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Comment: Now comes the tricky part

Cannabis edibles are a looming regulatory headache

Delicious cannabis brownie with marijuana leaf isolated on white background.

Legalizing cannabis recently was the easy part. Just wait until Canada gives its thumbs-up on edibles. For months now, the focus has been on the smokable version of the drug, some oils and gels, and that’s all. As the cannabis-friendly market matures in Canada, we still have no idea how edibles will be marketed, when they become legal in less than a year.

Health Canada is undoubtedly struggling to get its regulatory head around how to legalize edibles. Little has been said or published by the federal regulator so far. Edibles were added to Bill C-45 at the eleventh hour, which caught Health Canada by surprise. Now that October 17 has come and gone, the clock is officially ticking — they now have until October 2019 to come up with a framework for edibles. At present, most Canadians can legally get high and grow cannabis plants in their own home. In other words, consumers can cook and prepare dishes with cannabis as they wish. So in effect, edibles are already out there.

When surveyed, consumers indicate that edibles are clearly on their radar. According to a poll by Dalhousie University, 93 per cent of consumers who support legalizing non-medicinal cannabis would also be willing to try an edible product. Case in point: this past week, oils and gels in most provinces were all sold out. This is clearly a precursor of the demand for edibles. Many Canadians, it seems, are longing for the day when they can legally try a muffin, pasta sauce, or other food infused with cannabis.

But in reality, Canadians have had access to edibles for several years. Even if most cannabis-infused food products are still illegal in Canada, anyone can go online and purchase an edible product from the U.S. All of this is unregulated and dangerously unmonitored in Canada. Most of us know very little about cannabis, so having access to these products is a frightening thought. We have already heard of incidences where children in Canada accidentally ingested edibles, and this in just the last few months. A little public education would come in handy and would make Ottawa’s grand social experiment a safer one for all concerned.

Including edibles as part of Ottawa’s legalization bill was necessary to better protect consumers. Health Canada will now need to look at several factors to make edibles safer. The first issue is obviously related to labelling and packaging.

Not all cannabis is created equal, so labels would need to articulate the potential effects of these products. Packaging should also be distinctive and carefully thought out. Also, we should keep in mind that some companies may opt to introduce edibles without the THC, the active ingredient in cannabis which induces its psychoactive effects. After all, a good number of people are going to want to consume cannabis yet maintain a healthy lifestyle, without getting high.

Dosage is another issue of course. But last, and most important, the list of food products allowable under the new law should be drafted with extreme caution. Currently, candies are the highest-selling cannabis-infused food products in the U.S. It would be surprising if Canadians were to accept the moralities and ethics of selling cannabis-infused candies. Just the thought of it would make any parent dread Halloween night. The whole idea of trick-or-treating could be a very different experience next year, and a frightening one for many indeed.

Nobody can really predict the market potential for edibles. Safe to say that it will likely be in the billions of dollars annually, by the time we get to a place where cannabis isn’t as stigmatized as it is now, in perhaps 10 years or so.

Cannabis as an ingredient has the potential to become a game changer, especially for the beverage industry. The beer industry has already made waves by showing an interest in cannabis-infused beer, as well as other drinks. Molson-Coors and Constellation Brands, owners of brands like Corona, have already made their intentions public.

In the U.S., since cannabis became legal, the beer industry has lost significant market shares, as high as 20 per cent in some cases. Coca Cola has also made some announcements about cannabis-infused products. In the snacking sector, though, companies have remained mute, principally because no one really knows what will happen with the regulations.

With a clearer sense of what the rules and restrictions will look like, industry can better appreciate how to deal with this possible opportunity. Edibles for medicinal purposes are nothing new in Canada. In fact, Health Canada has always encouraged consumers to ingest cannabis and in fact deems it the safest way to consume cannabis.

But now that cannabis for non-medicinal use is legal, things are going to get complicated. Edibles are inherently inconspicuous. Unlike the smokable version, cannabis-infused food products cannot usually be detected, smelled or seen. It’s going to get tricky from here on in.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.



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