Is Quebec breaking its own cannabis law?

Is Quebec breaking its own cannabis law?

Calming, relaxing, energizing. Those are words used to describe marijuana in a video visible to people walking by province's retail outlets.

Andy Riga
Updated: November 29, 2018

Quebec’s health department is looking into whether the province is breaking its own law by advertising marijuana in a video visible to people walking by its Société québécoise du cannabis stores.

The health ministry “did not specifically approve this video,” department spokesperson Noémie Vanheuverzwijn said Wednesday after reviewing footage of the video messages from the Montreal Gazette.

“As with any situation brought to our attention, we will conduct the necessary verifications and discuss this situation with the SQDC.”

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The video in question is shown on display screens in the lobbies of at least two Montreal SQDC stores and is visible from the sidewalks outside.

“Calming and relaxing” is how one type of cannabis is described in the video. Another type is said to provide “energizing and euphoric” effects, and give users “the impression of stimulating brain activity.”

Quebec’s health department is responsible for applying Quebec’s cannabis law.

Under the Cannabis Regulation Act, the dissemination of information about cannabis is strictly regulated, said Sébastien Gardère, a lawyer specializing in advertising at the Gowling law firm.

The legislation regulates direct or indirect advertising for the promotion of cannabis, including advertising intended to provide consumers with factual information, such as price and the “intrinsic characteristics” of cannabis, Gardère noted. There is no definition of “advertising” or “promotion” in the law.

The law says the advertising that is permitted can only be disseminated “by means of signage visible only from the inside of a cannabis store” or in printed newspapers and magazines that are sent and addressed to an adult identified by name, Gardère added.

There is also an exception allowing the SQDC to communicate factual information to consumers on its sales website, provided it takes all measures necessary to ensure that minors cannot access it.

Offenders are liable to a fine of $5,000 to $500,000.

Advertising restrictions were put in place in part to avoid the targeting of minors or adults who have not already entered the part of retail outlets where cannabis is sold, an area behind frosted glass that blocks the view from the street.

“It could be argued that (the video visible outside) is advertising the products because they’re talking about the effects the products have and the effects are described in an extremely positive way,” said Harold Simpkins, a Concordia University marketing professor.

“Who doesn’t want to be ‘calm and relaxed’? One could argue they’re very much pushing the limits here.”

The SQDC, an arm of the provincial liquor-store monopoly the Société des alcools du Québec, defended the video, which is on a continuous loop at two stores visited by the Gazette Wednesday — one on Ste-Catherine St., the other on St-Hubert St.

“We’re explaining the effects that could be created, but we remain very factual in that exercise,” said SAQ spokesperson Mathieu Gaudreault. “We don’t consider this to be taking a marketing or promotional approach. We’re taking an educational approach.”

He said Quebec’s health department was consulted on the configuration of stores as well as on the “information shown in the stores and on the video.”

The video shown in the lobbies is two minutes long. One minute is devoted to the effects of various types of cannabis, their “intensity” and available flavours. Eighteen seconds focus on potential risks to drivers, users of prescription drugs, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Gaudreault said the video is aimed at customers who have already entered the store and are perhaps waiting in the lobby before entering the purchasing area. Customers who look under 25 must provide ID proving they are over 18 and thus eligible to enter the part of the store hidden from street view.

Gaudreault said he did not know why the video screens in the lobbies were set up in such a way that they are visible from the street.

Asked about the possibility of minors seeing messages detailing the positive effects of cannabis, he said “there’s nothing in the law that prohibits it, so we’re respecting the spirit of the law.”

Questions about the SQDC’s practices come as Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government is set to introduce cannabis legislation that would make Quebec the most restrictive jurisdiction in Canada.

The bill, expected to be introduced in the coming days, would increase the minimum legal age to purchase and consume cannabis to 21 and ban the consumption of cannabis in public places, including parks.

Some advertising restrictions in the law introduced by the previous Liberal government have come under fire.

To avoid promoting cannabis use, the law stipulates that companies cannot sell or give away products, including T-shirts and hats, featuring “a name, logo … design, image or slogan that is directly associated with cannabis.”

Prohibition, a Laval-based chain that sells smoking accessories, has said it plans to go to court to fight the rule.


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