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Politics Top producers lobby Ottawa for right to market marijuana like alcohol

Branded pop infused with THC, the active substance in marijuana, is seen for sale at a pop-up vendor in Toronto's Kensington Market neighbourhood on August 26. A new group is lobbying the federal government on behalf of the cannabis industry in hopes of securing a more permissive marketing regime.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Canada's biggest producers of cannabis want the federal government to ignore the advice of its expert task force and treat marijuana products like alcohol when it comes to branding and advertising.

A number of experts have argued that recreational cannabis should face a restrictive marketing regime similar to the one for tobacco products, with plain packaging and little or no advertising.

However, a new group called the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Branding is calling on the government to allow companies to advertise marijuana in a similar fashion to alcoholic beverages, with colour logos and widespread advertising. According to the coalition, which includes 17 licensed producers and two professional associations, allowing cannabis ads is the best way to help legal producers to compete with the black market.

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"We should align the restrictions around cannabis so that they are virtually the same as beer, wine and liquor," said coalition spokesman Cam Battley, who is also the executive vice-president at Aurora Cannabis Inc. "It's the easiest and most pragmatic way to go."

Under legislation before the House of Commons, the prohibition on cannabis will be lifted by next July. However, the federal and provincial governments still have to develop some of the rules for how cannabis products will be distributed and sold across Canada.

Under proposed advertising and marketing guidelines that the coalition will release on Wednesday, companies would be able to promote products based on taste, flavour, safety, origins and use. In addition, cannabis products could be promoted on print, television and social-media platforms where at least 70 per cent of the audience is over 18 (or higher depending on a province's legal age of consumption).

At the same time, producers would be forbidden to target underage users, to promote the actual consumption of the drug and to associate its use with driving or any other skilled activity.

In addition, all advertising would include educational statements to inform consumers on the ways to use cannabis safely and responsibly.

Mr. Battley said the goal of legalization of cannabis is to remove illegal producers and sellers from the market, which will reduce consumption among underage Canadians, who will not be able to buy it legally.

"If you want to reduce youth access, you have to carve away the black market. In order to carve away the black market, you have to unleash market forces," he said. "It's an incredibly sophisticated black market that we are up against. All of their products are branded."

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The federal government has not yet explained how it intends to deal with the advertising of recreational cannabis. Details will be unveiled in coming weeks, when the government launches consultations on draft regulations that will accompany its legislation to legalize marijuana.

Still, the coalition's proposed guidelines go much further than the limited branding regime proposed last year by a federal task force chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan. In the report, which the federal government has endorsed, the task force warned about the dangers of allowing cannabis to be advertised in the same way as alcohol products.

"In order to reduce youth access to cannabis, strict limits should be placed on its promotion," the task force's report said. "In our view, comprehensive restrictions similar to those created by tobacco regulation offer the best approach."

The task force called for plain packaging and restrictions on advertising because it is nearly impossible to shield youth and young adults from the promotional material. It supported allowing some promotional material inside adult-only retail spaces.

"Comprehensive advertising restrictions should cover any medium, including print, broadcast, social media, branded merchandise, etc., and should apply to all cannabis products, including related accessories," the report said.

The task force said the only information on the products' packaging, in addition to health warnings, should be the name of the company and the strain, as well as information on potency.

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