Health Canada efforts signal progress on cannabis health products
By Matt Maurer
Last June, Health Canada launched a consultation to seek feedback regarding the kinds of products stakeholders would be interested in purchasing, manufacturing or selling, should a legal pathway to market for cannabis health products (CHP) be established.
The results of the consultation are highly encouraging and Health Canada has indicated that it intends to create a scientific advisory committee before the end of the year to seek advice on the appropriate safety, efficacy and quality standards for health products containing cannabis that would be safe for use without practitioner oversight.
More than 1,100 respondents completed the online consultation. Among them, 62 per cent are consumers, 23 per cent are industry representatives and 15 per cent are other interested parties.
All of the findings can be found in Health Canada’s summary report, however we have identified below some findings of particular interest.
From consumer participants
- Ninety-three per cent had a positive level of interest in buying or learning about CHPs to treat minor ailments.
- Consumers with a positive level of interest in CHPs considered cannabis, particularly CBD, as a natural remedy. They noted their preference for greater access to natural alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs. They encouraged Health Canada’s approval of CHPs to ensure safety and quality, while allowing consumer choice and increased access to a wider array of products without practitioner oversight.
- If CHPs were not affordable or covered by insurance consumers would be more likely or continue to seek cheaper products from the illicit market.
- Eighty-five per cent indicated a desire for CHPs to treat pain and inflammation. Mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression or stress, were also identified as a reason for interest in CHPs, as was trouble sleeping.
- Sixty-one per cent of consumers were interested in products that could be taken orally, while 41 per cent were interested in topicals. Twenty-four per cent were interested in all formats or did not state a preference, and 18 per cent were interested in edibles or beverages that would be easy to use. About 10 per cent preferred to continue smoking or vaping cannabis.
- Consumer response generally “affirmed high demand for making CHPs legally available for both human and animal use.”
- Only 10 per cent indicated that place of sale was a concern. In particular, they felt the retail environment for CHPs should be similar to that of over-the-counter drugs or natural health products, and should not be restricted to provincially or territorially authorized retailers or federally licensed cannabis sellers.
- Allowing CHPs to be sold at pharmacies, health stores or other retailers would improve availability and deter from the stigma associated with cannabis use.
- Consumers indicated that CBD should not be regulated in the same fashion as THC, alcohol or pharmaceutical drugs, which they view to be more harmful than CBD.
From industry participants
- Overall feedback demonstrated a strong desire to bring to market a new range of cannabis products.
- Sixty-two per cent are interested in CHPs for both human use and use in animals.
- They viewed restricting the sale of CHPs to provincially and territorially authorized retailers or federally licensed sellers as a major disincentive for them to bring new products to market. Many noted the lack of health training among current cannabis retail staff and the risk of confusion for customers between non-medical cannabis products and CHPs, if the two were to be sold from the same location.
- Almost 40 per cent recommended that CHPs be sold in pharmacies, veterinary clinics or health stores.
- About 50 per cent expressed preference for a broader ability to promote and distinguish their products on the market and believe that packaging and labelling requirements for CHPs should be similar to other natural health products (NHP) or over-the-counter drug.
- Approximately 50 per cent of submissions proposed creating two distinct pathways for CHPs that appropriately reflect their risk profiles. In particular, these respondents suggested establishing one regime for CHPs with THC and another for CHPs with CBD, with each regime having its own distinct requirements for packaging and labelling, retail environment, youth access and evidence standards.
From other interested parties
Participants in this category include healthcare professionals, veterinary professionals, academics, researches, members of governmental and non-governmental organizations, advocacy group members and regulatory consultants and legal representatives.
- Nearly 70 per cent indicated they were aware of sub-populations or groups that would be interested in CHPs for both human use or use in animals.
- Seventy per cent of health-care professionals are interested in CHPs for mental health purposes. This group generally believe CHPs would benefit those suffering from chronic conditions or pain.
- Seventy-two per cent from the health-care sector disclosed health and safety concerns with CHPs. They highlighted the need for a cautious approach, and recommended having CHPs available only as scientific evidence becomes available to support (or refute) health claims.
- Less than half of all health-care professional respondents, and only a third of all respondents who are health-care association representatives, recommended the need for practitioner oversight for CHPs.
- Fourteen per cent of veterinary professionals and 40 per cent of representatives from veterinary associations were not interested in selling CHPs due to a lack of evidence to support claims for use in animals.
- Health and veterinary organizations and professionals generally remain in favour of strict packaging and labelling requirements to prevent ingestion or accidental consumption by children and to enhance consumer safety.
- Overall, industry groups and representatives from health-care organizations support further research and evidence on the safety and efficacy of cannabis in producing a specific health effect for humans or in animals. Written submissions from all government respondents emphasized the need for strong evidence requirements.
In many respects, the results are not surprising for anyone who has been following the industry for any period of time. Consumers have a strong desire to see CHPs come to market, and industry participants are eager to bring them to market and are supportive of less restrictions on advertising, labeling and packaging. The health-care and veterinary sectors are certainly interested in advancing the discussion, but are much more cautious in their proposed approach and desire scientific backing. While there is variation amongst the different groups of respondents as to their level of support and their particular concerns, all groups are generally supportive of developing a path forward for bringing CHPs to market.
More important is the takeaway that Health Canada signals a clear intention to seek external scientific advice to help create a path forward for CHPs coming to market. While it seems clear that CHPs will, at some point, be permitted to be sold in Canada, what remains to be seen is how the science will inform the timing and parameters under which CHPs will be produced and sold into the Canadian marketplace.
Matt Maurer is the vice-chair of the Cannabis Law Group at Torkin Manes LLP in Toronto.