A coalition of state agriculture officials, farmers and drug policy organizations are teaming up to press the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to limit the scope of a ban on participation in the legal hemp industry by people with felony drug convictions.
The chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee made a letter from the groups public on Thursday during a hearing at which federal officials provided updates on progress toward implementing the federal legalization of hemp that was part of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The large-scale agriculture legislation also included the felony ban despite broad opposition from drug policy and criminal justice reform advocates. But in response to that pushback, lawmakers reached a compromise on a scaled-down version that made it into the bill, which President Trump signed in December.
Rather than instituting a blanket ban on participation in the legal hemp market by those convicted of a drug felony as it was initially drafted, the provision states that the ban expires 10 years after the conviction. But the coalition said it’s concerned that a misreading of even the less far-reaching measure could exclude people from participating in a wide range of hemp-connected occupations, while they say congressional intent was to have it applied only to individuals seeking to actually hold a license to produce hemp.
“Although Congress specified that the hemp felony ban should apply to producers, there are many occupational roles that could be interpreted to be involved in hemp production,” the letter, sent last month to USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, states. “Should the provision be interpreted in an inappropriately broad manner, state agricultural authorities and the private sector would be required to conduct costly background checks, screen and track workers involved in hemp production operations such as cultivation, processing, packaging and transporting hemp products.”
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, American Farm Bureau Federation, Drug Policy Alliance and Vote Hemp each signed the letter, which was entered into the congressional record by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) at the start of the hemp implementation hearing—the second congressional meeting on cannabis of the week.
“We believe a fair reading of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 and the accompanying conference report indicates that Congress intended for this provision to only apply to individuals seeking a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with a state, tribal or USDA plan,” the organizations wrote.
While the provision’s language is somewhat vague, including “any person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance” in a ban on participating “in the program established under this section” as well as producing “hemp under any regulations or guidelines issued under” the bill, the coalition pointed to the conference report as evidence that lawmakers didn’t intend to have the ban enforced across the board.
The report states that “[a]ny person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance shall be ineligible to participate under the state or tribal plan for a 10-year period following the date of the conviction.”
However, it goes on to specify that “this prohibition shall not apply to producers who have been lawfully participating in a state hemp pilot program as authorized by the Agricultural Act of 2014, prior to enactment of this subtitle.”
That specific language demonstrates that the “felony ban clearly applies to producers,” the coalition wrote.
“These requirements that a producer must meet to lawfully participate in a State, Tribal or Federal plan are consistent with the roles and responsibilities of an individual seeking a license or authorization from the government. The hemp felony ban therefore applies to individuals seeking to obtain and maintain a license or authorization from the government to produce hemp. The hemp felony ban should not apply to any other individuals engaged in lawful hemp production under a State, Tribal or Federal plan, including any individuals employed by a producer.”
“We therefore urge USDA to follow congressional intent and limit the application of the felony ban only to individuals seeking to obtain a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” the letter concludes.
“It’s critical that USDA implement the felony ban as narrowly as possible given the many harms its enforcement will impose,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “These harms include the unnecessary hardship on states, the agriculture industry and individual farmers of policing workers, to the denial of job opportunities in this fast growing industry to qualified workers on the basis of a prior conviction alone, including communities of color disproportionately convicted of drug offenses.”
Read the full letter pushing for a narrow interpretation of the hemp felony ban below:
This story was updated to include comment from Smith.
Feds Send Warning Letter To Another CBD Company Over Medical Claims
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to a Florida-based CBD company on Tuesday, alleging that the business made several unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic benefits of their products.
The federal agencies accused Rooted Apothecary of unlawfully asserting that their cannabidiol products could treat symptoms of conditions such as ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, ear aches, ADHD and autism. Those claims appeared on the company’s website and social media accounts, they said.
Certain products appeared to be marketed as dietary supplements, which FDA currently prohibits as it works to develop an alternative regulatory scheme for CBD.
“Cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds are subject to the same laws and requirements as FDA-regulated products that contain any other substance,” Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a press release. “We are working to protect Americans from companies marketing products with unsubstantiated claims that they prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure a number of diseases or conditions.”
FDA and FTC have issued a joint warning letter to a company marketing unapproved cannabidiol products with unsubstantiated claims to treat teething and ear pain in infants, autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions/diseases. https://t.co/tsn4SBiGzH pic.twitter.com/sG3wyURMDS
— Dr. Ned Sharpless (@FDACommissioner) October 22, 2019
We’ve sent numerous warning letters that focus on matters of significant public health concern to CBD companies, and these actions should send a message to the broader market about complying with FDA requirements.
— Dr. Ned Sharpless (@FDACommissioner) October 22, 2019
“We’ve sent numerous warning letters that focus on matters of significant public health concern to CBD companies, and these actions should send a message to the broader market about complying with FDA requirements,” he said. “As we examine potential regulatory pathways for the lawful marketing of cannabis products, protecting and promoting public health through sound, science-based decision-making remains our top priority.”
FTC’s complaint with the company is that it violated a law that requires businesses that advertise medical claims about their products to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back them up, which could include human clinical trials. Making or exaggerating such claims through “a product name, website name, metatags, or other means” without proper evidence is also prohibited.
FTC and @US_FDA warn Florida company marketing CBD products about claims related to treating autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other medical conditions: https://t.co/cAbxPPcxk8 pic.twitter.com/GdlttyBgxv
— FTC (@FTC) October 22, 2019
Rooted Apothecary must respond to the agencies within 15 working days to explain what steps it’s taking to resolve the issues. If the company fails to do so, it is subject to legal action, including the possible seizure of its products or an injunction. It may also have to compensate customers.
FDA emphasized that CBD products—other than the prescription medication Epidiolex, for the treatment of intractable epilepsy—are not currently allowed. But it also reiterated that the agency is in the process of developing rules that could allow for the lawful marketing of the compound.
In April, FDA sent warning letters to three other CBD companies that it said was making unauthorized claims about the medical benefits of their products. FTC also submitted warning letters to three separate CBD companies for allegedly advertising misleading statements about their products last month.
These letters are examples of the agency’s use of enforcement discretion. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who recently suggested that the federal government should be involved in regulating state marijuana programs, clarified in March that the agency is only going after companies that make especially misleading claims about their products.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who championed a provision of the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalizing hemp and its derivatives, has urged FDA to clear a path for the lawful marketing of CBD products by using enforcement discretion while it develops an interim final rule. A bipartisan group of lawmakers made a similar request in a letter sent to the agency last month.
“The FDA is working quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds like CBD while using all available resources to monitor the marketplace and protect public health by taking action as needed against companies,” FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy said.
FDA’s working quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products with cannabis/cannabis-derivatives like CBD while using all available resources to monitor the marketplace & protect public health by taking action as needed against companies. https://t.co/HB9IhG2qud
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) October 22, 2019
We are committed to advancing our regulation of these products through an approach that, in line with our mission, prioritizes public health, fosters innovation and promotes consumer confidence. We plan to provide an update on our progress in this area in the near future.
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) October 22, 2019
“We recognize that there is significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds; however, we must work together to fill in the knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products,” she said. “We are committed to advancing our regulation of these products through an approach that, in line with our mission, prioritizes public health, fosters innovation and promotes consumer confidence.”
Photo courtesy of Kimzy Nanney.
GOP Senator Links Medical Marijuana Claims To Tobacco Industry Advertisements
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said on Tuesday that claims about the therapeutic potential of marijuana remind him of decades-old tobacco industry advertisements asserting that the product had medical benefits.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Cornyn discussed a hearing that the International Narcotics Control Caucus, which he co-chairs, will hold on Wednesday to explore the public health impacts of cannabis. He said it was especially important to hear from experts about the subject as more states legalize marijuana and members of Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates, push to end federal prohibition.
