Diversity in dispensaries: Fostering innovation in new medical marihuana regulations


Kathleen Thompson

In 2016, opportunities currently exist for eco-friendly, economic innovation to benefit historically disadvantaged citizens in the changing Canadian medical marihuana industry.

Various scholars and commentators in business, public policy, and the media have discussed how the Trudeau government’s marijuana legislation might look. This paper highlights the role of Indigenous communities, civil society, the business community and interested citizens in a process that includes co-developing medicinal marihuana dispensaries. The practical knowledge of dispensary owners and workers can help co-create an innovative, regulated and safe medicinal marihuana industry. An effectively regulated dispensary distribution model can positively impact provincial economies and local communities.

Advancing a regulated, controlled, dispensary-based model provides opportunities for economic innovation and competition in the medicinal marihuana market in regions other than Ontario and British Columbia. Moreover, providing opportunities for regionalization in the legal growing and distribution of medicinal marijuana can provide opportunities for economically disadvantaged groups, such as Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and women.

Ultimately, fostering provincial entrepreneurism in the medicinal marihuana market could provide a net benefit to provincial economies and foster the creation of thousands of local, stable jobs while simultaneously reducing black market and organized crime involvement in marihuana sales. And, according to a recent paper by Meyer, Caspi, et al, community-based and evidenced-based harm reduction information and training on the evidenced based risks associated with heavy marihuana use as well as the dangers of drugged driving must be essential components of an effectively regulated and controlled, community-based medical marihuana distribution system.


The newly-elected Federal Government has a mandate to better regulate and control the growth and sale of medicinal marihuana in Canada. In February 2016, a Federal Court Ruling [T-2010-13] suspended the existing regulations on accessing medical marijuana, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). The MMPR, created in 2012 by the previous Federal Government, regulated access to marihuana for the estimated 42,000 Canadians authorized to legally possess marihuana. Access to medical marihuana under the MMPR was limited to on-line purchases from Licensed Producers (LPs).

The Federal Court ruled in the recent Allard case that the MMPR violated the liberty and security rights of medicinal marihuana patients under The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Single source LP system did not provide a guarantee of quality or price availability for patients and the access restrictions represented an overly broad and grossly disproportionate attempt to protect public safety. The MMPR also failed to restrict the distribution of marihuana to LPs, considering an estimated 90% of medical marijuana patients are accessing marihuana from sources other than LPs. In essence, the court ruled that the distribution inadequacy of the MMPR undermined the health and safety of patients who risked criminal sanctions for obtaining legally prescribed marihuana. The Federal Court ruling thus provides opportunities to improve the health and safety of Canadians through the creation of a solidly regulated and controlled medical marihuana distribution model that includes community-based dispensaries.

Many Canadian medicinal marihuana users prefer to purchase medical marihuana through local or on-line dispensaries, despite the risk of criminal sanctions. A certified dispensary is a store-front location that distributes marihuana in a controlled, informed environment to people with medical marihuana prescriptions. Presently, the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), a non-profit society that certifies medical cannabis dispensaries in Canada, evaluates applicants on over 50 standards, providing consistency, accountability, transparency, and superior quality of patient care across the country.

An estimated 100 illegal dispensaries operate across Canada with the majority in British Columbia and Ontario. Yet, the Federal Court ruling described dispensaries as “the heart of cannabis access” in Canada (T-2010-13, p. 58, paragraph 616).

Dispensaries: The heart of marijuana access in Canada

The recent Federal Court ruling mandates the Federal Government to fix the access problems with the medical marihuana distribution system in Canada. Supporting existing, certified dispensaries and encouraging an innovative, competitive distribution system could potentially provide Canadians with adequate access to a controlled, safe supply of medical marihuana while also fostering local economies through job creation and taxation. Most significantly, people who are licensed to use medical marijuana could have access to a local, safe, reliable supply of medicinal marijuana.

Low income people suffered the most under the MMPR. People with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and women are groups who experience a high rate of poverty in Canada. The MMPR forced patients to order medical marihuana on-line from an LP. Low income people might not own or have access to a computer. On-line banking and access to credit cards, necessary for on-line purchasing, are not realities for many low income Canadians.

