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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Health Canada required to finalize rules for cannabis-infused foods, drinks and vape products no later than Oct 17
  2. Once rules are finalized, experts say months of work will be needed before products can actually be sold
  3. Some industry observers expect the rules to be published this summer before the start of the next federal election campaign

Canadians will not be able to purchase edible cannabis products on Oct. 17, experts warn, unless Ottawa can finalize its rules for those products months ahead of that date.

Draft regulations for producing marijuana-infused foods, drinks and concentrate products such as vape-pen cartridges were released in December. Health Canada has since completed two months of public consultations on the proposed regime, with the federal Cannabis Act requiring the final version of those rules to be in place no later than Oct. 17.

The publication of those regulations, while technically also serving as a sales authorization for cannabis-based edibles, topicals and extracts, will instead spawn a months-long process that must be completed before any of those products will be allowed on store shelves.

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“The day those regulations come into effect, there will be no one actually authorized to sell edible cannabis to the legal market,” said Brenna Boonstra, director of regulatory and quality for Cannabis Compliance. “There are a number of things that have to happen after those regulations come into force.”

Producers will first need to apply for an amendment to their existing licences that allows them to launch commercial-scale production of those new classes of cannabis products, and Health Canada staff will then need to personally inspect the first completed batches of those products. Once that process is complete – which Ms. Boonstra said could take months depending on how quickly Health Canada is able to conduct inspections – producers must give the regulator at least 60 days advance notice before making those new cannabis products available for sale.

Assuming the regulations are not published until the Oct. 17 deadline, those requirements alone, which a Health Canada spokesperson confirmed already apply whenever a licensed producer wants to introduce a new product, or even a different size or configuration of an existing product - would likely push availability of edibles and other extract-based products to early 2020 in a best-case-scenario view.

Then there is the question of what course of action the provinces will take, as they are ultimately responsible for deciding how those products will be distributed and sold. While many expect that existing logistical rules for dried cannabis flowers will simply be extended to include edibles and extracts, Avery Bruenjes of the Retail Council of Canada says that is not guaranteed.

“The provincial governments who have spoken with us have all indicated they are waiting for more information from the federal government before releasing their positions,” Ms. Bruenjes, a regulatory policy analyst, said in a presentation to RCC members earlier this week. “Depending on which provinces and territories choose to replicate the distribution and sales frameworks used for currently legal forms of cannabis, this could mean certain [jurisdictions] will not be able to have [edibles and extract-based] products available in stores or online by [Oct. 17].”

Brian Sterling, president of SCS Consulting, which has been advising some of Canada’s largest food and snack makers on how they might enter the cannabis market, is convinced the upcoming federal election will expedite the finalization process.

“They are not going to release them in October, they are going to release them well before the federal election and probably before the writ drops,” Mr. Sterling said, referring to the formal launch of the election campaign, which is required to occur by early September ahead of the fixed election date of Oct. 21. “The figuring is the chances are higher that the rules will come out in the summer, which makes sense because there is no existing government that would want to drop something like edible cannabis regulations in the middle of an election campaign.”

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Even if the regulations are not published until closer to the Oct. 17 deadline, CCI’s Ms. Boonstra said there are ways Health Canada could speed up the process of getting products in front of consumers. Regulators could potentially allow producers to apply for license amendments, request early batch inspections and submit their 60-day new product advance notice all at the same time.

“All in all, this [could] greatly shorten the expected timeframe by which we’ll see edible cannabis products on the legal market,” Ms. Boonstra said, “but much of it hangs in the balance for what Health Canada ultimately decides.”

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