Can Employers Require Employees to be Vaccinated Against COVID-19?

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As we have discussed in previous Coronavirus-related blog posts, employers have a general duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards where possible (meaning that such hazards are either nonexistent, eliminated, or reduced to a safe or acceptable level).  While most regions have tiered or priority programs in which newly-released COVID-19 vaccines will only be made available to certain age groups or industry sectors after higher-risk individuals are vaccinated, as the vaccines are made more widely available, “essential” employers and employers who may be planning to resume or increase the scope of their on-premises operations may see vaccination as an important tool to ensure the maximum level of safety within their workplaces.

These employers likely have many questions about COVID-19 vaccines, such as whether they may be able to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition to being permitted at the workplace, how a vaccination program implicates disability and other related privacy issues and laws, and whether not requiring such vaccinations (or leaving it up to employees) could open them up to potential liability.

Addressing some of these concerns, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released guidance for employers regarding workplace vaccine mandates (see Section K). While the EEOC guidance does not make any blanket rule regarding the permissibility of mandatory vaccinations, it does give recommendations on how an employer should navigate the various concerns that arise in administering a vaccination program.  (But be aware that state health departments may release guidance or rules different from the EEOC and that union workers in particular may have collective bargaining agreements containing particular rules that must be taken into account.)

Vaccines are not Medical Examinations Under the ADA, but Employers Should be Careful with Inquiries Surrounding a Vaccine

The EEOC guidance initially provides that the administration of Coronavirus vaccines is not considered a “medical examination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but that employers should be careful when posing any pre-screening vaccination questions to their employees that might implicate the ADA’s rules regarding inquiries which are likely to elicit information about an employee disability.  Any pre-screening questions (i.e. to determine whether there is a medical reason that would prevent the employee from receiving the vaccine) must be job-related and consistent with business necessity – an employer must have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee that does not answer pre-screening questions and does not receive the vaccine will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of herself or others.  Though the EEOC has previously stated that “based on the guidance of the CDC and public health authorities […] the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard,” this assessment may change moving forward, and an employer’s response to the “direct threat” concern will likely differ depending on industry and other workplace contexts.  In workplaces with significant worker density or customer contact, the threat is generally considered greater than in workplaces with limited interpersonal contact or the ability to work from home.  Under the guidance, these concerns apply equally to requests for an employee to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine – the request by itself is not a disability-related inquiry, but any questions asking for reasons for not obtaining a vaccine may be.

The guidance identifies two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked of employees without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement.  First, if the vaccination program is voluntary rather than mandatory, an employee’s decision to answer screening questions is also voluntary.  In such case, if an employee declines to answer screening questions an employer can decline to administer the vaccine, but the employer cannot retaliate against that employee in any manner for her decision.  The second circumstance is when employees receive an employer-required vaccination from a third party not under contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy.  However, the guidance cautions that any employee medical information obtained in the course of a vaccination program must be kept confidential by the employer, and that employers should advise employees not to provide medical information to the employer when providing proof of vaccination.

If an Employee Cannot Receive the Vaccine due to Disability or Religious Belief, Employers Must Try to Make Accomodations Where Feasible

Per the guidance, if an employee indicates that she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability, employers must conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether there is a direct threat to the health or safety of others in the workplace – the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm.  An employer cannot exclude an unvaccinated employee from the workplace unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation to that employee that will eliminate or satisfactorily reduce the threat without undue hardship to the employer.  If such a threat cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can forbid the employee’s physical presence at the workplace.  However, this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the employee – in some cases, the employee may be able to work remotely or may be eligible to take leave under various Coronavirus-related legislation, state law, or the employer’s own policies.  Employers should be sensitive to accommodation requests by employees and should engage in an interactive process that takes into account the nature of the industry, the employee’s role, CDC or other health official guidance regarding the current prevalence and severity of Coronavirus outbreaks, and whether an accommodation poses significant expense or difficulty to the employer.

