Article by Dexter Docherty, Policy Options
Despite projections that Canadians will spend up to $7.17 billion on cannabis in 2019, and despite the fact that 28 percent of users are already consuming edibles, our policy-makers have still to announce the regulations for this major part of the cannabis market. The federal government has promised that edibles will be legally available to consumers by October 2019, but prolonged regulatory uncertainty is bad for everyone.
Properly regulated edible cannabis products present the best opportunity to build a sustainable market for responsible cannabis consumption; however, these products also present serious short-term risks of accidental overconsumption. Canadian policy-makers should pay close attention to the legalization experience of Colorado — where edibles were initially introduced in an unregulated manner — because it provides valuable insights into the dangers of edibles.
In Colorado, edibles are a $170-million industry, with over 13 percent of the total recreational cannabis market. They are also growing in popularity: from 2014 to 2017 the consumption of edibles in Colorado grew 15.4 percent faster than the overall cannabis market. Edibles’ market share grew despite prices for smokable cannabis falling by 62 percent over this time, while the price of edibles stayed fairly constant.
It’s not clear why edibles are so popular or who consumes them, but there are indications that they are consumed mainly by newer and less frequent users. The rate of edibles consumption in Colorado is twice as high in the retail market as in the medical market, and they take up nearly 25 percent of the market in tourist areas, as opposed to in the state’s overall adult-use market, where they account for 13.4 percent. This is significant because a major problem in Colorado is that cannabis demand is driven overwhelmingly by heavy users: people who consume cannabis 21 to 31 days a month represent 26.8 percent of users but 82 percent of demand. The popularity of edibles among casual consumers may be good news for reducing the public health costs associated with long-term heavy smoking of cannabis.
Policy-makers should keep a close eye on the potential benefits of edibles, which do not cause lung damage; nor do they create second-hand smoke or odours. Furthermore, as Dalhousie University professor of food policy Sylvain Charlebois has pointed out, the cannabis plant contains many nutrients and is rich in vitamins; its use in the $200-billion food industry could be the biggest thing since the introduction and growth of gluten-free products.
Initially Colorado’s cannabis laws did not specifically regulate alternative cannabis products, even though edibles often have a more intense effect on the brain than traditional, inhaled cannabis. The effects of edibles also take longer to be felt, which can lead to accidental overconsumption by impatient users. Without guarantees of consistency in the potency of each cookie, candy or brownie, Colorado consumers were taking a risk every time they ingested edibles. If the black market is allowed to dominate the edibles industry in this country, Canadian users will be subject to the same risks.