Legal weed providers need to find a way to market their wares without incurring the wrath of the federal government.
This article first appeared on VICE Canada
In a few weeks, Canadian cannabis patients will find it harder than ever to get information about their medicine.
Last month, Health Canada (the federal government's public health agency) sent a letter to 16 licensed pot producers saying they can't display photos of plants on their sites, tweet links to articles about the benefits of marijuana, or tell clients what a certain strain tastes, smells, or feels like.
All of that information is advertising, according to the government, and it's illegal to promote the sale of a narcotic like " marihuana."
Health Canada also warned producers against making "medical claims" about their products—but the difference between a health claim and information backed by scientific study remains hazy.
And this isn't just an idle warning: If producers don't change their ways by January 12, they could have their licenses revoked.
VICE asked three of the 16 producers who received these letters what they thought about the government cracking the whip.
Mark Zekulin, executive vice president of Tweed, whose medical marijuana facility is housed inside a converted chocolate factory, says he thought the letter from Health Canada was clear. Tweed can't say a certain strain will cure, treat, or prevent a specific ailment, but they can say studies have shown THC is good for pain.
"I hope I'm right," he said a few minutes later after a back-and-forth about the nuances. "It's not always crystal clear."
Health Canada told Medreleaf, an Ontario-based marijuana producer, that the company crossed the line with the images and language on its website and the links it tweeted, CEO Neil Closner says.
He's unsure of whether some of the information on Medreleaf's site is scientific data or whether it's a medical claim, the latter being "a big no-no."
Medreleaf works closely with an Israeli producer that has been growing specific genetic strains of marijuana for ten years and tracking patients' progress with that product.
"That's data that we have," Closner said, "so the question is, well, if we have all this accumulated data, are we allowed or not allowed to make any kind of claims about them?"
Peace Naturals, another Ontario-based producer, was dinged in this area too. They had client feedback and anecdotal information about weed on their site. Health Canada said that had to go.
Mark Gobuty, CEO and founder of Peace Naturals, understands that.
"Imagine going to your doctor and he gives you a prescription, and you ask the doctor, well, what's it like? And if he tells you, well you know I had Sally in here last week, and she tells me that she sleeps better, that her feet don't hurt her anymore—well, you know, that never happens in a professional world. So we can't provide anecdotal client feedback, which, you know, I completely understand."
Other rules aren't so obvious.
Gobuty believes Peace Naturals is allowed to give out that information over the phone to registered clients, for instance, but he concedes Health Canada hasn't actually said whether that's OK.
Pissed off by increasingly strict government regulation, licensed user Greg Chaisson started buying his weed from an unlicensed British Columbia-based company. They're all stoners, so they tell him exactly how each product feels, tastes, and smells.
Chaisson has colitis —bowel inflammation similar to Crohn's. He buys weed with high myrcene levels because it's been shown to reduce inflammation in rats (it also smells really nice).
But he says licensed producers were unable or unwilling to give him information about myrcene levels, so he bought and experimented with different strains through these producers. He called it an "expensive guessing game."
When these companies comply with Health Canada's rules, he expects patients will have an even harder time figuring out what medication is best for them.
I ran the myrcene problem past Closner of Medreleaf. He had the impression his company isn't allowed to publish myrcene levels on its website. "From what I'm seeing in the letter we received, the answer would be no, which is problematic."
Not only do these strict rules limit the information customers can glean from licensed producers, Closner says they also put Medreleaf and similar producers at a disadvantage when competing with gray-market suppliers.
"We're very heavily regulated, and we're trying to do the right thing, and we're trying to follow all the rules, and yet there are some other companies that are seemingly allowed to just do whatever they want."
Medreleaf has an anti-inflammatory product, he continues, "which is, I believe, the highest ratio of CBD to THC in the whole country, so for anti-inflammatory properties, we have the best one."
"Are you even allowed to say that?" I ask.
"Probably not," he answers. "That's the problem."
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