Questions remain over edibles rules as Molson moves into cannabis drinks
From gummy bears and lollipops to ice cream, the choices for Canadians could be endless when cannabis-infused edibles are expected to become legal a year after the legalization of recreational marijuana on Oct. 17.
But those kinds of treats may not be coming to stores or online retailers in Canada right away. Experts say any marijuana-infused food that’s attractive to children likely won’t be permitted for sale in Canada – just one of the many examples of the looming challenges that Canada’s regulators face in the legalization of edibles.
Anne McLellan, former chair of the federal cannabis taskforce, said the body has warned the government against permitting the sale of edible cannabis products that could be appealing to children.
“We learned from the experiences of Colorado, Washington and so on [in the U.S.], where in fact they had not appreciated the out-of-the-box demand for edibles,” McLellan told BNN Bloomberg on Thursday.
In Colorado, the number of cases with children experiencing marijuana exposure increased in the two years leading up to the legalization of recreational marijuana and two years after, according to a 2016 study. The state saw an average 34-per-cent rise each year in calls to poison control centres, according to the study’s author Dr. George Sam Wong.
While Canada is still working on regulations around the sale of edibles in Canada, Tammy Jarbeau, senior media relations advisor for Health Canada, confirmed to BNN Bloomberg that the department is considering measures to reduce the appeal of edibles to children such as restrictions on product forms, ingredients and flavouring agents.
“Such measures would build on the controls set out in the Cannabis Act, which prohibits products that have an appearance, shape or other sensory attribute for which there are reasonable grounds to believe that they could be appealing to youth,” Jarbeau said in an emailed statement.
But regulating “sensory attributes” such as taste will be challenging, given that the most popular cannabis-infused products are in a candy form. Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said gummy bears are the number one cannabis-infused food in the U.S. for a reason.
“Cannabis taste is very bitter and that’s why you see a lot of by-products using sugar to hide that bitterness like candies, brownies,” Charlebois said in a July 5 interview with BNN Bloomberg.
“If we are to do the same in Canada, that could pose a threat to or a danger to children.”
‘Nightmare’ for public safety
Experts said dosage, packaging, labelling, supply chain management and procurement strategies are also major issues for regulators.
“The main challenge with edibles compared to the smokable version is that edibles can be around you without you knowing. You can have someone next to you eating a cannabis- infused muffin or eating a salad with cannabis- infused oil and you wouldn’t know it,” said Charlebois.
“It’s discreet and it can be everywhere – and it can become a nightmare for public safety officers.”
Meanwhile, Ian Culbert, executive director at the Canadian Public Health Association, said the lack of research on the health impacts of different edibles is one of the greatest regulatory challenges.
“As opposed to alcohol, we have insufficient quality data around dosage of cannabis-infused [edible] products. How to define a serving size for the range of potential products will be a challenge,” Culbert said.
“There is significant pressure on regulators from the industry players who are staking millions of dollars on this new industry.”
Companies are already jockeying for position in the potentially lucrative beverage and edibles market. There’s been an “explosion of interest” in edible pot products with six out of 10 consumers saying they will probably choose to consume them, according to a report from Deloitte in June.
This week, U.S. brewing giant Molson Coors Brewing Co. announced it’s teaming up with Hydropothecary Corp. to develop cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic beverages in Canada.
With new players preparing for a market that hasn’t been defined yet, Culbert said he hopes the government’s regulations will be more restrictive early on.
“While experience from the Colorado experience will be helpful, we know that industry ran amok in the ‘wild west’ environment of the early days of cannabis legalization in that state,” he said. “We won’t have the same environment in Canada, but it will still be challenging and that’s why the government was wise to delay the legalization of edibles for at least one year.”
In terms of how regulation of edibles will impact Canada’s food industry, Brian Sterling, president of food consultancy SCS Consulting, said his clients in the sector are “increasingly anxious” about the legalization of edible marijuana products.
“[There are] concerns about gaps in regulatory regimes, lack of testing standards, questions about traceability, and a plethora of packaging and labelling uncertainties,” Sterling said.