The same standards and practices apply if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief prevents the employee from receiving the vaccine – while an employer should assume that a professed belief is sincerely held, if there is an objective basis for questioning the claimed belief, the employer may be justified in requesting additional information.

Further, the guidance refers to FDA literature providing that particularly because the COVID-19 vaccine is available under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) instead of traditional FDA approval, any person may opt out of receiving the vaccine.  As such, even if it is unclear whether disability or religious concerns motivate an employee’s decision to decline a vaccine, an employer should still likely make whatever reasonable accommodations are possible based on individualized assessments of the four factors described above.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is not Implicated by Employer Administration of a Coronavirus Vaccine

The guidance provides that because the COVID-19 vaccines, even though they use mRNA technology, do not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions or require the employer’s acquisition or the employee’s disclosure of employees’ genetic information.  However, as with disability concerns, employers should be careful to avoid pre-screening questions that specifically seek to obtain “genetic information” about their employees, which can include information about family medical history.

Practical Impacts for Employers Based on the Guidance

Based on the foregoing, employers, depending on the industry and the threat that unvaccinated workers may pose in a particular workplace, may find it easier to encourage but not necessarily require Coronavirus vaccinations, and, if vaccinations are required, employers may find it easier to have employees obtain the vaccines from third parties rather than the employer administering the vaccines.  Employers who do decide to create a vaccination program should create a thoughtful, formal process that both demonstrates reasonable efforts to maintain a workplace free of “direct threats” given the context of the business and takes the various health and privacy-related laws into account.  Protocols should be well-documented, including pre-screening questions and opt-out situations but, again, documentation must be held confidentially and employee inquiries should be narrow.  In some industries (for example, the California health care industry), employers are required to offer certain vaccines to their employees free of charge (and to provide technical information to employees regarding the vaccine itself), though it is unclear whether that requirement would be expanded to all California employers with respect to the COVID-19 vaccine.

An employer with employees who decline to take the vaccine may wish to have those employees sign a statement acknowledging the risks to that employee in making that decision, similar to the declination statement required in health care workplaces in California, and/or a liability waiver.  The employer may also want to post prominent signage or bulletins in its workplace regarding its Coronavirus protocols (which is already required in many instances) that includes some manner of information about the business’ vaccination policy in order to allow customers and others who enter the premises to be informed.  While such documentation may not eliminate liability, it may help to reduce it.

As always, the law surrounding Coronavirus issues in the workplace is constantly evolving.  The foregoing is not intended to be an exhaustive representation of federal, state, and local laws and directives regarding COVID-19, but is rather general information about some of the EEOC’s latest positions and how employers might be able to utilize those positions in the context of the particulars of their own workplaces.  Employers should always consult with the experienced attorneys before taking steps to implement a vaccination policy.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date and are ready to help employers understand and implement practices regarding the Coronavirus vaccine in their  particular workplace circumstances.

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Will 2019 be the Year of Federal Cosmetics Regulation?

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2019 is starting to look like the year Congress may make good on its efforts to pass federal cosmetics reform legislation, with legislation in the works in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives that would increase federal regulatory oversight for cosmetics. In addition, Senate and House committees have been active in demanding more information and action from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure cosmetics safety.

Feinstein/Collins Personal Care Products Safety Act Bill

As they have in previous sessions of Congress, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) re-introduced the “Personal Care Products Safety Act” (S. 726) in March, a bill that would strengthen the FDA’s efforts to regulate ingredients in personal care products.

