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Cannabis Budding romance: Cannabis retailers woo consumers for Valentine’s Day

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A Valentine's display of grinders and pipes at Nova Cannabis in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., on Feb. 12, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

This Valentine’s season, some recreational cannabis companies have been trying to draw a link between their products and the romantic holiday that has been a boon for florists, greeting card publishers and chocolate makers for years.

For the past two weeks, Aurora Cannabis Inc. has been running a campaign in Alberta promoting a strain of cannabis sativa under the AltaVie Cabaret brand. The campaign includes posters and some digital videos in 35 stores in the province, with a pink background, telling customers, “This Valentine’s Day, send flowers. The dried kind.” Postcards distributed in stores tell people to “get the fire burning” with the product, which it describes as “stimulating” and ideal for pairing with “a romantic dinner, a sensual massage, [and] a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.” To put a finer point on it, the company also produced “Do Not Disturb” door hangers.

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Aurora isn’t alone. A wave of other cannabis producers and retailers have sought to cash in on the consumer this Valentine’s Day through in-store advertising and online campaigns.

“There has obviously recently been increased consumer interest around the role that cannabis can play in intimacy," said Aurora spokeswoman Heather MacGregor.

The Valentine’s Day push comes just months after marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Canada and underscores the pressure brands are facing to gain an edge in the nascent sector as they attempt to navigate a stringent set of marketing regulations set by Health Canada. Their efforts highlight some grey areas that still exist around the rules for cannabis promotion – regulations, similar to those for cigarettes, that are aimed at keeping legal pot out of the hands of minors.

Before launch, Aurora’s campaign was scrutinized by the company’s legal and regulatory teams, Ms. MacGregor said. The company believes it is compliant partly because the ads are not attempting to recruit new users, but are speaking to people who “have already decided to go into a retail outlet," Ms. MacGregor said, adding that in Alberta people under the age of 18 are not allowed in stores.

Many cannabis companies are looking to such “age-gated” environments in hopes that they will have more leeway to market their products. But the definition of an age-gate varies, and there are differing interpretations of what kind of information is allowed.

The Cannabis Act specifies that some promotion of cannabis products is allowed in “a place where young persons are not permitted by law,” but even in those environments there are limits: Promotions are allowed if they provide information about the product (such as its THC levels, ingredients and other facts) or if they are intended to establish “brand preference.” But they cannot be “associated with a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring” or with positive or negative emotions. The question for cannabis companies promoting gifts or consumption of cannabis around Valentine’s may be whether the link to romance and intimacy constitutes such a link to vitality or excitement, or to emotions.

Canna Cabana, owned by publicly traded High Tide Inc. in Calgary, is one of the retailers promoting Aurora’s Cabaret inside their stores as a Valentine’s Day purchase.

“The goal was [for the product promotion] to last until Valentine’s Day, but it is a popular strain and it is selling out fast,” said Tiffany Wylie, High Tide’s director of retail operations.

The website for Fire and Flower, a cannabis retail chain in Alberta and Saskatchewan, displays messages such as “Love is in the air” and “Find your cannabis match today,” alongside a Valentine’s Day quiz that matches people with specific strains. This is seen after the viewer states they are older than 18, although no further verification is required.

“We’re getting good traffic and [it’s] giving an opportunity for people to see how events in their lives can be combined with cannabis,” said Nathan Mison, a vice-president for Fire and Flower.

“It is still on an age-gate before you get information about the cannabis so we’re still adhering to the regulations. We’re not saying that cannabis has a specific effect.”

An employee cleans displays at Nova Cannabis in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., on Feb. 12, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Under Canada’s new law, it is not permitted to claim a recreational cannabis product will cause certain effects. Nevertheless, increased commentary combining sex with weed is cropping up. Ellementa, an online women’s network that organizes gatherings on health and cannabis-related issues, broaches the topic through blogs and several gatherings planned across North America this month to talk “openly about cannabis and sex,” according to its website.

Xscape, a recreational pot brand owned by CannTrust, has launched a “Flix’N Chill” strain, a name ​that appears to be a play on “Netflix and chill,” an expression popularized on social media that ​​is used to imply sex. ​

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Carlen Costa, a Toronto-based sexologist and registered psychotherapist, talks across the country about sex and cannabis.

“Cannabis works with the endocannabinoid system in our body, which is the largest system of receptors in our body," she said.

When ads or other promotions do run afoul of the rules, Health Canada generally works with individuals or corporations and gives them “an opportunity to comply with their legal obligations,” department spokesman André Gagnon said in an e-mail.

Since legalization on Oct. 17, 2018, Health Canada “has undertaken 34 communications with various parties to identify possible promotions concerns,” Mr. Gagnon said in an e-mail.

“More clarity is really needed in order for companies to understand what the rules are. There is a fair bit of confusion for things that fall into that grey area,” said Sara Clodman, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Marketing Association, which counts some cannabis companies among its members, as well as companies that are related to the sector such as advertising agencies, law firms, retailers and others.

One aspect of age-gating that needs clarifying is what constitutes an environment that does not allow young people online. Aurora placed some banner ads on the website Leafly.ca, for example, which asks visitors for their age and only permits adults on the site. The law allows for promotions through telecommunications where “reasonable steps” have been taken to ensure it cannot be accessed by a young person; but it is still unclear whether asking a visitor to self-identify as an adult constitutes such a reasonable step.

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At Aurora, Ms. MacGregor said that the Valentine product promotion is a "first-of-its-kind marketing campaign for retailers in Alberta” and the company's “first foray into this type of activity.” The company, like others, is doing its best to understand what is allowed in the scope of promotion, as it attempts to differentiate its brand while still staying within the rules.

“It has been challenging with the restrictions around product marketing. … There is no doubt,” she said. “We do the best we can, because we have, we think, a pretty solid team that has an open dialogue with Health Canada.”

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