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Health

Government faces balancing act on marketing, packaging of legal marijuana

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  • VANCOUVER — David Brown’s marijuana marketing students are often shocked to learn how difficult it is to — well — market marijuana.

    Advertising medical cannabis is essentially banned in Canada, with some exceptions. Restrictions on recreational weed are set to be a bit looser, but Brown still advises students to think of the constraints as opportunities.

    “These limitations can really aid in creativity. Marketing weed isn’t difficult, but marketing a highly regulated cannabis product is a lot more of a challenge,” said Brown, an instructor in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s cannabis professional series.

    As legalization looms, observers say Ottawa faces a tricky balancing act on marketing. Large growers say branding is necessary to convince consumers to switch to the legal market, while health advocates call for plain packaging and strict advertising limits.

    The Cannabis Act, which would legalize recreational marijuana next July, would restrict marketing similarly to tobacco. It would ban promotion that appeals to youth, contains false or misleading statements or depicts people, celebrities, characters or animals.

    It would allow ads that present facts or promote brand preference. But they could only be shown in places where youth are not legally allowed, or broadcast if “reasonable steps” have been taken to ensure they “cannot be accessed by a young person.”

    The rules have been criticized as hazy. It’s unclear, for example, whether a commercial could air before a TV show or movie that is intended for adult audiences or how Internet ads would be policed.

    Health Canada spokeswoman Tammy Jarbeau said the “reasonable steps” to ensure an ad cannot be seen by a young person would depend on the circumstances. For example, websites could use age verification mechanisms, she said.

    “This would provide an opportunity to communicate factual information about cannabis, as well as information about a product’s brand characteristics, to allow adult consumers to make informed decisions,” she said.

    She said the government was not considering changes to the advertising provisions of the legislation, but if it’s passed by Parliament, Health Canada will develop guidance documents to help industry comply with the rules.

    Seventeen licensed producers have formed a Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Branding and put forward proposed guidelines, including that ads be allowed on TV, radio and websites where at least 70 per cent of the audience is expected to be over 18.

    Provinces can introduce additional marketing rules. Quebec’s framework allows some ads in newspapers and magazines where 85 per cent of readers are of the legal age, as well as in displays inside cannabis stores.

    “Offloading it to the provinces is not the answer,” said Lindsay Meredith, a Simon Fraser University marketing professor, who added it can lead to “spillover advertising,” where ads that comply with rules in one province are shown in another where they don’t.

    Mark Zekulin, president of Canada’s largest licensed producer, Canopy Growth, said branding breeds accountability. If consumers are going to be more likely to remember their experience, companies will put more effort into ensuring it’s a good one.

    “If everybody’s in the same white packaging, maybe they’ll remember what they bought, maybe they won’t,” he said.

    Health Canada recently proposed regulations that would limit the use of colours and graphics on packages and require labels to have specific product information, mandatory health warnings and a standardized THC symbol.

    They would also restrict brand elements, including requiring a standard font, size and colour relative to other information on the package. Public consultation on the rules ends Jan. 20.

    Restrictions on fonts, graphics and colours open the door to brand prohibition, limiting the ability of companies to differentiate from each other and the black market, said Brendan Kennedy, president of Tilray, a leading licensed producer.

    “What you’ll see is a race to the bottom, where all these products are essentially competing on price,” he said. “You’ll see less investment in high-quality products.”

    Rebecca Jesseman of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction said the regulations were positive overall but restrictions on brand elements should be clearer.

    “It’s a tricky balance, because we don’t want to promote increased use and we don’t want (packaging) to be flashy, but we do certainly want to use it as a way to convey information effectively,” she said.

    “I think we’re looking at something that’s informative, truthful and perhaps a little bit bland.”

    Canada can learn from U.S. states that have legalized pot. Colorado allows print, radio, TV and Internet ads if there’s reliable evidence that 70 per cent of the audience is over 21, while Washington state requires ads to contain a number of warnings.

    Colorado banned promotions that appeal to kids when it legalized cannabis, but over time the rules became more specific, including prohibiting edibles shaped like animals, said Lewis Koski, the state’s former marijuana enforcement director.

    The federal government has given itself extra time to allow edibles, such as candies and cookies, in the marketplace, with regulations expected by July 2019. Koski, co-founder of consulting firm Freedman & Koski, praised the strategy.

    “Health Canada has done a really, really good job,” he said. “They’ve been very thoughtful in their approach and they recognize that this is going to take some time and it’s going to evolve.”

    The department said companies that violate the advertising or packaging rules, if passed, could face licence suspensions or revocations, fines of up to $1 million and potentially be referred to police.

    Brown, the Kwantlen instructor, said he expects Health Canada to make examples of those who don’t comply early on. The department already sends a stern letter about once a year to all the licensed medical producers, he said.

    “Inevitably, it’s a cycle where they all agree and they all comply, and then six or seven months later, they tend to drift away from that compliance,” he said. “We’ve yet to see any enforcement of that.”

    — Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

    Laura Kane, The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Former B.C. premier says pot industry about to enter Wild West period

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  • VICTORIA — Canada is about to enter a new gold rush with many dreaming of striking it rich in the marijuana industry, says former British Columbia premier Mike Harcourt, who has staked his own claim in a medicinal marijuana company.

