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Simon Doyl

Fred L/The Globe and Ma

An industry group representing Canada largest pharmaceutical distributors says its members represent the most secure, safe and cost-effective way to distribute marijuana to retail sales points.

Companies from pharmacies to medical marijuana producers are trying to find a role in the coming multibillion-dollar pot industry as the Liberal government works on decriminalizing marijuana use. The Globe and Mail reported last month that Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., Canada's biggest drugstore chain owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd., is exploring the possibility of selling marijuana in its stores.

Now, the Canadian Association for Pharmacy Distribution Management, representing pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors and the largest self-distributing pharmacies including Shoppers Drug Mart, Sobeys Pharmacy Group and Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc., is arguing that its distribution system makes the most sense for safely getting legalized marijuana to sales points.

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"Why not leverage a system that already exists rather than try and reinvent a new one or duplicate one and run a parallel one?" said David Johnston, president of the group, adding that the network has existing tracking and product-recall systems for the distribution of controlled substances.

"The pharmaceutical distributors already are fully capable of moving this type of product around to very specific locations under very secure, safe and efficient manners," he said.

The group is now preparing a brief and presentation for meetings with key people on the file in provincial governments and in Ottawa, including MP Bill Blair, whom the Prime Minister has appointed to study decriminalization.

The government has also appointed Eric Costen, executive director of Health Canada's Office of Medical Cannabis, to take on a new supporting role in the Liberal plan to legalize, regulate and restrict the sale of marijuana. Health Canada official David Pellmann has been named new head of the Office of Medical Cannabis, which regulates companies legally licensed to produce medical marijuana. The staff moves will be effective April 4, according to an internal government e-mail announcing the changes.

Greg Engel, chief executive of Nanaimo, B.C., grower Tilray, and a founding member of the industry group, the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council, said the new role for Mr. Costen signals the government's decriminalization efforts will take some lessons from the medical marijuana program.

The government will want to ensure adult recreational marijuana products are safe, tested, labelled and free of contaminants, he said. There will be additional lessons about what has worked in other jurisdictions, such as Colorado and Washington, on issues such as the appropriate tax rate, he said.

The next step for the Liberal government is a new federal-provincial task force led by Mr. Blair. The group "will give expert advice on how the legalization process should take place," Justice Department spokeswoman Joanne Ghiz said by e-mail. "The task force will include perspectives from many different sectors, including health, justice, law enforcement and public safety."

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The cannabis lobby is picking up as Mr. Blair has been meeting with key stakeholders on the file. Since his appointment in early December, lobbying disclosures have shown him having discussions with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and licensed producers Canopy Growth Corp., MedReleaf and Tilray.

Provinces could distribute recreational marijuana through provincially controlled liquor stores, as Premier Kathleen Wynne has suggested for Ontario. But Mr. Engel suggested this would present a "major public-health concern" given substance abuse issues and the possible combined effects of marijuana and alcohol.

Mail-order distribution for medical marijuana is working but new retail sales points could be introduced, he said. "Certainly there is … a desire from some patients to potentially source from pharmacy," Mr. Engel said.

Mr. Johnston said pharmaceutical distributors now get more than 95 per cent of all pharmaceutical products to pharmacies and hospitals. The distributors group would support moving medical or recreational marijuana to any sales point, even if those are provincially regulated liquor stores instead of pharmacies, he said. "We'll leave it to the governments what the individual distribution points are going to be," Mr. Johnston said.

The Canadian Pharmacists Association says on its website that it is "reviewing its existing policies to ensure its policy position regarding pharmacist dispensing of medical marijuana reflects patient safety in this evolving area."

Mr. Engel said the longer it takes the government to put in place a program of decriminalization the faster illegal pot dispensaries will expand. Vancouver is taking steps to regulate its illegal dispensaries, a move that will probably shut down more than half of the roughly 100 operating in the city.

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He said Canada's medical marijuana producers are looking at expanding into the emerging adult recreational marijuana market. Tilray, owned by Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, is exploring an expansion into Canada through its U.S. cannabis brand Marley Natural.

"We would look to use the Marley Natural brand and build a company around Marley Natural here in Canada in the adult recreational space," Mr. Engel said. "I think everyone's looking at the possibility."

CIBC World Markets has estimated Canada's decriminalized marijuana market would be worth up to $10-billion modelled on the Colorado experience.

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