Canada’s largest drug store chain has applied to be a licenced producer of medical marijuana, another sign that pharmacies are interested in playing a major role in a growing industry.
“We believe that allowing medical marijuana to be dispensed through pharmacy would increase access, safety, quality and security for the thousands of Canadians who use the drug as part of their medication therapy,” Shoppers Drug Mart spokesperson Tammy Smitham wrote in an e-mail.
Shoppers has no plans to start growing pot itself — they want to buy it from a grower. But under federal rules, patients are only able to buy medical marijuana from licensed producers.
In May, Loblaw announced that it wants to sell medical marijuana through its in-store pharmacies.
Pharmacies should be the distribution channel for medical marijuana, the Canadian Pharmacists Association argued in August in its submission to the federal commission studying marijuana legalization
“We really wanted to focus on the need for pharmacists to be involved in clinical oversight,” spokesperson Phil Emberley explained to Global News earlier this month. “We know that these medications are potent, we know that marijuana is potent and that there can be drug interactions with medical marijuana.”
“The other reason to have it available through pharmacies is that pharmacies can potentially have it paid for through a third party payer. If a physician prescribes it, a pharmacist dispenses it, then their insurance program could potentially pay for it, which I don’t think is going to be possible on the recreational side.”
The Canadian Medical Association, on the other hand, still has its doubts about medical marijuana:
“The CMA still believes there is insufficient scientific evidence available to support the use of marijuana for clinical purposes,” the organization said in a recent statement. “It also believes there is insufficient evidence on clinical risks and benefits, including the proper dosage of marijuana to be used and on the potential interactions between this drug and other medications.”
The CMA did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
“Placing marijuana in pharmacies could lend it credibility as a pharmaceutical medication, whereas placing it in liquor stores would send the message that it needs strict and formal controls,” it said in its submission to the commission.
Shoppers’ move toward the medical pot market raises larger questions about medical marijuana after recreational marijuana is legalized. Medical marijuana was a carefully carved out exception to allow something that was otherwise illegal. If it’s not illegal any more, what’s the point of the exception?
Colorado, where recreational use has been legal for several years, continues to register medical marijuana users for tax reasons — medical users don’t have to pay taxes that apply to recreational pot. But medical and recreational users buy much the same product.
“The person who has their medical marijuana prescription has a card, and that card gives you the right to go into the store and pick up your medicine without the sin tax,” explains Denis Arseneault, CEO of OrganiGram, a Moncton, N.B. marijuana producer.
“We could have the same type of system in Canada, even if the medicine and the recreational marijuana were sold in the same establishment. If you produced the card, you could be sold the product tax-free.”
Medical and recreational pot will look different from each other in the future, predicts Bruce Linton, CEO of Canopy Growth, a large medical marijuana growing facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. As time goes on, the logic of having separate distribution systems will be more obvious.
Recreational and medical pot both now consist of dried marijuana for smoking and some food products, but medical cannabinoids will become much more sophisticated:
“If you think through the next 12, 18, 24 months, the various cannabis oils will increasingly be focused on and tested. Perhaps you’ll look at something that would relate to specific types of pain in a demographic of women over 50 who have diabetes.”
Research into medical marijuana is restricted in the United States because of a continuing federal ban on pot, which co-exists awkwardly with permissive laws in several states.
Canada has the chance to be a global leader in medical cannabis research, Linton argues:
“Canada is the only place currently where you have a large patient base, 85,000 or 90,000 registered patients (who could) be part of observational trials. Canada is one of the few places that permits that, and patenting at the federal level of things that are related to cannabis. Because we don’t outlaw it.”