Edible products pose a challenge as Canada moves to legalize pot

An illegal pot shop on Bank Street recently had a sale on peanut butter cookies. The cannabis-laced sweets  were $5, a third of the regular price of $15.

“For this price, you can’t go wrong,” said a customer snapping up 10 of them. “Might as well stock up.”

The store had traditional dried weed for sale in glass jars, but half the display cases were filled with cookies, gummy candies shaped like teddy bears, tea, cannabis concentrates and vape pens loaded with cannabis oil.

It’s a reflection of a broad shift among marijuana users away from smoking.

In cannabis cutting-edge Colorado, dried weed makes up a steadily shrinking proportion of sales. And edible products like chocolate bars, candy and lemonade are taking a growing bite out of the market.

Edibles are already widely available at Canada’s illegal pot shops and online. But don’t expect to buy any cannabis candy legally the day Canada ushers in recreational marijuana.

Only dried weed and cannabis oil will be on sale when pot is legalized — the target date is July 2018. The federal government has promised to regulate edibles later, but has given no indication of when or details about what products will be allowed.

It could be a while before Canadians can legally buy a cannabis gummy candy — the most popular edible in Colorado — if that kind of treat is even approved for sale.

The federal government is taking a cautious approach.

“Designing an appropriate regulatory system for cannabis edibles is a complex undertaking and there are unique potential health risks and harms that need to be carefully understood before the development and coming into place of these regulations,” according to a government statement.

But some are warning that illegal sellers will be the winners if regulations lag too far behind consumer preferences. 

“Every product category that is not allowed under the legal regime, the black market will supply,” says Chuck Rifici, chief executive of Nesta Holding Co., which invests in cannabis businesses.

Ottawa’s public health unit says the federal government should regulate edibles from the beginning, citing concerns that children will accidentally ingest the cookies, candies and other treats.

Cannabis businesses here are watching trends in the U.S. and getting ready to sell the products that consumers want.

Eventually half the marijuana sales in Canada will be of ingestible products, from baked good to oils, predicts Cam Battley, a vice-president at Aurora, a large cannabis grower in Alberta. “Smoking will be a minority of the market.”

But Battley and others working to make the cannabis industry mainstream also realize the importance of government regulations.

“I’m going to say something people in the industry probably aren’t going to be happy about, but I think edibles are probably the riskiest area of the cannabis industry,” says Michael Gorenstein, president of Cronos Group, which owns two medical cannabis growers.

“We have to be very measured and careful.”

It’s obvious to him how appealing some of the products are to children.

“When I was a kid, I got cookies when my parents didn’t want me to. I knew where the cookie jar was. I knew to take the kitchen chair, get up on the counter … and that’s a risk.

“There’s a balance between what is popular and protecting general health.”

Consumers like edibles because they are discreet, don’t smell or require ingesting harmful smoke into the lungs. But edible products can take as long as two or three hours to kick in, and the psychoactive effects can last for hours. People used to the instant hint of smoking a joint, or who are trying edibles for the first time, can be caught by surprise.

Eating too much can cause severe anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and psychotic episodes.

Canada has the advantage of learning from Colorado, the first jurisdiction in North America to legalize recreational pot. Within months of marijuana shops opening in 2014, a 19-year-old man jumped off a hotel balcony to his death after eating a marijuana cookie. A coroner ruled that marijuana intoxication contributed to his death.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about her frightening experience sampling a cannabis candy bar in those early Colorado days. She took a nibble, felt nothing, so ate some more.

“I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours,” wrote Dowd. She was panting, unable to move, and strained to remember where she was. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”

Dowd later learned the bar was supposed to be divided into 16 portions, advice that wasn’t on the label.

Colorado has since tightened up regulations, including better labelling and portion sizes marked with a THC symbol.

The Canadian government has promised strict controls on edibles, with standard serving sizes and potency, child-resistant packaging and health warnings.

More detail will be unveiled in the regulations, which many in the industry expect to be restrictive.

“I don’t think we’ll see gummy bears in Canada,” says Trina Fraser, an Ottawa lawyer who specializes in cannabis businesses. “Ever.”

Jonathan Page, a scientist at the University of British Columbia who runs a lab that tests cannabis, speculates that cannabis-infused drinks may be allowed first. People are used to making the distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, he says.

The task force that advised the government on legalization was understandably “very concerned about kids and candies,” he says. The task force recommended that candies, sweets, and other products “appealing to children” be prohibited.

“But you also don’t want to push people into smoking, because that’s a concern for health as well,” says Page. “So you have to kind of balance the harms to toddlers, which is clearly a very big worry for parents and everyone, versus the larger, societal harms by saying, ‘Everyone should smoke cannabis, not eat it.’ ”

In Colorado, both government and marijuana businesses conduct education campaigns to warn customers about the proper use and risks of edibles. The phrase “start low and go slow” is a mantra.

Edibles affect everyone differently, warns Dixie Elixirs, a popular Colorado manufacturer of cannabis drinks and other edibles, in its Marijuana 101 guide for customers. The company’s products have an “activation time” guide to warn consumers how long it will take to feel psychoactive effects.

The dangers posed to children have been exaggerated by marijuana opponents, says Bob Eschino, president of the company that owns incredibles, the largest producer of cannabis edibles in Colorado. Eschino supports regulations designed to keep his company’s chocolate bars and gummy candies away from kids. But he points out that more children are harmed by eating makeup than marijuana. “And that doesn’t come in childproof containers.”

“It’s up to parents,” says Eschino. “You don’t keep your Vicodin out on the counter. You don’t leave loaded guns around. You don’t leave alcohol on the counter. You don’t leave things that are dangerous to your children out. So we have to educate (parents) to make sure these products stay safe and secure.”




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