Cannabis has become increasingly common since a Canadian Senate committee first recommended legalizing the substance in 2002. They argued that prohibiting it didn’t reduce the use of cannabis products and that legalization was a better move.
The goals of legalization were “to keep profits out of the pockets of criminals” and “to protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis.” In October 2018, the first sales of legal, adult-use cannabis — including CBD, or cannabidiol, products — occurred.
Our research investigates how businesses strategize in the emerging cannabis industry that is still in its early stages of formation.
As this industry takes shape, it is worth evaluating whether legalization has accomplished its intended goals, particularly as it pertains to complex products such as CBD.
CBD Problems in Canada
While Canadian consumers turn to CBD products to treat various health concerns, government policy prohibits both product packaging and retailers from making specific health claims.
Despite this, a 2021 Canadian study of over 2,000 CBD products sold through 70 websites (both licensed and unlicensed) found that unlicensed sellers often tout CBD as a natural wellness solution to many health problems. The study also found that 53 per cent of products made health claims for 171 medical conditions and ailments on their packaging.
As the industry attempts to attract new users, consumers are seeking information on product use. Sometimes, as outlined in this CBC Marketplace episode, consumers unknowingly turn to unlicensed sellers of CBD products:
While licensed retailers are subject to inspections and constrained to selling products sourced through licensed channels, the unlicensed market seems to operate outside these requirements, with little pressure from law enforcement.
As seen in the CBC Marketplace episode, inadequate enforcement, combined with a lack of consumer knowledge on which products are safe and legal, leaves a gap for potentially ineffective or contaminated products to slip through.
Further, testing to confirm the safety and contents of cannabis products in Canada is not easily accessible. Such testing could enable consumers to examine licensed, unlicensed and homegrown products to ensure products are free from contaminants, like pesticides and mould.
This creates a confusing system for consumers to navigate and has unintentionally hampered policy-makers’ efforts to reduce illegal sales and promote safe use. To help understand the health benefits and risks, potential consumers of licensed CBD products are encouraged to speak with their doctor, rather than a retailer.
However, real and perceived stigma persists even within the health-care community. To combat this stigma, members of the cannabis industry use rhetorical tactics, such as addressing historical misconceptions stemming from cognitive biases, to argue that the industry should not be stigmatized. For example, just because some cannot separate the historical origin of cannabis from its potential harms, it does not mean its proven potential benefits should be disregarded.
Despite legalization, the cannabis industry remains heavily stigmatized. Competing viewpoints exist and while many people support legalization and safe use, others still strongly oppose it.
Without acknowledging the complex history of legalization, public health and statistics reporting will continue to undermine productive conversations about health and safety that are needed to address cannabis stigma.
Before legalization, many cannabis market participants were change agents: they enabled and advocated for access to safe and effective products, pioneering the medical market by refining strains known to help specific conditions.
After legalization, many existing participants faced significant intersecting financial and social barriers to acquiring licenses needed for legal market entry.
The work many market participants did to help legalize and legitimize the industry was undermined by the government’s use of terms like “criminals” and “black market” in public safety messaging. This is why some participants prefer the term “legacy market” instead.
What can be done?
We propose the following practical recommendations that can be implemented in the short term to protect consumer health and safety:
Problem 1: Consumers are unaware of the difference between licensed and unlicensed sellers.
Solution: Run public education programs and social marketing campaigns, such as California’s “Get #Weedwise” campaign, aimed at changing consumers’ behaviour.
Problem 2: There is real and perceived stigma towards cannabis and people who use it within the health-care community.
Solution: Education for health-care providers, grounded in research and science, articulating the benefits and risks of medical and adult-use cannabis is needed.
Problem 3: Labels and words that connote negativity (e.g., black market, criminals, weed, marijuana, pot, drugs) inhibit licensed businesses’ ability to manage stigma.
Solution: Labels should try to use positive and inclusive language (e.g., legacy market, unlicensed producers and sellers, cannabis) that encourages productive conversations among policy-makers, health-care practitioners, the media and the general public.
Problem 4: It is difficult to access testing for products originating from unlicensed, recreational or homegrown sources.
Solution: Publicly accessible and affordable product testing is needed, regardless of licensing status. In addition, accurate and detailed labelling is necessary for both licensed and unlicensed products.
It is clear that the legalization of cannabis in Canada is still a work in progress. The above steps would improve consumer safety and promote licensed supply channels, and implementing these recommendations in the short-term would be a significant step toward achieving the stated goals of cannabis legalization. In the long-term, policy-makers should engage stakeholders in re-examining CBD policies and ensure they are protecting, rather than confusing, consumers.