By Robert W.E. Laurie

Despite their illegal status, storefront cannabis dispensaries have existed in Canada for nearly twenty years. Some cannabis dispensaries operate under the auspice of a compassion club model, where the illegal cannabis sales pay for subsidized health and wellness services for club members. The oldest compassion club in Canada is the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) located on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. Other cannabis dispensaries operate utilizing a corporate model and provide cannabis and derivative products to consumers over the age of 19 upon the patient or customer furnishing appropriate documentation.

With increasing acceptance and demand by a growing demographic of Canadian society, the number of storefront cannabis dispensaries has increased exponentially across Canada. Take a walk down busy streets in Toronto and Vancouver and you will most likely pass a cannabis storefront dispensary, despite their illegal status.

In an effort to curtail the growing number of dispensaries, some municipalities such as Vancouver and Victoria are issuing business licenses based on land use powers conferred upon them by municipal and provincial statutes. Other municipalities, like Toronto, are engaging large-scale police raids, such as Projects Claudia, Gator and Lincoln, to try and put the “dispensary genie” back in the lamp. However, neither regulation, nor enforcement appears to restrict the growing prevalence as new storefront cannabis dispensaries are opening up across Canada at an unprecedented rate.

The line between medical and recreational cannabis use is blurred most of the time, but the leading Canadian case concerning access to cannabis for medical purposes by persons who are ill, including those suffering severe pain, and/or life- threatening neurological conditions remains Allard v. Canada. The Allard case was a Charter challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as to what was the current medical cannabis regime under the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, SOR/2013-119 [MMPR] brought by four individuals.

The Federal Court (Trial Division), Canada’s national trial court of first instance which hears and decides legal disputes arising in the federal domain, concluded that the Allard plaintiffs’ liberty and security interest were engaged by the access restrictions imposed by the MMPR and that the access restrictions have not been proven to be in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

The presiding judge in Allard, the Honourable Mr. Justice Michael Phelan stated at paragraph 162 that “dispensaries are at the heart of cannabis access” following the testimony provided by dispensary spokesperson and expert, Ms. Jamie Shaw during the trial. The MMPR regime was replaced with the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) by the federal government on August 24, 2016. Under the ACMPR, there are three avenues by which one can legally obtain cannabis in Canada. They include growing cannabis for yourself, designate someone to grow it for you, and/or purchase it via mail order from a federally Licensed Producer (LP). There is no mention of dispensaries in the ACMPR, and the legality and future of dispensaries is no clearer.

In fact, July 1, 2018, is set to be the date for “legalization” or the implementation of ‘Prohibition 2.0’ in Canada if the Federal Government has their way and Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act is passed into law. The first reading of the Cannabis Act took place on April 13, 2017 and the second reading is before the House of Commons as of June 8, 2017. The proposed Cannabis Act legislation contains 15 parts, 6 Schedules and over 226 sections, but nowhere in the new legislation is the word “dispensary” to be found. Is the Federal government planning to systematically eliminate dispensaries or will there be court challenges that clarify the role dispensaries play with respect to dignified patient access to cannabis?

To try to make some sense out of what is going on, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Jamie Shaw, who as mentioned earlier, is the only court recognized dispensary expert in Canada, and asked her about dispensaries in Canada.

RL: Hi Jamie. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with Grow Magazine. You are Canada’s only court recognized dispensary expert, what does that mean?

JS: Ha, well, it means that I was considered an expert by the court when I testified in the Allard trial dealing with patient access to medical cannabis. It’s actually a title that bugs me a bit because so many people now call themselves experts that the word has lost meaning.

RL: Tell us about the origin of dispensaries in Canada and your involvement in the dispensary industry?

JS: What we currently call dispensaries started in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early ‘90’s.Victoria,Vancouver, and Toronto saw the first Canadian dispensaries following the 1996 California bill to allow medical cannabis. For myself, I first got involved in New York City at a High Times 420 march. I began researching cannabis and prohibition history for a documentary, and began visiting Vancouver frequently. In 2002 I became a member of the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS), and officially moved to Vancouver in 2004, and served a term on the BCCCS board of directors. In 2012, I became an employee, and worked as a bud-tender until 2013, when I became their spokesperson, and was elected Vice-President, and then President of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD). I was involved in the writing of CAMCD standards, and successfully lobbied for the first dispensary-specific licensing in Canada (inVancouver withAdolfo Gonzales and inVictoria with Dieter MacPherson). I’ve been blessed to be involved with the Canadian AIDS Society and the Vancouver School board on educational events, and to be one of the authors of the Lift Cannabis Retail Training Course. I was honored to be a co-founder of Canada’s first Women Grow chapter, and am currently involved with the BC Independent Cannabis Producers Alliance, of course the bulk of my work with MMJ Canada,and get to do cool side-projects,consulting with other cities and helping organizations navigate licensing processes, which is the type of work I often get to do with you.

RL: In your opinion and experience, what role do Canadian dispensaries play in patient access to medical cannabis?

JS: The Allard trial was fought by John W. Conroy Q.C. and a team of lawyers, but nonetheless, my testimony on dispensaries was deemed “extremely important, because dispensaries are at the heart of access,” by Justice Phelan. Dispensaries are the heart of access, but they also act as a repository for anecdotal knowledge. Some look down on this, but almost everything the human race has ever learned started as anecdotal evidence.We would do well to attempt verifying or disproving the knowledge held by dispensaries and their patients rather than simply dismissing it.

RL: If dispensaries are illegal, why are their so many and why are such businesses growing in number (across Canada)?

