In a statement announcing the so-called “legalization 2.0” products—edibles, extracts/vape pens, and topicals—entering the legal adult-use market, Health Minister Patty Hajdu drew the ire of many in the industry and medical cannabis communities when she stressed, “The best way for Canadians to protect their health is not to consume cannabis.”
It’s no secret the Liberal government that legalized cannabis is not eager to associate itself with the plant and its related products.
Leading into the federal election this past October, ousted Canopy co-founder and co-CEO Bruce Linton correctly predicted that while the Conservatives would avoid discussing cannabis legalization, which they failed to prevent, the Liberals would not want to draw any attention to cannabis because it might reflect poorly on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“There are enough people who want to find a reason to make a joke about Trudeau. Make him look light, not serious,” Linton said in September. “I don’t think the Liberals want to look light and fun.”
Minister Hajdu’s statement went further than avoiding light and fun. The call for abstinence was received angrily by medical-cannabis patients and advocates, who immediately called it stigmatizing and pointed out for many medical users, cannabis is literally the means they use “to protect their health.”
But as Materia Ventures CEO Deepak Anand pointed out, Minister Hajdu’s comments reflect a similar abstinence-first approach in Health Canada’s public cannabis guidelines. Those state, “There are risks associated with cannabis use. The best way to protect your health is to avoid using cannabis or cannabis products completely.”
Critics were quick to point out Health Canada has separate and significantly more liberal guidelines for alcohol, despite its own documents acknowledging alcohol is strongly associated with serious harms. Nowhere in Health Canada guidelines does the government agency counsel “completely” avoiding alcohol.
Health Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau referred those with questions about the agency’s differing approaches to alcohol and cannabis to the 2016 Final Report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization. In the section pertaining to “Minimizing Harms of Use,” the Task Force acknowledged, “based on current levels of use and available information on mortality and morbidity, the harms associated with the use of tobacco or alcohol are greater than those associated with the use of cannabis.”
However, the Task Force went on to argue for measures “stricter than those that exist for tobacco or alcohol in Canada. Given the relative harms, we acknowledge this contradiction but believe that the regulation of these substances has been inconsistent with WHO disease risk ranking and remains inconsistent with known potential for harm.”
In short, the Task Force argued Health Canada’s own regulations for tobacco and alcohol control weren’t strict enough, but the government can’t go back and redesign those systems from the beginning, which they can do with cannabis.
“The Task Force recognizes that the regulatory regimes for alcohol and tobacco continue to evolve,” they concluded. “It is our hope that our experience with cannabis regulation will be used to inform the further evolution of alcohol and tobacco regulations.”
Jesse B. Staniforth is the editor of the free cannabis-industry newsletter WeedWeek Canada. He also reports on Indigenous issues, cybersecurity, and food safety.