As we’ve covered previously, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the cannabis industry in the United States in a number of ways. Many states with legal medical and recreational cannabis markets have deemed those cannabis businesses essential, allowing them to remain open during statewide stay-at-home orders. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help small businesses through the economic downturn, directing trillions of dollars to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to administer emergency loans, paycheck protection programs and other financial assistance to small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Enter the hemp and CBD products market. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC from the list of controlled substances, hemp and CBD companies are not exempt from the SBA’s relief efforts.
According to VICE News, The Trump Administration has handed out millions of dollars to companies that sell CBD products. When VICE News looked into some SEC filings, they found more than $4 million in federal loans that have been granted to CBD products companies.
They found three CBD companies that scored big with federal assistance:
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced legislation this week that would allow cannabis businesses to become eligible for federal assistance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill, called the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, would allow cannabis businesses, as well as business that provide services to cannabis businesses, to qualify for federal government relief funding through the Small Business Administration (SBA).
As of now, cannabis businesses and some companies that provide services to cannabis businesses are completely ineligible to receive any SBA funding, largely due to the Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp). The SBA currently does not provide any financial assistance to small businesses “engaged in federally illegal activity,” which includes both the Paycheck Protection Program as well as the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.
Last week, Rep. Blumenauer and more than 30 of his colleagues sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, insisting that cannabis companies become eligible for federal funding. According to an NCIA press release, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a similar letter to Senate leadership earlier this week.
For me, the opioid epidemic was never a theoretical crisis. The mounting lives lost to overdoses weren’t just numbers in news reports to me, but names. A high school lab partner, little league teammates, a cook at my first restaurant job and others in my hometown were lost to the epidemic. By the time I graduated high school, seven people in my life died due to complications arising from opioid use.
What’s not lost on me now, after earning my PhD in plant biochemistry and founding a startup focused on bringing consistency and scientific credibility to the cannabis industry, is how a stigma around medicinal cannabis seems like such a contributing factor in their deaths.
Cannabis, although fully illegal in only eight U.S. states, still qualifies as a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level, legally equivalent to LSD or heroin. Crystal methamphetamine and cocaine as Schedule 2 drugs have lower penalties and even have federally approved medical applications. This is where we’ve failed as a broader scientific community.
The reason is this: Medicinal cannabis produced from the same genetic replicates, but grown in separate locations, or even different seasons, will possess different bioactive compounds. In short, their effect on patients will be different depending on the various bioactive compounds produced by the plant. Prescription medications do not come with that major caveat.
There’s a quality assurance problem, compounded by a lack of science that’s been shackled by the criminalization of cannabis since 1937.
We do know that the primary benefits of cannabis are three-fold: First, there’s pain management, as 28 well conducted randomized clinical trials (RCTs) have documented that cannabinoid agents are effective analgesics for chronic pain. Second, while potentially psychologically addictive, so people may desire the “high” produced by cannabis, THC is not chemically addictive and does not create a biological desire for the drug, much like the craving induced by the absence of, say, cocaine or heroin has on regular users. And finally, patients cannot overdose.
As a scientific community, there are three things we need to start doing today to change the narrative around medicinal cannabis and help bring this safer alternative therapy to more people. We need to provide a larger body of evidence about the benefits. We need to drive increased consistency in cannabis products themselves. And we need to confront stigmas rooted in misinformation. The sooner we can succeed here, the sooner we can hope for a day when we see fewer devastating opioid overdoses and deaths.
I am driven by a vision for a future when people can have access to safe, trusted and consistent cannabis for their medical and recreational uses, and we as a society are able to fully realize the therapeutic benefits of this amazing plant. As scientists, my colleagues and I are committed to doing our part to bring the credibility and advancements that will help this vision become a reality.
Using tools rooted in science–including functional genomics and secondary metabolite pathway expression profiling–cultivators can learn to fully “know” the plants they grow and hone in on producing the same bioactive compounds and in the same ratios that show medicinal promise. Cultivators can learn the genetic effect that their facility has on their genetics and why those genetics lead to a different chemical profile when grown elsewhere. Together, we can identify the driving factors of what makes a variety help with whatever ailment you are trying to treat.
I’m buoyed by data that shows states that have legalized and provided access to recreational cannabis have between 20% and 35% fewer reported opioid deaths, and lower rates of opioid prescriptions. But more needs to be done. I plan to become a more vocal voice, advocate for sound science, consistency in medical cannabis and better access to natural plant-based medicines without the stigma of yesteryear.
