Last year, Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada’s largest pharmacy chain, applied to Health Canada to become a distributor of licensed medical cannabis. At the time it made sense. The newest users of cannabis weren’t—and still aren’t—teens and young adults, but aging baby boomers who would rather shop at a familiar drug store than at a dispensary. With federal government permission, anyone can become a licensed producer of medical cannabis—but Shoppers wanted to be a distributor, and that can only be accomplished through direct mail-order for now.
But come July 2018, pharmacies across the country are hoping that will change. As the bill stands, the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations remains untouched, but there are exemptions built in for the Minister should he or she decide pharmacy is the way to go. While Shoppers and PharmaChoice declined to comment for this piece, Rexall spokesperson Derek Tupling says that his own company is “figuring out what role pharmacy may or may not be able to play in the medical marijuana business.”
“When the federal government introduced their legislation there was no mention of or indication of pharmacy being a distribution point or an opportunity for pharmacy to sell medical marijuana,” Tupling explains. Until cannabis is given a Drug Identification Number, or DIN, pharmacies are handicapped by regulations. But as provincial governments use liquor control boards to ready themselves for recreational legalization by July 1, 2018, there are other corporations preparing to capitalize on the upcoming opportunities.
Two licensed cannabis producers, Organigram and Canopy Growth Corp., are partnering with the New Brunswick government for exclusive sales to the public. And the Ontario government has made it clear they will be supplying from Canada’s 58-and-counting licensed producers, although, according to the provincial Ministry of Finance, “many aspects of the retail and distribution framework remain to be determined.”
Jordan Sinclair, director of communications and media for Canopy Growth, says the company is pursuing a “diversity of strategies that suit different purposes.” For example, Canopy has partnered with artist and entertainer Snoop Dogg to supply patients with the “Leafs by Snoop” brand. Snoop already licenses his image in places like Colorado.
But a different kind of licensed producer remains unsure of the future. Capitalizing on the law change for them means staying out of jail, or at least clogging up the courts, losing their assets and potentially losing their property.
Chad and Tania Jackett head Liberty Farms, a quiet hobby farm in the foothills of British Columbia. The place is like any farm property you’d encounter in B.C. There are goats, ducks, chickens, a vegetable garden and three hefty akitas roaming the grounds. What makes Liberty Farm unique is its Health Canada licence to grow medical cannabis. Like some 30,000 Canadians, Chad and Tania were issued legal exemptions in the 2000s. It allowed them to grow numerous plants for themselves and a few designated persons. This type of licence doesn’t permit sales, but, like so many in British Columbia, the Jacketts can’t ignore the relief medical cannabis provides.
“Right now we’re being demonized by people claiming dispensary owners and the existing market are in it for the money, as if we’re multinational corporations or subsidized by tax dollars,” says Chad. “Without us being here, there would be many patients that would be dead or suffering or left without their medicine.”With a combined licence to grow hundreds of plants, the Jacketts felt it was their moral duty to help those without the means to medical cannabis. In 2015, to serve patients better, Chad and Tania opened Grass Roots Dispensary in Squamish. Later licensed by the municipality, the example, say the Jacketts, is proof that good people work in the so-called black cannabis market.
They aren’t the only “other” licensed producers in British Columbia, and their dispensary is hardly the only one. Given its illegality, the exact size of B.C.’s cannabis market is hard to determine, but some estimate it’s between $2 to $7 billion.
Everything now hinges on how British Columbia’s government responds to its provincial responsibilities under the federal Cannabis Act.
“We’d like to stay open and serve our community and the patients,” says Tania, “but everything depends on somebody else’s decisions.”