A marijuana website published a report on Friday with a bombshell claim: CVS Pharmacy is entering the cannabis business, and in a big way.
In fact, according to Cannabis.net, the drug-store giant has applied for more than 300 marijuana-cultivation permits in California—which would make CVS the biggest player in the state’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry.
The site’s report, titled “Big Pharma Roars – CVS Pharmacy Applies For Almost 300 Cannabis Grow Licenses,” has one major flaw: It’s not true. It is demonstrably fake news.
A quick look at California’s database of cannabis-cultivation permits reveals that CVS Pharmacy does not have any marijuana-growing licenses.
CVS does have “nursery permits,” and they are for growing flowers—although the kind you buy on Valentine’s Day, not the kind you smoke.
Published under the byline of “DanaSmith,” Cannabis.net’s erroneous post appears based on a misinterpretation of California marijuana law.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) does regulate marijuana cultivation, but lists cannabis cultivation permits under a different portal than the one cited by Cannabis.net.
An examination of the CDFA nursery permits cited by Cannabis.net shows them to be licenses for “sales outlets which has no growing grounds except for small areas devoted to the production of plants for local distribution, and those producing less than $1,000.”
Those plants, according to CVS’s actual licenses, are “Decorative plants, foliage, or florists potted plants, including orchids, etc.”
Cannabis.net did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent via its Facebook page and through a contact form on its website.
The website is owned by a Massachusetts-based company called Evergreen Buzz LLC.
Reached via cellphone on Monday while traveling in Maine, Curt Dalton, Evergreen Buzz’s managing director, did not immediately accept fault or share plans to retract or correct the post—and instead pinned blame for any misinformation on a High Times staffer.
Dalton said that he’d been sent a link shared on the LinkedIn page of Ethan Bloomfield, whose bio says he is a senior brand manager for High Times.
Bloomfield did indeed post a video last week, in which an unidentified male scrolls through the CDFA nursery list and discovers the CVS nursery permits.
“Damn, homie,” the voice says. “This is bananas. Hello, big pharma.”
“Big Pharms makes its first move!!!!” Bloomfield writes in his post. “Unbelievable…this video is SHOCKING!”
Dalton sent the link to a Cannabis.net writer, who “vetted” the faulty information and then posted the story, he told Marijuana Moment.
“It wasn’t us who came up with the idea,” Dalton said. “I don’t know more about it.”
When pressed, Dalton seemed to indicate Cannabis.net might change the post if presented with accurate information–but still deflected blame to High Times.
“Oh sure, if the High Times post is not correct and your story is, we would put up a retraction and explain what happened or delete the article,” he said in a text message. “I just dont want to delete it and make it look like we are hiding from a mistake or not taking responsibility.”
Bloomfield and Cannabis.net appear to be not the only marijuana industry players fooled. The video was also liked by a publisher of Sensi magazine and shared by the Stanford University-educated CEO of a Portland-based cannabis brand.
A spokeswoman for CVS Health, CVS Pharmacy’s parent company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. This post will be updated if a response is received.
At the same time, Cannabis.net’s claim that “Big Pharma” is eyeing the cannabis space is accurate—if old news, and not quite the same as claimed.
British-based drug company GW Pharmaceuticals has patented several marijuana-based medicines—and grows an awful lot of cannabis in central England to make them—and American-based companies are working on cannabinoid-based medicines.
Cannabis.net bills itself as a “lean startup” and “the premier global social networking site for the legalized cannabis industry.”
The website’s main feature appears to be a Google-map based “cannabis dispensaries, doctors, lawyers & businesses”-finder—services that bigger players like Weedmaps and Leafly also provide—but the website also publishes “valuable information, resources and guidance for everything cannabis related,” it claims.
It appears any damage done by the disinformation might be limited. As of Monday, the Facebook post claiming CVS was in the weed game had been shared 50 times. According to a counter on Cannabis.net’s website, the post itself had been viewed roughly 13,000 times.
That’s more engagement than some recent posts, but not quite viral—likely in part because some savvier and less excitable readers already flagged it as fake news.
Square Quietly Launches Program For CBD Cannabis Company Credit Card Processing
Companies that sell cannabis products—even those consisting of CBD derived from hemp, which was legalized in the U.S. through the Farm Bill late last year—are continuing to have trouble accessing basic financial services that are available to businesses in other sectors. That includes being able to maintain bank accounts and process their customers’ credit cards.
The latter problem could be solved under a new pilot program that has quietly been launched by the payment processing service Square.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Facebook Uses Marijuana And Broccoli To Show Off Its AI Tech
Marijuana buds and tempura broccoli can look oddly similar out of context, but Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can tell the difference.
