Protecting Your Brand and Trademarks in the Cannabis Space Following the 2018 Farm Bill
The 2018 Farm Bill  relaxed restrictions covering hemp-based cannabis products, and it is causing a shift in business strategies in the industry. Instead of a full prohibition of trademark registrations covering cannabis goods or services, a narrow range of filings is now permitted, so long as they conform to the requirements of the Farm Bill and the latest USPTO guidelines. While the regulatory framework is still being developed, cannabis-related business owners who could not previously receive federal trademark protection are now reconsidering their trademark strategies.
The principal change from the 2018 Farm Bill is that while all cannabis products derived from marijuana are still prohibited by federal law under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), those derived from hemp are now permitted, albeit still tightly regulated. Hemp-based cannabis products are defined as those that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana. Accordingly, certain products and services derived from hemp are now legal under federal law, and the USPTO has published guidelines that allow narrow federal trademark registrations covering them.
The USPTO had previously refused any trademark application that covered cannabis products or services. In response, many businesses have filed state-law trademark applications in jurisdictions in which marijuana has been legalized, although this provides only limited protection. Businesses have also tried to circumvent the federal prohibition by filing for goods and services tangentially related to marijuana or cannabis, such as apothecary or pharmacy services for medical marijuana, or services for the provision of information and/or advocacy for cannabis and its uses. The policy at the federal level is still to refuse these applications that cover goods and services that are legal on their face but are in fact related to marijuana. But that policy is now moot for certain hemp-related applications that conform to the new guidelines.
Even for applicants that have succeeded in registering trademarks for cannabis-based products under facially legal goods and services descriptions, attempts to enforce these marks can be hollow. During the course of litigation, it may become clear that the activities of the trademark owner are not permitted under federal law. These registrations are still valuable to block other filers as well as to signal that a business is adopting and is willing to enforce a particular mark, but the new USPTO regulations can provide substantially more protection to businesses that sell qualifying hemp-related products or services.
Under the new USPTO guidelines, marks covering hemp-based cannabis products and services are permitted to be registered as long as they contain no more than 0.3 percent THC and are otherwise legal under federal law. Accordingly, there are certain exceptions and requirements, which include the following:
The 2018 Farm Bill left jurisdictional responsibility for regulating certain products to the FDA. As of now, the FDA does not permit cannabidiol (CBD) to be sold in food or drug products. Accordingly, registrations for marks that cover “foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD” are still prohibited. This restriction applies only to CBD at this point. Other non-CBD hemp-based food or drug products would be permitted registration so long as they conform to the applicable FDA guidelines. Also, CBD products that are not a food or drug may still be permitted registration as long as they do not fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction or are not otherwise prohibited by other federal laws. See USPTO Examination Guide 1-19.
For marks covering cultivation and other services related to hemp-based products, applications will be examined not only for compliance with applicable USPTO requirements but also for compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill and applicable state laws. Applicants must show that they have an applicable state license to provide their services, as not all states follow the 2018 Farm Bill’s guidance for hemp products, and in many states, these products are still illegal for commercial purposes or highly restricted.
The new guidelines also allow for applicants to amend pending applications covering cannabis products to conform to the new requirements. To do so, the applicant must limit the list of goods and services to products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC and submit any required documents showing that the goods and services covered are legal. The application’s filing date would also be amended to coincide with the legalization of hemp-based products, and the USPTO would conduct a new search of the register for prior marks to account for the later filing date.
Under the new regulations, cannabis businesses should consult a trademark attorney to consider their options to protect their trademarks on a federal level. Although the law is in flux and uncertainty abounds, there are several points from a trademark-filing strategy perspective to keep in mind when considering filings under the new guidelines:
The new, narrow USPTO guidelines will not be helpful to every business operating in the cannabis space. Businesses that will be helped either already offer or are considering offering hemp-derived goods and services that contain less than 0.3 percent THC, goods that do not constitute food or drug products that contain CBD, and goods that are not otherwise in conflict with FDA or other federal laws or guidelines.
A large number of trademark applications will likely be filed for hemp-based products soon, regardless of their applicants’ qualifications. Businesses should explore their options and file quickly, and keep in mind that it will be difficult to show prior use to oppose a third-party filer, as any such use was likely illegal under federal law.
Because the USPTO can suspend applications for good cause, it is logical to expect the USPTO to grant suspensions of applications while applicants are in the process of obtaining a license to cultivate hemp-based products.
Creating even more uncertainty, the 2018 Farm Bill has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to derive regulations for hemp-related activities that fall outside of the FDA’s jurisdiction. The USPTO is expected to quickly adopt new guidelines to conform to the USDA.
Narrowing an existing application to conform to the new requirements will significantly narrow the filing. After such an amendment, the application cannot be amended back to cover the previous broader range of goods and/or services. If an applicant anticipates a change in law and can draw out the application process to wait for such a change, it may be advisable to file a new application that conforms to the new guidelines rather than amending the old one. The applicant can then keep the broader application alive to preserve their options.
In some cases, existing registrations may have made it through the examination process, even if they cover goods and services that were prohibited under federal law at the time of filing. If this is a possibility, businesses should consider their options for re-filing based on the new guidelines which on their face do not apply to amending existing registrations.
The new marijuana legalization framework being put in place state by state, most recently in Illinois, has raised more questions than answers in the state-regulatory sphere. However, until now, the federal guidelines were clear, as all cannabis-related products were prohibited under federal law. After the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, this is no longer the case. As the law in the cannabis sphere unfolds, businesses should work closely with a trademark attorney to explore options for protecting their valuable brands.