On Canada’s Legalization Road, Culture and Caution Intersect
On a busy downtown Toronto shopping strip, a security guard stands guard outside of the AltaVie “pop-up lounge” by MedReleaf, one of Canada’s largest cannabis producers.
Inside, friendly faces explain that the temporary storefront is a way to familiarize Canadians with the new recreational cannabis brand. Anyone 19 or older can trade their email address for a branded water bottle or notebook in neutral tones, and a piping hot cup of herbal tea. Each flavor shares the same name as one of the new strains that will be available on Oct. 17, 2018; Campfire is a 1-to-1 “floral” hybrid, and Airplane Mode is a mid-THC indica with a “woodsy” aroma, “for disconnecting below 30,000 feet” according to copy displayed on the wall. Books about cannabis, spirituality, mindfulness, and yoga lie on tables, inviting people to hang out for as long as they like.
“The AltaVie brand is really, in a lot of ways, a wellness-focused brand,” said Darren Karasiuk, the former senior vice president and general manager of MedReleaf’s recreational portfolio. He has recently taken on a new role at Aurora, another Canadian licensed producer. “And a lot of what you’re going to see in terms of the product is stuff that really speaks to that wellness element of it. We recognized something that our products have to offer and that overlap is where AltaVie made sense to play.”
With a week to go before legalization on Oct. 17, 2018, Canadian cannabis brand marketers are working to reduce the stoner stigma associated with cannabis use or aligning recreational marijuana consumption with loosely Canadian cultural elements like the great outdoors or classic rock.
Yet the public is beginning to receive a very different message from various levels of government in the form of public service announcements (PSAs) and youth campaigns, which were recommended to the federal government’s task force by health organizations such as Drug Free Kids Canada.
Under the new Cannabis Act, marijuana advertising and promotion will be prohibited. That means no billboards, music festival sponsorships, or pop-up shops. In July 2018, after several companies sponsored events, Health Canada issued a warning to reinforce that promotional activities are illegal before and after Oct. 17, 2018.
“Those who do not adhere to the applicable prohibitions will face serious consequences, which may include if appropriate, suspension of their license,” it read — strong words for companies still constructing hundreds of thousands of square meters of cultivation space backed by shareholders. The notice also threatened fines as high as $5 million (about $3.829 million U.S. dollars as of Oct. 10, 2018) if indicted under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Manitoba’s provincial government, for example, uploaded its new cannabis PSA to YouTube warning people against supporting the unregulated market. It features an animated, bandana-wearing skull and two joints that form crossbones and reads, “COULD PUT YOUR LIFE AT RISK” without further explanation.
PSAs such as this one are in stark contrast to the wellness vibe of Canada’s new legal cannabis brands, and they ignore the positives associated with cannabis, according to author and journalist Amanda Siebert.
“In the media right now, there’s so much negativity towards cannabis,” Siebert told Marijuana.com. She said that is what drove her to write her new book, “The Little Book Of Cannabis: How Marijuana Can Improve Your Life.”
“We’ve had a medical program since 2001, but we never hear about, you know, the positives of that program from the government or about how cannabis does, in fact, improve the lives of around 300,000 Canadians that are signed up through the ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations),” Siebert said. “I wanted to present the public with something that speaks to the ways that it can be used to benefit your life. And while I’m not saying that it’s for everybody, I think we really need to pay attention.”
While the book emphasizes the positives, she said it’s an attempt to synthesize the most reliable research, including negatives, about how cannabis helps some people deal with challenges such as insomnia, stress, low libido, and lack of appetite. For Siebert, the most accurate form of education for Canadians — from both the industry and various levels of government — doesn’t oversimplify and provides context.
“There’s definitely something to be said for making people aware of those negative side effects of things that can occur,” she said, such as the rare but real cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome or the more commonly experienced heightened anxiety that can happen with overconsumption of THC. “But I think you know that needs to be delivered in context. Cannabis legalization doesn’t mean that everybody is all of a sudden going to be consuming tons and tons of cannabis.”
Canadians are getting a mixed message about cannabis. While legal brands promote a wellness vibe, Manitoba’s provincial government is using harsh imagery in a public service announcement that links the unregulated market with dire consequences.