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A Health Canada licensed medical Marijuana producer for breast cancer survivor Sarina Auriel checks the progress on her marihuana plants in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, March 30, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

Licensed medical marijuana producers say federal advertising rules pertaining to the drug are impeding their ability to adequately inform doctors and patients of treatment options.

In November, Health Canada issued warning letters to 20 licensed producers about their advertising practices, telling them they had until Jan 12, 2015, to come into compliance with prohibitions against the advertising of cannabis laid out in the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, the Food and Drugs Act and the Narcotic Control Regulations.

This means that, generally, producers' websites can only list brand names, strain names, price, cannabinoid content and contact information. They can't tout each strain's reported benefits or post photos of the drugs. All companies came into compliance by Monday, the deadline day.

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Brent Zettl, the CEO of Prairie Plant Systems Inc., the parent company of CanniMed Ltd. – both of which were on the list – said his company scrubbed a number of prohibited items from the two websites. They include passages containing anecdotal evidence, a reference to "reliability" and some photos of the products, Mr. Zettl said. What remains on the clinical-looking CanniMed site is a generic, textbook description of the company's cannabis products and photos of doctors in white lab coats and product packaging – not the product itself.

Mr. Zettl called the restrictions "frustrating beyond words," particularly because Prairie Plant Systems Inc. had operated with Health Canada under contract, serving as the federal department's sole supplier of medical marijuana for 13 years, up until regulations changed last March. During that time, the company had government approval to show a number of images, including those of marijuana and marijuana growth chambers, he said.

"All of a sudden, they've changed their minds; marijuana plants are now not to be shown, because they might encourage somebody to use medical marijuana," he said. "My question is: What the hell are we selling? We're not selling alfalfa. Come on."

Mr. Zettl said the restrictions prevent staff from fully educating doctors and prospective patients about the drug at a time when more education is needed for the market to transition to legal from illicit.

Zack Hutson, a spokesman for the large-scale, Nanaimo-based medical marijuana producer Tilray, said the stringent regulations ensure the medicine for patients is "safe, pure and predictable." However, while they protect patients from false or unsubstantiated claims, "they also limit the amount of information that can be shared with physicians and patients about the differences between strains, which can help inform treatment decisions."

Companies can directly provide more detailed information about a product to an individual as long as it is not disseminated to the general public. But as Mr. Zettl counters: "Who wants to become a registered patient before they can get information?"

Health Canada declined to make a spokesperson available for an interview despite several requests. An e-mail from the department stated that in determining whether a message constitutes an advertisement, one must consider the context, the intended audience and who is delivering the message.

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"If the message is written by the drug manufacturer, it is more likely to be advertising," the statement said.

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