The Personal Care Products Safety Act bill would amend the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA) by:

  • • Requiring annual registration of cosmetic facilities with the FDA and impose tiered registration fees;
  • • Requiring cosmetic ingredient statements for all cosmetics, including fragrances, flavors and colors, as well as a range of possible amounts of each ingredient;
  • • Providing the FDA the authority to suspend registration of a facility (and any import, export or distribution of cosmetics from the facility) or a cosmetic ingredient statement (and all cosmetics that are the subject of the statement) if there is a reasonable probability of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans;
  • • Directing the FDA to review ingredients and non-functional constituents, including coal tar chemicals) for safety at a rate of at least five ingredients per year;
  • • Directing the FDA to issue regulations to establish Good Manufacturing Practices for cosmetics;
  • • Requiring timely reporting of serious adverse events and annual reporting of adverse events;
  • • Allowing the FDA wide authority to inspect records;
  • • Providing mandatory recall authority to the FDA;
  • • Requiring labeling of cosmetics that are not appropriate for use in the entire population, including warnings that vulnerable populations, such as children or pregnant women, should limit or avoid using the product;
  • • Requiring ingredients, warnings and statements on professional products;
  • • Requiring complete label information to be placed online for online sales of cosmetics; and
  • • Requiring a telephone number or electronic contact information on the label.

In the first year, the FDA would evaluate the safety and appropriate use of the following five chemicals, which could be banned from cosmetics or limited in their allowed use:

• Diazolidinyl urea, which is used as a preservative in a wide range of products including deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, bubble bath and lotion.
• Diethyl phthalate, which is used as a binding agent in some fragrances and cosmetics.
• Methylene glycol/formaldehyde, which is used in hair treatments.
Propyl paraben, which is used as a preservative in a wide range of products including shampoo, conditioner and lotion.
• Quaternium-15, which is used as a preservative in a wide range of products including shampoo, shaving cream, skin creams and cleansers.

Pallone/Shimkus Discussion Draft

Meanwhile, House Energy & Commerce (E&C) Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) in March released a bipartisan discussion draft of legislation that is very similar to the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which is expected to be introduced in the House soon.

Action by Congressional Committees

Congressional committees have also been flexing their investigative and oversight muscles by demanding additional information from and calling for more action by the FDA, separately from the status of any reform legislation.

After the FDA announced in March that its testing (almost two years after the fact) confirmed the presence of asbestos in cosmetics, including eye shadows, compact powders and contour palettes, sold in 2017 at children and teen stores Claire’s and Justice stores, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, called for further investigation by the FDA into whether cosmetic products that contain talc “may be contaminated with asbestos.”  Sen. Murray is also urging the FDA to conduct additional testing to ensure the safety of cosmetic products containing talc, and in particular cosmetics that are marketed to children and teenagers.  Separately, Sen. Murray demanded that Claire’s provide more information about the possible sources of asbestos contamination and the process and procedures Claire’s takes to assess the safety of its products before they reach customers.

There have been further regulatory and legislative developments on these subjects in June 2019. Additional cosmetics, including a JoJo Siwa makeup set sold by Claire’s, were found to be contaminated with asbestos and were recalled in June 2019. Rep. Pallone then sent a letter to the FDA requesting updated information about the agency’s inspections of imported cosmetic products. Specifically, Rep. Pallone sought FDA foreign inspections data from Fiscal Year (FY) 2017-2019, including the number and kinds of personal care products imported each year, the number of imported products subjected to inspections each year, and the number of contaminated products intercepted each year. According to Rep. Pallone, the FDA has not conducted any foreign cosmetic inspections in FY 2019 and intends to conduct no foreign cosmetic inspections in FY 2020.

This was not the first such request to the FDA, as Rep. Pallone previously sent a letter to the FDA requesting similar information in 2016. In response, the FDA stated that in FY 2016, less than one percent of cosmetic products that arrived in U.S. ports were physically examined by FDA inspectors; of those inspected, inspectors reported adverse findings such as illegal color additives and microbial contamination in 15 percent of the imports.

The push toward federal cosmetics reform has been many years in the making, and now gathers industry support from such heavyweights as The Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble.  While the industry by and large appears to agree that updates are needed to the current regulatory system and would increase consumer confidence, there are concerns about the extent of the reform and the scope and breadth of the power to be vested in the FDA.  Key stakeholders are involved in the process and engaging with the House, Senate and FDA. 