The time has come for our policy makers to step up. We cannot afford to just be observers when the cost of remaining on the sideline is measured in lives.
On Wednesday, March 25, the United States Senate approved an estimated $2-trillion stimulus package in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation, formally known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (or the CARES Act), was approved by the Senate 96-0 following days of negotiations. One of the most highly anticipated provisions of the CARES Act, the “recovery rebates” for individuals, will provide a one-time cash payment up to $1,200 per qualifying individual ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return) plus an additional $500 for qualifying children (§6428.2020(a)). The CARES Act, which remains subject to House approval, also prescribes an additional $500 billon in corporate aid, $100 billion to health-care providers, $150 billion to state and local governments and $349 billion in small business loans in an effort to provide continued employment and stabilize the economy. The legislation further provides billions of dollars in debt relief on existing loans.
CARES Act – Paycheck Protection Program
Under the CARES Act, small businesses who participate in the “Paycheck Protection Program” can receive loans to cover payroll expenses, group health care benefits, employee salaries, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities (§1102(F)(i)). To qualify for these small business loans, businesses must employ 500 employees or less, including all full-time and part-time employees (§1102(D)). Eligible recipients must also submit the following as part of their loan application: (i) documentation verifying the number of full-time equivalent employees on payroll and applicable pay rates; (ii) documentation verifying payments on covered mortgage obligations, payments on covered lease obligations, and covered utility payments; and (iii) a certification that the documentation presented is true and the amounts requested will be used to retain employees and make necessary payments (§1106(e)). The CARES Act delegates authority to depository institutions, insured credit unions, institutions of the Farm Credit System and other lenders to provide loans under this program (§1109(b)). The Treasury Department will be tasked with establishing all interest rates, loan maturity dates, and all other necessary terms and conditions. Prior to issuing these loans, lenders will consider whether the business (i) was in operation as of February 15, 2020, (ii) had employees for whom the business paid salaries and payroll, or (iii) aid independent contractors as reported on a Form 1099-MISC (§1102(F)(ii)(II)).
What Does This Mean for Cannabis Businesses?
Due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis businesses are not eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program intended to keep “small businesses” afloat during the current economic crisis. Because federal law still prohibits banks from supporting marijuana businesses, financial institutions remain hesitant to service the industry, as anti-money laundering concerns and Bank Secrecy Act requirements (31 U.S.C. 5311 et seq.) are ever-present. As a result, even if cannabis businesses technically qualify to receive federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program, they will face an uphill battle in actually obtaining such loans.
Cannabis Businesses Are Also Precluded from “Disaster” Assistance
Moreover, the conflict between state and federal law continues to prevent cannabis business from receiving assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 6201). In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the SBA revised its “Disaster Loan” process to provide low-interest “Disaster Loans” to eligible small businesses. To qualify for these loans, a state must submit documented business losses for at least five businesses per county. The problem, however, is that the SBA still refuses to assist state-legal cannabis businesses in equal need of small business loans. Specifically, in a 2018 Policy Notice, the SBA reaffirmed that cannabis businesses – and even some non “plant-touching” firms who service the cannabis industry – cannot receive aid in the form of federally backed loans, as “financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.” The 2018 Policy Notice clarified that the following business are ineligible to receive SBA loans:
(a) “Direct Marijuana Business” — a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to personal use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.
(b) “Indirect Marijuana Business” — a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to support the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples include businesses that provide testing services, or sell grow lights or hydroponic equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses. In addition, businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products that may be used in connection with marijuana are ineligible if the products are primarily intended or designed for such use or if the business markets the products for such use.
More recently, the SBA provided further clarification that cannabis businesses are not entitled to receive a cut of the federal dollars being appropriated for disaster relief because of the CSA’s continued prohibition of the sale and distribution of cannabis. Last week, the SBA reiterated that:
“With the exception of businesses that produce or sell hemp and hemp-derived products [federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill], marijuana related businesses are not eligible for SBA-funded services.” (@SBAPacificNW)
Consequently, because of the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under federal law, cannabis businesses will not be entitled to receive Disaster Loans from the SBA, regardless of whether they qualify as a struggling small business.
