Canada's largest pharmacy chain has formally applied to be a distributor of medical marijuana.
"We have applied to be a licensed producer strictly for the purposes of distributing medical marijuana," Shoppers Drug Mart spokeswoman Tammy Smitham told CBC News in an email Tuesday.
"We have no intention of producing medical marijuana, but we do want the ability to dispense medical marijuana to our patients in conjunction with counselling from a pharmacist."
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The move is the next step in a logical progression for the chain, which earlier this year was looking into the possibility of entering the burgeoning business.
At a Shoppers drug mart location in downtown Toronto, shopper Shannon Lang was surprised by the decision. "It seems very off brand," she said. "It's got a pharmacy so kind of I guess it's OK [but] it just seems a little weird."
According to the latest government data, more than 75,000 Canadians had valid prescriptions for medical marijuana at the end of June — a figure that has tripled in the past year — and they had purchased a total of more than 4,000 kilograms of dried marijuana in the previous three months. That works out to a little less than a gram of pot per day, per person.
Ottawa is in the midst of updating the laws surrounding the drug, including possibly legalizing it in a limited fashion for recreational use.
The previous government prohibited people with a valid prescription from producing medical marijuana themselves, requiring them instead to order it from a licensed producer, who would deliver it via the mail.
In February, a judge struck down that law and gave Ottawa six months to update the rules.
Then in August, the government did just that, but still didn't make it legal to sell any form of marijuana via a retail location. "Storefronts selling marijuana, commonly known as 'dispensaries' and 'compassion clubs,' are not authorized to sell cannabis for medical or any other purposes,' Health Canada said at the time.
Officially, people who need medical marijuana have to either produce it themselves or obtain it from one of a few dozen licensed producers — a list that Shoppers isn't on but wants to join.
With more than 1,200 locations across Canada including Pharmaprix in Quebec, Shoppers is the largest pharmacy chain in the country, and the industry's lobby group has been pushing the government to make pharmacies the dominant distributor for the drug, since they have experience dealing with other controlled substances.
"As we have indicated in the past 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 said Tuesday.
"We are hoping that the Government of Canada will revise the current regulations to allow for the dispensing of medical marijuana at pharmacy," Smitham added.
Shoppers is owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. and at the company's annual general meeting in May, chairman Galen G. Weston said he supported the industry's push toward dispensing marijuana via bricks and mortar pharmacies.
"We're an industry that is extremely effective at managing controlled substances," Weston said at the time.
"It gives pharmacists the opportunity to work directly in real time with patients as opposed to doing it through the mail, working on their doses and making sure it actually has the therapeutic effect that it is intended to have."
While Ottawa has made noises about legalizing recreational marijuana use some day soon, what Shoppers is trying to do is get a leg up until that happens by dominating the medical marijuana business, Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa's school of law and school of medicine told CBC News in an interview.
"Obviously Shoppers wants any dollar it can lay its hands on so they're making a go for it," he said, adding that he expects the provincial liquor boards would likely be Ottawa's first choice to sell marijuana of all forms at the retail level.
"Someone is going to get the profit margin on selling medical and recreational marijuana," Attaran said. "And I don't think for a moment the provinces would give that up without a fight."
Another major pharmacy chain, Rexall, says there is far too much uncertainty in the market right now — most notably the total lack of clarity of what the legal situation will ultimately be.
"We are keeping an eye on it, but overall our position hasn't changed," spokesman Derek Tupling said in an interview.
"There's still a few big hurdles that need to be jumped over," Tupling said. "There's still a lot of issues that need to be resolved."