Business

Buyer Beware: A Conversation with NORML

By Marc Lewis

In the noise surrounding CBD oil, there is no lack of enthusiasm. There is a lack of regulations. So, as a broader audience becomes aware of cannabis as a natural remedy, especially readily available hemp products, it’s important to devote ink to the risks associated with such growth. It’s important to talk about this category of products for what it is—a Wild West.

With time, our goal is to tame this West, to bring a measured voice to the space. We’ll introduce you to the thinkers and makers who are building intelligent, well-intentioned brands, and the researchers who are advancing the science of cannabinoids. But along the way we’ll also devote time to the risks associated with such promise. We’ll talk to people who have watched the tides change about cannabis for long enough to be wary of the craze surrounding hemp at this time.

We spoke with Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, about hemp-based CBD products and the greater cannabis industry. He has spent 25 years on marijuana policy. His writing has appeared in more than 1,000 publications and more than two dozen textbooks and anthologies. NORML advocates for marijuana law reform and wants a more transparent, regulated environment that rigorously scrutinizes cannabis products like other consumer goods. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Remedy Review: Can you talk to us about how your organization views hemp-derived CBD? Is it a less stigmatized entry point to cannabis, an easier introduction for new people, or do you all view it more as the latest fad?

Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML: That’s a really complex question, to be honest. NORML is a consumer-based advocacy organization. We advocate for policies that protect the consumer and when it comes to the marketplace, we want to see a regulated marketplace where the consumer is most likely be able to obtain—in an above-ground, safe manner—a product that is accurately labeled, has been tested, and is most likely to be pure and safe for the user.

I have no idea what these hemp-derived CBD products are and neither does anybody else. The problem that we see at the moment with this industry is that it is virtually unregulated and it is virtually impossible for the consumer to be able to separate good actors from bad actors in this space.

Generally, when these products, or products marketed as hemp-derived CBD products, are tested, the potency of the the constituents in the products does not match the labeling on the product. Many of these products did not contain the percentages of CBD that are advertised. Oftentimes they contain THC, even though the product claims that they do not. And on some occasions, these products don’t contain any CBD whatsoever.

We would like to see an environment where these products—and the manufacturers and the sellers of these products—are regulated like any other business.

That environment does not exist today primarily because federal law continues to define the marijuana plant and products derived from the marijuana plant as Schedule 1 Controlled Substances. Therefore, this industry largely exists in a gray area where it is a “buyer beware” environment for the consumer.

Continuing that train of thought, we thought it might be good to steer people towards products that come from states where marijuana is currently legal because there might be more stringent regulations or more infrastructure in place. Does that resonate with you? 

It does. But, by in large, when we’re talking about CBD products in states where marijuana is legal, we are talking about products that are derived from conventional cannabis and it is my understanding that conventional cannabis, far more so than what is referred to as industrial hemp, is the more viable source for CBD.

CBD is a cannabinoid. Cannabinoids are found primarily in the flowering parts of the female plant. They’re not found in the leaves. They’re not found in the stalk. The latter is primarily what industrial hemp consists of.

We’re looking at a market that is easy to get lost in. Especially around here, in North Carolina, you can go in a gas station and see a selection of CBD products. It’s worrying what people might be buying—without knowing what’s in those products.

Exactly, there could be CBD in those products. We don’t know where it was derived from. There may not be CBD in those products. There may be percentages of CBD that are far different than what’s advertised on the label. There could be THC in those products that causes people to fail a drug test.

Again, without any sort of regulation regarding who is manufacturing these products, where the source materials are, how the product as labeled, who’s selling them—it’s a total crapshoot.

A lot of companies post third-party test results on their site. We’ve also heard these labs do things differently and that one lab test may not be foolproof. Do you all have a position here?

There are potential shortcomings with regards to lab testing. Because again, the industry, the labs are not regulated under any sort of universal regulations. So, the way one lab may calibrate a machine may be different from the way another lab calibrates this machine. We’ve seen, even in states where lab testing is more regulated, the same sample of marijuana can test differently depending on which lab is doing the testing. So obviously, there’s some potential shortcomings there.

