Marijuana industry closely watches advertising rules

Licensed marijuana growers in Canada say a potential ban on advertising would be a "disservice" to users searching for the high that's right for them.

Producers say plain packaging would be a 'disservice' to customers

A view from inside the Tweed Marijuana Inc. facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. (Allan Ziolkowski)

You might remember the smoking Joe Camel from magazine ads and the chesterfield-touting Joe Canadian from beer ads, but there's a chance you'll never meet Joe Marijuana.

As the Liberal government prepares to introduce legislation next spring to legalize cannabis, it has asked a nine-member task force to look at what restrictions should be in place when it comes to marketing marijuana.

"Since marketing, advertising and promotion of marijuana would only serve to 'normalize' it in society and encourage and increase usage, it has been proposed that these should be strictly limited so as to dampen widespread use and reduce associated harms," reads the government's discussion paper on the issue.

Mark Zekulin is president of Tweed Marijuana Inc., one of the big players in medical marijuana production. (CBC)

"Limitations could include products being sold in plain packaging."

That's tough for the industry to inhale.

Mark Zekulin, president of Tweed Inc. in Smiths Falls, Ont., believes a ban on advertising would "be a disservice to people who have to make a choice" between what strains of marijuana they want to buy.

Black market worries

Producers claim some strains give you a different high. A few puffs of one strain might make you feel tired, while a hit of another could give you an energetic burst.

"People are going to consume it. The question is do you give them the best information?" Zekulin said. "It is like wine. It is like whiskey. You have to be able to look at why they're different ... People have the right to find the variety that's right for them."

Denis Arsenault, of Moncton's OrganiGram, said he expects in the end the government will allow some advertising. 

"The government has given a very direct messaging on this that they want to eliminate the black market. Then obviously part of eliminating that black market is creating a considerably enjoyable consumer experience at the retail point."

Zekulin said if he's not allowed to tell consumers what they're inhaling, the non-licensed seller will shill their "strawberry flavoured kush" harder.

Branding in a tough business 

Besides health, there's also the issue of these businesses wanting to carve out an identity.

Health Canada already sets strict limits on how their products can be presented on websites and social media. It has already ordered some companies to stop making their products look so good.

The department offers a list of the 33 licensed providers across Canada, their location and number, but not much else. It's a plain list of "inc.", "corp." and "ltd."

A bag of Tweed muffin mix. The company is trying to track down people who are selling knockoff vape pens with the Tweed logo. (CBC)

But if you log on to the providers' individual websites, you get some personality. Some promote their long histories as a selling point, others have jumped on the "think local" train.

With their trendy font and business deal with weed ambassador and rapper Snoop Dogg, it's not that hard to guess who Tweed has in mind as a client.

Knockoff products already out there

"Tweed is different. We wanted to approach it in a more relaxed way … We don't want to pretend to be a pharmaceutical," Zekulin said.

He points to Tweed's sister company Bedrocan, whose website has a more clinical feel compared to his.

"It's why you have different brands in the first place."

Branding is so big in the marijuana industry, Zekulin said he's already seeing knockoff Tweed products and is in the midst of tracking them down.

Arsenault said while it would be nice to have a billboard promoting his product, he's fine with limiting marijuana marketing.

"I don't think it's a question as an industry that we should be encouraging the consumption of marijuana," he said.

Feedback over next few months

The Cannabis Canada Association, which represents the majority of licensed producers in Canada, said it's hoping to bring up advertising and plain packaging with the task force. It's also hoping to send in a written submission on behalf of producers.

Executive director Collette Rivet said she would like to see something similar to the restrictions the alcohol industry faces, and not the generic packaging the government is pushing for cigarettes.

"[Branding ] is very important. Of course it is. You do have a brand and you do have a reason for selecting the brand. It's a competitive business as well. The product should not be attracting children, that's for sure," she said.

"How can you inform people if you can't provide some of the features? How can you protect them?"

The task force is expected to deliver its report to the government in November.