Doctors Want Health Canada to Decide What Cannabis Products Look Like

byAlanaArmstrong4 minutes

Some see plain packaging for cannabis as the single best gift the government could give to illegal marijuana operations, because it forces legal marijuana to look like a criminal product—unbranded and generic. But, branded or not, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) thinks it should be up to Health Canada, not licensed producers (LPs), to create and regulate packaging for cannabis products after adult-use legalization.

The CMA, a voluntary group representing the majority of the country’s physicians, feels that product labelling is a crucial part of educating consumers about the risks associated with marijuana.

The Current Standard for Medical Cannabis Packaging

The Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulation (ACMPR) sets out requirements for packaging, labelling and shipping.

  • Separate labelling requirements apply for each product type: fresh and dried marijuana, cannabis oil, cannabis oil capsules, and marijuana plants and seeds.
  • Marijuana products, including plants, must be packaged in tamper-evident, child-resistant containers.
  • Each product must include a client-specific label, like a patient-specific prescription drug label.
  • Every order must come with a copy of the most current version of the Health Canada document entitled "Consumer Information—Cannabis (Marihuana, Marijuana).”

LPs would probably prefer to package their recreational cannabis with distinctive branding if it meant that they wouldn't be allowed to make health claims. But the CMA is suggesting that there be only one system and one set of regulations tying both medical and recreational cannabis together.

Health Canada's Packaging Proposals for Recreational Marijuana

Health Canada's proposed regulations for recreational marijuana include "strict limits on the use of colours, graphics and other special characteristics of packaging to curtail the appeal of products to youth," though they don’t require plain packaging.

The CMA is pushing Health Canada to mandate a health warning on all containers, similar to those on tobacco products. These labels would contain information about the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels of the cannabis product.

LPs worry that this decision could leave their products without any kind of distinctive branding to attract and engage consumers as well as set themselves apart. As a result, consumers could easily turn to other cannabis purveyors.

What LPs Want for Their Cannabis Packaging

In the legal recreational market, LPs will have competition from some illegal producers, legal producers and home cultivation.

The government has acknowledged the importance of allowing branding for recreational marijuana so that buyers can tell the difference between legal and illegal products. But it's unlikely that the legal producers will get the kind of marketing freedom it takes to set similar products apart in a brand-obsessed world.

In fact, if the new logo for the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) is any indication of where federal and provincial governments are looking, the plainer, the better.

The CMA wants Health Canada to go so far as to make cannabis the same as prescription medication, prohibiting health claims that aren’t backed by scientific evidence. Consumers, they say, need protection from misleading health claims.

How Some Doctors Feel About Marijuana Legalization

There's another group of doctors that would probably agree with the CMA recommendation to prohibit health claims on packaging. These doctors recently published new guidelines in the Canadian Family Physician journal for doctors prescribing medical marijuana. They suggest that medical cannabis has only been proven useful for a handful of conditions and that the risks associated with cannabis outweigh any benefits.

Their article, “Simplified Guideline for Prescribing Medical Cannabinoids in Primary Care,” suggests limiting the use of cannabinoids to cases of:

  • Neuropathic pain
  • Palliative and end-of-life pain
  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea
  • Multiple sclerosis-related spasticity
  • Spinal cord injury

It recommends that doctors "think twice" before prescribing medical marijuana. These doctors aren’t opposed to cannabis, but they plan on waiting to prescribe it until more of the health claims can be substantiated.


Cannabis Treated Differently Than Other Health Products

Where the matter gets confusing is that health claims can be made on nonprescription drugs, natural health products, cosmetics and medical devices with differing levels of federal scrutiny. The claims on these types of products are often not substantiated, and scientific evidence isn't needed to back them up.

But cannabis is different because it sits in a murky place between being a prescription drug and a recreational product. It doesn’t help that this division will exist even after legalization. Confusing the matter further is the fact that recreational and medical marijuana will often come from the same producers.

It may seem frivolous that a producer's recreational version of a product needs different packaging than that of the medical version. But the discussion over packaging may bring us one step closer to understanding the philosophical and conceptual differences between medical and recreational cannabis.

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