Three ways to have a say in Canada’s weed laws

Time-sensitive chances to weigh-in on how the country regulates cannabis

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The clock is ticking down, a hand hovers over the bell, a trainer is shouting “hang on! Just a few more seconds!” from the corner of the ring. Canada is in the throws of the first round of cannabis legalization.

The match started in October of last year—the veteran black market in one corner, the rookie hotshot Health Canada in the other. Both came out swinging, and both have landed some stellar blows. The entire arena is awash with the hollering and jeering of fervent fans: companies, consultants, consumers, and media, all will heavy bets invested in one of them lying facedown, dejected and bloodied, by the end of the match.

For anyone gnashing their teeth and writhing in frustration at the way Canada has chosen to demonstrate its leadership as the first G7 country to legalize cannabis, here’s a chance to have a say. Three, in fact.

Edibles, topicals, and extracts

Tomorrow (February 20) is the last chance to weigh-in on Health Canada’s 60-day public consultation on the regulation of a new set of cannabis products.

While headlines would lead the non-cannafluent reader to believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suddenly unshackled weed from a near-century of prohibition, the nascent legal landscape is both underdeveloped and far more regulated than ever. There are major systems missing needed to create an optimal supply chain and huge swaths of the population are underrepresented in the existing market.

The federal government initially decided it would start the legal industry on rations and slowly increase the offerings, allowing only a handful of licensed producers and a few compliant dispensaries to legally sell five types of products: dried and fresh cannabis flower, plants, and seeds. One of the promises made early on was, if all goes well, Health Canada would create regulations permitting more types of cannabis to be sold in the legal retail market within a year.

Considering the country’s youth haven't suddenly become victim of a mass psychosis epidemic (which was a real concern of many senators during preliminary debates), and Canadians are demanding more product diversity—it’s time to level up.

The next set of products on the legislative chopping block are edibles, topicals, and extracts. Edible cannabis products include food and beverages infused with the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while "topicals" cover things like creams and balms used commonly for skincare and pain relief. Extracts are concentrated forms of cannabis pulled from the plant using methods like heat, pressure, or chemicals, which can then be vaporized or “dabbed” and inhaled.

On December 22, 2018, Health Canada published the proposed regulations for the new class of goods in its official newspaper, Canada Gazette. Since then, the regulatory body has been asking for feedback by way of an anonymous digital questionnaire, mail-in letter, or email. And the more detailed the response the better, says Andrea Budgell, a manager for Health Canada’s Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Branch, during a public teleconference last month (January 28).

The benefit to having more products on the market really boils down to the consumer benefit. Limiting product selection to either a low concentration oil or dry flower is restrictive in terms of a consumer's preferred dose and health practices. A Deloitte report released last year, for example, projected a large portion of the population is interested in various forms of consumption methods when legally available, estimating six out of 10 Canadians will choose to eat their cannabis products, rather than inhale. 

But Health Canada isn’t going to let these products into the market place without several safeguards in place first. The proposed addendum outlines a number of stipulations, including THC limits, preparation and facility guidelines, labeling requirements, and packaging standards.

For example, the framework outlines a THC cap on all three product classes. Budgell later clarified in the open conference call that of the more than 100 cannabinoids, the only one being regulated at this point is THC. For example, Health Canada suggests a limit of 10 milligrams of THC per discrete unit and per package for edibles. This means "a package could contain one edible product (such as a cookie) that contains 10 milligrams of THC; or two products that each contain 5 milligrams of THC". Some advocates argue the suggested limit is too low, while others argue the pre-legalization market wasn't provinding enough consistency to represent the potency of a true lab-tested 10 miligram edible.

Under the proposed regulations, marketing, packaging, and labeling will be equally as stringent as the laws applied to flower and oils. One major difference, however, would increased space allotted for “mandatory information” (like the ingredients in an edible or addatives in extracts), which could be placed on a peel-back or accordion panel. A major concern stemming from the existing packaging requirements is the excessive waste being produced by the plastic bottles used to carry bud. When asked about whether or not Health Canada was considering a more sustainable solution, Budgell differed to the companies and licensed producers themselves to impliment environmentally conscious practices.

It is also proposed that any cannabis accessory containing an extract must carry the standardized cannabis symbol on the exterior display surface: the red stop-sign with a white pot leaf. While this was suggested to prevent youth or accidental consumption, some advocates express an issue around a lack of discretion considering the prevalent stigma associated with smoking pot.

Several other proposed regulations are outlined on Health Canada's website.

Tobacco and vaping products act

As advances in cannabis extract technology continues in an upward trajectory, there is a noticeable spike in the use of vaping products across North America, particularly among Canada’s youth.

