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Health Canada issued a licence to Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. late Friday that will bring the company one step closer to being able to distribute medical cannabis to patients.

The government has awarded Shoppers with a production licence, according to the government’s website. This type of licence has been issued only once before, in March, 2018, to CannMart Inc., which is owned by Namaste Technologies Inc. Shoppers' licence, which was granted to numbered company 9408843 Canada Inc., allows it to label and test – but not yet sell – product grown by other licensed producers.

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It’s a two-step process to get licensed, and the next stage would allow Shoppers, the national pharmacy chain owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd., to sell to patients through an online store. Currently, Canadian regulations restrict medical cannabis from being sold in person, such as in retail pharmacies.

The news was first reported earlier on Friday in The Globe and Mail’s new Cannabis Professional e-mail news service.

The potential entry of Shoppers as an online retailer of medicinal cannabis could transform the nascent industry that is still seeking to gain credibility among patients, doctors, nurses and others in the medical community.

“As trusted medication experts, we believe pharmacists have an important role to play in the safe and informed use of medical cannabis, and this is the first step in our journey to provide medical cannabis to our patients,” Loblaw spokeswoman Catherine Thomas said Friday in a statement.

Shoppers applied to become a licensed producer of medical cannabis in 2016. At that time, Health Canada was only awarding licences to cultivate and sell medical cannabis. But Shoppers doesn’t want to grow marijuana. Instead, it wants to sell products made by other legal players. It has already signed deals to source supply from major legal growers such as Tilray Inc., Aphria Inc., MedReleaf Corp. and Aurora Cannabis Inc.

CannMart, for its part, also received its sales licence on Friday. On Sept. 10, Namaste said it had prelaunched a website for CannMart so that it would be ready to sell medical cannabis to patients after obtaining its sales licence.

Health Canada is now permitting growers to transfer prepackaged, labelled and tested product to other legal players that are licensed to possess these products, it said on Sept. 17, in a notice sent to producers. This notice was a signal that Health Canada would allow a business model like the one Shoppers wants to pursue to work under the regulations.

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