Food for pot: Cannabis edibles, extracts and topicals now legal but can't be sold for some time

One year after recreational cannabis was legalized across Canada, three new types of products have received the green light and are no longer illegal.

However, the rules for those products — which regulate cannabis edibles; cannabis extracts including vaping products; and cannabis topicals — have been the source of some criticism.

The Canadian Medical Association says the introduction of legal cannabis foodstuffs adds "yet another level of complexity for Canadians to navigate." 

It believes the 10-milligram limit of THC — an active, high-inducing chemical in cannabis — in each food item is too high. 

Other rules include restrictions on packaging, a ban on certain ingredients in the products (such as nicotine and alcohol) and a stipulation against cannabis-infused meals served in a restaurant setting.

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However, some in the cannabis industry feel the rules are too strict, and could unnecessarily restrict Canadian cannabis businesses.

"It's an exciting time because this is a chance for Canada to make this ours," said Travis Petersen, a chef who hoped the rule changes would open the door for cannabis-infused cooking at restaurants.

"I just hope we don't miss our opportunity [because of] the government's nervousness of getting it wrong and holding back."

December availability

Starting Thursday, three new types of cannabis products are legal in Canada: edibles (food and drink), extracts (shatter or rosin, for instance, to be inhaled with a vaporizer), and topicals (such as lotions).

Previously, only cannabis plant and oral sprays and capsules were allowed.

Consumers won't see these products on shelves any time soon, however: Health Canada, which regulates cannabis products, requires 60 days notice before making a new product available for sale. 

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That means mid-December will be the earliest time they can be legally sold.

British Columbia's Liquor Distribution Branch received submissions from 40 producers to develop products for the province's market. A spokesperson said the province is finalizing its initial offerings for sale online, at licensed shops and government-run B.C. Cannabis Stores.

Tom Ulanowski, an instructor at Kwantlen University's cannabis program and president of Nextleaf Labs, says consumers can expect to see a focus on vape pens, high-potency extracts, chocolate and gummies.

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'Way over-the-top ludicrous'

The rules for cannabis-infused food are leaving a bad taste in some mouths. Many feel the 10-milligram limit is too restrictive.

"There are people who require 20, 50, even 100 milligrams [to get high]," Ulanowski said. He added that people could simply buy more but that means paying more.

Cody Lindsay, 37, is a former Canadian Forces cook who now advocates for cannabis edibles as a therapeutic option for veterans.

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He was discharged from the military for using cannabis, he said, as self-medication from the stress of military service in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"A 10-milligram chocolate bar, I'd need to eat four to feel any effect," said Lindsay in an interview from Victoria. "Every kind of regulation they put in place seems to me to be way over-the-top ludicrous."

Petersen, a private chef who serves cannabis-infused foods in clients' homes, thinks the prohibition on cannabis-infused dining at restaurants is an overreach. 

"[Canadian chefs] can create the roadmap and the precedent for other countries to follow," Petersen said of the prospect of culinary cannabis.

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Cautious approach

Health Canada says the 10-milligram limit for edibles is aimed at reducing the risk of overconsumption and accidental consumption, a spokesperson wrote in an email. 

Simon Fraser University nutrition and food science lecturer Diana Bedoya said that makes sense.

"It's really hard to know the effects of these drugs on an individual," Bedoya said, adding experienced users can simply take more.

"You can add, but you can't subtract."

Legalization efforts have so far struggled to push out the illegal market.

When it comes to edibles, someone like Mary Jean Dunsdon illustrates how entrenched that market is.

The long-time cannabis enthusiast, who goes by the nickname "Watermelon," estimates she sells about 2,000 baked items each month at about $5 per goodie from a private, by-appointment-only bakery.

"I have zero paranoia, to be honest," Dunsdon said, speaking from her Vancouver home. "They'll come get me whenever they want to come get me."

She believes if she faces repercussions from authorities under the new rules, it might just mean free publicity.