Two months after a Vancouver newspaper reported that multiple Canadian agencies passed the buck over a controversial radio advertisement promoting a chain of illegal cannabis dispensaries, Health Canada asserted its authority on the matter this month.
Minister of Health Rona Ambrose announced Friday that she has directed Health Canada to monitor illegal cannabis advertising in print, online, on the radio and on television. Previously, Health Canada acted primarily upon complaints.
The announcement follows the warning Health Canada sent in June to Justin Wilcomes, the Vancouver radio host who in April began airing advertising Eden Medical Society, a chain of five unregulated cannabis dispensaries in British Columbia’s largest city.
A provocateur who once asked B.C. Premier Christy Clark about her sexual desirability as a mother, Wilcomes works the 6 p.m.-10 p.m. weeknight shift under the nom de radio Drex on AM talk station CKNW.
Wilcomes’ alleged advertising offense does not appear in any of the three SoundCloud streams of his show for May 12, the date Health Canada cites in its letter.
In this video, Wilcomes describes his Eden Medical Society ads as educational and the first of their kind in North America.
The Canadian Press reports on Health Canada’s warning to Wilcomes and his station, six weeks after the ads began airing:
Health Canada has asked a Vancouver radio station not to promote marijuana, saying a CKNW radio host made “promotional representations” about a medical marijuana dispensary.
In a letter, the department reminds the popular station that advertising marijuana is illegal and that it could be punished with fines by law.”
Health Canada is asking that CKNW AM not engage in the advertising of marijuana or encourage Canadians to participate in illegal activities,” says the letter dated June 1.
The letter says a host known as DJ Drex directed people to visit a Vancouver marijuana dispensary during a segment on May 12.
Health Canada notes in its letter the dispensary itself is illegal and that advertising marijuana for any purposes runs contrary to the federal Food and Drugs Act and Narcotics Control regulations.
It adds that by advertising the dispensary, CKNW is “encouraging its listeners to engage in conduct that could expose them to criminal liability.”
In Vancouver, a city with 80 unlicensed dispensaries, city leaders voted in June to allow dispensaries despite federal regulations.
Medical cannabis is federally legal in Canada, but only 23 licensed companies are allowed to produce, process and sell cannabis, which must be mailed. Individuals are no longer allowed to grow their own cannabis. Only the licensed producers are allowed to advertise on a limited basis.
“The law is quite clear that dispensaries, whether they are online or a store-front, are illegal and they should not be allowed to advertise these illegal services,” Ambrose said in Friday’s statement.
Health Canada makes it clear that advertising anything but the most basic of facts — brand name, price, cannabinoid content — is not allowed, period. Claiming that cannabis relieves pain or even describing the taste of a particular strain are strictly prohibited.
On May 12, the day Health Canada says it heard the Vancouver radio host violate advertising standards, the Province newspaper reported on the ads:
If the ads bother anybody, good luck finding where to lodge a complaint. Various national agencies seem to treat it like a live grenade.
The non-governmental Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has no policy against marijuana ads, but then no one has advertised marijuana before.
“I’m not sure what provision it would fall under,” said John MacNab, executive director of the council. “It’s an issue we’ve never dealt with before.”
He said the council, if petitioned, would probably pass the issue on to another agency,
Advertising Standards Canada. “If we felt that it was a content issue that fit within our codes, we would have to have an adjudication panel examine it,” MacNab said. “But we don’t administer the Criminal Code. If it’s a crime, it’s a police matter.”
A spokeswoman for Advertising Standards Canada referred The Province to Health Canada. So did a spokeswoman for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), saying Health Canada has jurisdiction over the legal production of marijuana and all things weed-related.
Health Canada seemed unprepared for the issue of advertising and, after a couple of days of looking into the issue, sent this statement to The Province:
“Health Canada does not license organizations such as compassion clubs or dispensaries to possess, produce or distribute marijuana for medical purposes.”
And as for the plethora of marijuana dispensaries spread around Vancouver:
“Furthermore, Health Canada does not authorize the operation of retail storefronts. These organizations are illegal.”
As for on-air sales pitches, Health Canada is pretty clear:
“The sale and advertising of unauthorized therapeutic products is prohibited under the Food and Drugs Act.”