On December 20, 2018, Former President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act, stripped the DEA’s authority from hemp and gave states the ability to regulate hemp markets of their own, with approval from the USDA.
When that Farm Bill became law, it paved the way for state-sanctioned hemp and CBD product markets and it seemed as if the floodgates were opening for legal CBD, but some caveats and gray areas remained. The same day the Farm Bill became law, the FDA released a statement asserting their authority, threatening enforcement actions for things like unsubstantiated drug marketing claims.
Last week, the FDA published a statement from Janet Woodcock, M.D., principal deputy commissioner, that says, to paraphrase, they’ve given up. Industry stakeholders have long agreed that the food and dietary supplements regulatory framework is adequate for CBD products, citing minimal public health risk and a pre-existing framework that CBD could fit into easily. “The FDA’s existing foods and dietary supplement authorities provide only limited tools for managing many of the risks associated with CBD products,” says Dr. Woodcock. “Under the law, any substance, including CBD, must meet specific safety standards to be lawfully marketed as a dietary supplement or food additive.”
The reasoning behind the agency’s unwillingness to regulate it as a dietary supplement is because of safety concerns, like potential liver damage, possible drug interactions and reproductive harm. Scientific data available to the FDA shows that they cannot say that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). “Today we are announcing that after careful review, the FDA has concluded that a new regulatory pathway for CBD is needed that balances individuals’ desire for access to CBD products with the regulatory oversight needed to manage risks,” says Dr. Woodcock. “The agency is prepared to work with Congress on this matter.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a Final Rule (FR) on hemp testing that went into effect on 22nd March 2021. Consequently, all hemp testing laboratories must familiarize themselves with what is stipulated in the FR and do all that is required to comply.
The 2014 Farm Bill put to an end to years of hemp prohibition, at least to some extent. It also paved the way for the 2018 Farm Bill that brought hemp at par with other agricultural crops. States, through their departments of agriculture and institutions of higher learning, were allowed to cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes, under what was called the hemp pilot programs. Some states also allowed individuals to cultivate hemp to investigate the economic and agronomic viability of the crop. This increased the acreage of industrial hemp from zero to about 90,000 by 2018 when the Agricultural Act that legalized hemp was passed. Some of the states that participated in this program included Colorado, Kentucky, Montana, and Oregon.
As expected of a new project, some challenges cropped up, including:
Inconsistency in the quality of hemp produced for research
Varying hemp laws between states
Maintaining regular supplies of inputs such as seeds and pest control
Lack of appropriate knowledge and technology
The 2018 Farm Bill addressed some of these challenges through the Hemp Farming Act that proposed to remove hemp from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp, in this case, refers to cannabis sativa that contains less than 0.3% THC by “dry weight.” Proposals in the hemp act were incorporated into the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill and it became law in December 2018, thus making hemp legal at the federal level.
Unlike other agricultural commodities, hemp is a highly regulated crop because of its close association with cannabis which is still under Schedule 1 controlled substances. Once hemp exceeds the 0.3% THC threshold, it becomes classified as cannabis and is, therefore, governed under a different set of regulations.
The next step after the legalization of hemp was to roll out a nationwide hemp cultivation and distribution program. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was instructed to develop a national framework to regulate the production of hemp in the U.S. An Interim Final Rule (IFR) was published in October 2019 to set the ball rolling. A final rule was published as an improvement of the IFR in January 2021. The Final Rule was created based on public comments received during the period as well as direct lessons learned in the 2020 growing season. The Final Rule took effect on 22nd March, 2021.
The USDA requires that all hemp be tested by a third-party laboratory to ensure that quality is maintained and that the THC threshold is not exceeded. The Final Rule made significant changes tothe USDA’s hemp testing rules that will affect how laboratories carry out their operations. While the guidelines were issued on January 15, 2021, they went into effect on March 22 of the same year. If you are a hemp-testing laboratory, here are the most important changes that you should brace for.
Nine Changes Hemp Testing Labs Must Comply With
Changes in sampling
Previously, samples to be tested were restricted to the top third portion of the hemp plant. With the Final Rule, samples can be taken anywhere from 5-8 inches from the main stem (including the leaves and flowers). This provision offers greater flexibility and reduces the chances of “hot” hemp.
Laboratories shall use specific testing methods
According to the Final Rule, hemp-testing laboratories must use reliable methods to test for THC concentration. This includes methods such as post-decarboxylation; they take into consideration the conversion of THCA to THC after decarboxylation. Currently, methods that meet these requirements include gas chromatography and liquid chromatography.
The USDA also expects that laboratories demonstrate consistent testing reliability and validity. The test methods used must have high specificity for THC and other tested compounds.
Negligence limit raised to 1% THC
Negligence limit refers to the extra wiggle room that is advanced to hemp farmers in regards to THC testing. In the IFR, hemp that tested above 0.3% THC but lower than 0.5% was considered negligence and not a violation of federal laws. This limit for negligence has now been pushed from 0.5% to 1%. As much as the Final Rule has maintained the THC limit for hemp at 0.3%, growers now have a wider margin of error to work with.
For hemp-testing laboratories, all samples that test above 0.3% THC are still considered hot hemp and must be destroyed or remediated. However, samples testing below 1% THC are considered a negligent violation and not a criminal offense.
All hemp testing laboratories need to be DEA registered
The Final Rule made it mandatory for all hemp-testing laboratories to be registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Getting this registration is time intensive and the number of registered laboratories is few. With this in mind, the USDA had extended the registration deadline to the last day of 2022. After the expiry of this period, laboratories that are not registered with the DEA will be barred from conducting hemp testing.
Laboratories to calculate Measure of Uncertainty (MU)
With the Final Rule, laboratories are expected to calculate and include the MU when reporting test results. The Guide to the Expression of Uncertainty in Measurement (GUM) defines MU as “a parameter, associated with the result of a measurement, which characterizes the dispersion of the values that could reasonably be attributed to the measurand.”
