a zeitgeist moment.
Sure, the industry has gained legitimacy, and there might be nascent cannabis funds in the UK, Switzerland and Germany, but the entire “public cannabis company” discussion is hitting a bit of a reset at the moment.
It was after all, ostensibly “public” Wayland that just dusted much higher fliers from the stock price perspective on winning the German cultivation bid. In fact, some insiders on the ground have commented that it is precisely because Wayland is not a stock market favorite, rather focused on fundamentals that they got chosen in the first place. Starting with the old-fashioned idea of committing resources and elbow grease to create production on the ground, locally.
There are also firms who are benefitting from the first tax funds that have flowed to promote the hemp industry (those are available from state governments here).
However, it is not just Germany where this discussion is going on in Europe right now. In Spain, there is political discussion about ensuring that the nascent and valuable cannabis industry does not end up in the control of “outsiders.” Namely international firms who have more of an eye on profit than community building. The idea of the cannabis industry as an economic development tool has certainly caught on in Europe (see Greece and Macedonia). And core in that idea is that the euros generated by this still remarkably price-resilient plant, and the products produced from it, should stay local.
For now, and certainly in Canada, federal public funding looks pretty much like a fancy agricultural grant. But in the future as prices drop and the wars over strains and “medical” vs. “recreational” really begin to rage in Europe, the idea of government-funded cannabis cultivation may be an idea whose time has come.
The German automobile industry, for example, did not come from nowhere – and even today receives massive government funding. For now, certainly in Deutschland, that is not the case with cannabis, but things may be changing with the resolution of the first tender bid.
In the future, in other words, as countries across Europe begin to think about posting their own production bids and Germany contemplates additional ones, government funding of the industry and certainly incentives to help its growth will become much more widespread.
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