Resolving the Issue
While the federal government has been considering legislation, such as SAFE Banking and the STATES Act, to create a more rational federal cannabis policy, neither of these bills are likely to pass any time soon given the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the day, until Congress passes some form of federal cannabis legalization, these small businesses will remain plagued by the inability to receive financial assistance, as evinced by the Paycheck Protection Program.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of over 1000 cannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant. CBD was identified as an isolate from Minnesota Hemp in the 1930s (Gururajan, 2016). Unlike many other cannabinoids and compounds found in cannabis flower, CBD is not adversely psychoactive. CBD, upon its discovery entered the field of vision for US regulators. There are two routes of regulation for the FDA under the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act – as a drug and as a food (Oconnor, 2018). The FDA has jurisdiction over drugs in a broad sense from border to border, intra and interstate. Their jurisdiction over food, however, only extends to food that crosses interstate lines. CBD therefore, because of potential food uses and medicinal uses, darkens what is already a muddy regulatory landscape.
CBD as a drug
Under the FD&C Act, a drug is defined as “any product, including a cannabis product (hemp or otherwise), that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim (Mayol, 2019). In 1995, Cannabidiol was identified as a possible solution to help combat epilepsy. Since 1995, studies have been performed to evaluate the effectiveness of CBD to treat epilepsy and lessen the frequency and severity of seizures. In 2018, the FDA approved the first cannabidiol drug, brand named Epidiolex (White, 2019). Drug approvals under the FDA jurisdiction require specific approval before they can be launched into market. That is, while Epidiolex has a specific approval, this approval does not lead to implicit approval of similar CBD drugs that treat other illnesses.
Bottom line: CBD is a recognized drug for use to treat epilepsy. Future use as a drug needs to be approved by the FDA.
CBD as an ingredient
What is seemingly the easiest route to market for CBD derived products is increasingly complicated. For ingredients, the easiest road to allowance in food is to be identified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). GRAS status is granted to ingredients that have been studied and deemed safe for human consumption by FDA-recognized experts. CBD, to date, is not GRAS. Without GRAS status, the FDA has similar mandates to CBD as a drug above. Ingredients must gain premarket approval prior to being offered for sale in interstate commerce.
Bottom line: CBD is not a recognized ingredient in food – it is neither premarket approved by the FDA nor accepted as generally safe for human consumption.
CBD product offerings continue to rise, ranging from CBD infused pillows to suppositories. While products containing CBD have increased in popularity, the FDA has stood at a distance until recently. The result of this lack of enforced policy has led to a scenario where upwards of 70% of all CBD products available online are mislabeled (Caroon, 2018).
This lack of enforcement and flexing of authority seems to be a thing of the past, however. In late November, the FDA sent a warning letter to 15 facilities that had engaged in interstate commerce with a CBD product. These warnings stemmed largely from non-compliant claims of health benefits, CBD use as a dietary supplement, and CBD used in food products offered for sale across state lines.
Until CBD is either identified as GRAS or a specific product gets preapproval, the current issues with CBD in food will remain. In the meantime, manufacturers must be aware of their ingredients, their claims, and the ramifications these may have on the FDA jurisdiction over their products.
Cohen, P., & Sharfstein, J. (2019). The opportunity of CBD — reforming the law. The New England Journal of Medicine, 381(4), 297-299.
Corroon, J., & Kight, R. (2018). Regulatory status of cannabidiol in the united states: A perspective. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 3(1), 190-194. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.neu.edu/10.1089/can.2018.0030
Gururajan, A., & Malone, D. (2016). Does cannabidiol have a role in the treatment of schizophrenia? Schizophrenia Research, 176(2-3), 281-290.
O’Connor, S. and Lietzan, E. (2018). The surprising reach of FDA regulation of cannabis, even after descheduling. American University Law Review 68, 823.
Mayal, S. and Throckmorton, D. (2019). FDA Role in Regulation of Cannabis Products. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/media/128156/download
White, C. (2019). A Review of Human Studies Assessing Cannabidiol’s (CBD) Therapeutic Actions and Potential. Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 59(7), 923-934.
According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.
“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”
A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.
The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.
“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.
According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.
“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”
On Tuesday, October 1, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) announced the release of their whitepaper, which provides guidance to the federal government on how cannabis could be regulated at the federal level. “The paper highlights the need to have a clearly defined regulatory approach and structure prepared as the nation moves closer to making cannabis legal for adults, and identifies the existing agencies best suited to regulate the wide variety of cannabis products available in state-regulated legal cannabis markets,” according to a press release.