But again, my biggest concern is with the fact that when these products are randomly sampled and tested, the testing generally does not match up with the product labeling, and there are now numerous studies that are consistent in that finding. As well as the FDA’s own work in this arena that when they randomly sampled the tested products.

Do you think a third-party that could validate labels or products shipped in the mail would be valuable? 

It would depend on who’s behind it. You know, if there was third party behind this that did not have tie to the industry or some commercial incentive that might insulate the results that they publish, then there could be some value in it.

What we see as one of the biggest issues in this space and one of the reasons NORML comments on these issues, it’s because we have no ties to this industry whatsoever. We have no financial incentives to make statements like “CBD’s legal in all 50 states,” which is false.

That’s why we’re the entity that oftentimes has to correct all of this misinformation because it’s being promoted by folks who have a market stake in this industry. And oftentimes in promoting information that is less than a hundred percent accurate.

I imagine most people who talked to you ask this question, but where does someone in your position think we are in five or ten years? From a congressional standpoint or legal standpoint, are things trending toward broader access?

I do think this environment that we’re talking about specifically—hemp-derived products, CBD-specific products—I think the “gray market” is going to become far more clarified within the coming months and years.

There is legislation before Congress that addresses this issue. There are provisions in the Fiscal Year Farm Act that must be passed by Congress because of the five-year appropriation that they have to pass every five years that currently contains language that for the first time would reclassify marijuana that has less than three-tenths of one percent THC as industrial hemp. And it would no longer be classified as a Schedule 1 Control Substance under this Federal CSA. That language also broadly defines hemp to include products derived or cannabinoids derived from marijuana that’s less than three-tenths of one percent THC.

So, were that language to pass—and we anticipate that it will pass this session—it would permit states—not to federal government—to be the primary regulators of industrial hemp or products derived from industrial hemp.

That would potentially clarify some of these issues going forward. That may happen in the very near future.

As for the broader issue with regard to marijuana law reform, there are a number of pieces of legislation before Congress that if they would go to a floor vote in either the House or the Senate, they very likely would pass.

The problem with virtually every piece of marijuana law reform legislation at the federal level is that those bills must go before either the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee or the House Judiciary Committee. With the current makeup of Congress, the chairs of those committees are individuals who are publicly opposed to moving any sort of marijuana law reform forward. Absent a change in the makeup of leadership in Congress, which could happen by the Democrats taking control or the Republicans losing control, or with a sort of reassignment of who’s chairing those committees, unfortunately those kind of reforms are dead on arrival.

We won’t know until after the Midterm Elections whether there are greater prospects for those bills to move forward in the 2019-2020 session.

Right now, the way Congress is configured with the GOP in control and their chairs in control of those committees, any serious legislative reform, outside of specific niche with regards to hemp, is unlikely.

To your point about “buyer beware,” people are entering a space where they really need to do their homework. They maybe should stick to more established brands versus trying these pop-up shops or finding discount products.

Yeah, I would concur. Oftentimes these products are quite pricey. If folks are going to be turning over a significant amount of their money for a specific product, then they need to have their eyes wide open and be aware that in an unregulated market it is unclear whether the products they are getting are going to come as advertised.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He also serves as a faculty member at Oaksterdam University in Oakland and The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. His writing and research have appeared in over 1,000 publications, scholarly and/or peer-reviewed journals, as well as in more than two dozen textbooks and anthologies. He is a regulator contributor to TheHill.com as well as to numerous other print and online publications. Mr. Armentano is the co-author of the book Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (2009, Chelsea Green), which has been licensed and translated internationally. His most recent book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws (2015), is available from Whitman Publishing. He is the 2013 Freedom Law School Health Freedom Champion of the Year and the 2013 Alfred R. Lindesmith award recipient in the achievement in the field of scholarship.

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