While there is no upper or lower limit for the MU, it is controlled using performance standards such as AOAC Standard Method Performance Requirements. Organizations such as ISO and Eurachem also provide guidelines for calculating MU. Hemp testing laboratories can refer to those guidelines as well.
Adherence to the ISO 17025 standards
While this is not an enforceable rule, the USDA strongly recommends all hemp testing laboratories be ISO 17025 compliant.
Testing laboratories must have an internal SOP for testing and retesting hemp. This SOP should be available upon request by state sampling agents or other responsible agents. Laboratory managers should ensure that all staff members follow the SOPs.
Reporting of THC
Once a laboratory has completed the test, whether failed or passed, they should share the results with all stakeholders:
The licensed producer
The appropriate State Department of Agriculture or Tribe
The USDA using AMS Form 22.
The THC should be reported on a “dry weight” basis.
Remediating and retestingof hot hemp
Once a laboratory finds a sample that has tested above 0.3% THC, it has to flag it as “hot” hemp. Previously, all hot hemp had to be destroyed but with the FR, parts of the hemp (excluding the flowers) can be salvaged.
The licensed producers (LP) are required to shred the hemp into biomass and send a sample back to the laboratory for retesting. The laboratory shall use the same procedure to retest the biomass and report the results back to the LP and the USDA.
The hemp final rule took full effect on the last day of 2021. The only extended deadline is the one requiring that all hemp-testing laboratories be registered with the DEA that still has a few more months to go.
Fast Track Your Laboratory’s Preparedness with a LIMS
Becoming compliant with USDA’s hemp testing rules can be quite challenging for a laboratory simply because there’s too much to keep up with. A laboratory must monitor samples, analyze and report test results, and at the same time maintain internal quality protocols.
Fortunately, digitization can help streamline processes and accelerate the preparedness of laboratories for the new federal rules. A cloud-based Laboratory Management Information System (LIMS) takes the hard work out of compliance by keeping track of compliance processes seamlessly and in real-time.
A LIMS enables laboratories to:
Track samples through their lifecycle
Automatically share results with stakeholders
Flag hot hemp samples
Generate certificates of analysis (COAs) in prescribed formats
Meet regulatory compliances
Manage SOPs, staff training, and QA/QC protocols
Hemp that tests above the 0.3% THC mark is considered cannabis and is therefore illegal under federal law. Consequently, hemp testing is a highly sensitive process that is strictly regulated. Hemp-testing laboratories must optimize their processes to ensure efficiency at all times and assure the validity of their test results. This can be made possible with a LIMS.
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a hot area of investment right now for the USDA, holding the promise of improved efficiencies and productivity for indoor growing operations. The cannabis industry, long accustomed to indoor growing has emerged as a spearhead in CEA innovation.
The Resource Innovation Institute has been supporting cannabis enterprises as a non-profit entity since 2016, providing a benchmarking platform called Power Score to help cannabis cultivators be more efficient with resources in their growing practices. Recently, RII submitted a proposal to the USDA to bring best practices from the cannabis industry to other CEA crop producers. They have also recently been responding to the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, providing comments to frame an energy and environmental policy framework for future federal regulation.
We interviewed Derek Smith, executive director of Resource Innovation Institute (RII). Derek engages RII’s advisory bodies, including the Strategic Advisory Council and Technical Advisory Council Leadership Committees and develops global partnerships and oversees the organization’s policy work. Prior to RII, Derek was CEO of Clean Energy Works and policy advisor to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Aaron Green: What are RII’s plans for the USDA? I understand you’ve also been working on the CAOA recently?
Derek Smith: We’ve been working in cannabis for five years, publishing best practices and capturing data to inform governments and utilities on how much energy is being used. Our mission is to help producers become more efficient in their use of resources. In addition to informing policies that support producers, we also engage utilities to help them evaluate efficient technologies, so they can put incentives on them and so they can help buy down the cost for cannabis producers to install more efficient technologies.
We submitted a proposal to the USDA, saying we’ve been doing all that in cannabis. This was under the banner of a Conservation Innovation Grant, which is an innovation funding mechanism from the USDA. They specifically wanted something related to indoor agriculture and energy and water efficiency. So, we essentially said, we’ll give you a three-year project that will basically be the blueprint for the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry to transform itself toward a more sustainable production path. This applies to both the urban vertical farms growing leafy greens, as well as the growing greenhouse sector that is producing a range of crops, from tomatoes, to berries, to leafy greens to mushrooms, hemp, etc.
We’re essentially taking the Power Score benchmarking platform that we’ve been serving cannabis producers with to help them understand how competitive they are relative to the rest of the data set that we have on energy use and on water use and opening that platform so that more producers of other types of crops can use it. It also feeds into their Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) reporting needs.
We’re going to write a series of best practices guidance for CEA producers, covering a number of topics: facility design and construction, lighting, HVAC, irrigation and water reuse, controls and automation. This will all be very similar to what we’ve done in cannabis. These best practices guides are peer reviewed by subject matter experts throughout the supply chain. A lot of the supply chain in cannabis is the same in CEA. So, we’re bringing them all together to give this kind of good guidance to the producer community.
Green: You started with cannabis and created these white papers. Now you’re branching out into the larger CEA space?
Smith: Exactly. The federal government is literally funding us to develop a green building rating system like LEED, or like the Living Building Challenge, but for the CEA industry for indoor agriculture. The cannabis industry can leverage this federal investment and basically ride right alongside of it so that we can create a “LEED for weed” type of certification system.