Importantly, Kline also discussed the white paper and its four-lane approach to regulating cannabis at the federal level. “We believe rescheduling is bad public policy,” Kline mentioned during his keynote. Their stance is that cannabis should be rescheduled and regulated in a couple of different approaches. “We believe cannabis should be a public health issue and the FDA and the Department of Treasury should regulate cannabis much like they do alcohol.” Kline went into great depth later in the talk, discussing the four-lane plan for regulation, a state of affairs for cannabis bills in Congress and how members of the cannabis industry can get involved. “Right now, there is an unsustainable federalism clash, with cannabis as an illegal schedule I narcotic, while 33 states have legalized it, which leaves a lot of confusion in the marketplace and little protections for consumers; and we need to fix it.”
Lane 1 refers to pharmaceutical drugs, such as Epidiolex, where cannabis drugs can go through the new drug approval process, giving the FDA ultimate regulatory authority in this area. Lane 2 applies to ingested, inhaled or topically applied products with THC. This generally applies to all products containing THC. This lane gives regulatory authority to the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), essentially regulating cannabis like alcohol or cigarettes. Lane 3 is for ingested and inhaled products with less than 0.3% THC. These would be regulated like dietary supplements and food ingredients, giving the FDA regulatory oversight here as well. Lane 4 applies only to topical products with less than 0.3% THC, regulating them much like the FDA does with cosmetic products.
The above summary is not thorough or detailed. We highly encourage our readers to read the full whitepaper to understand how cannabis could be regulated at the federal level and how the NCIA thinks the government should do so.
“As a country, we are starting to move past whether we should end cannabis prohibition, and need to put serious consideration into how we do that and what a post-legalization world looks like in terms of federal regulatory policy,” says Aaron Smith, executive director at NCIA, in a press release. “The recommendations outlined in this report build on successful methodologies by assigning regulatory duties to existing agencies, while avoiding restrictions that would not be appropriate for cannabis as well as some of the missteps that have occurred with other products. We look forward to working with Congress to overturn our outdated federal marijuana laws and begin implementing this structure to help ensure public safety and displace the illicit cannabis market.”
Under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Controlled Substance Act (CSA), drugs are classified into five distinct schedules depending upon their acceptable medical use and their overall potential for abuse or dependency. The DEA currently lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which the CSA defines as drugs having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It appears, however, that the DEA may soon reconsider its current Schedule I classification of cannabis.
This article considers how the DEA’s potential reclassification of cannabis potentially could affect Georgia’s medical cannabis industry. Specifically, the article discusses: (1) how Georgia medical cannabis distributors would operate within this new regulatory framework; (2) how this change would affect registered Georgia patients who are either currently purchasing medical cannabis or are planning to do so; and (3) whether this reclassification would cause big pharmaceutical companies to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market, and if so, how.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Regulatory Framework of Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Industry
On April 2, 2019, Georgia became the 34th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for medicinal use when the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 324 (“HB 324”), which recently took effect on Monday, July 1, 2019. In Georgia, medical cannabis is defined as a “low-THC oil” that contains 5% or less of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that causes a “high.”
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the regulatory framework of Georgia’s medical cannabis industry under HB 324 would likely be affected. For instance, depending on how the DEA elects to reclassify cannabis, low-THC oil products manufactured and sold in Georgia could become subject to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) costly, complicated and time-consuming drug approval process. Then, any low THC oil products that the FDA approves will be subject to federally mandated quality, efficacy and potency standards for FDA-approved drugs. Also, any federal standards that stem from the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis will trump any conflicting provisions in HB 324 or any other conflicting rules, regulations or procedures established by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission (GAMCC), the seven member state agency responsible for promulgating and implementing the state-based rules, regulations and procedures necessary to produce and distribute low-THC oil in Georgia, and the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy (Pharmacy Board). However, even if the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the following state regulatory framework established by HB 324 will remain unaffected:
The GAMCC will likely continue to oversee the state’s medical cannabis industry.
The following two different types of dispensary licenses issued under the legislation will still likely remain: retail outlets (issued by the GAMCC) and pharmacies (issued by the Pharmacy Board).
Licensed dispensaries will still likely not be located within a 1,000-foot radius of a school or church, and licensed production facilities will still not be located within a 3,000-foot radius of a school or church.