For example, the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey (CSTADS) reported a 64 per cent increase students between grades 10 to 12 vaping between 2014 and 2017. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a much more dramatic increase, citing up to an 80 per cent usage spike amongst American teens. Schools are struggling to keep up with the increasing popularity of the device amongst their student body, and parents are unarmed considering the little amount of scientific evidence exploring the impacts of long-term use. 

As a result, the federal government announced intentions to implement measures aimed at limiting vape product advertising. Health Canada says it is “very concerned” about the increasing number of Canadian youths using the devices, and marketing restrictions would help prevent teens and other "non-users of tobacco" from being "induced" into experimentation.

Heath Canada believes the potential for nicotine addiction will undercut the federal government’s efforts to limit tobacco use and claims the risk of lung damage directly jeopardizes the heath and safety of the country’s youth.

The government does, however, acknowledge vaping is a less harmful option than cigarette, reporting that “32 per cent of current or former cigarette smokers who had ever used vaping products reported using it as a quit-smoking aid”.

The regulations would restrict advertisements at any retail points of sale where youth is allowed (including online), in public places young people may frequent, like malls and parks, and in media, both in broadcast and print that has children's programming.

While the limitations would only impact the advertising of vaping products, these laws will directly come in contact with cannabis products considering inhalation is one of the leading consumption methods. Not all e-cigarettes or vaporizers contain weed, but they are incredible popular devices for ingesting cannabis extracts and concentrates. Any restrictions or regulations in this area will impact weed businesses—from extraction companies to vape cartridge and hardware manufacturers—and their customers.

Certain provinces, including British Columbia, have already enacted legislation to limit the advertising of vaping products, but many, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, have no legislation in place. Recently, Ontario began moving in the opposite direction, loosening restrictions around marketing e-cigarettes.

Health Canada is taking feedback the proposed restrictions, which aims to limit the content and location of said advertisements, as well as other forms of retail promotion, by email or a letter to the Controlled Substances and Cannabis Branch.

It is important to note that Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control aims to protect any laws from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry. As such, the federal government says it is the law to disclose potential conflicts of interest when providing feedback. 

While an individual must divulge a potential bias favouring Big Tobacco, the same is not yet mandated of those involved in the vaping or pharmaceutical industry. Nevertheless, Health Canada is asking parties with any invested interests do so anyways. The consultation ends March 22, 2019.

Don’t Tax Medicine campaign

While the federal government is not asking Canadians for feedback on the levies applied to cannabis products, that’s not stopping grassroots organizations and advocates to push for a response anyway. Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijauna (CFAMM) started a public awareness campaign around a “morally wrong and bad policy for Canada”.

When the plant was legalized on October 17, Health Canada placed an excise duty on all legal cannabis products. Considering the Liberal party's intention was to allow for a recreational market, rather than a healthcare system, this levy is in line with the those already placed on alcohol and tobacco. The charge amounts to $1 per gram of cannabis, or 10 per cent of the retail price, and a standard sales tax. 

Manufacturers have to pay the excise duty to the federal government, 75 per cent of which is invested back into the provinces and territories. Consumers pay for the sales tax at the retail point.

CFAMM is calling for the federal authority to eliminate all taxes on cannabis products and suggests the charge is discriminatory considering the number of patients who rely on the plant for its medicinal properties.

With the 2019 Federal Budget being announced at the end of this month, the organization is urging Canadians to contact federal finance minister Bill Morneau and local members of parliament (MP). The organization's hope is the response will pressure the government to remove taxes on cannabis before the budget is finalized.

"After 31 years working for the police service, medical cannabis has been essential in treating my PTSD," said Vincent Lefaive, retired Durham Regional Police Service sergeant and medical cannabis patient in a release. "Taxes on medical cannabis reminds me that many Canadians who depend on this important treatment are struggling with the cost of their medicine."

The organization crafted a digital letter linked to an MP generator, making it an incredibly simple process to send feedback.

The repsonse reads: “Medical cannabis is not recreational. Patients don't use it to have a good time after a long day at work. It is medicine, needed by approximately 300,000 Canadians, and it’s authorized by health care professionals to treat serious medical conditions. Medical cannabis patients are struggling with the costs of their medication. By putting an excise and sales tax on this necessary medicine, the government is making it harder for patients to afford their treatment. These unjust taxes result in more stress on public health systems, and that cost is passed on to all taxpayers.”

The federal government has really just taken a slice out of the cannabis manifesto with its initial regulatory approach—start low, go slow. It may be hard, impossible for some, to survive off the intravenous drip of legal products and suppliers, but it seems as though Health Canada has every intention of considering feedback and adjusting over the coming years.

Trudeau made it clear when he strapped on the proverbial boxing gloves that his main goal was to deliver a T.K.O to what he dubs "the black market". What he was actually referring to is an autonomous, self-regulating web of growers, advocates, patients, and entrepreneurs, all of whom who would like a say in how the plant gets regulated. But, frankly, those who don’t speak up now can't complain about not being heard later.

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