Advocates want raise the current limit from 10 mg of THC to 100 mg

Bryan Passifiume | The National Post

OTTAWA — Canadian cannabis advocates are calling on the federal government to do more to fight illicit sellers by allowing for stronger edibles to be sold by licensed retailers.

The call comes in the form of a petition in the House of Commons, which opened for signatures last week, calling on Health Canada to increase the maximum amount of THC permitted in edible cannabis products from the current limit of 10 milligrams to 100 milligrams.

NORML Canada executive director Jennawae Cavion told the National Post that impotent edibles are among the largest factors preventing licensed sellers from fairly competing with the black market.

“It’s driving the market to the unregulated market, which (licensed) cannabis retailers cannot compete with,” she said.

Providing safe, reliable and tested higher-dose edibles, Cavion said, will allow the legal marketplace a shot at competing with illicit sellers.

Cannabis-infused edibles — which in most provinces largely consist of chocolate, cookies, candies and drinks — are limited to a maximum of 10 mg of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis) per package.

While 10 mg is seen as an ideal starting point for beginners, they have little effect on more experienced users with higher tolerance levels.

Cavion, who also owns licensed Kingston, Ont., retailer Calyx+Trichomes, said those limits are hindering legal retailers’ ability to compete with illicit sellers, whose selection of edibles is far more potent.

The website of one popular Toronto-based illicit retailer regularly stocks high-dose edibles for sale or mail-order, offering 1,000 mg packages of cannabis-infused chocolate bars, gummy bears, cookies and other goods.

Another website, based out of a southeastern Ontario First Nations reserve, also offers a wide range of high-potency edibles alongside a selection of chocolate infused with psilocybin mushrooms.

Sam Gerges, who owns Toronto-based independent retailer MaryJanes Cannabis, said low-potency edibles are among many obstacles hindering legal sellers from competing with their illicit counterparts.

“No one who buys 100 to 1,000 mg edibles on the streets is going to buy edibles from legal retailers,” he said.

“That’s like selling non-alcoholic vodka and saying it’s the real deal.”

Gerges said it’s important for both the province and federal government to remove barriers for licensed sellers in order to help tackle the black market — including taxes, which he described as “unbelievably burdensome.”

Of the $113 his customers pay for an ounce of cannabis, Gerges said, $13 of that is HST and $30 is excise tax, plus the $23 to $28 markup added by the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), Ontario’s only legal cannabis wholesaler.

“Between $66 and $71 of that $113 ounce is taxes,” he said.

“That’s not sustainable in any way.”

The government’s legalization framework is currently undergoing a legislated review.

Launched last September — nearly a year later than required under the Cannabis Act — the Independent Expert Panel tasked with that review issued their first report last month.

Many of those interviewed by the panel, the reports states, argued against making “large-scale changes” this soon after legalization, with some even suggesting raising the legal age to 21.

“Many public health stakeholders and some provincial and territorial government officials focused on reinforcing the value of existing regulatory controls, such as the THC quantity for edible cannabis products and promotion restrictions, to reduce harms,” the report reads.

The report also noted that 10 mg was established as a “reasonable upper-limit” to avoid overconsumption by novice users, and that veteran users tend to prefer smoking or vaping their weed rather than eating it.

“In addition to being cost prohibitive, it was noted that some consumers do not wish to ingest more units of product to access more THC,” the report read.

“Some researchers suggested that it is rare that higher dose edibles drive consumers to purchase illicit cannabis, as consumers often cite convenience, price and quality as reasons for purchasing illicit products.”

Cavion doesn’t agree with that assessment, saying that the promise of higher-potency edibles is absolutely keeping illicit sellers in business, despite serious questions over published claims of potency by some of these illegal products.

“The other part of it is the amount of sugar you have to consume to get your regular dose,” she said.

“I shouldn’t have to eat 10 fun-sized chocolate bars when I can just have a few squares of one chocolate bar — if it has to be chocolate at all.”

She said legal retailers just can’t compete with the illicit market over edibles.

A can of legally purchased cannabis-infused soda.
A can of legally purchased cannabis-infused soda. PHOTO BY BRYAN PASSIFIUME /Postmedia file

Liberal MP Patrick Weiler, the petition’s parliamentarian sponsor, told the National Post more needs to be done to ensure Canadians have access to safe and tested products, and not feel they have no choice but to patronize black market sellers.

“Consumers of edible cannabis are seeking much higher limits than what is available through the legal market in Canada, diverting consumers to the illicit market, or simply leading individuals to buy many packages to obtain the desired amount legally,” he said.

Introducing this change, he said, will encourage consumers to buy legally, while also addressing the added issue of wasteful packaging.

“An elevated limit further corresponds with the limits established in many US states that have legalized cannabis sale and use,” Weiler said.

Michael DeVillaer, an assistant professor with McMaster University’s department of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience, said the edible potency question is a good example of the divergence of drug policy between the needs of public health and the demands of industry.

“Given the potential public health risks, I would place the onus on the petitioners to provide market research that shows there is truly high consumer demand for higher THC product,” he said.

“But even if there is such demand, that does not mean we should imperil public health protection for the industry’s interests in market expansion.”

DeVillaer remains unconvinced of a real public demand for more potent edibles, and instead suspects the calls for reform in this area are coming from interests within the cannabis industry and lobbyists.

“If the cannabis industry and government are sincere about wanting to compete with the unlicensed trade, they need to clean up the licensed one which is fraught with regulatory violations, including poor product integrity which includes use of unauthorized pesticides, mold, microbial and chemical contaminants, incorrect labelling, and misrepresented products,” said DeVillaer, who recently penned a book on Canada’s legalization.

“These are the historical liabilities of the unlicensed trade that the licensed trade was supposed to fix.”

Cavion, however, sees it as much of an issue of policing public attitudes as much as it is about public health.

“If we want legalization to be a success, we can’t be limiting the creativity of licenced producers,” she said.

“This isn’t an institutional product — it’s recreational cannabis, it’s literally meant for us to have fun.”

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