Pharmacists who dispense low-THC oil will still likely have to review each registered patient’s information on the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database to confirm that they have been diagnosed with one or more of the 17 approved conditions and diseases. The legislation does not require retail outlet dispensaries to review patient information on the PDMP database or employ a pharmacist to dispense the drug.
Registered patients will still likely be prohibited from vaping low-THC oil or inhaling it by any other electronic means. The legislation does not expressly prohibit the use of other, non-electronic delivery methods of low THC oil such as pills or nasal spray.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be subject to an “on-demand” inspection when requested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the GAMCC, the four-member Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee (MCCOC), or local law enforcement. The GAMCC and the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency (GDNA) will also still likely be able to conduct one, annual inspection of dispensary locations. And, upon request, licensed dispensaries will still likely be required to immediately provide a sample of their low-THC oil for laboratory testing to the GBI, GAMCC, MCCOC, GDNA or local law enforcement.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production facilities) will still likely be required to utilize a GAMCC-approved seed-to-sale tracking software.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be prohibited from advertising or marketing their low-THC oil products to registered patients or the public. However, they will still likely be allowed to provide information about their products directly to physicians, and upon request, physicians will still likely be allowed to furnish the names of licensed dispensaries (and licensed production companies) to registered patients or their caregivers.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Availability of Low THC Oil
To date, approximately 9,500 Georgians are registered with the state’s Low-THC Registry, which allows them to purchase low-THC oil from licensed dispensaries. Since the legislation’s passage, the number of registered patients has increased significantly and continues to steadily rise. If the DEA reclassifies marijuana, this patient number will likely increase at an even faster rate because the public will likely perceive reclassification as an acknowledgement by the federal government that marijuana possesses health and medicinal benefits. If that occurs, statewide demand for low THC oil could quickly outstrip the supply.
Under HB 324, the GAMCC is tasked with ensuring that the state has a sufficient number of retail outlet dispensaries across the state to meet patient demand but is limited to issuing only six production licenses. As the number of registered patients continues to grow, the GAMCC may be forced to recommend amendments to the statute allowing it to issue additional production licenses to increase the state’s supply of low THC oil, and depending on how many additional patients are added to the state’s Low-THC Registry, the GAMCC may also have to issue additional dispensary licenses to keep up with patient demand by relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries.
Thus, the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis likely would affect the amount of low THC oil available to registered patients in Georgia.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Cause Large Pharmaceutical Companies to Enter Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Market
Large pharmaceutical companies typically manufacture, market, sell and ship their products on a national and international scale. Given cannabis’ current status as a Schedule I drug under the CSA, these companies have largely steered clear of the burgeoning medical marijuana industry because of the inherent risk of violating federal law. If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, that risk will be diminished greatly, and the companies therefore will likely decide to enter the market by acquiring existing medical marijuana companies with established national or state-level medical cannabis brands.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways.Depending on how the DEA reclassifies cannabis, low-THC oil in Georgia could be subject to stringent federal standards, including the FDA’s complex and expensive drug approval process. Georgia medical cannabis companies will likely not be accustomed to complying with such federal regulations. Large pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, are very accustomed to dealing with the federal government, including FDA drug approval. So, if the DEA reclassifies marijuana, pharmaceutical companies will likely view reclassification as a tremendous opportunity to enter the Georgia market by leveraging their experience and institutional knowledge dealing with federal law to acquire or partner with a licensed Georgia cannabis company that has an established brand of low -HC oil.
Entering Georgia’s medical cannabis market won’t be easy, however, because HB 324 prohibits licensees from transferring their licenses for five years and requires that the original licensee be a Georgia business. But, HB 324 does not prohibit them from selling their businesses, which necessarily includes any licenses the business owns. Purchasing a licensed Georgia medical cannabis company requires payment of a production license business transfer fee. The fee for the first sale of a business with a Class 1 production license is $100,000 and the fee for a Class 2 license is $12,500. The fee for the second sale is $150,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $62,500 for a Class 2 license. The fee for the third and fourth sales is $200,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $112,500 for a Class 2 license.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways. Specifically, depending on how the drug is reclassified, the regulatory framework for medical cannabis companies likely will change to include both state and federal requirements, potentially including the FDA’s complex drug approval process. Also, the amount of low-THC oil available for registered patients to purchase likely will be diminished precipitating the need for the GAMCC to modify the statute to allow for issuing additional production licenses and relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries. Finally, large pharmaceutical companies likely will attempt to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market by purchasing existing, licensed Georgia companies that have established low-THC oil brands.
