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Editor's Plate: The Super Bowl Ad You Didn't See

Feb. 11, 2019
CBS can bury its head about marijuana, but regulators need to think about the coming edibles and beverages.

If you watched the Feb. 3 Super Bowl, you saw the usual ads for beer, even one for wine. Nothing wrong with a mild buzz to take the edge off, right?

What you didn’t see was a 30-second spot touting the benefits of medical marijuana. But that day is coming. And it’s high time to come to grips with the subjects of both medical marijuana and food and beverage products containing either non-hallucinogenic CBD or even the buzzy stuff, THC.

In fact, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said a public hearing on the subject would be scheduled in the near future. Not a moment too soon, as beverages and edibles with CBD (cannabidiol) or even THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are under development. Canadian cannabis companies – many with American partners – are gearing up to have product ready for the October 2019 implementation date for edibles in that country.

There really was a proposed Super Bowl ad, and Acreage Holdings, a grower and distributor of marijuana, was willing to pay the $5 million cost to place it during the big game. (By the way, Acreage recently added former House Speaker John Boehner to its board of directors; he’s also reportedly an investor.) But CBS rejected the spot because it was “not consistent with the network’s advertising policies.”

The proposed ad begins with a disabled boy having seizures – “one [prescription drug] nearly killed our son,” says his mother. Then a man who had been hooked on opioids for 15 years after back surgery. Then an apparent Middle Eastern war veteran and amputee “who couldn’t live with the pain or the treatment.” All found relief with medical marijuana or cannabis-derived products.

Nowhere did the spot promote Acreage’s own products. The ad actually is a call to action, its final frame asking viewers to lobby their members of Congress for legislative change.

“We’re disappointed by the news but somewhat unsurprised,” Acreage President George Allen told CNN Business. “Still, we developed the ad in the spirit of a public service announcement. We feel it’s our responsibility to advocate on behalf of our patients.”

Although two-thirds of our states have legalized medicinal use of marijuana and nine states plus the District of Columbia allow its recreational use, cannabis remains illegal federally.

However, there was a tiny step forward by the feds when the new Farm Bill, signed last December, removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. While the initial focus is on the nutritional aspects of hemp derivatives and seeds (high in protein and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids), this apparently opens the door for product development using CBD, which has a number of medicinal uses.

Meanwhile, there is cannabis news on other fronts. Canada, which legalized all marijuana and derivatives last October, on Dec. 22 published draft regulations for the manufacture and sale of edible products with cannabis. Health Canada opened a 60-day comment period on those draft regs to see if it covered all the bases of limiting the amount of THC, prohibiting cannabis beverages from associating themselves with beer or alcohol and making sure edibles are kept out of the hands of children.

As Health Canada said in its news release on the draft regulation: “The old approach to cannabis did not work. It let criminals and organized crime profit, while failing to keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian youth. In many cases, it has been easier for our kids to buy cannabis than cigarettes.”

“Predictions are that this will be a very contentious issue for politicians and the public, as concerns about children having access to THC-infused candies, chocolate and beverages are heightened,” says David Acheson, a former associate commissioner for foods in the FDA and founder and CEO of consultancy The Acheson Group (achesongroup.com). He was speaking of the process in Canada, but it rings true for the U.S. also.

Indeed, it’s already happening. A news story from early February reported 14 children in Cleveland were treated at a hospital after eating gummy bears containing cannabis. Back in November, five Florida kids were hospitalized in a similar incident.

So, ready or not, it’s here. As with most things, there will be good and bad to come of this new frontier. The key is preparation, as the FDA appears ready to start, and enforcement.

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