The modern woman deserves the delightful moments provided by marijuana.
She carries her weed in a $275 leather stash bag made in Italy that is both elegant and odour-proof.
At least, that’s according to Van der Pop, a hip cannabis lifestyle brand that sells luxurious accessories, along with the promise of wellness, fun and sex.
“Our aim is to enhance your flower-powered pleasure through a thoughtful and candid exploration of pot, its many magical properties and how it relates to better self-care, sex and socializing,” says the website of the brand that also sells pipes that resemble modern-art sculptures and sleek vaporizers.
“Whether you’re a seasoned smoker or just getting started on your journey, Van der Pop is here to ensure your higher aspirations are realized and that you truly enjoy your trip.”
Van der Pop is no different than any company using lifestyle to sell its products. Except the products are related to cannabis.
The Van der Pop brand will soon be on two strains of cannabis sold to Canadian medical patients, dubbed “Eclipse” and “Cloudburst,” through a licensing deal with grower WeedMD. Like most of the Health-Canada licensed growers, WeedMD is preparing to enter the recreational market.
The Canadian government has promised strict controls on marketing of both cannabis and accessories when it ushers in legal recreational pot next summer. The question of how the industry will be allowed to promote itself is a key issue as the government creates the complicated regulatory framework around cannabis.
How it plays out will help determine not only the fortunes of the industry, but the social acceptance of a drug that still carries a lot of stigma.
The government says it does not want to promote cannabis use, especially among young people. The marketing rules reflect those governing tobacco rather than the more liberal advertising regulations around alcohol and beer.
The Cannabis Act bans advertising of cannabis or cannabis accessories to the general public. Limited “informational” or “brand preference” promotions are allowed in places where young people aren’t allowed — like cannabis stores — or if sent directly to adults by name. Promotions cannot appeal to young people, include a testimonial or endorsement, depict a person, character or animal, or associate cannabis with a lifestyle suggesting “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.” No sponsorships of events or facilities are allowed, either.
In fact, the act now before the Senate appears to prohibit activities that medical marijuana companies now engage in, from selling cannabis endorsed by Snoop Dogg to hosting music festivals.
Would Van der Pop’s website satisfy the prohibition on lifestyle promotions?
“Frankly, no,” said Odessa Paloma Parker, the head of content for Van der Pop and its parent company, Toronto-based Tokyo Smoke. Tokyo Smoke, which bills itself as “for the sophisticated smoker, those who embrace beautiful design along with alternative states of mind,” is setting up stores across Canada selling cannabis accessories, clothing and coffee.
The companies are working to counter the tired and inaccurate “stoner” image of cannabis users, said Parker. “We want to open up the community and let people understand that cannabis can be a normal part of life.”
Josh Lyon, the head of marketing, said Tokyo Smoke aims to “continually push the platform of consumer education and information; empowering consumers to be as informed as possible about their choices.
“We will always operate within the strict confines of the law, whatever they may end up being,” he said in a statement.
Canadian cannabis growers have been lobbying the government to loosen the rules to allow “responsible” advertising and branding. They are needed to educate consumers about products and to compete against the black market, company executives argue.
Branding helps consumers differentiate between high- and-low quality products, and between legitimate and contraband cannabis, said Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of B.C. grower Tilray. Branding will also help smaller craft producers entering the market compete against larger, better-known competitors. Without branding, companies will be forced into a race to the bottom, competing on price alone, he said.
Those arguments appear to be making little headway at Health Canada, which released proposed regulations that spell out in more detail what will be allowed. No changes were proposed to the tight restrictions on advertising contained in the bill, nor are any planned, said a Health Canada spokesperson.
However, the regulations did open the door to branding on packages. They propose “strict limits on the use of colours, graphics and other special characteristics of packaging to curtail the appeal of products to youth.”
That wording does not suggest plain packaging, and leaves room for interpretation.
A 60-day public consultation on the regulations has begun.
Creating brands is important for the new industry, says lawyer Matt Maurer, head of the cannabis industry group at Toronto firm Minden Gross. “They are all selling the same thing. How do you get people to try you?”
However, tight advertising restrictions won’t be a critical blow to cannabis companies, who have creative marketing teams that will find ways to promote products, he said. They are allowed to give away branded T-shirts, hats and other products, for instance, he said.
As public consultations begin, the debate shifts to what will be allowed on packages, which are themselves a powerful form of promotion.
Public health advocates had called for plain packages.
“I struggle to think of any public health benefit to promoting these products beyond making them accessible and giving people the opportunity to identify different product features,” said David Hammond, a scientist and professor at the University of Waterloo School of Public Health and Health Systems. He’s spent 20 years researching the impact of health warnings, product labels, branding and marketing on tobacco, food and cannabis.
