Health Canada has ordered Canada’s medical marijuana companies to stop making their products look so good.

The department issued warning letters this week to licensed commercial growers across Canada telling them to clean up their advertising by Jan. 12 or face suspension and even revocation of their licences.

The letters, customized for 20 officially licensed producers of medical marijuana, set strict limits on how their products can be presented on websites and social media, even forbidding photos of buds or the inclusion of hyperlinks to other websites that promote the product.

The tough restrictions also prevent producers from telling customers how varying strains can treat different symptoms, insisting on only bare-bones information.

"The information provided by licensed producers to the public should be limited to basic information for prospective clients such as the brand name, proper or common name of the strain, the price per gram, the cannabinoid content, and the company’s contact information," says a Health Canada notice about the new warning.

Health Canada requires all licensed producers to maintain a website where approved patients can order strains for delivery, and quietly issued guidelines on June 30 about how the products could be advertised.

Crossing the line

But as various firms jockey for market share, virtually all the existing websites have crossed the line, some making broad claims for the efficacy of their strains and posting glitzy photos of their indoor farms.

Now, these companies can’t even advertise about the taste of their products.

"The smoke is strong with an unmistakably flowery taste," says one website, a claim that will apparently have to be dropped by Jan. 12.

'At the end of the day, everybody's offside in some capacity.' - Marc Wayne, medical marijuana industry spokesman

"At the end of the day, everybody's offside in some capacity," said Marc Wayne, president and CEO of Bedrocan Canada, a Toronto-based producer and chair of the industry group the Canadian Medical Cannabis Industry Association.

"We welcome the clarity and enforcement … and the level playing field," he said from Toronto, noting that each of the 20 firms was provided an individual breakdown by Health Canada officials of where their corporate websites crossed the line.

The prohibition on "promotional images" of bud or leaf also applies to Twitter and Facebook accounts, and other social media sites, which have become some of the most potent marketing tools available for the industry.

An Ottawa lawyer who represents medical marijuana firms says the rules have been unclear for months and that Health Canada's clampdown was expected.

"They had to finally take a position, even though it's not really a clear one," Trina Fraser said of the latest missive from the department. She said she has been pressing Health Canada for months, but got "some nonsensical response back."

Still not clear

"It sounds like words like 'treats,' 'relieves' and 'prevents' will be off-limits in describing … strains," she said.

Fraser said that because producers are prevented from providing in-depth information about their strains, medical marijuana clinics may have to take a larger role in helping connect patients to the right product. In the meantime, there will be a flurry of activity as producers get guidance about what is and isn't allowed on their websites, given that "it's still not totally clear," she said.

A Health Canada spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Advertising limits for medical cannabis come largely from the Food and Drugs Act and the Narcotic Control Regulations, which forbid the promotion of any narcotic to the general public.

Canada’s medical marijuana industry saw a major change on April 1, moving from a cottage industry of small growers to a new commercial sector in which large-scale producers serve medically approved customers with standardized strains and doses, charging what the market can bear.

The new system has attracted more than 1,000 applicants, but Health Canada has licensed just 22 so far, prompting complaints from several hundred companies that are still awaiting word on their licences – many fending off impatient investors looking for a return on their money.

Health Canada said it is placing no limit on the number of producers in Canada, but has been quietly cranking up its standards and requirements, making it tougher to comply with security and other measures. Critics have complained the process is not transparent and at least one court case has been launched.

Wayne said his industry group plans to meet Thursday to discuss the warning letters, but members generally support the measures.

"You don't want to be over-promoting a narcotic," he said.

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