• February 28, 2024

Into the Unknown

 Into the Unknown

Credit: Tori

Credit: Tori

Control of the U.S. cannabinoid market will be fueled by lobbying and lawsuits in 2024.

By Rod Kight

During the past six months, I have repeatedly been asked to predict what will happen with the U.S. Farm Bill. This is because the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the “2018 Farm Bill,” expired at the end of September. “Will it change?” “Will hemp be outlawed?” “Will I still be able to sell [insert THCa, delta-8 THC, D9 gummies, etc.]?” “What can we do to ensure that hemp remains legal?” Although I routinely discuss this with lobbyists and associations, the fact is that no one knows what will happen with the next Farm Bill.

Fortunately, that issue will not be decided for almost another year, which is plenty of time for the rapidly expanding hemp industry to grow even bigger.

Congress recently passed the Further Continuing Appropriations and Other Extensions Act, 2024. Included within this act is Section 102, which states:

(a) Extension.—Except as otherwise provided in this section and the amendments made by this section, notwithstanding any other provision of law, the authorities (including any limitations on the authorities) provided by each provision of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Public Law 115–334; 132 Stat. 4490) and each provision of law amended by that act (and for mandatory programs at such funding levels), as in effect on Sept. 30, 2023, shall continue, and the authorities shall be carried out, until the later of—(1) Sept. 30, 2024; or (2) the date specified in the provision of that act or the provision of law amended by that act.

President Biden is expected to sign the act.

This means that we will not likely have a new Farm Bill until the fall of 2024. Given that the 2018 Farm Bill is the basis for the hemp cannabinoid market, which Whitney Economics recently reported has a demand of $28.4 billion (more than the marijuana industry and on par with the craft beer industry), maintaining status quo for another year is a good thing for the industry.

Rod Kight

In addition to an additional window of time to continue its progress of bringing cannabis to people in the U.S., the extension will allow hemp companies to expand their sales and operations internationally. This is because hemp can cross borders, and many current hemp products meet the emerging standards set by countries who are creating cannabis programs.

This does not mean that the hemp industry will take a break from politics. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. There is a growing dispute, known as the “Cannabis Civil War,” between the hemp and marijuana industries. At stake is control over the rapidly expanding and lucrative market in cannabinoids and cannabis products. I use the term “cannabis” in this context as a generic botanical term to encompass both federally legal hemp and federally illegal marijuana. In addition to intensive lobbying efforts by both sides of the cannabis industry, there have been a number of important decisions in recent lawsuits. 

For this reason, I will spend the rest of this article discussing important rulings in four recent lawsuits filed by hemp companies and hemp organizations against various states regarding laws and rules that they contend violate state and/or federal law. My firm has worked with the hemp plaintiffs in some of these lawsuits.

Additionally, I will discuss the landmark ruling in a trademark dispute between two private parties that addressed the legal status of delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol (D8 THC) and a decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals regarding D8 THC in the context of a criminal seizure. These cases appear to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the Cannabis Civil War, and I anticipate several more to follow.

BioGen v. State of Arkansas. In this case, several Arkansas hemp companies filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking an injunction prohibiting enforcement of Senate Bill 358, enacted on April 11, 2023, as “Act 629” (the Act). This bill criminalized all hemp products “produced as a result of a synthetic chemical process” and “[a]ny other psychoactive substance derived therein.”

The hemp companies argued that the Act is preempted (i.e., superseded) by the federal 2018 Farm Bill and that its provisions are unconstitutionally vague and thus void. The U.S. District Court agreed and entered an injunction barring enforcement of the Act. In its ruling, the court made three important findings: (1) the Act is preempted by federal law under the principle of “conflict preemption,” (2) the Act is preempted by federal law under the principle of “express preemption,” and (3) the Act is unconstitutionally vague and thus void.

Maryland Hemp Coalition Inc. v. Moore. The Maryland hemp industry sought an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Maryland Code Ann. Alc. Bev. §36-1102, known as the Cannabis Reform Act (CRA), “against any person who was already lawfully in the business of selling hemp-derived products prior to July 1, 2023.”

In an expansive ruling in favor of the Maryland hemp industry, the Washington County Circuit Court found that “the interests of [the hemp industry] plaintiffs are not ‘merely academic, hypothetical or colorable,’ but rather, they are interests of survival, prosperity and, indeed, of life, liberty and property.”

In its ruling, the court addressed the issue of “whether the strict and exclusive licensing scheme under the CRA and as applied to the hemp industry is a valid exercise of legislative prerogative.” In finding it is not a valid exercise, and thus prohibiting enforcement of the CRA against the state’s hemp industry, the court ruled that the CRA “creates a monopoly that unfairly excludes many from their right to continue, or enter, a profession of their choosing, all to the detriment of the public.”

