The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has denied a request from an anti-legalization group to place marijuana and its derivatives on a list of restricted substances that are not “generally recognized as safe and effective.”
The move is “not necessary for the protection of public health,” Janet Woodcock, the director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and research wrote on Monday in a letter to the group, Drug Watch International.
The organization had filed its petition requesting the cannabis crackdown in December, writing that the move would “send an industry-wide warning to the estimated 33,000 marijuana businesses in the U.S., many of which are making unsupported medical claims for marijuana and THC drug products sold as ‘medical marijuana.'”
The prohibitionist organization pleaded with FDA to take action that would “reduce or end the ability of [over-the-counter] sellers of these drugs to assert and advertise unsupported medical claims for their products.”
“It would immediately make such claims unlawful and subject the sponsors to regulatory action, including injunctive seizure of mislabeled and misbranded drugs, as well as other potential sanctions permitted under the [Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act].”
But FDA balked, saying that while it “appreciates the safety and public health concerns that motivate” the request, the agency “already has adequate authority to remove unapproved new OTC drugs containing marijuana or THC from the market.”
“In order for FDA to take enforcement action against illegal marketing of unapproved new OTC drugs containing marijuana or THC, it is not necessary for FDA to establish a negative monograph for marijuana or THC.”
While the decision by FDA not to assign so-called “negative monograph” status to marijuana and THC won’t do anything to make marijuana more available, or change its legal status—which remains prohibited under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act—the rejection suggests that the Trump administration is not looking for excuses to go out of its way to deal public relations blows to the cannabis industry.
In fact, despite a move by U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions this January to rescind Obama-era protections for state marijuana laws, President Trump himself indicated last month that he supports pending congressional legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.
Last week, the powerful U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee issued a report criticizing roadblocks to research on marijuana that are caused by its ongoing Schedule I status.
The FDA’s negative monograph list currently contains unapproved drug products such as certain daytime sedatives, aphrodisiacs and deterrents to nailbiting or thumbsucking.
The list is “not intended to be comprehensive lists of all classes of OTC products, active ingredients, or conditions of use that cannot be marketed without FDA approval,” the agency wrote in its rejection of the Drug Watch International petition.
“While you suggest that a negative monograph would reduce or end the unlawful marketing of unapproved new OTC drugs containing marijuana or THC, existing law makes very clear that such unapproved products cannot be marketed under the FD&C Act,” the feds said. “FDA has not determined that any OTC drug products containing marijuana or THC are [generally recognized as safe and effective] for their intended indications. Therefore, these products are ‘new drugs’ per section 201 of the FD&C Act that must be approved by FDA to be legally marketed.”
“That the Agency has not promulgated a negative monograph specific to marijuana or THC does not absolve a drug manufacturer or marketer from its responsibility to obtain an approved NDA or ANDA if one is required by law.”
“It is the responsibility of companies marketing drug products in the United States to ensure that their products are safe and effective and marketed in compliance with the law,” FDA’s Woodcock wrote. “[A]s discussed above, FDA has existing authority to pursue regulatory or enforcement actions regarding unapproved new OTC drugs, including those containing THC or marijuana.”
Indeed, FDA sent a series of warning letters in November to manufacturers of products containing cannabidiol (CBD), a marijuana component that is increasingly used to treat epilepsy and other medical conditions, and which is sometimes marketed as having tumor-shrinking properties.
“Substances that contain components of marijuana will be treated like any other products that make unproven claims to shrink cancer tumors. We don’t let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we’re not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release at the time. “There are a growing number of effective therapies for many cancers. When people are allowed to illegally market agents that deliver no established benefit they may steer patients away from products that have proven, anti-tumor effects that could extend lives.”
More recently, however, FDA approved a CBD pharmaceutical drug, Epidiolex, to treat severe epilepsy.
“This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies. And, the FDA is committed to this kind of careful scientific research and drug development,” Gottlieb said in the press release announcing the move last month. “But, at the same time, we are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
For now, that Gottlieb’s FDA passed up the opportunity to add marijuana to the restrictive negative monograph list allows the cannabis industry to avoid another round of headlines about finger-wagging federal regulators calling them out.