What’s at stake in FDA’s CBD regulation debates?

An industry is booming around the buzzy, hemp-derived compound—even though it's not yet legal.

At a packed hearing that lasted all day Friday, officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) listened to more than a hundred advocates argue for and against CBD in the food supply.

It marked the agency’s most public foray to date in its efforts to regulate CBD, the common name for cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound found in hemp and marijuana. The substance has rapidly gained widespread popularity despite a lack of scientific consensus on whether or not it actually works.

CBD is not technically allowed in the food supply. After the 2018 farm bill made hemp legal, FDA clarified that it still reserved the right to regulate CBD—making the substance effectively illegal in commercial food products until the agency issues its rules. But retailers have been quick to stock these products anyway, and FDA has largely looked the other way. Even major retailers, like CVS and Neiman Marcus, already carry CBD products in their stores. Highly visible packaged food brands, on the other hand, are waiting for FDA to establish policy before wading in. The day before Friday’s hearing, Ben and Jerry’s announced it would be open to debuting CBD-infused ice cream as soon as the agency rolls out its plan.

A March study estimated the CBD market could reach $16 billion by 2025.
Despite this seemingly overwhelming corporate confidence in the safety and commercial potential of CBD products, comments on Friday were mixed. Researchers cited a lack of clinical trials and spotty ingredient regulations as sources of concern. Parents worried about addiction and side effects. Food manufacturers emphasized the importance of legal clarity throughout the process. Other advocates raised concerns about dosage, pesticide contamination, and long-term health impacts.

Ambiguity resulting from the 2018 farm bill, which effectively created a disconnect between what’s legal to grow (hemp) and what’s legal to put in food (who knows?), has made the CBD boom a mixed bag for farmers. Though producers have long been excited about hemp’s potential to generate new sources of revenue, the current regulatory uncertainty has left some hedging their bets (or, perhaps more accurately, betting their hedges). WSHU, Connecticut and Long Island’s public radio affiliate, reported Monday that small-scale farmers who have grown hemp for years under local pilot programs worry new regulations will be prohibitively expensive. In the worst-case scenario, one said, cumbersome regulations could open a window for large-scale corporations to out-compete experienced small-scale farmers.

It may take years for FDA to fully clarify its stance on CBD. However, the agency’s principal deputy commissioner tweeted on Friday that the agency would work “as quickly as possible” to move forward, emphasizing the need for more research.

Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot of money riding on FDA’s decisions. A March study estimated the CBD market could reach $16 billion by 2025. But investors seemed to cool a bit on CBD after Friday’s hearing, which one analyst said “highlighted the messy state of the industry.” According to MarketWatch, cannabis stocks were mostly down on Monday.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.