Since Prime Minister Trudeau first committed to legalize and strictly regulate adult-use cannabis in 2015, the topic has become an animated national conversation. Many Canadians are at once curious and cautious. While some reports suggest 68 percent of Canadians favour the legalization of adult-use cannabis and as many as 40 percent of Canadian adults will use legalized cannabis, 58.5 percent also have concerns about children and youth having greater access to the product.

As the clock ticks down to the July 2018 legalization deadline, many Canadians — including public-policy-makers, regulators, industry and public health advocates — are wondering about the real-life logistics of an adult-use cannabis market. How can we best encourage responsible use, protect public health and safety, and combat the illicit cannabis market? How does reliable information about cannabis reach customers, and how do we prevent those messages from unduly influencing those under 18 years of age?

While a number of provinces have set out strong direction that is designed to help protect citizens and their children and alleviate anxiety related to the process and impact of legalization, federal direction related to the marketing and advertising of the product is still being deliberated.

Recognizing these federal directives as critical to establishing a flourishing and safe adult-use cannabis market, 17 of Canada’s licensed cannabis producers (LPs), representing approximately 90 percent of the current legal medical cannabis market, together with the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council and Cannabis Canada, have joined together to develop guidelines for the responsible branding and promotion of cannabis. They did so in collaboration with Advertising Standards Canada, the national independent, not-for-profit, self-regulatory body that oversees compliance in advertising for the beverage alcohol industry, children’s food and beverages, consumer drugs and cosmetics.

If endorsed by government, the proposed Adult Use Cannabis Advertising and Marketing Guidelines for Licensed Producers will apply to the advertising and marketing of legalized cannabis products, accessories and services permitted to be sold under Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, and would come into effect alongside the rules for adult cannabis use in July 2018. Specifically, the guidelines stipulate as follows:

  • Marketing by LPs will only promote brand preference and will not attempt to influence adult nonconsumers of psychoactive cannabis products to become consumers.
  • Marketing by LPs will not be directed at people under 18 years of age, or below a province’s or territory’s designated legal age for purchase.
  • All advertising messages will contain responsible-use statements.
  • To facilitate compliance with these guidelines, LPs may voluntarily opt to submit their advertising messages to Advertising Standards Canada for preclearance prior to dissemination.
  • LPs agree to adhere to the provisions of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

Informed by work done by the Task Force on Cannabis Legislation and Regulation, existing Canadian laws and guidelines, the cannabis experience of adult users and other jurisdictions’ learnings, the guidelines are a common-sense approach to protecting youth and the safety of all Canadians. They also ensure that LPs can compete effectively with Canada’s thriving illicit market by being allowed to explain to consumers why the products they develop are better and safer than those offered by illegal sources. Indeed, for legalization to succeed, a competitive industry that effectively undercuts and ultimately eradicates the black market requires brands.

The coalition has drawn on the experience — and success — of the beverage alcohol industry in Canada to develop recommendations that, in some instances, hold licensed cannabis producers to even higher standards.

The coalition has drawn on the experience — and success — of the beverage alcohol industry in Canada to develop recommendations that, in some instances, hold LPs to even higher standards. This is as it should be: governments have been clear that their priorities related to legalization are to keep young Canadians safe, keep money out of the hands of criminals and minimize harms of use. The coalition couldn’t agree more with those goals, and the guidelines developed reflect that alignment.

For example, LPs have committed to advertise only on media or social media platforms where at least 70 percent of the audience is over 18 years of age (or over a province’s or territory’s legal age for the purchase of cannabis), as ascertained through target marketing metrics. This essentially eliminates the possibility of television and billboard promotion. Further — and this is a first for the cannabis industry, or any industry as far as we are aware — LPs also agreed to promote only brands, not cannabis itself, and to prohibit the use of cannabis strain names that are sexual in nature, are sexist or present violent imagery. Canadians should feel confident that these reasoned and reasonable guidelines strike the necessary balance of protecting public health while ensuring that the legal cannabis industry has the tools it needs to effectively counter the illicit cannabis market in this country.

More than just a series of technical rules, the proposed guidelines reflect the public and private sectors’ shared, nonnegotiable commitment to responsible and appropriate communication. The coalition’s collaborative process recognizes that this is a new, dynamic and continually evolving social and political discussion. The guidelines reflect a deep respect for — and response to — Canadians, their concerns and their continued well-being.

Photo: Shutterstock, by BestStockFoto

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Cameron Bishop
Cameron Bishop is director of government affairs at Tilray Inc., where he is responsible for Canadian government affairs activities across all levels of federal-provincial-territorial and municipal governments in the reform of cannabis laws and regulations.
Ray Gracewood

Ray Gracewood is senior vice president, communications and marketing, at Organigram.

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