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Canada's marijuana legislation takes a bite out of edibles market

Cookies shaped like marijuana leafs are pictured at the Cannabis Carnivalus 4/20 event in Seattle, Washington April 20, 2014. (Reuters)

When Canada’s federal government released details regarding proposed legislation meant to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, the regulation of edibles was decidedly absent, despite their popularity and profitability in other jurisdictions where recreational use is already legal.

According to BDS Analytics, a leading cannabis industry data firm, edible sales in Colorado more than tripled between 2014 and 2016, vastly outpacing traditional marijuana flower sales, which fell from 70 per cent of the market in 2014 to 56 per cent in 2016. Conversely, edibles sales grew from 11 per cent to 14 per cent over the same period, which translates to growth from $17 million to $53 million. The Marijuana Business Factbook 2016 estimates that edibles make up 30 per cent of the total U.S. market, with many retailers reporting that edibles and concentrates have overtaken flower sales at their individual establishments. Many states are also reporting month-over-month increases in edible sales.

“In Colorado, Washington and Oregon people really like edibles in general. Chocolate, gummies and hard candy, in that order, are definitely the top three sellers. There are also pills that can be made, so when people say edibles some people think of a candy, while others think of anything ingestible,” says David Posner, chairman of Nutritional High International., a cannabis oil extractor, specializing in THC-infused edibles, based in Toronto, but selling exclusively to marijuana businesses in the U.S.

“I can’t see the Canadian government not regulating any edible products whatsoever,” he says.

And they will, just not immediately. The Canadian government assures that while edibles won’t be part of the initial legal rollout, they will be at a later date, but no timetable has yet been given and that could mean a substantial of profit for Canadian marijuana businesses that make edibles their focus.

Green with envy

“It’s unfortunate that Canada – at least for now – will be missing out on such a potentially large revenue stream that could be extremely beneficial to our customers and our economy, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” says Virginia Vidal, also known as Mary of Mary’s Java, a Toronto-based seller of THC-infused coffees, teas and ciders.

“The government needed to get their medically-licensed producers ready for recreational sale and their not ready to go on to the next stage of the edibles market because that’s not what they’ve been working on this whole time.

“However, that doesn’t mean that edible producers like myself and other companies that have been around a few years haven’t been getting ready for eventual recreational legislation and working very hard to bring to light the benefits of edibles,” she says.

A spoonful of sugar

Some of the main benefits are for senior or sick patients who may find inhaling smoke too taxing on their already compromised system or simply too embarrassing.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t smoke and have no interest in smoking,” says Posner. “It’s really how people want to ingest the product and from the age of 40 and above, more and more people want the edibles. You don’t smell and the edibles also have a delayed reaction, so it’s not like you’re immediately high. Some people can cook dinner and then after dinner, go and relax.”

But for all their benefits, there are other complexities specific to edibles that may have made the Canadian government hesitant to introduce them into a legal recreational framework right away.

Issues to weed out

For example, that delayed onset of the high may lead to people taking more than they should on the mistaken assumption it’s not working. This can lead to an unpleasant overdose effect called, “greening out,” where the user may feel nauseous, dizzy or like they’re going to vomit. They may also experience overdose symptoms, such as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, paranoia, anxiety and numbness in the limbs.

“Unpleasant emergency room visits to do with marijuana are almost entirely due to edibles,” says Zach Walsh, an associate professor of phycology at the University of British Columbia specializing in therapeutic, recreational and problematic substance use.

“One of the things about smoking or vaporizing cannabis, which I think will maintain its status as the preferred method, is the virtually instantaneous onset of effect and because of that, you can wait a second and decide if you want to keep administering or if you’ve had enough. But there’s no going back or stopping when you’ve had an edible. You are stuck with it and the effect lasts longer,” says Walsh.

“With edibles it’s very tricky to get the consistency down,” says Posner. “The Denver Post and other publications would test products that claimed to have a certain level of THC and find that the actual percentage was all over the place. We worked for a year and a half just to get the consistency down for our products, so that our customers can be guaranteed a similar feeling from our products.”

The Canadian government doesn’t just have to set the standard for potency, but also ensure that producers can maintain that potency across time, which Posner says is the real issue at hand.

Another potential danger is some edibles may look particularly appealing to kids, especially, Walsh says, if they mimic popular candies like Gummy Bears.

This was of particular concern in Colorado where they had to introduce child-resistant packaging and a newly embossed warning label with the letters THC! in the centre of a diamond. No edible product can contain more than 10 milligrams of THC and chocolate bars must be scored, so people aren’t tempted to eat the whole bar at once.

Edibles will still be there

Of course, the longer the Canadian government waits to regulate edibles for recreational consumption, the more they open themselves up to a bigger problem.

“The edible market isn’t just going to suddenly vanish, it’s just going to be regulated to the illegal market and the more stuff you leave on the table for the illegal market, the less chance you have of eradicating it,” says Walsh.

“Given the appeal of edibles, I think there could be some middle ground where you have edibles that are extremely well characterized in terms of dosage to avoid the first problem and extremely well thought out in terms of packaging to avoid the second problem.”