Cannabis-infused figs in Quebec may be delicious, but black market still thriving

The Société québécoise du cannabis sells cannabis-infused products in their stores, but they can't be appealing to kids.  (Benjamin Shingler/CBC - image credit)
The Société québécoise du cannabis sells cannabis-infused products in their stores, but they can't be appealing to kids. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC - image credit)

Cauliflower, garden beet, reishi mushroom — these are some of the odd flavours of edibles for sale at Quebec's provincially owned cannabis stores.

Quebec prohibits edibles — cannabis-infused food — sold in the province from appealing to young people, forcing consumers to choose from a selection of products such as dried figs to get high. Industry insiders say the tough regulations are helping the black market thrive.

Fabrice Giguère, spokesman for Quebec's marijuana authority, says the cannabis-infused gummies, candies and chocolates available in other provinces are non-starters in Quebec.

"This is why our edible offer is more oriented toward products such as blackcurrant bites with cinnamon, apples and matcha or blueberries and lavender, dehydrated beets, dried figs and dried cauliflower," Giguère, with Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), said in a recent interview.

"This offer allows us to respond to market demand while respecting the legal framework in force as well as our mission to protect public health."

Ottawa allowed provinces to sell edibles in 2020, two years after it passed the Cannabis Act, which made cannabis legal in the country. Provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta were among the first to sell cannabis-infused food. Quebec, meanwhile, only started selling edibles in 2022 — and the government remains the only legal marijuana retailer in the province.

THC and taste dominated by black market

Quebec's unique array of products has garnered plenty of headlines, but industry experts like Pierre Leclerc, CEO of the Quebec Cannabis Industry Association, say the rules do little to stamp out illegal sales.

"The one piece of good news is a year ago, we didn't have any products and now we do, so it's one step in the right direction," Leclerc said.

"But these are products that don't respond to the consumers in the illicit market to bring them over to the (legal) market."

The vast majority of edibles available in Canada are illicit, mainly because the black market offers easily accessible products at lower prices and with stronger levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — the high-inducing compound known as THC — than the edibles found in legal stores. The THC levels in legal edibles in Canada cannot exceed 10 milligrams per package.

"It's a coast-to-coast problem but it's more pronounced in Quebec because we have fewer products available," Leclerc said.

Leclerc said he agrees with Quebec public health officials who want to protect minors. But he said the province has to decide whether it truly wants to abandon clients to the black market.

"We totally agree that it shouldn't be child-appealing, but there's some space between dried cauliflower and, say, a chocolate bar," Leclerc said.

George Smitherman, president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada, said that even in provinces that have a wide choice of edibles, the restrictions on THC levels are leading customers to look elsewhere.

"A consumer going into one of the numerous legal cannabis stores in Ontario (for example) would find quite an interesting array of edibles, but the limitation of 10 milligrams within any individual package is for the regular consumer of cannabis a fairly low offering," said Smitherman, whose organization represents Canada's licensed cannabis producers.

"It feels like the edibles category has been really basically sacrificed to the illicit markets, we really feel there's a significant dominance there because of the 10-milligram limit."

Erika Morris/CBC
Erika Morris/CBC

Michael Armstrong, a business professor at Brock University who researches the cannabis industry, said the marijuana sector often argues that higher THC levels would make the legal industry more competitive with the black market.

But edibles are difficult for regulators, who have concerns about accidental ingestion, Armstrong said, adding that the duration of the high from edibles varies from person to person.

"On the one hand, yes, that would probably drive out a lot of the illicit production. On the other hand, then you have a lot more high-potency edibles floating around that kids might get into."

A study by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and The Ottawa Hospital found that since 2018, there has been a more than sixfold increase in hospitalizations across Canada for cannabis poisoning among children under the age of 10.

The study, called "Edible Cannabis Legalization and Unintentional Poisonings in Children," was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August and reviewed a period between January 2015 to September 2021.

It found that "when edibles were permitted in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, hospitalization rates in those provinces increased a further 2.9 times compared to the initial period following legalization, but remained unchanged in Quebec."

Giguère said that so far, edibles are selling well in Quebec. As for whether the province could expand its offerings down the road, he said that's up to the government.

But Giguère said the province-owned stores are regularly adding new products, with more edibles to come in the new year.