That’s one of the main features in our comments to the CAOA when they asked, “what else should we be thinking about on any number of topics as it relates to federal cannabis regulations?” We proposed an energy and environment policy framework for federal cannabis regulation. We did that in partnership with a group called the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Education and Regulation (CPEAR). We just held a webinar two weeks ago. Hawthorne Gardening Company was featured on there as well. They’re very supportive of the federal government playing a “carrots rather than sticks” role as it relates to cannabis energy and environmental policy issues.
That’s essentially our platform at the federal level. The stuff that the USDA is funding us to do will come back and benefit the cannabis industry, because we’ll have this broader set of best practices guidance, data, etc. And then we’ll be able to leverage the federal investment into a certification system for the cannabis industry.
Green: The specific comments you made to the CAOA were primarily related to this energy efficiency certification system work you’ve been doing?
Smith: Yes. It’s more resource efficiency – it’s broader than just energy efficiency. Well, it was three things. So, I’ll just unpack this quickly. One, is learn from the states that have already initiated some form of regulation or support on helping producers be more efficient. Massachusetts is one example. They put lighting requirements on the industry that don’t explicitly mandate LEDs, but it comes close to that. California passed an energy code that will take effect on January 1 of 2023, that also has lighting requirements.
Green: Is this applied to all greenhouse growers?
Smith: Yes, at a certain size and level of energy usage. In California, it’s the first market where their Title 24 regulations apply not just to cannabis, but to all horticultural operations. Yes. So that’s what we’re seeing is that cannabis is sort of the tip of the spear for the way governments are thinking about policy for indoor agriculture more broadly. We’re trying to get them to focus more on having the federal government play a supportive role. The states are doing the regulation, the federal government can be more focused on carrots, not sticks, right?
So, back to the list of three things. Number one is learn from the states. Don’t add regulatory stuff, just learn what’s going on, and then decide about how to act. Number two is recognizing the need for data. So, supporting state requirements on energy and water reporting like Massachusetts, Illinois, California – a lot of states have either enacted reporting requirements, so the producers must tell the state how much energy and water they’re using and they’re using the Power Score benchmarking platform, which has a compliance function for free to do that reporting. Then what we’re doing is helping everybody understand what the aggregate data is telling us. We protect the producer’s confidentiality, and we’re building this valuable data set that’ll inform the market about what is the most efficient path going forward.
Then the third thing is focused on carrots, not sticks. For example, support the development of a certification system that recognizes leadership, that’s based on a market driven voluntary action by a producer where they say, “I’ll be transparent with my data, because I’d like to be showcased as a leader and get recognition for the good work I’ve done to create an efficient operation.” Then there’s valuation through the real estate transaction as well because you even have a plaque on your building that says this is certified to this agricultural standard.
That’s all the vision that we’re laying out, and we’re looking for partnerships at the MSO level to join in and be recognized and get in the queue as leaders for the investments they’ve made in efficiency.
Green: Great, thank you Derek. That concludes the interview.
As the legality and availability of hemp and non-hemp cannabis products continues to grow, having strong, recognizable brands will become increasingly important in order to stand out from the competition. Unfortunately, strong brands invite knock-offs and can require aggressive policing. Registering your trademarks makes policing much easier, but registration of marks used to sell hemp and non-hemp cannabis products requires strategy and forethought.
Trademark rights flow from use, so a registration is not required for enforcement. However, “common law” rights based on use alone must be proven in each instance, and you must show that your use of the mark has been sufficient such that consumers recognize and associate it with your goods or services. This can be difficult, expensive and time consuming. Also, common law rights are territorially limited. Even if you can prove such rights in Oregon (for example), you may have no right to prevent use of your mark in other states. State trademark registrations are similarly limited, but are presently all that is available for marks used exclusively to sell non-hemp cannabis products.
By contrast, a federal trademark registration provides the registrant a nationwide, exclusive and presumed right to use the mark in association with the designated goods and services. In addition, counterfeit use of a federally registered trademark can lead to statutory damages. That is, you don’t have to prove an amount of harm—a court may simply award damages based on statute. Yet another benefit is the ability to file based on an “intent to use.” You can thereby reserve a mark nationwide for up to three years before you must show use. Federal registration is available for marks used to sell hemp products, but with some strict limitations as discussed below.
Use in Commerce Requirement
Federal registrations are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the Office) once an application is approved and use in commerce is demonstrated. To satisfy the “use in commerce” requirement, an applicant must show that a mark is being used in association with the sale of goods or services that are legal to trade under federal law. Sale of products not legal under federal law simply does not count to establish trademark use for purposes of federal registration. This is where the vast majority of federal trademark applications for use with cannabis products get rejected. A search of the federal registry shows that, of over 8000 trademark applications for products containing cannabis extracts, only about 1,300 have resulted in registrations. But these 1,300 illustrate that there is a path to success.
The Office traditionally rejected all applications for use with products containing any cannabis extracts under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill, created an exception to the CSA for hemp, defined therein as cannabis extracts containing < 0.3% THC by dry weight. Based on this, the Office began allowing applications provided they designate only goods having 0.3% THC content or less. But even that limitation isn’t sufficient for some types of goods.
Unless specifically disclaimed, the Office will assume the presence of CBD in products containing cannabis extracts, regardless of THC quantity. On that basis it will reject applications for hemp products that are ingestible (food, drinks, nutritional supplements, etc.), or that claim a medical or therapeutic purpose, under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The FDCA requires Federal Drug Administration (FDA) endorsement to add “drugs” to such products, the FDA classifies CBD as a “drug,” and the FDA has authorized only a few products that include CBD. Thus, an allowable good that is ingestible or therapeutic must not only contain the low THC disclaimer, but must also state an absence of CBD. Notably, the Office has not been rejecting products on the basis that they contain CBG (cannabigerol) or other naturally occurring non-THC, non-drug cannabinoids.