    But Harcourt said Friday there will be plenty of losers during the rush as qualified and unqualified entrepreneurs search for marijuana wealth. 

    Harcourt, 75, invoked the images of past gold-fever eras during a keynote address about marijuana therapy at the annual B.C. Pharmacists Association gathering in Victoria. He mentioned the once thriving B.C. gold-boom town of Barkerville and the Klondike gold rush that sent thousands of people to Yukon during the 1890s.

    “We’re in for a wild ride for the next couple of years,” said Harcourt. “The shakedown is going to happen. There’s going to be winners and losers.”

    Harcourt said professional groups like pharmacists, who have expertise in dispensing quality products, will be in the forefront of the marijuana industry once recreational pot use becomes legal.

    “The issue of assuring quality control, every time, is going to be the key,” he said. “The key people in this industry are going to have to really lead the charge.”

    But Harcourt said the industry can’t ignore the reality that it will be competing with organized crime groups that have long-standing black market links to marijuana. He said cannabis is believed to be the largest agricultural crop in B.C., valued at $6 billion annually.

    “That’s not going to go away quickly or easily,” said Harcourt.

    In a 2016 report the Cannabis Growers of Canada put the annual value of marijuana sales in B.C. at about $4 billion on the low end and up to $7 billion on the high end. A 2004 Fraser Institute report estimated the value of B.C.’s annual marijuana crop at $7.1 billion.

    The former premier said he has become a backer of medicinal marijuana and is the board chairman at True Leaf Medicine Inc., located in B.C.’s north Okanagan. The company is building an indoor marijuana growing warehouse and research facility that covers more than 2,300 square metres.

    “We’re going to develop medicinal cannabis products as scientifically as possible,” Harcourt said. “Getting high is not our focus. It’s get well.”

    Medicinal marijuana can be used for treatment of pain, anxiety and Crohn’s disease, he said. Harcourt said he plans to volunteer for tests of the medicinal marijuana products developed by the company.

    In 2002, Harcourt broke his neck in a six-metre fall off the deck at his Pender Island cottage. He went through a lengthy recovery, and still has some paralysis.  While Harcourt regained much of his mobility, he continues to walk with a cane.

    “I’m going to try and use medicinal cannabis and make myself a guinea pig in our own company to deal with pain management,” he said in an interview.

    “I think it will help with the paralysis and the stiffness in my hamstrings and around my gut, and some of the stiffness in my extremities from the paralysis in my fingers and the bottom of my feet and my toes.”

    Harcourt was the mayor of Vancouver for six years before moving to provincial politics and served as premier from 1991 to 1996.

    He is not the only former politician to support the marijuana industry. Former B.C. health minister Terry Lake and federal cabinet minister Julian Fantino, a one-time Toronto police chief, are now involved with medical marijuana companies.

     

    Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press



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    Health

    Regulator investigating Halifax chiropractor’s posts on vaccination

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  • HALIFAX — A Halifax chiropractor is under investigation by a provincial regulator for social media and online posts questioning vaccination.

    John Sutherland, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Chiropractors, confirmed Friday the college’s registrar filed a complaint against Dr. Dena Churchill on May 17.

    “These statements cannot be out there on behalf of a professional,” Sutherland said in an interview.

    He said Churchill has used various social media platforms to air her views on vaccination, something he says is “outside the scope of chiropractic practice.”

    The college’s website contains a statement to that effect, and also says, “The Nova Scotia College of Chiropractors recognizes that vaccination and immunization are established public health practices in the prevention of infectious diseases.”

    In an email, Churchill declined an interview regarding her situation with the college.

    “Thank you for the opportunity but at this time I must gratefully decline,” she said.

    “It is a great public service to explore and report on the current research. There is so much we think we know that just isn’t so.”

    Under the college’s procedures, Sutherland said the registrar had to counsel Churchill to comply with the college’s requirement to remove the public information. He said since then there has only been “partial compliance.”

    “The college was very clear to its members,” Sutherland said. “Whether your site or your platform is clinical or personal it doesn’t matter, if you are attached to it, it has to come down.”

    Sutherland said Churchill has 10 business days to respond to the complaint before it is reviewed by a committee that can fine, suspend a licence, or refer the matter to a hearing that would have the same status as a court.

    “Normally a suspension of a licence is done if there is a concern that the public may be in immediate risk or danger,” he said.

    Churchill has until June 1 to respond, while the committee will review the complaint sometime during the first week of June, Sutherland said.

    Churchill, who also promotes herself as an author, public speaker and health innovator, writes about health issues including vaccination in a blog entitled Dr. Sexy Mom.

    A CBC report which first revealed the regulator’s investigation said Churchill had posted online videos including one which alleges the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a financial bias related to vaccines. It also pointed out that in the video Churchill says that she’s not representing chiropractors.

    Information that is still accessible includes the blog where in one post Churchill talks about studies that link health effects to increased numbers of vaccines.

    Her Twitter feed also directs people to studies and articles against vaccination.

    Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press


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