Canada needs better CBD policies to protect cannabis consumers
Despite legalization, the industry remains heavily stigmatized
MAJID EGHBALI ZARCH JENNIFER MARLOWE SANDY BRENNAN THECONVERSATION.COM
Cannabis has become increasingly common since a Canadian Senate committee first recommended legalizing the substance in 2002. They argued that prohibiting it didn’t reduce the use of cannabis products and that legalization was a better move. The goals of legalization were “to keep profits out of the pockets of criminals” and “to protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis.” In October 2018, the first sales of legal, adult-use cannabis — including CBD, or cannabidiol, products — occurred. Our research investigates how businesses strategize in the emerging cannabis industry that is still in its early stages of formation. Sellers are prohibited from making spcific health claims, but despite this, a 2021 Canadian found that unlicensed sellers often tout CBD as a natural wellness solution to many health problems and most products make health claims for medical conditions and ailments on their packaging. Consumers, seeking information, sometimes turn to unlicensed sellers of CBD products as outlined in a recent CBC Marketplace episode. While licensed retailers are subject to inspections and constrained to selling products sourced through licensed channels, the unlicensed market seems to operate outside these requirements, with little pressure from law enforcement. As seen in the CBC investigation, inadequate enforcement, combined with a lack of consumer knowledge on which products are safe and legal, leaves a gap for potentially ineffective or contaminated products to slip through. Further, testing to confirm the safety and contents of cannabis products in Canada is not easily accessible. This creates a confusing system for consumers to navigate and has hampered policymakers’ efforts to reduce illegal sales. To help understand the health benefits and risks, consumers of licensed CBD products are encouraged to speak with their doctor, rather than a retailer. Before legalization, many cannabis market participants were change agents: they enabled and advocated for access to safe and effective products, pioneering the medical market by refining strains known to help specific conditions. After legalization, many existing participants faced significant intersecting financial and social barriers to acquiring licenses needed for legal market entry. We propose the following practical recommendations that can be implemented in the short term to protect consumer health and safety: Problem 1: Consumers are unaware of the difference between licensed and unlicensed sellers. Solution: Run public education programs and social marketing campaigns, such as California’s Get #Weedwise campaign, aimed at changing consumers’ behaviour. Problem 2: There is real and perceived stigma towards cannabis and people who use it within the health-care community. Solution: Education for health-care providers, grounded in research and science, articulating the benefits and risks of medical and adultuse cannabis is needed. Problem 3: Labels and words that connote negativity (e.g., black market, criminals, weed, marijuana, pot, drugs) inhibit licensed businesses’ ability to manage stigma. Solution: Labels should try to use positive and inclusive language (e.g., legacy market, unlicensed producers and sellers, cannabis) that encourages productive conversations among policymakers, healthcare practitioners, the media and the general public. Problem 4: It is difficult to access testing for products originating from unlicensed, recreational or homegrown sources. Solution: Publicly accessible and affordable product testing is needed, regardless of licensing status. In addition, accurate and detailed labelling is necessary for both licensed and unlicensed products. It is clear that the legalization of cannabis in Canada is still a work in progress. The above steps would improve consumer safety and promote licensed supply channels. In the long-term, policymakers should engage stakeholders in re-examining CBD policies and ensure they are protecting, rather than confusing, consumers. Majid Eghbali Zarch is assistant professor in the Faculty of Business Administration; Jennifer Marlowe is research assistant in the Faculty of Business Administration; Sandy Brennan is project coordinator with Marketing and Communications at Memorial University of Newfoundland.