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.
At this point in the end of prohibition, not even the United Nations (UN) or the World Health Organization (WHO) are immune to the great green wave sweeping the planet. Yet, lest anyone get too optimistic about developments at the nose bleed level of international drug reform, the newest round of headlines regarding “WHO cannabis reform” is hardly cause for celebration.
Yet as reported at the end of January, such decisions appear to be headed for a tortoise speed approvals track. Yes, it appears that CBD will probably be descheduled, and from both the hemp and cannabis perspective. That should be good news to many who are caught in a raft of international standards that are confusing and all over the place on a country-by-country level. However, this will not be much of a boon to the industry in Europe, in particular, where the discussion is less over CBD but the source of it, and how distillates are used. From this perspective, the draft WHO documents will make no difference, except perhaps to speed the acceptance of CBD, and create clearer regulations around it.
On the THC front, the WHO appears to do nothing more than move cannabis squarely into international Schedule I territory. More interesting of course, is the intent of international regulators to keep cannabis very much in uncertain status while moving “pharmacized” versions of the same into Schedule III designation.
What Does The Opinion of The WHO Really Mean?
What this means is also still unclear except that those who want to sell to regulated medical and nonmedical markets have to get their products (whatever those are) registered as medicine or a legitimate consumer product in every jurisdiction and eventually at a regional level (see Europe). That is clearly underway right now by both the big Canadian and emerging Israeli entities in the market as well as savvy European players in both verticals. That said, it is also a game that is about to create a very interesting market for those who are able to produce cheap, but high-grade oils in particular.
What Does This Mean For The Future Of Flower?
On the medical front, Germany became the third country in the world to consider reimbursing flower via national healthcare. Of the three who have tried it to date so far (and it is unclear what Poland will do at this point longer term), Israel is inching away and Holland nixed the entire cannabis covered by insurance conversation at the same time Germany took it on. Where that plays out across Europe will be interesting, especially as the cost of production and end retail cost continues to drop. And doctor education includes information about “whole plant” vs. pre-prescribed “dosing” where the patient has no control. The reality in the room in Europe right now is that this drug is being used to treat people with drug resistant conditions. Dosing dramas in other words, will be in the room here for some time to come as they have in no other jurisdiction.
Beyond dosing and control issues that have as much to do with doctors as overall reform, flower is still controversial for other reasons. One, it is currently still being imported into Europe from highly remote and expensive import destinations. That will probably change this year because of both the cultivation bid and Israel’s aggressive move into the middle of the fray as well as widely expected ex-im changes that will allow imports from countries throughout Europe. However, in the meantime, this is one of the reasons that flower is so unpopular right now at the policy and insurance level. The other is that pharmacists in Germany are allowed to treat the flower as a drug that must be processed. In this case, that means that they are adding a significant surcharge, per gram, to flower because they grind it before they give it to patients.
How long this loophole will exist is unclear. However, what is also very clear is that oils in particular, will play a larger and larger role in most medical markets. Read, in other words, “pharmaceutical products.”
For this reason, the WHO recommendations, for one, are actually responding to unfolding realities on the ground, not leading or setting them.
Setting A Longer-Term Date For Widespread Recreational Reform
This conservative stance from the WHO also means, however, that in the longer run, individual country “recreational reform” particularly in places like Europe, will be on a slower than so far expected track. There are no countries in the EU who are willing to step too far ahead of the UN in general. That includes Luxembourg, which so far has made the boldest predictions about its intentions on the recreational front of any EU member. However, what this also may signal is that the UN will follow the lead set by Luxembourg. Even so, this legitimately puts a marker in the ground that at least Europe’s recreational picture is at least five years off.
In the meantime, the WHO recommendations begin to set international precedent and potentially the beginnings of guidelines around a global trade that has already challenged the UN to change its own regulations. In turn, expect these regulations to guide and help set national policy outside a few outliers (see Canada, Uruguay and potentially New Zealand) globally.
Bottom line, in other words? The latest news from the UN is not “bad” but clearly seems to say that cannabis reform is a battle that is still years in the making. That said, from the glass is half full perspective, it appears, finally, there might be the beginning of a light at the end of the international tunnel of prohibition.
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