Why it may not be too late for marijuana dispensaries

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Do stoners want to buy their weed at Shoppers? 

Galen Weston Jr. thinks so. The scion of the Loblaw grocery store chain, which owns 1,253 Shoppers Drug Mart locations across the country, wants to sell medical marijuana at all its pharmacies, including pharmacies in-store at its grocery locations. Why should one of the richest families in Canada be able to sell cannabis, but Mary Jane not be allowed to open a cannabis café or lounge? 

Weston’s intentions were announced in May 2016, just weeks before the massive Project Claudia raids by police on storefront dispensaries. 

While Toronto could have regulated dispensaries like Vancouver and other BC municipalities, our city chose to take a “tough on crime” approach, despite the Board of Health’s call to decriminalize all drugs – and set up safe injection sites to address the current opioid crisis. 

That’s right. In the midst of an overdose epidemic that’s been fuelled in a big way by Big Pharma, the city took steps to reduce access to cannabis, a substance proven to reduce overdoses in American states that have legalized weed. 

In order to tackle what the Board of Health termed a “dispensary crisis,” the city instead recommended to the federal task force studying marijuana legalization that pharmacies fill the supply need. 

While the city can’t turn back the clock on endorsing pharmacies, it’s not too late for dispensaries. 

In fact, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s leading hospital for mental illness, has pivoted on the issue and is now calling for their legalization of dispensaries after initially recommending the distribution of marijuana through government-run stores. CAMH recently met with officials from Uruguay, the first country to legalize cannabis, and is touting new data suggesting that the only way to eliminate the illegal market in weed is to integrate the grey market (i.e. dispensaries) into the government’s plans. 

The country recently tried to adopt a pharmacy model for distribution, but barriers remain: cannabis-averse international banks and pharmacists who don’t want to deal with prescribing cannabis, which if it is a medicine, will require a Drug Identification Number and insurance coverage. 

Uruguay is now moving away from pharmacies in favour of dispensaries. 

CAMH officials have also met with Senator Tony Dean, MP Bill Blair’s point person, on the legalization file at the same time as they met with Uruguay government representatives. It’s rumoured, however, that pharmacy distribution could be approved by the feds over the next few months.

But would allowing pharmacies to distribute cannabis eliminate organized crime? 

As dispensaries have remained unregulated, there have been a string of violent incidents targeting vulnerable storefronts. In some cases police have had to assist to keep staff and customers safe. To create a safe market, we need to license best-practice shops and close down dispensaries run by gangs. If Toronto, and Ontario more broadly, regulated dispensaries, we could screen out folks with a record of violent gang activity. As dispensaries remain unlicensed, they are unable to get their supply from a legal source and are increasingly vulnerable to organized crime.

Lack of regulation means that beloved Toronto dispensaries like Queens of Cannabis have been forced by the city to shut their doors. 

How did we get to this dispensary dystopia, where new “illegal” storefronts are opening up every week, and marijuana edible pop-ups are becoming an everyday thing at charity galas, art galleries and at the back of furniture stores?

Activists begged both the municipal and provincial governments to legalize dispensaries. We were blocked at all stages of the conversation, from the Municipal Licensing and Standards meeting where we were prevented from giving deputations until it was too late, to the Ontario government’s industry stakeholder consultations. 

Dispensaries are painted as “black market” actors by licensed producers and their lobbyists as they strive to differentiate their brands from existing successful cannabis companies on the market. 

But after spending millions on enforcement, Ontario remains unable to stop the tide of social change. 

Besides BC, other provinces, including Alberta and Manitoba, are blazing a different path. Instead of putting the blame on dispensaries and craft edible makers for providing access to patients, they’re rolling out a mixed-model approach that could include public-private partnerships. 

Despite provincial and municipal elections less than a year away, few politicians want to touch cannabis. All the major political parties are choosing to remain silent, even the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, whose son worked at a BC dispensary chain in Toronto. Instead of leaving legalization to the Liberals and their friends, it’s time to make cannabis an issue rooted in diversity not exclusion. 

If we regulate cannabis like alcohol, it means we can have government-run stores, along with regulated sites for consumption, including possibly lounges, restaurants and hotels. 

Along the same line, we should also have licensed and regulated special events, if only we were able to surmount the proposed federal advertising restrictions that regulate cannabis like tobacco. 

Things have started out on the wrong foot, but if we use alcohol as a baseline for cannabis, we can move the needle forward for this much more benign substance.

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Source: 420Intel – Politics

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