While it remains to be seen whether 2019 will be the year of significant cosmetic legislation reform, one thing is certain – increased regulation for the personal care products industry is inevitable, and the question is just one of how much regulation and the extent to which the FDA will preempt state and local regulations.

Cosmetics manufacturers should take heed as they plan their product formulations, manufacturing and labeling of existing and planned product lines, whether made in the U.S. or abroad. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stand ready to help clients plan their responses to current and developing regulatory changes affecting the beauty industry.

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California’s SB 574 and AB 495 Would Expand Regulation of Cosmetics Labeling and Ingredients

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California has always led the way when it comes to regulating cosmetic products, and bills recently introduced by Senator Connie Leyva (Senate Bill No. 574 or SB 574) and Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Buffy Wicks (Assembly Bill No. 495 or AB 495) is in keeping with California’s reputation as a trailblazer in the cosmetics regulatory space.

SB 574, the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019”

SB 574, the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019,” was introduced last month. It would require cosmetic manufacturers, starting July 1, 2020, to disclose whether any of their cosmetic products contains a toxic fragrance or flavor ingredient.

Fragrance or flavor ingredients that appear on any one of 27 “designated lists” would be subject to public disclosure. The designated lists include chemicals listed as known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity pursuant to California’s Proposition 65; chemicals classified by the European Union as carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins; chemicals included in the European Union Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern; and Group 1, 2A or 2B carcinogens identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) among many others.

Existing law – the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (“Safe Cosmetics Act”) – requires cosmetic manufacturers to disclose to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Safe Cosmetics Program whether any of their cosmetic products contain chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. The Safe Cosmetics Act’s list of reportable ingredients is compiled from a more far limited set of five designated lists. This self-reported information, in turn, is publicly available through the CDPH’s Safe Cosmetics Database.

While the Safe Cosmetics Act does not exempt fragrances and flavorings from being reported, the reportable chemicals in those cases are often identified simply as “trade secrets.” The proposed legislation would require the disclosure of the identities of the reportable chemicals or ingredients, but for trade secret purposes, would not require the weight or amount of a fragrance or flavor ingredient to be disclosed or any disclosure of how the fragrance or flavor is formulated. In addition, a manufacturer would not have to disclose any fragrance or flavor ingredients that are not found on any of the 27 designated lists. It is important to note that SB 574 as proposed would not ban or otherwise regulate the use of any fragrance or flavor ingredients.

AB 495, the “Toxic Free Cosmetics Act”

AB 495, also introduced in February 2019, would amend both California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law and the Safe Cosmetics Act.

California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law prohibits the manufacture, sale, delivery, holding or offer for sale of adulterated cosmetics. AB 495 would greatly expand the definition of an “adulterated cosmetic” to include cosmetics that contain specific ingredients. Any cosmetic that contains lead or asbestos or any of the following 13 intentionally added ingredients – without regard to the amount or exposure levels – would be banned from sale in California:

  • Butylparaben
  • Carbon black
  • Dibutyl phthalate
  • Diethylhexyl phthalate
  • Formaldehyde
  • Formaldehyde releasers
  • Isobutylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Mercury and related compounds
  • Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
  • Propylparaben
  • Toluene
  • Triclosan

The bill would also amend the Safe Cosmetics Act by requiring referrals to be made to the Department of Justice for any sale of adulterated cosmetics, as well as any violation of the Safe Cosmetics Act.

If passed, the legislation would have the effect of requiring companies doing business anywhere in the United States to reformulate their cosmetics to remove these ingredients, effectively creating a nationwide ingredient ban. The bill comes as the FDA confirmed that cosmetic products sold in 2017 by Claire’s and Justice tested positive for asbestos.

It has become clear that California’s leadership position on cosmetic regulation has effectively driven changes in cosmetic products and labeling throughout the United States. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will continue to follow and update these important developments affecting the cosmetics industry.