Senate Hearing To Focus On Marijuana And Health This Week – https://t.co/aPZczm3X75
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) October 21, 2019
The senator made clear he’s skeptical about marijuana’s health benefits.
“There’s no shortage of people who claim that marijuana has endless health benefits and can help patients struggling from everything from epilepsy to anxiety to cancer treatments,” he said. “This reminds me of some of the advertising we saw from the tobacco industry years ago where they actually claimed public health benefits from smoking tobacco, which we know as a matter of fact were false and that tobacco contains nicotine, an addictive drug, and is implicated with cancers of different kinds.”
“We’re hearing a lot of the same happy talk with regard to marijuana and none of the facts that we need to understand about the public health impact of marijuana use,” he said.
While Cornyn recognized there’s significant support for cannabis reform, he said that ” for the number of voices in support of legalization, there are even more unanswered questions about both the short- and long-term public health effects.”
He expressed concern about increased levels of THC concentration in cannabis products and stated that it’s “true that for some people that marijuana can indeed be addictive.”
“There’s simply a lack of scientific evidence to determine the link between marijuana and various health risks, and that’s something I would think Congress and the American people would want to know before we proceed further down this path,” Cornyn said. “We don’t know enough about how this could impair cognitive function or capacity or increase the risk of mental illness or perhaps serve as a gateway for other drugs that are even more damaging to the health of a young person.”
The senator made similar remarks during a conversation with a former White House drug czar in August. He said it was important to address the public health impacts of cannabis before moving forward with legislation that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
“With increasing use and a growing number of states giving the green light for marijuana use, we need better answers,” he said.
The surgeon general and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, along with several academics, are scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation Urges Congress To Pass Three Marijuana Research Bills
A leading advocacy group that’s dedicated to finding treatment options for Parkinson’s disease is backing three pieces of marijuana research legislation in Congress.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)—named after the actor, who has Parkinson’s and established the nonprofit—said last week that lifting barriers to cannabis research, including rescheduling the plant under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), is necessary to promote studies verifying marijuana’s potential therapeutic benefit for conditions such as Parkinson’s patients.
“The MJFF supports increased access to cannabis for medical research. Congress has begun to recognize this need, and there are several bills in the U.S. House and Senate designed to remove barriers that impede safe and legal access to cannabis by medical researchers,” the foundation said on its website. “The MJFF public policy team is tracking these bills and working to educate members of Congress and their staff on their importance to the Parkinson’s community.”
MJFF said it’s in favor of three marijuana bills, which would accomplish the following:
—Require the Justice Department to approve additional manufacturers for research-grade cannabis.
—Protect research institutions that conduct studies on marijuana.
—Authorize the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to inform patients about opportunities to participate in federally authorized cannabis studies.
—Require VA to conduct studies into the therapeutic potential of marijuana in the treatment of various conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
—Reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA.
—Free up universities to conduct studies on cannabis by removing certain regulatory requirements.
In a letter to the Senate sponsor of that last piece of legislation, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), in June, the foundation stated that marijuana’s current classification under federal law and the inadequate quality of cannabis grown at the only federally authorized manufacturing facility has meant that “researchers do not have the proper materials to conduct the necessary research.”
The foundation noted that it has submitted comments to the Food and Drug Administration arguing in favor of rescheduling in 2018 and 2019. It also applauded the Drug Enforcement Administration for announcing that it would take steps to approve additional federal cannabis farms for research.
“Current policies hinder comprehensive medical research on cannabis, making it difficult to generate the evidence needed for clear recommendations,” Andrew Koemeter-Cox, MJFF’s associate director of research programs, said. “This is especially problematic when some products may be unsafe for human use and have the potential for adverse interactions with other medications.”
Ted Thompson, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of public policy, said that removing barriers to research “is one way in which Congress can help scientific researchers determine what the benefits of medical cannabis might be for Parkinson’s disease.”
“Our role on the public policy team is to work with Congress and the administration to ensure there is access and funding for research and care initiatives that can benefit people living with Parkinson’s and, right now, that includes access to medical cannabis for research,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.