Are the Goods Sold Really Allowable?
Of course this scheme of word-smithing designations to obtain allowance of federal trademark registrations invites error, if not fraud. Registrations are subject to cancellation if use of the mark with the designated goods is not maintained, or if it can be shown that the registration was fraudulently obtained. Thus, critical to a claim of use is that the applicant offers products that actually meet the designation description. The Office does not check for THC levels or CBD presence, and most purveyors of hemp products don’t either. Indeed, there is not even a standardized method for measuring these things. However, studies show that more than half of hemp products either purposefully or accidentally misrepresent their actual THC and CBD levels.i Though legally untested, this presents a potential problem for many existing federal registrations.
If a mark registered for use with goods having < 0.3% THC is found to be used only with products that actually have a greater amount of THC in them, the registration could be canceled. The same fate could befall a registration for goods claiming to have no CBD that, when tested, actually do contain more than trace levels. Even if non-hemp cannabis products are legalized under federal level, registrations obtained with THC and/or CBD limitations would still require the registrant to use the mark with products meeting such limitations.
Keeping Evidence for Insurance
So long as a registrant has maintained use of the registered mark “in commerce” in association with the designated goods, the registration is insulated from attack based on claims of non-use or fraud. The fact that the registrant also uses the mark for goods that are not legal on the federal level is of no consequence to the registration. Thus, it is wise to include in the product lineup under the brand to be protected at least some good that meets the present requirements for federal trademark registration.
One option is to include a product where the only cannabis extract is from hemp seed oil. Without even testing it, you can be reasonably assured that such a product will contain little or no CBD or THC. Another option short of testing is to obtain a certification or warrant from your supplier that particular ingredients truly are hemp, i.e., have < 0.3% THC by dry weight. This could be relied on as evidence should no original product be available for testing to show that use was legitimate at the time registration was obtained. If you can’t obtain such a certification, testing the occasional sample and keeping records over time would also work. Product samples can now be tested for THC content for around $100 per sample, with results back in about a week.ii
Zone of Natural Expansion
Though non-hemp cannabis products cannot be covered directly by federal registrations, a federal registration for CBD/hemp products can have spillover benefits. This is because the scope of a registration may expand to cover things similar to what is designated. The question comes down to likelihood of confusion. Imagine a company holds a registration covering LOOVELA for “nutritional supplements containing hemp seed oil having no CBD and < 0.3% THC by dry weight.” It would be logical for a consumer to assume that non-hemp cannabis products sold under the LOOVELA mark would likely be made by the same company. Thus, provided the company actually sold products complying with its designation, it could assert the CBD-based registration to prevent sale of LOOVELA branded non-hemp cannabis products. Also, should such products be legalized federally, the company would likely be the only applicant able to obtain an additional federal registration for LOOVELA for use with them, because any competing attempt would be confused with their pre-existing registration for CBD/hemp products.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the law in this space is evolving rapidly and is nuanced. Every situation is unique in some way, and there are many reasons an application may fail or a registration may be attacked that are not addressed above. But there is value in obtaining a federal registration for your hemp brands, and there is an overall strategy to be employed for brand protection in the cannabis space.
The content above is based on information current at the time of its publication and may not reflect the most recent developments or guidance. Neal Gerber Eisenberg LLP provides this content for general informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should seek advice from professional advisers with respect to your particular circumstances.
See, e.g., Bonn-Miller, Marcel O., et al., “Labeling Accuracy of Cannabidiol Extracts Sold Online,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 318, No. 17, pp. 1708-09 (Nov. 7, 2017); Freedman, Daniel A. and Dr. Anup Patel, “Inadequate Regulation Contributes to Mislabeled Online Cannabidiol Products,” Pediatric Neurology Briefs, Vol. 32 at 3 (2018).
As a fast-growing cannabis company, ensuring your business stays compliant with regulatory agencies of all kinds—planning departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and so on—is critical for survival. But is your business also compliant with temporary and part-time employment regulations? Violating these often-overlooked regulations can land your company in hot water at best and force you to shut your doors at worst. Here’s what you need to know about risks, regulations, compliance issues and more.
The 30,000-Foot View: Part-Time and Temporary Employees
Cannabis has proven itself to be a high-turnover industry. But in the ever-shifting, post-COVID landscape, many cannabis employers are seeing the financial and logistical benefits of hiring part-time and temporary workers.
Though the terms “part-time” and “temporary” are sometimes used interchangeably, the fact is, there are legal differences in the definitions of part-time versus temporary work. For starters, temporary employees must work for less than a year at a specific organization, and their work must have a defined end date. Temporary employees, or “temps,” often fill vacant roles in a temporary capacity, such as roles previously occupied by someone on parental leave.
Part-time employees, on the other hand, can work indefinitely for a company—but they must work less than 40 hours per week. And, side note, if a part-time employee works more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, they could be eligible for retirement benefits—so hiring managers, bear that in mind.
For employers, there are some tangible benefits in hiring part-time or temporary workers. For starters, there are often fewer upfront costs associated with hiring part-time workers (like workers’ compensation and healthcare). Establishing a strong part-time and temp employment strategy also allows for employers to quickly scale up or down based on market tendencies or shifts.
Understanding the Risks of Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
While hiring part-time and temporary workers can help businesses stay agile and responsive to market demands or fill vacancies created by recent resignations, many businesses hire these types of employees without a full understanding of associated regulations. And it can get even trickier: many full-time cannabis industry workers in the cultivation space aren’t considered “employees” at all—they’re defined by the federal government as “agricultural workers.”
It’s essential that businesses classify part-time workers and independent contractors correctly. Attempting to claim a worker is part-time when they’re really a full-time employee (a practice known as “misclassification”) can save a business tax dollars in the short-term but lead to sanctions and hefty penalties down the line. For example, if a worker is misclassified and the Department of Industrial Relations finds out, they can sue the former employer for unpaid wages.