Hammond said there’s no credible evidence that advertising and branding are needed to lure people away from dealers and illegal dispensaries.
After all, millions of Canadians now smoke black-market pot in the absence of mass advertising, and the packaging of choice is a plastic baggie, he said.
The major factors that will bring people into the legal market are price, availability and product variety, he said. The contention that customers will have trouble identifying legal products without branding “verges on the ridiculous,” he says. They will know what’s legal by where it’s purchased, he said.
The guidelines proposed by the coalition of growers say they will only promote brands, not cannabis in general, and will not include any promotions that appeal to young people.
“That’s fine in theory, but in practice that’s not how it works,” said Hammond. “The sort of imagery that appeals to a 19-year-old legal established user — surprise! — it also appeals to a 14-year-old non-user.”
Partial restrictions on branding are less effective in protecting public health than plain packages, he said. If branding is allowed, the government would have to police potentially thousands of cannabis-related products to determine if their packages were attractive to youth or promoted a positive lifestyle, he said.
“It’s very difficult for the government to go after the fact and say, ‘you should stop using pink clouds or pink swooshes.”
Not to mention the difficulty in determining whether pink swooshes violate the rules. “Pink designs. A flower. Is that a lifestyle product or not?”
The tobacco industry has shown how package design can promote products, even when part of the pack is plastered with gruesome health warnings, say public health advocates.
“Research has shown that you can use colours, you can use images that aren’t explicitly lifestyle images, but still target these things toward younger people, toward youth, towards women or men,” said Hammond. “I don’t see a benefit to consumers and I don’t see a benefit to public health, and that is supposed to be the rationale for legalization.”
Cannabis executives hate being compared to Big Tobacco. It’s unfair, given the relative harm caused by the two products, said Cam Battley, a vice-president at Aurora, one of the country’s largest growers. Cannabis has medicinal benefits, and when used recreationally causes fewer public-health problems than alcohol, he noted.
Michael DeVillaer, a faculty member with the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research in Hamilton who has worked for four decades with addiction agencies, agrees. Most drug-related “morbidity, mortality and costs to the economy” are from alcohol and tobacco, he said.
However, cannabis is not benign. Regular use cause long-lasting damage to the developing brains of people under 25, smoking pot creates the same toxins and cancer-causing chemicals as smoking cigarettes, and users can develop a dependency.
The government should learn from the harm caused by aggressive promotion and the pursuit of revenue in the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, DeVillaer says.
He rejects the suggestion that cannabis should be governed by advertising restrictions similar to those on alcohol.
“Alcohol use and promotion is a big problem,” DeVillaer said in an interview. “So their recommendation is ‘let us do it, too?’ ”
Several cannabis company executives said they will rely on a reputation for quality to promote their products.
“Colours and fonts are not the way we want to sell our products,” said Avtar Dhillon, executive chairman of Emerald Health Therapeutics. His B.C. company will probably use revenue from recreational cannabis sales to help pay for the development of medical marijuana products, he said.
Using celebrities to sell products is not credible, said Dhillon. “We don’t need sexy images and celebrities saying, ‘Hey, come on, try it!’ “
Dhillon said he could accept “non attractive” packaging, but company names and logos should be allowed so people can recognize where the product is coming from.
Sébastien St. Louis, the chief executive of Gatineau grower Hydropothecary, says companies will be allowed to provide information in cannabis stores. “That’s all we need and all we want.”
However, the visual aid of distinctive packaging and a logo will help adults who have already made the decision to go into a cannabis store to identify the brand they want, he said.
The restrictive approach to advertising and branding is no surprise, said Ottawa lawyer Trina Fraser, who specializes in cannabis law. It’s consistent with the “slow, steady” approach the federal government has taken to legalizing marijuana, she said.
The Cannabis Act:
Banned: Promotion to the general public of cannabis or cannabis accessories and services, in Canada or foreign publications or broadcasts. Promotion that could be appealing to young people, includes a testimonial or endorsement, depicts a person, character or animal, or associates cannabis or a brand “with glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.” Sponsorships of people, entities, events, activities or facilities. Free giveaways, games, draws, lotteries or contests to induce people to buy.
Allowed: Information or brand -preference promotions sent directly to people over 18 by name, in places where young people aren’t allowed, or in telecommunications that can’t be accessed by young people.
Proposed regulations on packaging and labelling
- Packages would contain a “product description;” a standardized cannabis symbol; rotating health warnings similar to those found on cigarette packages; and a warning to “keep out of the reach of children.”
- They must be childproof
- There would be “strict limits on the use of colours, graphics and other special characteristics of packaging to curtail the appeal of products to youth.”