Pubdate: Fri, 14 Apr 2017
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Authors: Dr. Benedikt Fischer and Jean-Francois Crepault
Page: A7
Referenced: Cannabis Act:

The case for legalization is sound - but we don't need to advertise

Resist pot marketing, write Dr. Benedikt Fischer and Jean-Francois

 From a public health perspective, there is a strong case for
legalizing cannabis, as initiated by the legislation tabled on
Thursday. We at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) have
been making that case for years. Legalization provides the opportunity
- - and is in fact a prerequisite - for the implementation of regulatory
measures that mitigate the health risks of cannabis use.

Boiled down to its essentials, the argument goes like this: Cannabis
use is risky - and some individuals are particularly vulnerable - but
criminalizing it has not succeeded in preventing cannabis use. Canada
has among the highest cannabis-use rates in the world. Nor has
criminalization reduced health harms; on the contrary, it has
exacerbated them and entailed costly social harms as well.
Decriminalization alone would reduce those social harms, but does not
provide the authority to deal with the health risks of cannabis use.
Legalizing and strictly regulating cannabis allows for essential
control over many of the risk factors associated with cannabis-related

The federal government has publicly emphasized principles of public
health in its approach to the legalization of cannabis, and to its
credit, Thursday's legislation broadly follows the advice of its Task
Force on the Legalization of Marijuana, which made evidence-informed
recommendations on how to get there.

In a way, the hard part only begins now, with implementation. Many
important decisions, including the minimum age for legal purchase,
taxation and pricing, and the design of the distribution system, will
be left to the provinces and territories. In addition, some crucial
issues were only vaguely addressed in the tabled bill, with details to
be spelled out via regulations. Among the most important of these:
advertising and promotion.

A significant advantage of legalization is the opportunity for
cannabis users to obtain reliable, accurate information about: a) the
cannabis product itself (e.g. its strain, potency and psychoactive
properties); and b) the risks and how to moderate them. But a
distinction must be drawn between factual product information and
advertising or branding that encourages consumption.

The task force recommended that advertising be allowed only at the
point of sale (e.g., inside stores or other distribution points) and
that products be sold in plain, standardized packaging that features
only factual information about the product itself.

The cannabis industry has been lobbying against these restrictions,
and can be expected to continue doing so. This is not surprising; the
emerging cannabis producers in Canada are businesses - many of them
publicly listed - seeking to maximize their profits. The function of
advertising, promotion and branding is to increase sales. And it works.

A commercial approach might be fine for most consumer goods - say, for
clothing or cosmetics. But unlike those products, cannabis comes with
significant health risks, notably among youth, where use rates are
highest. As such, it's important that cannabis not be treated like an
ordinary commodity. Commercialization must be restricted. This is a
fundamental principle of public health approaches to legal
psychoactive substances.

One may argue that cannabis sales should not be held to these
standards when alcohol, a riskier substance in terms of health
outcomes, is not. But the way alcohol is promoted in Canada is far
from a public-health approach, with higher levels of alcohol-related
harm as a result. With cannabis we have a chance to avoid repeating
those mistakes, creating a market in which public health prevails to
the largest extent possible.

Very different models for legal cannabis markets are possible based on
the types of regulations and their implementation, and the health
impact will vary accordingly. A public health approach to cannabis
sales places health considerations ahead of profits, making it
available to people who use it, while avoiding undue increases in
demand and use. Looked at from this perspective, clearly cannabis
advertising must be prohibited, and products must be sold in plain
packaging. Federal and provincial governments will need to stand firm
on this point.

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Dr. Benedikt Fischer is senior scientist, Institute for Mental Health 
Policy Research (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Jean-Francois 
Crepault is senior policy analyst, Centre for Addiction and Mental 
Health (CAMH).
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