Potential fallout from noncompliance with classification or wage and hour issues includes massive fines, potential litigation and more. Federal agencies are extremely sensitive to cannabis business regulatory violations, it’s vital to adhere to proper staffing regulations and compliance. The wrong kind of attention can tank your business’s reputation and halt your operations altogether. I’ve personally worked with numerous cannabis businesses in their hiring and payroll initiatives, and I’ll say this: It may seem like a headache to cross all the “Ts” and dot all the “Is” in the beginning, but it will make a massive difference down the line.
Understanding the Regulations for Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
All employers must adhere to the regulations set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that part-time employees must be treated the same as full-time employees. That means they must be paid minimum wage, be paid overtime should they exceed their determined hours, have the opportunity to take job-protected unpaid leave, and so on. I really want to stress how essential it is that employers classify their workers appropriately.
It’s also worth noting that many states have specific regulatory structures for employment, both full- and part-time.
In the heavily regulated cannabis industry, employers must exercise strict due diligence to meet all OSHA standards. Additionally, they must identify all occupational hazards and account for employees’ overtime and double time. Grow operations must also adhere to the Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which includes providing toilets, drinking water, hand sanitation facilities and hygiene information.
Avoiding Compliance Problems with Planning and Diligence
There’s a lot more to hiring workers than businesses realize, especially in cannabis. Most companies don’t intend to be noncompliant with regulations—they simply don’t know the regulations, or they’re overwhelmed by hiring and growing so quickly. To make sure you’re compliant, you might consider building out your HR team, educating yourself as the business leader and reaching out to staffing and HR professionals in the space who can answer your questions. In this rapidly growing industry, which seems to shift and change every day, planting your feet firmly on solid regulatory ground will serve to benefit you in the event of federal legalization, massive business growth or initiatives you may want to undertake in the future.
Editor’s Note: While CIJ typically omits the word “marijuana” where possible due to antiquated nomenclature and prejudicial connotations, we understand the legal distinction between cannabis containing THC and hemp requires the use of the word when referencing federal government policies and legislative language.
Despite the rapid evolution of the cannabis industry, the assurance of safe manufacturing practices remains unclear.Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have imposed significant hurdles for cannabis operators to remain on the “right side of the law.” Therefore, manufacturers of both hemp and marijuana products have been left to figure things out on their own, or choose to ignore existing guidance because the lack of federal oversight allows them to do so. Inconsistent regulation on manufacturing, packaging, labeling and testing of cannabis products offers the potential for unsubstantiated, non-scientific and often times blatantly false claims on product safety and efficacy.
Science vs. Law
Hemp and marijuana are both species of the Cannabis family, Cannabaceae. Genetically they are identical but are arbitrarily defined by the presence of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While science does not differentiate between hemp and marijuana, the law does.
The hemp industry declared a small victory with the passing of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill). Under this bill universities and state agriculture departments were allowed to grow hemp under state law. Additionally, “industrial hemp” was officially defined by establishing the legal limit of THC at 0.3% on a dry weight basis. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill), under the guidance of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), took things a few steps further by authorizing the cultivation of hemp and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the CSA. The bill however provides no language that mandates the safe manufacture of hemp-derived consumer goods. The 2018 version also preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). To the surprise of most, listing cannabidiol (CBD), even hemp-derived, as an ingredient on consumer product labels remains illegal under the bill. Furthermore, CBD product manufacturers are not protected under the current regulations. Since 2015 the FDA has issued warning letters to firms marketing CBD products as dietary supplements and/or foods, and in December 2018, FDA declared it illegal to introduce food containing CBD (or THC) into interstate commerce, regardless if it is derived from hemp. To date, the only FDA approved CBD product is GW Pharmaceutical’s Epidiolex.
Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the CSA. Thirty-six (36) states have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana programs, and now 14 states have approved adult use programs, with New Jersey passing legislation on February 22, 2021. However, the industry has seen minimal movement toward mandating GMP requirements in the marijuana market. Only a handful of medical programs require manufacturers to follow GMP. Furthermore, the requirements are inconsistent between states and the language in the regulations on how to approach GMP implementation is vague and disjointed. This fragmented guidance supports the complexity and difficulty of enforcing a coherent, standardized and reliable approach to safe manufacturing practices.
What is GMP and Why Should You Care?
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are a system for ensuring that products are consistently manufactured and controlled according to quality standards and regulatory guidelines. The implementation of a GMP compliant program ensures consumer health and safety, allows manufacturers to understand the intended use of their products, allows manufacturers to defend product specifications as being appropriate, considers the risks to vulnerable populations and minimizes overall business risk. In a nutshell, GMP equals product safety and quality, and defines the responsibilities of the manufacturer to ensure consumers are protected from the distribution of unsafe and ineffective products. Currently, the GMP “landscape” in the cannabis space is complicated. The various “flavors” (food, dietary supplements, cosmetics and drugs/devices) of GMP leave many confused and frustrated when making the decision to implement GMP. Confusion is a result of unclear regulatory requirements as well as operators not fully understanding how to classify or designate the end use of their product(s). Implementing an effective GMP program requires proper planning (both short and long term), financial commitment and qualified resources.
Where Should You Start?
As the regulatory landscape continues to evolve and mature in the cannabis space, your business model must consider GMP implementation if you wish to remain successful and sustainable.
Before you can implement GMP you must first understand what GMP regulations apply to the intended use of your product(s). Are you manufacturing food, beverages or dietary supplements? Get acquainted with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) on GMP.
Conduct a Gap Assessment
A gap assessment allows you to determine your deficiencies in relation to GMP compliance. The assessment should include, but is not limited to facility design, equipment design, supply chain, risk management and employee training.