At its annual developers conference on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer discussed how the social media giant is able to leverage visual AI to spot “policy-violating content,” including advertisements to sell cannabis on the platform. He explained the process by comparing images of the fried vegetable next to marijuana buds, which he described as the “most benign possible example” of prohibited content he could find.
— Queenie Wong (@QWongSJ) May 1, 2019
Five years ago, the company relied on “behavioral signals” to catch people advertising cannabis—things like whether the advertiser has been “caught for doing bad stuff before” or whether they used “obvious words” like “marijuana” or “drugs” in the post. But as AI advanced, Facebook developed a system that could visually distinguish cannabis from other miscellaneous items.
To drive the point home, Schroepfer put both images on the screen and challenged the audience to differentiate them.
— Tom Simonite (@tsimonite) May 1, 2019
A few people thought the tempura broccoli was marijuana, but most seemed to get it right. The visual algorithm was 94 percent sure that the marijuana was, in fact, marijuana, and 88 percent sure that the other image was the broccoli.
— john colucci (@johncolucci) May 1, 2019
For Facebook, the technology offers a convenient way to streamline its policy enforcement efforts. But for many cannabis reform groups and media companies that run Facebook accounts, the presentation is a window into an ongoing frustration.
The ban on content promoting the sale of federally illicit drugs has had collateral consequences for pages that post noncommercial marijuana material such as news outlets like Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. These pages have at times been hidden from search results (a technique referred to as “shadowbanning”) because the algorithm isn’t able to accurately differentiate commercial advertisements from cannabis-related news articles, for example.
Marijuana influencers and state-legal cannabis businesses have long complained about having their accounts on the Facebook-owned Instagram platform temporarily disabled or permanently blocked for depicting cannabis or advertising their services.
A policy change may be on the horizon, as the company said in March that it wants “to consider whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana and brick and mortar stores.” But for the time being, Facebook will continue to enforce the policy, and it hasn’t provided a status update on that front at the conference so far.
“It’s against our policies because it’s against U.S. federal law, so you can’t advertise marijuana on Facebook,” Schroepfer said.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.
FDA Sends Warnings To Three Companies Selling CBD Products
At the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to create a regulatory framework for hemp-derived CBD, it’s also cracking down on companies that are in its view irresponsibly marketing CBD products and making unsanctioned claims about their medical benefits.
FDA announced on Tuesday that it and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to three such companies last month: PotNetwork Holdings in Florida, Nutra Pure in Washington state and Advanced Spine and Pain in New Jersey. The letters were sent “in response to their making unsubstantiated claims related to more than a dozen different products and spanning multiple product webpages, online stores and social media websites,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release.
In a Twitter thread, the commissioner added that he was “concerned to hear recently that several national pharmacy chains and other major retailers have begun to sell or will soon begin to sell” CBD products and that the agency will “be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.”
CVS and Walgreens both recently announced they will begin selling CBD-infused products.
We’ll be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
In the press release about the warning letters his agency has already sent to CBD companies, Gottlieb asserted that they used their websites to “make unfounded, egregious claims about their products’ ability to limit, treat or cure cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, autoimmune diseases, opioid use disorder, and other serious diseases, without sufficient evidence and the legally required FDA approval.”
At the same time, the warning letters announced today make clear that #FDA has and will continue to monitor the marketplace and use our authorities to take action against companies illegally selling these types of products when they are putting consumers at risk
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
FDA is hustling to provide manufacturers guidelines on marketing cannabidiol following the federal legalization of hemp last last year, but the process is complicated by the fact that CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, Epidiolex, and remains the subject of intensive clinical testing. Gottlieb has indicated that it will take years to develop a regulatory plan for CBD without further congressional action.
In the meantime, companies that continue to choose to engage in CBD commerce should be wary about making health claims about their products. The commissioner said FDA has “limited resources” for enforcement operations, but it would take action against companies that make “over-the-line” statements.
In the press announcement, FDA listed some of the unauthorized claims that the three companies made. For example, the products were touted as being able to treat cervical cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and substance use disorder.
“I believe these are egregious, over-the-line claims and we won’t tolerate this kind of deceptive marketing to vulnerable patients,” Gottlieb said. “The FDA continues to be concerned about the proliferation of egregious medical claims being made about products asserting to contain CBD that haven’t been approved by the FDA, such as the products and companies receiving warning letters today.”
“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims can put patients and consumers at risk,” he said. “These products have not been shown to be safe or effective, and deceptive marketing of unproven treatments may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
Questions about what constitutes an unauthorized claim that would put a company at risk of enforcement action will likely come up at the agency’s just-announced public hearing CBD issues on May 31. Stakeholders are invited to submit information about the public safety impacts of CBD and how to manufacture and market products that contain the cannabis compound.
This piece was updated to include Gottlieb’s tweets about national pharmacy chains.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.