Canada’s “gray market” dispensaries – storefronts that illegally sell medical marijuana – have been in the news a lot over the last year, from stories of RCMP crackdowns to cities like Vancouver licensing local operations in defiance of federal laws. But few stories offer an overview of the nuts and bolts of the dispensaries: how they operate, how many there are, what they do, etc.
To give you the lowdown, we contacted Jamie Shaw – president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD). Her organization works with dispensaries to ensure that they maintain certain standards, and she represented the storefront model itself as a fact witness in the Allard case that overturned Health Canada’s decision to ban medical marijuana patients from growing cannabis at home.
Here’s are some of her answers to key questions about dispensaries and the CAMCD.
1. How many dispensaries are there?
Shaw says that back in 2010, when the CAMCD came into being, there were approximately 35 dispensaries in Canada. Since they’re “gray market” operations, exact numbers are difficult to determine. But based on information gathered from consultation with businesses across the country, Shaw estimates that there are currently 300 dispensaries in Canada. Almost half are in British Columbia – 100 in Vancouver, 30 in Victoria and 10 in Nanaimo. Toronto has 50-60 storefronts, and the rest are scattered across the country.
2. Where do they get their marijuana?
“Different dispensaries have different operations,” Shaw says. But one notable source involves “gray market” growing operations.
From 2001-2013, Health Canada allowed patients to grow their own medicine as part of the Marihuana Medical Access Regulation (MMAR). In 2013, the federal government released new regulations that tried to eliminate home cultivation, but those rules were overturned by the decision in the Allard case. While it was being heard, certain patients were allowed to continue growing their medicine under a court injunction.
According to Shaw, an unknown number of patients also started side operations: “Some [dispensaries] do buy from the MMAR program – patients who are growing for themselves as well as other people.”
3. Is their marijuana safe?
It depends on the grower, the seller and whoever is overseeing cultivation. Because these operations are illegal, quality and safety cannot always be guaranteed. But some dispensaries have found ways to maintain quality control:
“There has also been a whole lot of under-the-table lab testing,” Shaw says, but getting quality-assurance is tricky because of the law. “Illegality was, for a long time, preventing them from getting their product tested because it required the lab to also engage in civil disobedience.” But some labs are now offering official tests.
Meanwhile, groups like the CAMCD and the British Columbia Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) have tried to help ensure that patients have access to safe medicine by imposing standards on their members.
3. Have dispensaries tried to become legal?
Yes, and one branch of the federal government once floated the idea of making dispensaries legit.
The CAMCD came into being in 2011, but compassion clubs and other illegal marijuana providers have been in business since the late 1990s. According to Shaw, the dispensaries have been asking to be regulated by the federal government since that time.
In 2002, the Canadian Senate released a committee report titled, “Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy.” The four-volume report offered detailed recommendations on how Canada could (and why it should) legalize and regulate marijuana. One recommendation would have made medical marijuana dispensaries legal:
“A Canadian resident may obtain a licence to distribute cannabis and its derivatives for therapeutic purposes. The resident must undertake to only sell cannabis and its derivatives to eligible persons; to only sell cannabis and its derivatives purchased from producers duly licensed for this purpose; to keep detailed records on the medical conditions and their development, consumption and the noted effects on patients; to take all measures needed to ensure the safety of the cannabis products and to submit to departmental inspections.”
However, Parliament didn’t act on the advice in the committee report, nor the dispensaries’ call for regulation.
4. What about the ones being licensed in B.C.?
There are “gray market” dispensaries from coast to coast, and all are illegal according to federal law. To respond to the proliferation of illegal marijuana storefronts, Vancouver and Victoria have begun the process of legalizing and regulating them at a municipal level.
5. Why do patients use dispensaries?
Considering that dispensary owners and patients risk arrest, you might wonder why they do it. The simple answer is that many patients find the current legal regime too restrictive. Aside from those who are still allowed to grow marijuana at home, medical marijuana patients can only access their medicine right now through a mail-order system with cannabis producers licensed by Health Canada.
That system, Shaw says, doesn’t offer the same wealth of “knowledge and experience of dispensary operators,” who can offer face-to-face consultation about how to take their medicine, what strains work best for certain conditions, how strains affect patients and more. “You don’t get that sort of expertise through mail-out,” Shaw says.
6. What does the CAMCD do?
The absence of federal regulations created confusion for patients who preferred obtaining their medicine through dispensaries. “There was no standard of access,” Shaw says. “Patients didn’t know what they would get from one to another. With patients as the focus, we [the CAMCD] designed certification standards for dispensaries…We wanted a regulated, community-based approach to medical-based access.”
7. How does the CAMCD regulate?
Participation with the CAMCD is voluntary right now because dispensaries are illegal. But many choose to work with Shaw’s group because it lends credibility to their dispensary. In the city of Vancouver, dispensaries must be CAMCD members in order to be licensed. That’s because the city doesn’t have the resources to ensure businesses are operating properly, so they asked the CAMCD to help with regulation.
In order to be certified, dispensaries must comply with 18 Required Organizational Practices, which range from validating a patient’s ID and condition, to ensuring that marijuana is handled in a clean and sanitary environment. On top of that, they must comply with several additional standards. Certification is handled in a incremental process of four distinct phases, which includes onsite inspection of the storefront.
8. How did they develop their regulations?
The CAMCD worked with researchers from the University of British Columbia to devise their regulations: But for clarification, UBC isn’t involved in the dispensary industry: “Their part of it was just academic. There were no legality issues, so they were able to get a grant for that. It’s not like the whole university was entering into partnership with us.”
9. What’s the future of dispensaries?
“It’s hard to say,” according to Shaw. “If you look at U.S. jurisdictions, dispensaries are by far the favoured choice for recreational and medical. I hope we see something like that. The big question is, what medical will look like within a recreational market?”