If you thought October, 2018, was complicated, wait until Canada legalizes cannabis edibles by October, 2019.
It’s just a matter of time before edibles sales will represent the majority of the cannabis market in Canada. If the United States can be used as an example, sales will likely explode over the next decade. According to a recent report, cannabis edibles sales in the United States reached US$1.4-billion over the past 12 months, suggesting sales could exceed US$4.1-billion by 2022 – and cannabis has not even been legalized federally in the United States.
Gummies and chocolates are two of the most popular cannabis-infused food product categories in the U.S. edibles sector. Canada should expect the same, and based on what we’ve heard so far from Health Canada, Canadians should be reassured. Yet, a lot of work lies ahead.
Canadians will now have 60 days to comment on Health Canada’s 195-page regulatory framework on how to market edibles, extracts and topicals. Despite its intricacies, Ottawa is still aiming to make them legal no later than next October. (Given how ill-prepared Health Canada was initially, the federal agency should be credited for turning this around quickly. Many thought it couldn’t, but it was able to do so just days before the holidays.)
There were no major surprises in the framework, although Health Canada clearly used the United States as a case study. Nightmarish scenarios of gummy bears and other candy-like products are already on the agency’s radar. For edibles, specifically, Health Canada is recommending plain, child-resistant packaging, restricting the ingredients and limiting the amount of THC to 10 milligrams a package, which is largely considered a typical amount for a single dose. These are the basic requirements to protect children and to discourage the industry from making undesirable products for our still highly immature market. The approach is conservative and comprehensive. But some gaps remain.
For example, it is not clear where the line is drawn between a child-friendly product and candies for adults. This is likely the most contentious part of the framework, and regulations need to be crystal clear. Proposed amendments suggest edibles should not appeal to children, but adults eat chocolate and candy as well. Distinctions can easily be made between gummy bears and sophisticated candies you might find in a specialty shop. However, there is a massive grey zone between the two worlds.
Also, Health Canada’s document addresses traceability. California requires that every retailer be registered for state-mandated training for its track-and-trace system. The system was created to certify how cannabis waste is identified, weighed and tracked while on licensed premises and disposed of in accordance with California law. However, waste management is hardly mentioned in the Health Canada document.
The regulatory framework’s other major gap involves training – likely one of the industry’s most significant concerns. In Oregon, state training for cannabis industry workers is mandatory when applying for and renewing permits and licences. Employees are taught how to properly handle cannabis items and how to produce and propagate the product. They also learn how to use it as a food ingredient. At this time, little information is provided by Health Canada.
Several questions remain for the food service industry. Regulatory oversight will come when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) gets involved. Americans are still struggling with this aspect. As states continue to legalize cannabis, they have had to find regulatory bodies to oversee the industry. For the CFIA, this is new ground. It will be interesting to see how our food agency will handle this file with its limited resources.
Some Canadians likely feel uneasy about cannabis. Sound risk-mitigation practices are key, and the edibles issue must be dealt with quickly and firmly. Simply put, the human body is not designed to inhale drugs, and Health Canada knows it. A study released last year suggested that 93 per cent of consumers who support Ottawa’s plans for cannabis would try a cannabis-infused food product. Curiosity will drive many Canadians to try an edible.
The regulatory framework presented by Health Canada will likely be well received by the industry. The beverage sector – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic products – will continue its slow march toward launching creative products. As for snacking and other types of food products, we should expect some R&D movement in the spring. However, provinces and cities have their own agendas, which creates challenges for planning and strategizing.
The year ahead should be an interesting one.
Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy, faculties of management and agriculture, Dalhousie University.