Develop an Action Plan
Once the gap assessment is complete a comprehensive action plan will be developed to map out the steps required to achieve GMP compliance. The action plan should follow the SMART Goal principles:
Specific (simple, well-defined)
Attainable (achievable, agreed upon)
Relevant (resource-based, reasonable and realistic)
Timely (time-based, defined due dates)
The plan will include prioritized deliverables, due dates and allocated resources in order to strategically plan and execute and complete the required tasks.
Schedule a Mock GMP Inspection
A mock inspection verifies that the action plan was adequately executed. Hire an experienced resource familiar with related GMPs and QMS to conduct the inspection. A successful mock inspection is a perfect litmus test if the end goal is to achieve GMP certification.
Cannabis manufacturers that ignore the obvious progression toward an FDA-like industry will not survive the long game. Those that embrace the momentum and properly plan to mitigate product and business risk – those who demonstrate integrity and are truly in this space to ensure safe, effective and quality products to consumers will come out on top, gain credibility and secure brand recognition.
21 CFR Part 111, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packaging, Labeling, or Holding Operations for Dietary Supplements.
21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
21 CFR Part 210, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Processing, Packing, or Holding of Drugs; General.
21 CFR Part 211, Current Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
21 CFR Part 700, Subchapter G-Cosmetics.
21 CFR Part 820, Subchapter H-Medical Devices; Quality System Regulation
Congressional Research Service, FDA Regulation of Cannabidiol (CBD) Products, June 12, 2019.
United States Food and Drug Administration-Warning Letters, Current Content as of 02/19/2021.
Remediation of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC) has become a hot button issue in the United States ever since the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released their changes to the definitions of marijuana, marijuana extract, and tetrahydrocannabinols exempting extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing 0.3% or less d9-THC on a dry weight basis from the Controlled Substances Act. That is because, as a direct consequence, all extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% d9-THC became explicitly under the purview of the DEA, including work-in-progress “hemp extracts” that because of the extraction process are above the 0.3% d9-THC limit immediately upon creation.
The legal ramifications of these changes to the definitions on the “hemp extracts” marketplace will not be addressed. Instead, this article focuses on the amount of d9-THC that is available in the plant material prior to extraction and tracks a “hemp extract” from the point it falls out of compliance to the point it becomes compliant again and stresses the importance of accurate track-n-trace protocols at the processing facility. The model developed to support this article was intended to be academic and was designed to follow the d9-THC portion of a “hemp extract” through the lifecycle of a typical CO2-based extract from initial extraction to THC remediation. A loss to the equipment of 2% was used for each step.
For this exercise, a common processing scenario of 1000 kg of plant material at 10% cannabidiol (CBD) and 0.3% d9-THC by weight was modeled. This amount, depending on scale of operations, can be a facility’s total capacity for the day or the capacity for a single run. 1000 kg of plant material at 0.3% d9-THC has 3 kg of d9-THC that could be extracted, purified, and diverted into the marketplace. CO2 has a nominal extraction efficiency of 95%, meaning some cannabinoids are left behind in the plant material. The same can be said about the recovery of the extract from the equipment. Traces of extract will remain in the equipment and this little bit of material, if unaccounted for, can potentially open an operator up to legal consequences. Data for the initial extraction is shown in Image 1.
As soon as the initial extract is produced it is out of compliance with the 0.3% d9-THC limit to be classified as a “hemp extract”, and of the 3 kg of d9-THC available, the extract contains approx. 2.8 kg, because some of the d9-THC remains in the plant material and some is lost to the equipment.
Dewaxing via Winterization and Solvent Removal
Dewaxing a typical CO2 extract via winterization is a common process step. For this exercise, a wax content of 30% by weight was used. A process efficiency of 98% was attributed to the wax removal process and it was assumed that 100% of the loss can be accounted for in the residue recovered from the equipment rather than in the removed waxes. Data for the winterization and solvent recovery are shown in Image 2 and 3.
Two things occur during winterization and solvent removal, non-target constituents are removed from the extract and there is compounded loss from multiple pieces of process equipment. These steps increase the concentration of the d9-THC portion of the extract and produce two streams of noncompliant waste.
Decarboxylation & Devolatilization
Most cannabinoids in the plant material are in their acid form. For this exercise, 90% of the cannabinoids were considered to be acid forms. Decarboxylation is known to produce a mass difference of 87.7%, i.e. the neutral forms are 12.3% lighter than the acid forms. Heat was modeled as the primary driver and a process efficiency of 95% was used for the conversion rate during decarboxylation. To simplify the model, the remaining 5% acidic cannabinoids are presumed destroyed rather than degraded into other compounds because the portion of the cannabinoids which get destroyed versus degrade into other compounds varies from process to process.
Devolatilization is the process of removing low-molecular weight constituents from an extract to stabilize it prior to distillation. Since the molecular constituents of cannabis resin extracts vary from variety to variety and process to process, the extracts were assumed to consist of 10% volatile compounds. The model combines the decarboxylation and devolatilization steps to account for complete decarboxylation of the available acidic cannabinoids and ignores their weight contribution to the volatiles collected during devolatilization. Destroyed cannabinoids result in an amount of loss that can only be accounted for through a complete mass balance analysis. Data for decarboxylation and devolatilization are shown in Image 4.
As the extract moves along the process train, the d9-THC concentration continues to increase. Decarboxylation further complicates traceability because there is both a known mass difference associated with the process and an unknown mass difference that must be calculated and justified.
A two-pass distillation was modeled. On each pass a portion of the extract was removed to increase the cannabinoid concentration in the recovered material. Average data for distilled “hemp extracts” was used to ensure the model did not over- or underestimate the concentration of the cannabinoids in the distillate. The variables used to meet these data constraints were derived experimentally to match the model to the scenario described and are not indicative of an actual distillation. Data for distillation is shown in Image 5.