Update on AB 495 as of April 9, 2019

Efforts to pass AB 495 have temporarily stalled.  On April 9, 2019, the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee postponed a scheduled vote to move the bill to the Assembly Health Committee due to lack of support.  The bill is not expected to be brought back again until next year. It is anticipated that the bill will be in a revised form when reintroduced.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel will continue to monitor the developments of AB 495.

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Breakthrough: CBD is Almost Legal

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We have posted previously about the difficult circumstances facing consumer product manufacturers who want to follow the popular trend to include CBD in their products, ranging from food to cosmetics and beyond.  We are now pleased to report that some clarity had been added in the just-enacted 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, and the path to including CBD in consumer products is becoming much easier.

The big breakthrough in the 2018 Farm Bill is that it legalized hemp by changing troublesome language in the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in two important ways. First, it removes hemp and any hemp derivate from the definition of “marihuana.” Hemp is defined as any part or derivative of the cannabis plant with 0.3% or less THC (dry weight). This change means that CBD derived from hemp will no longer be considered a controlled substance under the CSA. Second, the Farm Bill amends the definition of “Tetrahydrocannabinols” or THC to exclude the THC that is found in trace amounts in hemp.  This was important because THC is a psychoactive ingredient, and trace amounts that are too small to cause psychoactive effects might otherwise compel hemp and its products to be treated as controlled substances.

This change is exciting news for companies who are eager to follow the market trends of adding CBD to products.  Even though CBD remained technically illegal under federal law prior to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, sales of consumer products containing CBD already exceeded $350 million in 2017. That number is expected to jump significantly with the availability of legal CBD and the entry into the market of companies who were hesitant to incorporate CBD into their products because of the questionable legality.  Still, companies that are eager to incorporate CBD into their products should proceed with caution if they want to ensure that their products are legal under federal law.

While some might believe that all CBD is now legal, that is not correct.  Not all CBD will be legal, and manufacturers must take care to assure and document that the CBD they use comes from legal sources.   For one example, CBD derived from cannabis plants with more than 0.3% THC (dry weight) remains illegal under federal law.  CBD is only legal if it is: (1) derived from hemp, and (2) produced by a licensed grower in a manner consistent with the Farm Bill and associated federal and state regulations.

The Farm Bill invites states to submit a plan to the US Department of Agriculture that outlines how the state will monitor, license, and regulate the production of hemp. State departments of agriculture must consult with the state’s governor and chief law enforcement officer on the plan. If a state does not have a plan approved by the USDA, the USDA will have available a federal program for monitoring, licensing, and regulating hemp production. Hemp and its derivatives are only legal if grown under license pursuant to these state or federal programs.

It is clear that not all CBD has become legal overnight. The state and federal licensing and regulatory programs under which hemp can be legally grown will take months to establish.  Once such programs are established, businesses should engage in due diligence to ensure that the CBD they are purchasing is derived from hemp grown under license from state or federal programs, and they should maintain documents to be able to demonstrate the chain of production.

This welcome development is a major crack in the dam that prevented cannabis-derived products from entering consumer markets.  Watch for more soon, as other federal regulatory agencies such as the FDA consider controlled ways to permit CBD to be added to foods and pharmaceuticals.

CK&E attorneys will continue to monitor and stay up to date on the development of state and federal CBD ingredient and hemp cultivation programs, and are ready to help clients navigate complex and rapidly-changing federal and state regulatory schemes. If you have questions in this or other regulatory areas, contact CK&E at [email protected] or 310-998-9100.

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What do Goop, Sexual Energy, Jade Eggs and CBD Have in Common?

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Answer: Unproven Health Claims

Goop, a life-style branding company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, was recently fined $145,000 by a consortium of California Counties for making exaggerated and false advertising claims about its products.  The makers and distributors of everything from clothes to perfume, and face cream to condoms, Goop has a well-documented history of over-the-top marketing claims.  In the action brought by the County District Attorneys, the government took exception to the claim made by Goop regarding its Jade Egg product.  Goop claimed among other things that the egg product, when inserted into the vagina, prevented uterine prolapse and improved sex.  In the parlance of the regulators, this was an unsubstantiated or unapproved new drug claim.

