The feds might want to make the bold move to invite dispensaries to the table to participate in the future shaping of a national cannabis strategy.

The feds might want to make the bold move to invite dispensaries to the table to participate in the future shaping of a national cannabis strategy.

As Canada creeps closer to legal weed, those accessing marijuana for medical purposes are still lost in a maze of rules, regulations and misinformation.

Health Canada’s 27 licensed producers are easy enough to access but many legal users are dissatisfied with mail-order bud which is good news for the dispensaries that are popping up in neighbourhoods across the country. With almost 50 in Toronto, they’ll help you get a script and then sell you product. It’s technically illegal. But if you ask their clients, the selection is worth the risk.

Right now, medical users are either grandfathered in under the old Health Canada Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR) or, as of June 2013, fall under the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) regime. Under MMAR, there are still some users that are, thanks to a court injunction, allowed to grow their own medicine. A federal court struck down that prohibition last week, but the decision still means that thousands not covered by the original injunction will have to wait months to legally grow their own. For everyone else, you are still only legally allowed to access dried bud through one of the 27 licensed Health Canada producers. It’s a Wild West out there.

Health Canada makes it clear that “neither the MMPR, nor any other Health Canada regulations authorize licensed producers to provide marijuana for medical purposes through a storefront. Health Canada does not authorize the operation of retail storefronts, such as ‘compassion clubs’ or ‘dispensaries’. They are illegal.”

But illegal or not, business is booming for dispensaries.

Bob Carter, an MMAR patient, says he just prefers to shop at dispensaries that let him see and smell product.

“I’m old school,” Carter says. “I’m not interested in doing this online. I want to sniff it, I want to check the count and then decide. I’m not going to front money ever again.”

Carter’s feelings are echoed by a large number of medical users. They know the legal risks, which is why they got legal access in the first place. Sadly for them, legal access only really exists when the product they carry comes from a licensed producer, is in a container from a licensed producer or comes with paperwork from a licensed producer.

But those who have gone the legal route with Health Canada approvals, doctors’ care and the multitude of restrictions of the federal program are burdened with limited access to sometimes unimpressive product and mixed messages from dispensaries.

And that’s a concern for new medpot users in the system like Scarlet (who did not want her last name used). She brought her newly filled-out paperwork to a local dispensary and was sold lots of product.

But no one at the dispensary told her that the storefront and its product is not legal. Quite the opposite. She was led to believe that everything was fine if she were to be stopped by the police or if she needed to travel. The fact that people in the storefront operation were wearing lab coats, boost her feeling that the whole thing was legit.

And being legal is the key for many who have fought to get access to remove the stress of being popped by the cops.

The hope for medpot users under the federal regime was for more research resulting in specific symptom control for individual ailments. Because that’s usually how medicine is used. With dispensaries moving to support the recreational user, fights for market share are leaving some patients behind.

At Tweed, one of the 27 licensed producers, communications manager Jordan Sinclair says some big research is on the way. The EQUAL (Evaluation QUAlity of Life) study, will be the largest medical cannabis clinical research project of its kind to evaluate the effects of medical cannabis on the quality of life of patients, across all health conditions and symptoms. But participating in research is still not enough of a reason to purchase online from a licensed producer when consumers are focused on experiencing a more tactile selection of product.

So until the feds come up with a plan that meets the needs and wants of medical users, the dispensaries are going to continue to open and operate.

Jonathan Hlibka and his entertainment company represent a group of dispensaries as well as cannabis product lines. He says dispensaries are having good conversations with clients but that perhaps the legalities might need to be outlined a bit more clearly for those new to MMPR.

He holds on tightly to the ethical belief that Canadians deserve reasonable access to medication and quotes bits and pieces of case law easily.

But the reality is the dispensaries and their product are either illegal if you listen to Health Canada or quasi-legal if you listen to the staff of dispensaries. And the quasi-legal perspective is not really being tested just yet, although the Liberals’ point man on weed reform, Bill Blair, made it clear last week that police should still be enforcing pot laws.

Like any other form of illegal product or service, if the demand is there, the market will grow and thrive. And if the police and municipal regulators continue to look the other way, then it’s up to the consumer to make the decision whether they want to assume the legal risks involved.

According to Hlibka, the demand for edibles, power drinks, oils and old-fashioned bud is keeping business strong and steady.

“This is not an Amazon market,” he says. “It’s a storefront market.”

Hlibka says the buying experience needs to be included in the future as legal access evolves. Smelling product is all part of the process and Hlibka says research is starting to be done in this area by dispensary operators.

In the months (and perhaps years) ahead, for those looking for 100 per cent legal access, MMPR and mail-order through a licensed producer is your only option.

For the many who are keeping dispensaries open with their dollars and their positive feedback, the feds might want to make the bold move to invite these players to the table to participate in the future shaping of a national cannabis strategy that will be favourable enough to keep everyone safe and legal while also supporting good medical research.