After distillation, the d9-THC concentration is shown to have increased by 874% from the original concentration in the plant material. Roughly 2.2 kg of the available 3 kg of d9-THC remains in the extract, but 0.8 kg of d9-THC has either ended up in a waste stream or walking out the door.
Chromatography – THC Remediation Step 1
Chromatography was modeled to remove the d9-THC from the extract. Because there are several systems with variable efficiency rates at being able to selectively isolate the d9-THC peak from the eluent stream, the model used a 5% cut-off on the front-end and tail-end of the peak, i.e. 5% of the material before the d9-THC peak and 5% of the material after the d9-THC peak is assumed to be collected along with the d9-THC. Data for chromatography is shown in Image 6.
After chromatography, a minimum of three products are produced, compliant “hemp extract”, d9-THC extract, and noncompliant residue remaining in the equipment. The d9-THC extract modeled contains 2.1 kg of the available 3 kg in the plant material, and is 35% d9-THC by weight, an increase of 1335% from the distillation step and 11664% from the plant material.
CBN Creation – THC Remediation Step 2
For this exercise, the d9-THC extract was converted into cannabinol (CBN) using heat rather than cyclized into d8-THC, but a similar model could be used to account for this scenario. The conversion rate of the cannabinoids into CBN through heat degradation alone is low. Therefore, the model assumes half of the available cannabinoids in the d9-THC extract are converted to CBN. The entirety of the remaining portion of the cannabinoids are assumed to convert to some form of degradant rather than a portion getting destroyed. Data for THC destruction is shown in Image 7.
Only after the CBN cyclization step has completed does the product that was the d9-THC extract become compliant and classifiable as a “hemp extract.”
Throughout the process, from initial extraction to the final d9-THC remediation step, loss occurs. Of the 3 kg of d9-THC available in the plant material only 2.1 kg was recovered and converted to CBN. 0.9 kg was either lost to the equipment, destroyed in the process, attributable to the mass difference associated with decarboxylation, or was never extracted from the plant material in the first place. All of these potential areas of product loss should be identified, and their diversion risk fully assessed. Not every waste stream poses a risk of diversion, but some do; having a plan in place to handle waste the DEA considers a controlled substance is essential. Without a track-n-trace program following the d9-THC and identifying the potential risk of diversion would be impossible. The point of this is not to instill fear, instead the intention is to shed light on a very real issue “hemp extract” producers and state regulators need to understand to protect themselves and their marketplace from the DEA.
On January 15, 2021, the USDA published its final rule on US hemp production. The rule, which becomes effective on March 22, 2021, expands and formalizes previous guidance related to waste disposal of noncompliant or “hot” crops (crops with a THC concentration above .3 percent). Importantly for the industry, the new disposal rules remove unduly burdensome DEA oversight and provides for remediation options.
Producers will not be required to use a DEA reverse distributor or law enforcement to dispose of noncompliant plants. Instead, producers will be able to use common on-farm practices for disposal. Some of these disposal options include, but are not limited to, plowing under non-compliant plants, composting into “green manure” for use on the same land, tilling, disking, burial or burning. By eliminating DEA involvement from this process, the USDA rules serve to streamline disposal options for producers of this agricultural commodity.
Alternatively, the final rule permits “remediation” of noncompliant plants. Allowing producers to remove and destroy noncompliant flower material – while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds – is an important crop and cost-saving measure for producers, especially smaller producers. Remediation can also occur by shredding the entire plant to create “biomass” and then re-testing the biomass for compliance. Biomass that fails the retesting is noncompliant hemp and must be destroyed. The USDA has issued an additional guidance document on remediation. Importantly, this guidance advises that lots should be kept separate during the biomass creation process, remediated biomass must be stored and labeled apart from each other and from other compliant hemp lots and seeds removed from non-compliant hemp should not be used for propagative purposes.
The final rules have strict record keeping requirements, such rules ultimately protect producers and should be embraced. For example, producers must document the disposal of all noncompliant plants by completing the “USDA Hemp Plan Producer Disposal Form.” Producers must also maintain records on all remediated plants, including an original copy of the resample test results. Records must be kept for a minimum of three years. While USDA has not yet conducted any random audits, the department may conduct random audits of licensees.
Although this federal guidance brings some clarity to hemp producers, there still remains litigation risks associated with waste disposal. There are unknown environmental impacts from the industry and there is potential tort liability or compliance issues with federal and state regulations. For example, as mentioned above, although burning and composting disposal options for noncompliant plants, the final rule does not address the potential risk for nuisance complaints from smoke or odor associated with these methods.
At the federal level, there could be compliance issues with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and ancillary regulations like Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition to government enforcement under RCRA and CERCLA, these hazardous waste laws also permit private party suits. Although plant material from cultivation is not considered hazardous, process liquids from extraction or distillation (ethanol, acetone, etc.) are hazardous. Under RCRA, an individual can bring an “imminent and substantial endangerment” citizen suit against anyone generating or storing hazardous waste in a way the presents imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Under CERCLA, private parties who incur costs for removal or remediation may sue to recover costs from other responsible parties.
At the state level, there could be issues with state agency guidance and state laws. For example, California has multiple state agencies that oversee cannabis and hemp production and disposal. CA Prop 65 mandates warnings for products with certain chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals and THC. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the evaluation of the environmental impact of runoff or pesticides prior to issuing a cultivation permit. Both environmental impact laws permit a form of private action.
Given the varied and evolving rules and regulation on hemp cultivation, it remains essential for hemp producers to seek guidance and the help of professionals when entering this highly regulated industry.
It was 1996. I was four years old. California Proposition 215 passed and for the first time, legal medical cannabis became available. I don’t remember it honestly, but that moment triggered a reckoning of outdated and ineffective efforts to control cannabis, which continues on November 3rd.