Additionally, shipping costs to remote and isolated locations within Canada are prohibitive. People on low or fixed incomes licensed to legally use medical marihuana could benefit from community-based dispensaries and information from trained staff about how to safety use and benefit from medical marihuana. As the chief lawyer for the Plaintiffs in the 2016 Federal Court case said following the ruling: “The next fight is making sure the dispensaries are legal.”

In short, unparalleled opportunities exist to foster economic innovation and diversity in Canadian communities by collaboratively regulating the existing, certified dispensary distribution model. Other local distribution models proposed recently involve selling marijuana through liquor stores or pharmacies. Both concepts are ethically and practically problematic. Moreover, available evidence indicates that consumers of medical marihuana prefer locally-based customer service, which involves talking to a knowledgeable person about safe marihuana use.

Opportunities and the future

A realistic approach for responding to the needs of Canadians who seek access to medical marijuana involves working with the existing medical marijuana community, and that includes dispensaries. The new regulatory medical marihuana model should acknowledge the realities facing the most vulnerable Canadians, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and people on fixed incomes. The Federal Court ruling [T-2010-13] highlighted that community-based access to medicinal marijuana is an evidenced-based need of Canadians.

Marihuana is legalized, decriminalized or available medicinally in many countries around the world and this has engendered opportunities to advance social justice and redress historical inequities. For example, the US-based, non-profit organization, Women Grow, serves as a catalyst for women to influence and success in the cannabis industry. It connects, educates, inspires and empowers the next generation of cannabis leaders through creating programs and community events for aspiring business executives.

As well, Indigenous communities have higher than average rates of a number of health conditions and diseases that respond positively to medical marihuana, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain. Meaningful economic development of First Nations and other Indigenous peoples and communities is an expressed priority of all levels of governments in Canada. Thus, it is important to ensure that First Nations and Indigenous entrepreneurs have an opportunity to innovate to respond to the needs of local community members who benefit from medicinal marihuana by operating regulated dispensaries in local communities.

A regulated, controlled dispensary model in Canada also has the potential to promote regional economic development. Economic regionalization and disparity has characterized Canada’s past. The current regional disparity of the LP model, with half of LPs based in Ontario, could be perceived to represent another form of regional disparity disadvantaging the Territories, the prairies and Eastern Canada. Fostering innovation and economic growth is needed since resource-based economies are struggling with low oil prices and isolated communities struggle economically.

In an era of low oil prices and turbulent global economies, the economic growth opportunities of the medicinal marihuana market are significant. An evolving, evidenced-based industry offering eco-friendly options for stable job growth and provincial / territorial tax revenues could assist regional economies and communities across Canada. Interesting and perhaps ironically, collaborative marihuana policy development – which means fostering diversity in dispensary leadership and management – provides an avenue for addressing some of the historical inequities that exist within Canada.

Kathleen Thompson’s SSHRC-funded PhD is from the University of Calgary, Faculty of Social Work. She is the Director of the Indigenous Research Unit with the International Human Rights Association for American Minorities.

Further Reading

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, “Government of Canada Accomplishments – First 100 Days” (Ottawa: Prime Minister of Canada News, Feb 12, 2016).


Susana Mas, “Trudeau Lays Out Plan for New Relationship with Indigenous People: 5 Point Plan Includes a National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (CBC News: Politics, Dec 8, 2015) http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justin-trudeau-afn-indigenous-aboriginal-people-1.3354747

Office of the High Commissioner, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 114 Session” (Geneva: United Nations Human Rights, 2015).

United Nations Development Report, “Human Development Report 2015: Work for Human Development” (Geneva: UNDP, 2015).


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2 thoughts on “Diversity in dispensaries: Fostering innovation in new medical marihuana regulations

  1. Frank Conrad

    Mail order to remote, rural areas is FAR more accessible and functional than ‘dispensaries’ which are only clustered in rich, predominately white cities like Vancouver. Dispensaries have a place, but let’s not pretend they are all serving the marginalized in society. Where are the dispensaries giving away from or discounted medication like the LP’s?

  2. Stewart Martin

    here is one example of free or discounted medication. I know of another dispensary in Saskatchewan that has donated over 100,000 so far, and continues to support community. As time goes on, I think we will see more dispensaries in smaller centers. I think the smart thing would be for the LP’s and dispensaries to get on the same page. Someone has to supply the wholesale market, however production practices would have to change at LP’s. I for one am not interested in consuming irradiated cannabis.

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