Dear Prime Minister: ‘Tis the Season to Discuss Cannabis Advertising

Dear Justin,

Season’s greetings! I know it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but I cannot tell a lie: I detest the holiday gift buying industrial complex that ends only when our wallets and sprits are drained. Every year I’m left wondering, why are aren’t people more offended by the questionable promotional tactics used to hock consumer goods?

It’s strange, the way some Canadians (and politicians) overlook the avalanche of unethical, irresponsible ads and products forcing their way into our lives, only to wring their hands over how cannabis products will be promoted and marketed.

And to make sure it stays that way, our very own Federal Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation released their naughty-or-nice list of rules. Let’s review:

Naughty 

  • Advertisements promoting cannabis or its accessories and services in Canadian or foreign publications
  • Ads that appeal to young people, in particular those that include “a testimonial or endorsement, depict a person, character or animal, or associates cannabis or a brand with glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.” (In other words, don’t make it like a beer ad, okay?)
  • Cannabis-industry sponsorship of people, companies, events, activities or facilities (so you can forget about seeing the Toronto Blue Jays at the Organigram Bong Dome)
  • Free stuff. That means no giveaways, games, draws, lotteries or contests that might motivate people to buy cannabis.

Nice(ish)

  • Cannabis companies can create and send “brand-preference” promotions to specific people by name. However, those persons must be over 18 and promotions sent via telecommunication must be sent in such a way that they cannot be intercepted by a young person.
  • When it comes to packaging, a product description is allowed, as is a “standardized cannabis symbol”—though it must appear alongside health warnings like the gnarly teeth and neck-talking holes depicted on cigarette packs.
  • Packaging must be child-proof and feature an explicit reminder to keep cannabis out of the reach of children.
  • To limit the appeal of packaging to youth—a group known to be powerless when confronted with shiny things— there will be “strict limits on the use of colors, graphics and other special characteristics of packaging.”

Sarcasm aside, Justin, you see how absurd some of these regulations are, yes? Especially if we compare them to other forms of advertising already loose in the wild and potentially messing with young minds, like this possibly too “glamorous” vodka commercial.

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And while we debate colourful packaging and what type of cannabis promotion might make teens try weed, cannabis use among youth is actually down. And it happened without a single ban on attractive packaging or aspirational ads, and without a single promotional or advertising infraction against the cannabis industry. With young people safe, I think you’re free to put some focus on what’s most important: educating all cannabis consumers. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Branding, who worked with Advertising Standards Canada to develop the guidelines, believes these promotional restrictions will create some issues when it comes to cultivating a shrewd cannabis consumership. While it’s easy to simply say, weed is weed and we’re lucky to buy it legally, the Coalition aims to remind us that packaging and promotion do more than simply inform consumers that their products exist.

Promotional efforts actually inform buyers of a product’s quality and effects and help them easily distinguish between products they like and products they don’t. In other words, if people have the right to choose from an array of vodkas and whiskeys, they should be allowed to select from a range of competitively promoted, and legally sold cannabis products too.

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Seems to me we are losing focus amidst the cacophony of concern that simply doesn’t extend to other industries. Just this week you announced that, “The [legalization] date will not be July 1, I can assure you of that.” You added, “I don’t know where that date came from,” and provided a new, improved, and vague timeline of “next summer” for legalization.

Rather than seeming like a thoughtful move by a reflective leader, this statement reveals a heaving bureaucracy around legalization that has become so bloated, so Vogonic, that it casts a shadow of doubt and fear out of all proportion to foreseeable consequence. You may not know where that date (July 1) came from, sir, but you sure did wait a long time to correct the media and clarify the timeline.

With so much worry that promotion of legal cannabis will explode into irresponsible use and individual harm to Canadians, it’s easy to forget that you are not wrangling with something “new and dangerous.” Cannabis has been a part of Canadian life for decades, with the primary fallout being the life-damaging criminal charges brought on by prohibition, not anything use-related. (Speaking of which: If you want to give your country a holiday gift, consider applying yourself to creating some sort of amnesty/expungement program, to right the wrongs of those damaging prohibition-era charges.)

Until next year, Joyeux Noël, Mr. Prime Minister.