Government Faces Balancing Act on Marketing, Packaging of Legal Marijuana

Article by Laura Kane, The Canadian Press via CTV News

Government faces balancing act on marketing, packaging of legal marijuana. A pharmacist register a bag of legal marijuana as he sells it to a customer, at a pharmacy in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. Uruguay's pharmacies began selling marijuana at a state-regulated price, to citizens that have previously registered to be able to buy. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

David Brown’s marijuana marketing students are often shocked to learn how difficult it is to — well — market marijuana.

Advertising medical cannabis is essentially banned in Canada, with some exceptions. Restrictions on recreational weed are set to be a bit looser, but Brown still advises students to think of the constraints as opportunities.

“These limitations can really aid in creativity. Marketing weed isn’t difficult, but marketing a highly regulated cannabis product is a lot more of a challenge,” said Brown, an instructor in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s cannabis professional series.

As legalization looms, observers say Ottawa faces a tricky balancing act on marketing. Large growers say branding is necessary to convince consumers to switch to the legal market, while health advocates call for plain packaging and strict advertising limits.

The Cannabis Act, which would legalize recreational marijuana next July, would restrict marketing similarly to tobacco. It would ban promotion that appeals to youth, contains false or misleading statements or depicts people, celebrities, characters or animals.

It would allow ads that present facts or promote brand preference. But they could only be shown in places where youth are not legally allowed, or broadcast if “reasonable steps” have been taken to ensure they “cannot be accessed by a young person.”

The rules have been criticized as hazy. It’s unclear, for example, whether a commercial could air before a TV show or movie that is intended for adult audiences or how Internet ads would be policed.

Health Canada spokeswoman Tammy Jarbeau said the “reasonable steps” to ensure an ad cannot be seen by a young person would depend on the circumstances. For example, websites could use age verification mechanisms, she said.

“This would provide an opportunity to communicate factual information about cannabis, as well as information about a product’s brand characteristics, to allow adult consumers to make informed decisions,” she said.

She said the government was not considering changes to the advertising provisions of the legislation, but if it’s passed by Parliament, Health Canada will develop guidance documents to help industry comply with the rules.

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