In similar fashion, cannabidiol oil or “CBD” products are at the forefront of aggressive (sometimes overly aggressive) health and medical claims. Everyone knows about “medical” marijuana, and CBD is one of several “active” ingredients found in marijuana and hemp plants which is often associated with the beneficial effects of the plant: pain relief, stress or anxiety relief, anti-nausea, and anti-inflammatory.  This phenomenon has lead to a budding market in consumer products featuring CBD, accompanied by assertive health claims.  The CBD market already covers a wide range of products, including cosmetics (skin creams), food products  (edibles), and even CBD laced beer.  To add to the confusion, a compound found in marijuana was recently approved by the FDA for treatment of a rare seizure disorder.

And this highlights the problem, especially for marketers of cosmetics.  The only FDA-approved medical claim for marijuana compounds is directed to a rare seizure disorder, and this is a tiny market. To make a valid advertising claim that a  skin cream product treats, for example, eczema, psoriasis or a rash, the company or brand would need to have FDA approval of the active ingredient for that particular disease or condition at issue.  Absent such approval, the marketing claim would likely be regarded as an unapproved new drug and subject to regulatory fines and seizure.  Thus, for example, if you want to make a skin-protectant claim for your product, you would need to use one of the FDA approved ingredients for such claims, and limit the claim to the language approved in the FDA monograph for skin protectants.  To illustrate the point, witch hazel is one of the FDA approved skin protectant active ingredients. If you use witch hazel as an ingredient in your product, in the correct percentage, it would allow you to make the claim “[r]elieves minor skin irritations due to either i) insect bites, ii) minor cuts, and/or iii) minor scrapes”.

The point of all this is to make sure that your advertising claims are reviewed and approved by experienced legal counsel.  This is a common area for regulatory action, as well as private class actions.  The FDA routinely polices the internet looking for unsubstantiated and unapproved new drug claims. When the FDA finds a violation, it sends out a warning letter that will look something like this.  You do not want to be the first one on your block to own one of these.  Consult your CK&E attorney before you put a label on your product, make an advertising claim on your website, press send on an email blast promotion, or even drop a product catalog in the mail.  Yes, even old school mailers can get you in trouble.

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CBD is Turning Up Everywhere – But is it Allowed?

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One of the hottest trends in many industries is the addition of cannabis-derived extracts to consumer product formulas.  This is likely driven by the widespread popularity of local and state attempts to legalize medical or recreational marijuana use.  The personal care product industry is no exception to the trend, as any number of new product lines from moisturizers to mascara are being released with cannabis extracts in their formulations.  Cannabidiol (CBD) is turning up in all types of consumer food and drink products, from honey to craft beers.Honey with CBD

The cannabis plant contains over 113 known cannabinoids, or naturally-occurring compounds that interact with receptors in the human body, including cannabidiol (CBD) and THC. Since psychoactive effects are often attributed to the THC ingredient, it is generally avoided in consumer products, but CBD is considered to have no psychoactive properties and is becoming a popular ingredient, as is its cousin, hemp seed oil.  Some believe CBD can have health benefits – but more about that later.  In the current confusing state and federal legal environment concerning marijuana, many consumer product companies are wondering, is it legal to include CBD in my products?  The short answer is no. The long answer is “it’s complicated.” And the most important answer is that the environment is changing fast, so in the near future the question may become moot.

