Unlicensed medical pot dispensaries the wildcard in new cannabis landscape

Unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries are in the spotlight after no recreational pot stores opened in Saskatoon on legalization day.

Supply shortage on recreational side has customers knocking on medical dispensary doors

It's not clear what will happen with unlicensed dispensaries. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Katie Beaulieu says the wave of calls and customers began as soon as the Best Buds Society dispensary opened for business on Oct. 17.

That's the day recreational pot became legal in Canada. But none of the licensed recreational pot outlets in Saskatoon opened because they had no pot to sell.

So people started calling and showing up at the Best Buds Society shop.

"It was pretty much business as usual, except that our phones were ringing off the hook with people looking for recreational dispensaries," she said.

Katie Beaulieu says Best Buds phone was ringing constantly on Oct. 17. (CBC)

"We don't serve anybody looking for recreational without a prescription. A lot of people were turned away at the door."

Best Buds is the city's longest-running unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary. It's owners say it has a rigorous system of checks and balances to ensure that customers do, in fact, have the proper authorization to buy cannabis products for medical purposes.

Beaulieu said the dispensary caters to people who are unable to access medical cannabis through licensed producers, perhaps because they do not have the money to buy the amounts sold, do not have credit cards to use online, or want their medicine in a form not offered by a licensed producer.

How police and government handle these rogue dispensaries, especially in the face of a shortage on the recreational side, is going to play out in the coming weeks and months, according to Saskatoon defence lawyer Ron Piche.

Ron Piche is a defence lawyer in Saskatoon. (CBC)

Piche predicts that police are not going to aggressively pursue dispensaries.

"There's been an almost unspoken understanding that on the medicinal side, the rules and regulations are applied more in the breach than in the rule," he said.

Piche said Ottawa has made it clear through its legislation and amendments that it does not want medical patients having to use recreational stores as a supply source. The government wants to keep the recreational and medical sides separate.

"If there was a societal relaxation against criminalizing marijuana, it would suggest that the lax approach on the medicinal side might even get more lax," he said.

Saskatoon Cannabis Centre does not require paperwork to corroborate whether the marijuana purchased is for a legitimate medical need. (CBC)

This is playing out in downtown Saskatoon.

While Best Buds Society turns people away who do not have the proper paperwork for medical cannabis, customers at the Saskatoon Cannabis Centre need only fill out a generic form and show government ID that verifies their date of birth.

It's a model found in larger centres like Vancouver and Toronto.

A staffer at the store indicates that it sells cannabis products for medicinal purposes. A potential customer then fills out a form indicating their health malady, the name of their doctor's office and whether they've used it medically in the past.

No paperwork is requested to corroborate whether a person is making up symptoms to buy cannabis recreationally, or for a legitimate medical need.

Saskatoon Police say they're aware of the unlicensed dispensaries. In an email to CBC, they wrote "We are still working on the approach to deal with non-permitted dispensaries. We will be releasing something next week."


Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.