Getting cannabis edibles to consumers complex
On Oct. 17, smoking cannabis will become legal in Canada. As for cannabis edibles, they will take a bit longer: Cannabis-infused food products will be legal in a little less than a year’s time.
Once edibles are available, things will get complicated in Canada’s food industry. But, with the right regulations, this is a profit opportunity that doesn’t come every day.
Unlike the smokable version, edibles can be consumed by anyone without those around them knowing. It’s discrete, convenient — and potentially dangerous.
Health Canada was caught by surprise by the additional legalization of edibles, and is still trying to come up with an appropriate regulatory framework.
Many questions linger about the distinct dangers edibles pose, particularly for children. Food companies are notoriously paranoid about food-safety issues, since they are always just one recall, outbreak or tragic incident away from closing their doors. All it takes is one child eating a cannabis-infused product, and the damage to that food company would be irreversible.
It is critical that a regulatory framework be put in place, which would include proper labelling of edibles, complete with THC content and intoxicant warnings, to assure the public and industry that edibles and humans can co-exist safely.
With adequate safety measures, edibles present a profitable opportunity for the Canadian food industry. No one knows for certain what the market potential is for cannabis, much less for edibles, but growth opportunities are palatable.
In California, for example, consumers purchased US$180 million worth of cannabis-infused food and drink last year. In Colorado, where cannabis is also legal, sales of edibles rose by about 60 per cent a year over the past two years. This kind of tremendous growth is what the food industry needs right now. This is a potential akin to what the industry saw with gluten-free products.
Edibles also stand to shake up current players in the food sector. For example, people may choose cannabis more often than a drink or two, and thus disrupt the alcohol industry. For Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia — where the wine industry is flourishing — this could be a problem. We are already seeing cannabis beer being launched in different places.
But it’s not just alcohol that is susceptible, as edibles can take many different forms: Candies are the number one food product containing cannabis sold in the United States.
It will be interesting to see how branding strategies will align with cannabis, too. Some people will choose cannabis to get high, but not everyone. Beyond the psychoactive effects of cannabis, there is also the possibility of pitching it as a superfood. The cannabis plant is full of nutritional value.
A whopping 50 per cent of food companies in Canada in the Dalhousie University survey are uncertain about their position regarding cannabis. Respondents cited different reasons, such as concerns over employees being trained properly or not knowing what products will eventually be allowed into the market. Many companies are also worried about how cannabis can affect their brands or their supply chain.
With legalization, the stigma linked to cannabis will eventually disappear, but it will take a while. The food industry is known to be risk averse, and it won’t be any different toward cannabis. Until the industry knows the consumer is ready, cannabis edibles will stay on the sidelines — but hopefully not for too long. Sylvain Charlebois is professor in food distribution and policy, faculties of management and agriculture at Dalhousie University.