The Washington County Circuit Court went on to state that “[b]ased on the evidence and argument offered thus far, the court cannot find a rational basis to support the exclusive and exclusionary licensing scheme that has put plaintiffs out of their legitimate businesses.”

In short, the court found that the CRA creates an illegal monopoly, it unlawfully puts legitimate hemp companies out of business, and it is a “severe” and “Draconian” licensing scheme that fails to “actually benefit the communities found to have been impacted.” It also noted that the plaintiffs were not challenging the health and safety portions of the CRA.

Northern Virginia Hemp and Agriculture LLC v. the Commonwealth of Virginia. Several Virginia hemp companies sought an injunction prohibiting enforcement of SB 903, which state lawmakers enacted “in response to the growing concerns regarding delta-8 and other adulterated hemp products on the market.” The restrictions placed on hemp products by SB 903 are dramatic enough to destroy most of the state’s hemp industry.

The hemp company plaintiffs argued that SB 903 was preempted by federal law, namely the 2018 Farm Bill. The hemp companies made two preemption arguments. The first was based on federal and state definitions of hemp, and the second was related to the ability of Virginia hemp processors to ship or transport hemp through the commonwealth. The U.S. District Court found that these arguments failed, and the court denied the request for an injunction. Consequently, SB 903 is currently in effect.

Sky Marketing Corp. dba Hometown Hero v. Texas Department of State Health Services. Several Texas hemp companies filed a lawsuit and sought an injunction prohibiting the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) from enforcing a rule it promulgated that made D8 THC a controlled substance.

The Travis County District Court ordered the DSHS to “remove from its currently published Schedule of Controlled Substances the most recent modifications of the definitions to the following terms: ‘*(31) tetrahydrocannabinols’ and ‘*(58) marihuana extract’ and any subsequent publications of the same (if any) until further order of this court.”The court further “enjoin[ed] the effectiveness going forward of the rule stated on DSHS’s website that delta-8 THC in any concentration is considered a Schedule I controlled substance.” Consequently, D8 THC is not a controlled substance in Texas.

AK Futures LLC v. Boyd Street Distro LLC.Unlike the cases summarized above, this case did not arise from a lawsuit filed by hemp companies. Rather, it arose in the context of an intellectual property dispute between the two private parties. The plaintiff, AK Futures (AK), makes vaping products. It sued Boyd Street Distro (Boyd) for infringing on its trademark and copyright rights by selling a fake version of its “Cake”-branded vaping products that contain D8 THC.

In an unusual defense, Boyd argued that AK’s case should be dismissed because its trademark rights were unenforceable based on its position that D8 THC is illegal under federal law. In ruling for AK, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the injunction issued by the lower court, ruling the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the D8 THC products. Specifically, the 9th Circuit held that D8 THC is not a controlled substance under the plain and unambiguous text of the 2018 Farm Bill and that it fits within the legal definition of “hemp.”

The court also found that the method of manufacture is irrelevant. Since most D8 THC is produced through an isomerization of cannabidiol rather than an extraction from the plant, this portion of the ruling is particularly notable.

Elements Distribution v. State of Georgia. This case arose out of a criminal seizure in which the plaintiff, Elements Distribution LLC (Elements), sought the return of business records, money and products from law enforcement. In February 2022, Gwinnett County, Georgia, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant upon a warehouse owned by Elements and seized business records, currency and edible and nonedible products containing D8 THC and D10 THC.

The warrant was issued based on the affidavit of a law enforcement officer that Elements had violated OCGA §16-13-30(b), which prohibits the possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute by possessing and selling products containing D8 THC and D10 THC. In ruling that Elements was entitled to a return of the seized items, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that the warrant authorizing the seizure was not supported by probable cause.

The state argued that even though D8 THC and D10 THC are not themselves controlled substances, edible products containing them are controlled substances unless those products also meet the definition of “hemp products” under OCGA §2-23-3 of the Georgia Hemp Farming Act. The court found the state’s argument to have “no merit” and ordered the state to return the items it seized from Elements.

As the cases above demonstrate, there is a growing body of case law regarding the legal status of hemp and hemp products, particularly D8 THC. Of note is an emerging trend by hemp companies to sue state agencies regarding laws and regulations that severely restrict distribution of the products they sell.

The 2018 Farm Bill, which is the foundational federal law regarding the legal status of hemp, has just been extended to Sept. 30, 2024. Meanwhile, the Whitney Economics report discussed at the beginning of this article found that total demand for hemp-derived cannabinoid products exceeds that of the marijuana industry and is on par with the craft beer industry.

The latter report and extension of the 2018 Farm Bill means we can expect to see the Cannabis Civil War—and lawsuits regarding hemp products—continue in 2024.

Based in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, Rod Kight is a world-renowned attorney in the cannabis industry.