JS:The reasons change. Originally, it was the undeniable relief cannabis provided to very ill people, particularly those with HIV and Cancer. From there, more and more patients found positive results for different conditions, and it gets harder and harder to allow an unjust law prevent patients from seeking relief. At that point, it starts to become more accepted, and the ridiculousness of prohibition becomes more apparent. Then others open stores that are less medical, and then it becomes a ‘business’ that brings a whole other demographic to the industry.

RL: Justin Trudeau talks about ‘legalizing’ cannabis in Canada. What does this mean for dispensaries?

JS.:Well, we’re not even sure what that means for cannabis. Each province has been given jurisdiction over what their own retail will look like, but some major questions remain unanswered. Territories and First Nation lands have slightly different jurisdictional rights, so we’re most likely looking at a patchwork of rules and regulations.

RL: Licensed Producers under the ACMPR are legislated to be the only legal source for cultivating and distributing cannabis. Are there any benefits from buying cannabis from a dispensary versus a Licensed Producer (LP)?

JS:Lots.TheACMPR has some major issues.A Supreme Court battle (R v. Smith by Kirk Tousaw) insured access to edibles and concentrates, but the government seems adamant that there will be no edible products.The ACMPR producers are now allowed to produce concentrates, but with such a low THC limit, it defeats most of the purpose of a concentrated medicine. In addition, they are required only to label THC and CBD, which by themselves are not enough to judge a strains efficacy for most conditions or symptoms, and they aren’t really allowed to tell you what they know about their strains. Buying medicine from one of these producers usually means going through a doctor or nurse practitioner, and very few of those educated on cannabis run general practices. Further, they are hampered by Health Canada’s refusal to call cannabis medicine. Unfortunately, many of the newer dispensaries don’t have the same first-hand knowledge as the older ones, and even those can struggle to keep staff educated. MMJ CanadasendsallnewemployeestotheTrichomeInstitutein the United States, but particularly with the massive growth in the number of dispensaries, and research studies, most have a struggle to ensure all staff are as educated as possible.

RL: How many dispensaries are there across Canada and where is the greatest concentration of these businesses located?

JS: Definitely in British Columbia and Ontario. For a few years I was up on the exact number, but it is growing so fast I don’t think anybody knows anymore. Nova Scotia for example used to have only one, but even just the numbers for that Province are hard to track, ten now in Halifax, six in Bedford, Middleton, Truro, Cape Breton all have dispensaries now, and who knows how many other communities.

RL: With respect to supply, can you comment on how dispensaries get their supply?

JS:The word dispensary has become a sort of shorthand for almost every aspect of the industry outside of the ACMPR. When media discusses ‘dispensaries’ they are also referring to their suppliers, which include edible and concentrate manufacturers, as well as cannabis production outside of the ACMPR. Some dispensaries get product from growers licensed under an old program (the MMAR), but some have been supplied by growers active before there was any legal system in place at all.

RL: Do you think cannabis should be sold along side alcohol and tobacco products?

JS: It really depends. I don’t really see a problem with some corner stores selling cigarettes, beer, and say pre-rolls, but ideally, cannabis-only retail outlets allow for a greater level of knowledge and expertise. There’s also a concern with cannabis being sold at outlets that deal only with alcohol, in that co-use can be problematic for some, particularly those inexperienced with both (and it’s not like we have great track record with the handling of alcohol).

RL: What are the greatest challenges facing dispensaries in Canada?

JS: It’s still ideology. We have a government that admits prohibition was a failure, but all those who knew that first are being treated as criminals. Under the proposed legalization, anyone even suspected of having broken cannabis law in the last decade can be excluded.This is an ideal way to eliminate as much knowledge as possible, and the only real benefit is that it lets the government pretend it somehow still has the moral high ground. Another, slightly more esoteric issue is that the on-going enforcement against the industry has seen reputable players targeted, and newer players enter. It’s like diluting a gene pool.

RL: Prime Minister Trudeau says he wants to restrict, regulate and control the access to cannabis to keep our streets and children safe. What are the risks associated buying cannabis from dispensaries?

JS: Mostly the same risks you run into with any unregulated product. The potential for profit drives some people to unethical practices without some protections in place. At the same time, I know lots of people that make jam, it’s not regulated, and it’s delicious and perfectly safe- most cannabis is like that, but there are always some bad apples in a bunch, we’ve seen that on the legal side already with producers caught using banned pesticides. Reputation becomes important, and consumers need to educate themselves regarding who is reputable.

RL: What does the future of Canadian “legalization” look like for dispensaries?

JS: That’s the million-dollar question. There will be retail outlets, but whether it will be the existing ones depends on a lot.Will they be allowed to transition out of the grey market? With product restrictions, will they want to? This becomes especially difficult for medically-minded dispensaries, because it is looking unlikely they will be allowed a medical role.

RL: What advice do you have for American’s looking to get start or get involved with a Canadian dispensary business?

JS: Well, we’re not America. Business in Canada generally tends to be more hampered, and there are different on-the-ground concerns. Our countries may be more similar than different, but the differences can be pronounced, so local guidance can be invaluable. A good lawyer couldn’t hurt 😉

RL: Thanks Jamie for your thoughts and insights and for your amazing work and dedication regarding Canadian dispensaries.We hope to touch base with you again soon.

What will the future hold for cannabis dispensaries in Canada? We will just have to wait and see. If there is a particular Canadian cannabis topic you would like clarification on, please feel free to contact me at: [email protected].