Over the past few weeks Canadian musician Bif Naked has been touring the country promoting her latest album and a new, unlicensed CBD company she's launched.
In recent days the company has made multiple unproven claims that their product can "help your body defend against COVID-19 Coronavirus".
Naked is a firm believer in the power of cannabidiol (a non-psychoactive element found in hemp and cannabis) to improve our health. During a recent interview on CTV she said that in her work promoting it she’s “Doing whatever it takes to promote wellness.”
None of the media coverage she's received so far has touched on the finer points of her new venture, as "whatever it takes" in this case means contravening the legal framework of the Cannabis Act.
The CBD product Naked is promoting through interviews and on her social media channels, called Mona Lisa Healing, is apparently derived from organic hemp grown on a Vancouver Island farm.
Vancouver lawyer Michael E. Reid specializes in cannabis law, and he tells us that in some U.S. states which have legalized, products derived from low-THC hemp plants fall under a different legal regime than ones made from higher-THC cannabis plants.
However in Canada as soon as you start producing CBD - from hemp or cannabis - it falls under the Cannabis Act; THC and CBD products are viewed the same under the law here.
There are many hoops to go through in order to get a CBD product into the legal market in Canada, and it would appear that Mona Lisa Healing has decided not to take the leap through any of them.
One of those hoops is packaging.
Canadians who shopped at unlicensed dispensaries in pre-legalization days will be used to seeing CBD packaging similar to Mona Lisa Healing's. Brands like theirs used to flourish in a legal grey area that became black and white on June 21st, 2018 when the Cannabis Act received Royal Assent.
Pictured on the right, below, is a comparable CBD product that's made by a licensed processor, Cove Cannabis. In contrast it's plain to see that Mona Lisa Healing, left, is not in line with Health Canada's simple packaging guidelines which lay out exactly what information and warnings need to be on the label, how large a logo can be, etc.
In an emailed statement to Vancouver Is Awesome, Naked explains that she doesn't believe they need to adhere to Health Canada's packaging regulations for their product that ships out of Toronto. She tells us that "Because we are an international distributor, our packaging is consistent with international markets."
Another hoop CBD brands in Canada need to jump through - the most important one - is licensing.
In order to grow, produce, or sell CDB products in our country you need to be approved as a licensed producer by Health Canada.
Naked confirmed to us that they do not possess a federal license to produce or sell CBD because, as she puts it, they are "an international online distribution organization who source our organic hemp from 'licenced producers' and test the safety and contents of this in 'Government Approved Labs'. [quotation marks hers]”
She refused to tell us the name of the licensed producers the CBD is supposedly sourced from, and she did not answer our repeated questions about the company's structure.
According to their website the business is being run under a company called iGen Ventures which, like Mona Lisa Healing, is also not listed as an approved producer or seller. Corporate records show iGen's sole director is Bif Naked's longtime manager, Peter Karroll. Her ownership stake in either venture is unclear.
B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety provided a statement to Vancouver Is Awesome saying they caution that buying cannabis products from unlicensed sources can put you at risk; "Cannabis products from licensed producers are strictly regulated to ensure they are fit for human use and consumption including mandatory testing for the presence of solvent residues and contaminants such as pesticides, mould, bacteria, and heavy metals. They’re also tested to confirm THC and CBD amounts."
On Mona Lisa Healing's website they have a page that features scans of what appear to be either photocopies or faxes from 2019 showing testing they seem to have had performed on their products. They call these "independent lab reports" and they're meant to provide proof of quality, as the company states that their customers' "trust in our products is paramount".
Bif Naked's company isn't alone in operating on the fringes; you don't have to look far to find non-psychoactive CBD for sale online from a host of other unlicensed sellers in Canada.
In fact there are still a lot of unlicensed companies who are selling psychoactive THC products online, also running afoul of the law. They're essentially like old school weed dealers but they've traded their pagers and dial-a-dope lines in for URLs.
Dan Sutton, CEO of the cannabis brand Tantalus Labs, tells us "The line between federally licensed production and unregulated products remains blurred in the mind of the consumer,” and that “The best way to identify licensed cannabis products is to purchase them from a permitted retailer.”
Lawyer Michael E. Reid believes that unlicensed producers and sellers are still able to operate mostly under the radar because there's not a lot of visible enforcement happening, although monetary fines and up to 14 years in prison can be dealt out under the Act. He agrees that there's confusion in the marketplace from a consumer standpoint.
Naked tells us she's "not worried" about any legal implications involved in operating a company like this, as she believes they are "not 'on the fringe' of anything LOL as we are an online company."
The last hoop Mona Lisa Healing does not seem willing to jump through involves health claims.
As lawyer Reid tells us, "Any sort of cannabis product for which a health claim is made is regulated under both the Cannabis Act and the Food & Drug Act, and would require a pre-market review for safety, efficacy and quality under the FDA. If they haven’t done that, they should not be making a health claim."
In three promotions sent out by email over the past week (one is shown below), Mona Lisa Healing has claimed that their products can "help your body defend against COVID-19 Coronavirus".
That claim is unproven, but Naked pushes back against the suggestion that her company might be taking advantage of the Coronavirus pandemic to make sales, pointing to a general business trend.
She tells us that "Like many other health and wellness companies (like fitness clubs, vitamin supplement companies, and CrossFit gyms) who have newsletters or email subscriptions, there is a lot of care and talk ongoing surrounding immunity supportive wellness supplements and yes, most certainly all of us in the health industry are going to mention it’s 'flu season' during this time of year, and yes absolutely we are all mentioning 'Covid-19' as it is in the forefront of everyone’s mind, as the world (including Mona Lisa subscribers) is seeking wellness and to seeking strengthen immune support. None of these vitamin and wellness companies (including Mona Lisa) are 'profiteering' during a 'public health crisis'."
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control advises that the most important thing you can do to prevent infection is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. You can find more prevention tips HERE.
With files from Jeremy Hainsworth, Glacier Media Investigative