Legalizing Cannabis in Canada: Marketing Implications

By: Geoffrey Marcus

With some of the highest rates of cannabis use globally, along with an increase in organized crime from illegal cannabis dealing, the Government of Canada has decided to intervene and propose much needed regulations. On April 13, 2017, Canada proposed Bill C-45, which will legalize marijuana on a national level sometime in mid-2018. Simply put, individuals who are over a certain age will be able to legally possess, grow, and purchase limited amounts of recreational cannabis once legislation is enacted in all provinces, territories, and municipalities.

In proposing this Bill, one of the Canadian Government’s main concerns was keeping cannabis and cannabis products out of the hands of children. According to the National Institutes of Health, persistent marijuana use increases the development of mental health disorders in adolescents. This has led to a decrease of high-school graduation rates by up to 60%. In addition, a 2015 report stated that 21% of youth and 30% of young adults in Canada used cannabis within the previous year. To decrease these alarming statistics, the federal government set the minimum legal age for buying cannabis at eighteen. Provinces may freely enact stricter standards and choose to raise the age limit. For example, in Ontario, the legal age will be nineteen. However, many are skeptical as to whether the Government’s regulatory scheme to reduce cannabis use by Canadian youths will work in practice.

Canada has taken a page out of its current approach to alcohol regulations and implemented some of its provisions in the Cannabis Act. Alcohol regulations in Canada have lessened the stigma associated with consumption of alcohol by promoting the idea of “social responsible use.” Although marketing alcohol to Canadian youth is technically illegal, the alcohol industry is loosely self-regulated, allowing for companies to bypass self-imposed codes without repercussions. With the use of social media continuing to expand, alcohol companies have utilized these online resources to normalize the notion of binge and underage drinking. Because of this self-regulated industry, in the past year, one quarter of the youth aged twelve to seventeen consumed alcohol. As seen, alcohol regulations have created a highly commercialized and predatory industry.

Although the Cannabis Act facially prohibits the “promotion, packaging, and labelling of cannabis that could be appealing to young persons,” the act fails to explain how these marketing standards will be enforced. Overlap between Canada’s provincial and federal regulatory powers in regards to cannabis advertising has created confusion, which will ultimately lead to similar outcomes seen in the regulation of alcohol. Ontario, for example, has provided little guidance on how it intends to regulate marijuana marketing and, in turn, it is relying on the federal government to create a plan. This lack of accountability will essentially allow the cannabis industry to aggressively market towards Canadian youth in the hopes of obtaining lifelong customers.

The cannabis industry has advocated a system of voluntary marketing guidelines in an effort to fill the regulatory gaps. However, should the Government accept the proposed system, Canada will certainly be ignoring the hard lessons learned from decades of public health issues stemming from its alcohol regulations. Placing complete accountability into the hands of cannabis companies, like the self-regulation of the alcohol industry, will do nothing less than allow for the creation of loopholes for illegal marketing to Canada’s underage population with little or no consequence.

The legalization of marijuana throughout Canada is quintessential as a means of deterring criminal activity and protecting Canadian youth. Yet, until strict regulatory policies for marketing and advertising are clearly established, the Cannabis Act risks creating additional public health concerns. As Canada’s laws for Cannabis legalization comes to fruition in mid-2018, the federal government needs to address and close the regulatory gaps within the federal bill or ensure that provinces create strict marketing standards with severe penalties for marketing violations.


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