Haligonians who buy their pot legally probably noticed changes to their dealers’ websites last month. On January 12, it became more difficult for medical marijuana users to figure out what they’re inhaling, extracting or otherwise consuming.
Over the last year or so, Health Canada has cracked the whip on these private companies’ advertisements, telling them to comply with federal guidelines by January 12 or risk losing their licenses. Health Canada takes issue with any information on a medical pot website that crosses the line into promotional material, or asserts health claims without evidence.
Those lines aren’t crystal clear, though, according to two of Canada’s 16 licensed producers that sell directly to customers.
Nova Scotia doesn’t have any legal dispensaries yet. A few local companies are awaiting approval, but right now licensed Nova Scotians buy their weed online from big box sellers, mostly in Ontario and British Columbia.
Tweed, an Ontario cannabis producer that sells medical weed to patients in Nova Scotia, used to tell patients what their different strains smelled and tasted like, and which were best for specific ailments—chronic pain, for example. All that information is gone from their website now, says Tweed vice-president Mark Zekulin, and Health Canada seems happy.
“They’ve taken our name off the non-compliance list, so I reverse-infer that yes, they have told us we’re in the clear,” he says with a chuckle.
They can tell customers what THC and CBD are good for, based on medical research and studies, but when it comes to a specific product, he recommends that customers order five grams each of a few strains to see what best treats their symptoms. Any recommendation from Tweed’s call centre about specific strains will come with the big disclaimer that everyone is different and it’s not medical advice.
Tweed has put together some information their call centre can give to customers, but they can’t say anything that could be viewed as a “medical claim,” including giving out anecdotal information.
It’s more difficult to draw the line on non-medical information, including how the product tastes or smells. “There will always be some area of question between, you know, is this informational or is this promotional, and the regulator can’t predict every one of those situations,” Zekulin says.
Medreleaf is an Ontario dealer that mails pot in discreet packaging. To comply with Health Canada’s advertising guidelines, CEO Neil Closner says Medreleaf removed all photos of plants and buds from their public website, all text that spoke to the quality of their product and all anecdotal information about which strains might work for certain ailments. They also had to quit linking to external cannabis sites on social media. “For patients of ours, once they’ve been registered, they can have access to a little bit more information including pictures,” Closner says. “We’ve heard from some of those people and they’re not happy, but this is a new regime, and we’re all trying to find the right balance.”
But after adapting to Health Canada’s guidelines, Medreleaf heard “pointed” criticism from prospective customers who are surfing the various legal pot websites trying to pick a supplier.
“They are the ones who are in many cases lacking sufficient information,” Closner says. “We simply explain that we’re abiding by the regulations, and there’s not much we can do.”
One of Medreleaf’s customers, Emily (who only wanted her first name used) logged in recently and realized the information she needed was missing from their site.
Emily is a new mother who uses medical cannabis to treat her postpartum depression, anxiety and ADHD. Because she has a handful of ailments, she is trying a number of strains to figure out what works best for her. The Medreleaf site previously included anecdotal information about which strains might be best for ADHD, but now that information is gone. “They used to have a lot more information and now it’s just a couple lines,” she says, looking at the website. “I swear I remember pictures of the flowers, or the plants. ... They took out all the smells and tastes too.”
The smell and taste aren’t important to her, but she wants to know how it will affect her before she orders it. Otherwise, “that’s a lot of money.”
Federal guidelines including the latest advertising crack down are discouraging some licensed users from going the legal route, according to a few licensed patients who spoke to The Coast off the record.
Greg Chaisson, a Nova Scotian who uses medical pot for his colitis (bowel inflammation similar to Crohn’s) previously bought from a legal producer, but says he was put off by the lack of information about what he was smoking, and the producer’s inability to meet demand.
He buys pot with high myrcene levels because it’s been shown to reduce inflammation in rats. The producer was unable to give him information about myrcene levels, so he experimented with different strains, which made the process “an expensive guessing game,” he says.
He began buying his weed from a non-licensed grower out in BC, where business is booming in the “grey” market.
Closner of Medreleaf believes the ad restrictions put companies like his at a disadvantage when competing with “grey area” producers.
“Grey market producers frankly have a lot of advantages over the licensed producers, which creates quite a concern to all of us,” he says. “They are clearly not held anywhere near to the same standards.”
Zekulin of Tweed decided to spin those standards to his company’s advantage. They can’t promote their product, so Tweed re-launched their website to focus on quality standards and customer trust.
Zekulin and Closner say there’s ongoing dialogue between licensed producers and the federal government.
“What we hope to achieve is better mutual understanding of each other’s challenges so that we can streamline the process,” Closner says. “If we can work with them to make their lives easier and ours easier, then we all win and ultimately the patients win.”