The DEA announced a new Final Rule late last year regarding “marihuana extracts” that left many in the industrial hemp and CBD industries concerned. The new rule created a separate classification for “marihuana extracts,” which it broadly defined as “any extract containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis.” This definition facially includes hemp-based goods running the gamut from hemp rope sandals to hemp lotion to therapeutic CBD oils, but critics have countered that such a definition exceeds the prohibition of “marihuana” created by the Controlled Substances Act. Some fear the DEA’s broadening of what constitutes marijuana extracts foreshadows a more aggressive federal enforcement posture that could devastate hemp-related companies the DEA now (and always) regards as criminal enterprises.
The DEA’s rule will soon be put to a court test as The Hemp Industries Association, Centuria Natural Foods, Inc. and RMH Holdings, Inc. last week filed a challenge to the DEA rule in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Whatever the result, this court’s ruling will likely significantly impact the future of the hemp-related industry and implicate key components of the burgeoning cannabis reform movement as well.
The core of the plaintiffs’ argument is that the DEA rule conflates “marihuana”—the substance prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act—with all cannabinoids and all parts of the cannabis plant, which it lumps into “marihuana extracts.” Plaintiffs point to legislative history that in 1937 Congress chose to use the term “marihuana” because at the time there was no meaningful and scientifically valid way to distinguish between the plant itself and the constituent parts Congress sought to outlaw. Plaintiffs also point to the 2014 Farm Bill, which permitted industrial hemp production so long as the plants remain below a threshold THC level, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which prohibited using federal funds to enforce the Controlled Substances Act against certain cannabis business. Plaintiffs contend that these legislative moves, along with greater scientific understanding of the cannabis plant and the ability to isolate specific components of the cannabis plant, all indicate Congress’s intent to carve out space for these businesses to operate legally. Plaintiffs also contend that the Ninth Circuit itself, in a 2004 case, recognized that not all naturally-occurring cannabinoids are per se prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act.
Plaintiffs contend the DEA exceeded its scheduling and enforcement authority under the Controlled Substances Act by undertaking a “de facto scheduling” of substances not contemplated by the Controlled Substances Act and that Congress views as distinct from marijuana as a “drug.” Plaintiffs essentially allege that with this rule the DEA is attempting to enforce a law Congress never enacted. This is a common challenge to expansive administrative rulemakings, but its application to any particular situation can be hard to predict and it usually hinges on the court’s reading of the underlying statute and the level of deference the agency’s action deserves.
We will keep an eye out as this case progresses and pass along any important updates as they come in.