News / Edmonton

Plain Mary Jane? Cannabis industry debates packaging restrictions

Some are in favour of limiting colours and graphics, while others say they should be allowed to market freely

John Simon is the CEO of GrenEx Pharms, the first company licensed to grow marijuana in Edmonton.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

John Simon is the CEO of GrenEx Pharms, the first company licensed to grow marijuana in Edmonton.

The cannabis industry is divided over the government’s proposed marijuana packaging rules.

A coalition of 17 licensed producers and two industry associations is pushing back after Health Canada hinted last week that it plans to limit the colours and graphics that can appear on marijuana packages, and add harsh warnings like those found on cigarette packages.

“We need to make sure that we are not fighting this battle to replace the illegal market with a legal one with one hand tied behind our back,” said Cannabis Canada board member Cam Battley, who is also vice-president of Aurora Cannabis.

Aurora is building an 800,000-squre foot production facility on the Edmonton International Airport grounds.

Cannabis Canada is arguing the drug should get equal treatment with alcohol, rather than cigarettes, when it comes to packaging and branding.

Battley said strong branding will help achieve the federal government’s stated objective of replacing a “vast, remarkably sophisticated, illegal and unregulated market."

He said restrictions would especially hurt smaller producers, which in turn would hurt the whole industry by eliminating competition and restricting the flow of economic benefits.

A proposed standardized cigarette package is displayed in front of a variety of cigarette packages that are currently available.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

A proposed standardized cigarette package is displayed in front of a variety of cigarette packages that are currently available.

“If you take a look at craft beer, for example, it is critically important that they be allowed to establish their brand,” Battley said.

“There should be small, medium and large producers.”

Jeff Thompson with Farma Developed Inc., a small producer setting up in a 30,000-square-foot facility just outside of Edson, said branding will be crucial to put his product on the same level as bigger producers.

He said the restrictions also take some fun out of the branding process.

“It’s harder for us to stand out in the market if we do have plain packaging as anyone else would,” Thompson said.

John Simon, CEO of Edmonton’s first licensed grow-op GrenEx Pharms, said the opposite is true.  

He feels packaging restrictions will actually serve to level the playing field for smaller businesses like his.

“I don’t have to put a big dollar value into our budget, because it’s just not allowed. So that makes it easier for us to compete with the big guys, because we don’t have the marketing budget that the big companies have,” Simon said.

He said the focus should be on the ingredients and concentration of the products, rather than “the brand and the hype and the names and the fluffy stuff" that goes along with trying to sell them.

A rendering of the Aurora Cannabis facility being built on the Edmonton International Airport grounds.

Supplied

A rendering of the Aurora Cannabis facility being built on the Edmonton International Airport grounds.

He added that cannabis is not equivalent to alcohol because it has not reached the same level of acceptance in society, so it would be wise to tread lightly in terms of branding.

“We want to be accepted as a legitimate industry, so if we have to go a little bit slow on this and walk before we run – be cautious and not overstep those boundaries,” he said.

The Consumer Choice Centre issued a statement last week warning that packaging restrictions will make products easier to replicate on the black market.

Edmonton-based Cannabis at Work CEO Alison McMahon, however, said she doesn’t see the benefit of faking a label on a black market product.

She said she supports Health Canada’s suggestions, and that they give enough leeway to allow brands to distinguish themselves.

“Consumers are going to want to be able to interact with brands, so I think this is kind of a step in the right direction from that perspective,” McMahon said.

The federal government is collecting public feedback on cannabis packaging for the next two months.

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