Cannabis edibles are here. A year after the legalization of adult-use recreational cannabis, Canada has now introduced edibles, extracts and topicals to its legal cannabis market.
Anticipation of the legal edibles market has been tinged with both excitement and confusion: about what edibles look like and how they’re made, why their regulation is so important and how we can develop a thriving adult-use cannabis edibles market while continuing to combat the illicit cannabis market and keeping the product out of the hands of youth.
Legalization of edibles has also challenged Canadians to see cannabis as more than a combustible flower. In all of its new forms, including foods, beverages and powders, to name a few, we are marking an important evolution. As society’s overall perception and understanding of the product changes, so, too, should the applicable regulations that govern it. In an increasing number of ways, cannabis, along with its branding and advertising, has far closer parallels to alcohol than to tobacco, which it is so often aligned with.
The regulations have been strict. But perhaps they’ve been too strict. The sea of sameness from a branding and packaging point of view does little to help educate cannabis consumers and even less to help differentiate legal products from black market options.
And while most Canadian licensed producers (LPs) have supported a conservative approach to the marketing of cannabis across the country, we do need to continue to pursue a branding and marketing environment open enough that it helps consumers understand the product and its attributes while also clearly differentiating legal products from illegal products. This differentiation is important for safety and the consumer experience.
Here’s what we at Organigram know, as a licensed producer:
- Canada’s cannabis marketing rules need to prioritize the safety of adults and youth, and allow for informed, reasonable and responsible discussions about products and brands.
- Canadians should feel confident that these reasoned and reasonable guidelines strike the necessary balance between protecting public health and ensuring 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 guidelines governing the marketing and branding of adult-use recreational cannabis must reflect the public and private sectors’ shared, nonnegotiable commitment to responsible and appropriate communication.
But responsible and appropriate communication also needs to allow for educational conversations among adults.
Packaging design and branding exist to do more than create a connection to the product; they exist to educate and inform consumers. It is troublesome when branding and packaging requirements result in a less educated consumer. When makers of brands in the illicit market have the unconstrained ability to engage with consumers, but makers of tested, regulated products aren’t allowed to communicate either their benefits or information related to dosing and anticipated onset/offset of their effects, we begin to undermine the initial objectives of cannabis legalization: those of ensuring public safety.
Now, legal cannabis edibles open the door to tremendous opportunity for brands. Opportunities exist for a robust offering of more differentiated products, including terpene profiles for flavour and effect, quality attributes and rapid, more predictable onset and offset of effects.
They will also, however, bring challenges for new products that will be smaller, with little packaging real estate. How will some foods, beverages and powders accommodate labelling requirements? Add to that the challenge of developing compliant branding and packaging solutions that are also more environmentally friendly and lend themselves to easy recycling, and it is easy to see some of the potential issues along the edibles road.
Specifically, then, how can branding guidelines support the success of the cannabis industry?
- The current requirements for one-colour packaging and labelling are problematic in the retail environment. Licensed producers need a degree of latitude to help consumers familiarize themselves with and remember various brands.
- As a licensed producer, we’d also like to see more leniency to creatively introduce and provide brand information in spaces and places that are age-gated. It should be possible to share information in a reasonable and responsible way with Canadian adults without appealing to youth.
- Health Canada is also very prescriptive about the size and placement of labelling features such as logos, health warnings, THC content, etc. There is very little real estate left on a brand package once the required elements are included. Licensed producers need more space on the label. This challenge only intensifies as we move to edibles in smaller wrappers and packages.
Teams like ours have been hard at work on research and development to produce safer, more consistent products that can’t be replicated on the illicit market. This includes products with reliable onset and offset of effects, or that can be accurately dosed, so consumers have greater control over their experience. Customers need to understand the ways in which these products differ from black market products and why accessing cannabis edibles, extracts and oils from a licensed producer is a safer, more consistent option. But to do that, we need to be able to share information and offer consumers visual brand prompts that reinforce those attributes and introduce them to brands they can trust.
For example, research and development has resulted in powders that offer consumers the opportunity to not only use cannabis in new, discreet and convenient ways, but also invent their own drinks. Based on the molecular size of the powder formulation, we know the onset of effect of these drinks is estimated to happen within 10 to 15 minutes and that the duration of the effect is shorter and more consistent. However, beverages in the US, and edibles on the illicit market, tend to have a much slower onset of effect, typically within 60 to 90 minutes. For consumers expecting the same slow onset, there is a potential safety issue. To address it, producers need the ability to share the attributes of their products. Consumers should know when the effect will take place.
Canada’s cannabis industry, its products and consumers are rapidly evolving. Regulations must keep pace with an increasingly sophisticated consumer looking for even more detailed information about cannabis products. As the industry normalizes and consumers explore the product offerings of various LPs, these companies need approved ways of conveying the nuanced differences among products to an adult audience.
Distribution and retail environments are doing their job restricting access for youth, so there are reasonable concessions to be made to better balance brands’ ability to educate adult consumers with our shared commitment to public safety.
This article is part of the The Making of a Cannabis Industry: Year One special feature.
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