Canada's largest drugstore chains are reportedly looking into the possibility of selling marijuana in their stores as soon as the regulatory framework makes it OK to do so.
According to a report in Wednesday's Globe and Mail, Shoppers Drug Mart has been making preliminary inquiries with suppliers about possibly distributing their marijuana-based products in the chain's network of 1,300 stores across Canada.
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When asked for a statement on the Globe report, Shoppers spokeswoman Lana Gogas told CBC News, "We believe that dispensing medical marijuana through pharmacy, like other medications, is the safest option.
"Current Health Canada regulations stipulate that the only legal method to obtain medical marijuana is through a licensed producer. Therefore, pharmacies are not permitted to dispense medical marijuana at this time," she added.
Shoppers is the largest pharmacy chain in Canada, but it is far from the only one. London Drugs, a Western Canadian retailer with 35 locations across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, also says it is interested in getting into the marijuana business, and adds that pharmacies are the best, most logical place to effectively monitor the trade.
'They're the first of many that are going to say 'yeah we want a piece of this' - Mike Moffatt, Western University
"We believe that it would be distributed — and should be distributed — through pharmacies, where pharmacies can help guide people to use this on a medical basis," the Vancouver-based chain's vice-president of pharmacy John Tse said in a statement Wednesday.
The industry is represented by lobby group the Canadian Pharmacists Association, which urged caution on the issue in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday.
"[The] CPhA is currently reviewing its existing policies to ensure its policy position regarding pharmacist dispensing of medical marijuana reflects patient safety in this evolving area," a spokesman for the group said.
Changing legal backdrop
The marijuana industry in Canada, which was underground for decades, could undergo major upheaval now that the Liberals are in power. During the last federal election campaign, the party said it favoured a loosening of laws and regulations around marijuana.
While it is currently illegal for recreational use, marijuana is already legal for medicinal purposes in Canada, and on Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on medicinal users who grow their own pot for their own consumption.
A federal task force led by Toronto-area MP and former police chief Bill Blair is looking into the regulatory framework that could underpin decriminalization or outright legalization for recreational use.
Shoppers' parent company, Loblaw, has lobbyists on the official government registry who have, among other things, pressed the government on the topic of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In recent weeks, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has mused about the possibility of letting the province's liquor control board, colloquially known as the LCBO, be a state-sanctioned distributor of marijuana if and when the law allows for it. The LCBO has a monopoly on selling liquor in the province, and Wynne touted the agency's supply chain and security experience with making it an ideal option.
The experiment of other jurisdictions that have gone down the legalized pot path could be illustrative. Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2014, and last year's official state figures show more than $1 billion in sales that led directly to $135 million in tax revenue.
Western University professor Mike Moffatt told CBC News in a recent interview he estimates Canadian jurisdictions could see a similar bonanza, calculating that the industry could be worth billions a year across the country.
"I think they recognize the potential size of the market and how it allows them to get a foot in the door for recreational pot," Moffatt said. "They're the first of many that are going to say 'yeah, we want a piece of this'," Moffatt told CBC's The Exchange. "This is a market worth $10 billion and companies are not going to leave that on the table."
Legalization could help on the other side of the ledger, too, as the $2 billion a year that Statistics Canada says we currently spend enforcing various drug laws would be significantly reduced.
Moffatt adds that medicinal pot would work well in the pharmacies' existing business, since they already have extensive experience handling and selling restricted products such as pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs. Recreational sales, however, would be an entirely different challenge.
Shoppers Drug Mart is now owned by the Loblaw group of companies, something which gives the chain an unparalleled retail reach across the country.
"Canadians could soon purchase some President's Choice medicinal marijuana," said professor Sylvain Charlebois, from the University of Guelph 's Food Institute. "This may sound like a far-fetched idea, but considering how quickly the marijuana landscape is moving, such a scenario is conceivable."
Canadian bank CIBC recently estimated that legal recreational marijuana sales could bring in about $5 billion a year to government coffers.
"The medicinal market would undoubtedly be a smart gateway into the potentially lucrative recreational market," Charlebois said.