Federal regulators have scheduled the first public hearing on whether to allow adding CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, to food.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told lawmakers Wednesday that Congress had sent a clear message in December when they legalized hemp in the U.S. Farm Bill. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Gottlieb reassured Rep. Chellie Pingree that finding a pathway to allow small, nonpharmaceutical-level doses of cannabidiol, or CBD, into food products is an agency priority.

“We are deeply focused on this,” Gottlieb told Pingree. “You have my commitment that I am focused on this one.”

During wide-ranging testimony that covered the definition of milk to the proliferation of e-cigarette use among children, Gottlieb revealed that the FDA was forming a working group of senior department officials to come up with CBD rules and would hold a public hearing in April. He said he wanted to find a pathway for low levels of CBD to be added to food while encouraging drug companies to continue to develop high-dose CBD-based medicines.

Last June, the agency approved the first CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, to treat severe tremors in patients diagnosed with particular kinds of epilepsy. The FDA said that approval, as well as clinical trials being conducted on other CBD-based drugs, means that CBD cannot be added to food even though hemp itself is now legal to grow. Federal law forbids the manufacture or sale of drug-infused foods.

The vast majority of Maine’s hemp farmers raise their crop for eventual use in the CBD market, fetching up to $200,000 an acre for a high-quality harvest. The CBD craze has jump-started Maine’s hemp industry. What began in 2016 as a small pilot program, with two farmers cultivating a quarter of an acre of hemp, has grown into a 550-acre industry employing 82 licensed hemp farmers, according to 2018 state data.

Pingree told Gottlieb that Maine state lawmakers are trying to find a way to perpetuate the state’s hemp industry, and are currently developing a framework to allow for the in-state growing and sale of hemp-derived CBD. Gottlieb pledged that he would return to Congress to discuss a legislative fix if his agency determined that its rule-making process was going to drag on for two or more years.

“I realize this is complicated, but I just want to emphasize the need for some sense of urgency around it, the timing of this,” Pingree told Gottlieb. “So many of our states have legalized hemp, have growers growing … CBD is being sold in a lot of places, and it’s created an enormous amount of confusion … The role of the FDA confuses everyone, I think.”

Maine lost its share of what is estimated to be a $600 million national market last month when state inspectors cracked down on CBD foods, warning state retailers that they could no longer sell what federal authorities consider to be an unapproved food additive. But state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, has introduced a bill to allow for in-state cultivation and sale of food made with locally grown hemp-derived CBD as long as producers do not make any health claims.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]

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