To understand the current complications, a little background on cannabis extracts is essential.  First, hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis sativa plant.  Various cannabis extracts can be sourced from different parts of the cannabis plant in a variety of ways. The most common cannabis extracts used in personal care and many other products are hemp seed oil and CBD oil. Hemp seed oil is produced by cold-pressing the seed of a hemp plant, while CBD oil is generally produced from the leaves and flowering tops of either a marijuana plant or a high-CBD hemp plant. Marijuana has high amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces the “high” of marijuana. Hemp, on the other hand, typically contains only trace amounts of THC, but can be bred to have high amounts of CBD. While hemp seed oil differs from CBD oil, the legality of the two are intertwined. In short, hemp seed oil imported from abroad is legal, while hemp seed oil sourced from hemp grown in the United States may be legal in certain circumstances. CBD oil, on the other hand, is at present illegal under federal law under all circumstances.

Sterilized seeds and oil and cake made from the seeds of the cannabis plant (we’ll refer to these as “Hemp Oil” for the sake of simplicity) do not fall under the purview of the Controlled Substances Act (the CSA), which regulates federal U.S. drug policy. Hemp Oil is not deemed to be a controlled substance, so the production, distribution and possession of Hemp Oil is legal.  However, there are heavy regulations on the cultivation of “industrial hemp” (cannabis plants with THC concentration <0.3% by dry weight) from which Hemp Oil is derived. In simplified terms, Hemp Oil must be either imported into the U.S. or derived from industrial hemp legally grown pursuant to a 2014 Farm Bill. Pursuant to the 2014 Farm Bill, industrial hemp may only be grown for commercial purposes under specific pilot programs that have been adopted in particular states.

Unlike Hemp Oil, CBD is most easily derived from the leaves and flowering tops of cannabis plants.  CBD sourced from the leaves and flowering tops of the marijuana plant is illegal under the CSA, because the leaves and flowers of cannabis plants are not exempt from the definition of the CSA. But CBD can also be derived from industrial hemp, and since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill it was commonly believed that CBD derived from legally grown industrial hemp would be legal. But it’s not that simple.  In 2017 the DEA implemented a final rule specifically targeting cannabinoid extracts, which includes CBD extract, regardless of its source. The final rule defined a new category of “marihuana extract” under the CSA that specifically rendered cannabinoid extracts a controlled substance illegal in general distribution and use. The DEA reiterated that any such cannabinoid extracts substance “will continue to be treated as Schedule I.”

The legality of the DEA’s new “marihuana extract” definition is questionable, but at present the new category of “marihuana extract” stands under the CSA, making CBD illegal under federal law. Hemp Oil is still legal and available for use in personal care products if imported into the US or grown pursuant to the state-licensed commercial hemp grower pilot programs. In May 2018, the DEA issued an internal directive acknowledging that products and materials made from the cannabis plant that fall outside of the CSA’s definition of marijuana (such as “sterilized seeds incapable of germination, and oil or cake made from the seeds”) can be “sold and otherwise distributed throughout the United States without restriction under the CSA or its implementing regulations.” But this directive does not make CBD legal in the DEA’s view.

Despite the dubious legal status of CBD oil and to a lesser extent Hemp Oil, many companies are choosing to forge ahead and add cannabis extracts to their products. Many such risk-takers believe that DEA enforcement against CBD-containing products is virtually nonexistent, and demand for consumer products containing CBD is high, so the potential risk is outweighed by perceived market benefits.

That conclusion is reinforced because there is a widespread perception that soon all these concerns could go up in smoke. Congress has begun action to remove industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana under the CSA. Such a move would also remove any extracts derived from hemp from the new definition of “marihuana extract.” Reports indicate that Congress may pass the bill before the end of 2018, effectively making CBD oil derived from hemp legal across the United States.  If that comes to pass, the product manufacturers who decided to jump the market and add CBD to their products even when it was legally dubious to do so may feel vindicated.

Honey with CBD Benefits ClaimedBut CBD is not a magic elixir that relieves brand owners from overreaching in their labeling and advertising.  In a future blog post, we’ll address the hazards of claiming health benefits from use of non-medical products, including those containing CBD.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the fast-changing regulatory federal and state landscape.  If you have questions in this or other consumer product regulatory areas, contact CK&E at [email protected] or 310 998-9100.

 

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