Aphria CEO 'handcuffed' by proposed cannabis advertising laws, supports some Senate suggestions

As the bill that introduces the legalization of cannabis in Canada gets noodled around in Ottawa, one marijuana mogul weighs in on what the potential political changes federally, and in Ontario, mean for his company.

Vic Neufeld says advertising is the biggest barrier for his company going forward

CEO of Leamington, Ont.-based Aphria cannabis Vic Neufeld was photographed in Toronto's Shangri-La hotel on Jan. 18, 2018. Neufeld feels his business is 'handcuffed' by the advertising laws around cannabis. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As the bill that will introduce the legalization of cannabis in Canada gets noodled around in Ottawa, one marijuana mogul said there's only one major barrier he's watching.

"One very simple one, and that's advertising."

Vic Neufeld is the CEO of Aphria — one of Canada's largest cannabis producers with facilities located in Leamington, Ont. His company has been expanding its medicinal and recreational cannabis production abilities, so he's been watching closely as Bill C-45 makes its way through the Senate and back to the House. 

"I think what the Senate did in terms of allowing the provinces to decide was a very prudent amendment," Neufeld said, referring to a Senate amendment that would allow each province or territory to veto residents from growing their own plants.

Quebec, Manitoba, and Nunavut have all expressed they would like to ban growing recreational cannabis in homes, but according to the House's order paper, the government plans to reject that Senate amendment.

"If the province of Quebec wants to say 'No homegrown,' let them do it," said Neufeld. "They're the ones who are going to bear the cost and the enforcement of these rules."

'Handcuffing' on advertising bad for business

But as pot legalization moves forward, there's a big challenge Neufeld faces: the CEO believes cannabis advertising is being regulated more than tobacco or alcohol.

"How do you differentiate your brand versus somebody else's brand when you can't convey messaging on key differences of quality, taste, or packaging?" he said. "The biggest obstacle to all licensed producers, not just Aphria, is the handcuffing placed on advertising."

His company will fully support whatever the conclusions of bill C-45 are, said Neufeld, but he anticipates some producers will not adhere.

"I'm concerned there's going to be a few that bend the line if not break it and what's the enforcement?" said Neufeld. "The consumers are going to be confused and it's not good." 

Aphria's marijuana production facility in Leamington, Ont. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In March of this year, Health Canada revealed its proposed rules around cannabis branding, including restrictions on the colour of packaging and the depiction of branding, requirements for mandatory warning labels and a ban on packaging designed to appeal to young people.

Another proposed Senate amendment would also ban branded promotional items such as T-shirts and hats that display logos of pot producers. However the federal government plans to ignore this, saying the bill already outlines strict regulations on advertising. 

"You should be proud of the brands that you are creating," Neufeld said. 

Ford's free market 

During the Ontario election campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said he would be "open" to a free market of cannabis sales. 

"I don't believe in the government sticking their hands in our lives all the time. I believe in letting the market dictate," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning in March.

Neufeld said that campaign platform was based on premier-designate Ford's personal views and from the council around him. 

"If he wants to privatize he has to really walk forward carefully," said Neufeld. "Incoming premier Ford has to be very conscious of what could go wrong, it's easy to think of what could go right."

Aphria is in favour of the LCBO model the Ontario Liberals introduced under Kathleen Wynne. Neufeld said the model allows for accountability in sales. 

"It's self-serving if licensed producers are part of privatization," he said. "Can a licensed producer like Aphria own the only dispensary in Windsor for example? Well if that's the case I'm going to make sure all of my products have ideal shelf presence,et cetera, which is not fair competition."

With files from Catherine Cullen