In December 2016, the DEA issued a rule defining “Marihuana Extracts” to include extracts “containing one or more cannabinoids from any plant of the genus Cannabis.” This rule went into effect on January 13, 2017. That same day, The Hemp Industry Association, Centuria Natural Foods Inc., and RMH Holdings LLC filed a petition with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit challenging that DEA rule.
The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law that determines what substances are illegal drugs. Congress authorized the Department of Justice to add and remove substances to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and the DOJ has delegated that authority to the DEA. The DEA promulgated the “Marihuana Extract” rule pursuant to that grant of authority, meaning that products the DEA defines as fitting the “Marihuana Extract” definition are illegal substances.
Rules can have a similar effect as laws but if a rule conflicts with a law, the law will prevail. In other words, Congressional laws that conflict with a DEA rule should outweigh the DEA rules. The Petitioners who are appealing the DEA rule are arguing that the “Marihuana Extract” rule outlaws parts of the cannabis plant that Congress specifically made legal in the CSA and in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Congress placed marijuana on Schedule I of the CSA and defined it to include all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., except the mature stalks of the plant and seeds incapable of germination. Stalks and products derived from those stalks are not illegal because they are not marijuana. This distinction allowed for legal production of hemp products even though marijuana remains federally illegal. The 2014 Farm Bill also allows states to implement programs to legally grow industrial hemp. “Industrial hemp” is defined to mean “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
Prior to the “Marihuana Extract” rule, only one cannabinoid was explicitly named in Schedule I of the CSA: THC which is known for causing marijuana’s euphoric “high.” Other cannabinoids, like CBD, were not specifically prohibited. This meant products derived from mature stalks of cannabis that did not contain THC were arguably legal as no part of that product was prohibited by the CSA. Now those same products are illegal because they contain other cannabinoids that are now defined as controlled substances according to the “Marihuana Extract” definition. The definition also applies to industrial hemp grown pursuant to the Farm Bill. The Petitioners who are appealing to the Ninth Circuit argue that the DEA’s rule is inconsistent with the CSA and the Farm Bill and that the court should therefore find the rule invalid.
Petitioners also argue that the DEA failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in creating this rule. In addition to complying with the CSA, the DEA must also follow the Administrative Procedure Act, which essentially sets forth the procedures governmental bodies must follow in enacting new rules. The Petitioners argue that under the APA the “Marihuana Extract” rule invalid as it:
- Is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with other law (such as the Farm Bill and the CSA);
- Is unconstitutional;
- Exceeds the DEA’s statutory authority; and
- Was created without following necessary procedures.
This is not the first time the DEA has faced legal challenges for interfering with legal hemp. In 2001-2003 the DEA attempted to treat hemp food products as Schedule I substances because they contained trace amounts of THC. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the presence of THC does not alone make a product a controlled substance. Petitioners plan to use this ruling to assert that cannabinoids that occur in legal portions of the cannabis plant are not controlled by the CSA and may not be regulated as marijuana by the DEA.
Since the DEA issued this rule my firm’s cannabis regulatory lawyers have received a daily stream of calls from businesses wanting to know whether the CBD products they are producing, selling or buying are now illegal. Specifically, most of these callers want to know whether products containing CBD that are derived from hemp and do not contain THC are still legal. At this point, the jury (or really the judge) is still out and we — like everyone else — will be waiting to see how the courts rule.