The moment in 1996 created for me and my generation of millennials a new, decriminalized lens for which to view cannabis and its potential. In my lifetime, from first experimenting with cannabis after high school and then earning my PhD in plant biochemistry, advancing cannabis research, to starting an agtech company dedicated to the genetic improvement of cannabis, we continue this march toward legalization. But another march hasn’t started yet.
The cannabis we consume today is still largely the same (albeit more potent today) as the cannabis that was legalized in 1996. There’s been little advancement in our scientific understanding of the plant. This can and should change. I believe the future and legitimacy of the cannabis crop in the medical field and in farmers’ fields is on the ballot this November.
In 33 states, medical cannabis is currently legal and in eleven of those, including my home states of Nevada and Washington, legalized adult-use recreational cannabis is generating millions in tax revenue every month. But compared to every other commercial crop, cannabis is still decades behind.
We are seeing a glacial cadence with cannabis research. As voters in five more states consider this November whether to legalize cannabis, that same tipping point we reached in 1996 comes closer to being triggered for cannabis research.
Here’s what cannabis scientists, like me, face as we work to apply real scientific methods to the long-neglected crop: I published one of the most cited papers on cannabis research last year, titled, Gene Networks Underlying Cannabinoid and Terpenoid Accumulation in Cannabis. But, as per university policy, we were unable to touch the plant during any of our research. We could not study the physical cannabis plant, extracts or any other substantive physical properties from the plant on campus or as a representative of the university. Instead we studied cannabis DNA processed through a third-party. Funding for the research came from private donors who were required to be unassociated with the cannabis industry.
While we were conducting our heavily restricted, bootstrapped cannabis research, the university lab in the next building over was experimenting with less restrictions on mice using other drugs: cocaine, opioids and amphetamines. (Quick note, marijuana is listed as more dangerous than cocaine, which is a Schedule II drug.)
I get it. Due to the federal prohibition on cannabis as a heavily regulated Schedule I drug, universities cannot fund research without the risk of losing all of their federal funding. While the USDA does not support research and SBIR grants are all but impossible, one government agency does allow research, from cannabis grown only in Mississippi. It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and any research conducted using its crop is as ineffective as you’re imagining. Relevant research is likely impossible using the crop which dates back to a 1970’s strain with a potency that’s about 30 percent of today’s commercial cannabis offerings.
To change this anti-research climate, do what those in California did with Prop 215 in 1996. Vote.
Vote for legalization of cannabis if you’re in those five states where legalization is on the ballot; that’s Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi. The more states that align with cannabis legalization, the stronger the case becomes for the federal government to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I controlled substance. Currently cannabis is listed as a Schedule I alongside heroin. The DEA claims cannabis has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Both are not true, just listen to the scientists.
Those outside of the five states putting cannabis on the ballot can still play a role in creating a Congress that is more receptive to cannabis reform. This Congress is the oldest, one of the most conservative and least effective in our country’s history. Younger, more progressive representation will increase our odds of advancing cannabis research.
Cannabis holds far too much possibility for us to allow it to be an unstudied “ditch weed.” THC and CBD are just two of nearly 500 compounds found in cannabis which, when scientifically scrutinized will harvest – I believe – vast medicinal and commercial benefits and the tax windfalls that accompany both. But first you have to vote.
If cannabis and your representatives are not on the ballot, do something millennials have built somewhat of a reputation for failing to do; pick up a phone and call your current representative. Tell them cannabis deserves scientific attention and investment. There’s too much potential in the cannabis plant to wait any longer.
Private labelling, or white labelling, is a popular option for brands looking to enter the CBD space. This practice is where a product is manufactured by one company but branded, marketed and sold by another.
There are several companies that specialize in manufacturing end-to-end finished CBD products. They commonly provide third-party test results, certificates and data to verify the purity and potency of products created. Technically, all new brands need to do is place their label on the package and start selling! However with any new venture, establishing a successful private label CBD brand will inevitably mean various challenges need to be overcome.
Securing Quality Sources of CBD
Finding the right partners to work with is a must. The best way to source credible and trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers is to look for certifications and audits from third-party agencies. These include the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Safe Quality Food (SQF), the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification program and others.
The USDA organic certification program is a rigorous multi-step audit process to increase supply chain sustainability. Organic certification is a form of elective, self-regulation for manufacturers which consumers have eagerly welcomed into the marketplace. Look for the USDA organic seal to help identify which manufacturers are trustworthy and can produce a range of organic products.
From a consumer perspective, certifying your products as organic is an additional way to provide both supply chain transparency and increase confidence when trying new CBD products. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency they provide with pure and natural ingredients.
Creating a Unique Product
Innovation and creativity will continue to be important differentiators due to the highly competitive nature of the CBD marketplace. New ingredient innovations such as water dispersible materials are big game-changers. From chewing gum to energy drinks, the opportunities for new and unique CBD products under your own private label are limitless.
There are only a handful of CBD brands who are willing, or even able, to be certified organic today. USDA certification is an opportunity for brands looking to adapt to changing consumer preferences, diversify their product offerings and invest in supply chain transparency.
In the past, product differentiators involved third-party lab testing or providing COAs — today that’s just industry standard. The USDA organic seal is becoming one of the hemp industry’s most coveted certifications because it is a product differentiator.
Trustworthiness, transparency and traceability are important factors for consumers to consider when shopping for products. These factors should also be considered when producing products and while vetting vendors, partners, stakeholders and supply chain suppliers.
Credible certifications allow consumers to make informed decisions while feeling confident that they are purchasing products from reputable sources. Research has shown that today’s CBD market lacks credibility while consumers are desperately seeking comfort and are eager to purchase from trustworthy brands.
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