Two B.C. men recently announced they were launching a constitutional challenge against the federal law that deems medical cannabis dispensaries, or "compassion clubs", illegal. This challenge is based on a violation of rights – including the life, liberty and security of patients – by denying them access to reliable products sold by cannabis dispensaries. Although dispensaries vary in organizational structure and size across Canada, they provide access to a range of medical cannabis products to individuals with a diagnosed medical condition.
Even before the Supreme Court-ordered Health Canada program to provide medical marijuana in 2001, dispensaries provided patient-centered care, alternative access and a source of knowledge about medicating with cannabis to many individuals. New regulations coming into effect on April 1, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), ignores the dispensary model, thus barring patients' access to high-quality individual care and various important social capital, including education and patient networks. Health Canada's new regulations do not allow for onsite pick up, offering mail or courier delivery only, and also do not allow for alternative cannabis products to be sold to patients – two important services typically provided by dispensaries in Canada. More accurately discussed as operating as an act of civil disobedience, enforcement has generally tolerated best-practice cannabis dispensaries that limit their access to only those with verified medical conditions.
This court case is important because the commercial direction of the MMPR may be the start of an intense effort on the part of police to close many of the dispensaries across Canada, even those which have existed harmoniously in communities for well over a decade.
Under the old regulations, which are currently being phased out, cannabis dispensaries fulfilled a need brought forward by the inadequacies of Health Canada's authorized supply, and are still the main source for a large segment of medical cannabis users. Not only do dispensaries provide one-on-one orientations, educational materials and access to a variety of different cannabis strains, many also provide extracts such as cookies and other foods, tinctures, oils and hashish. Under the new regulations, only dried cannabis can be sold legally to patients through Licensed Producers (LPs). Patients are provided no alternative administration options, and most importantly, this denies patients the empowerment to individualize their treatment choices, including alternatives to smoking.
In this rapidly changing landscape, the future of cannabis dispensaries is not certain. This presents a problem for the population, which ranges from pediatric patients to the elderly. Some parents are flocking to places like Colorado for access to CBD-dominant cannabis strains and products such as infused oils for their children with needs unmet by conventional treatment. Providing patients the access to knowledgeable individuals is important in order to navigate through strains, administration and dosing, particularly when individuals have a wide range of experience levels with cannabis both therapeutically and recreationally.
While media coverage of the court challenge tends to highlight the claim that patients are being denied reliable and consistent access to medical marijuana, the case also brings the role of cannabis dispensaries to the forefront. We can't forget they are important visual representations that have a long history in our country, challenging the stigmatization and image of cannabis for medical purposes – some arguing that cannabis dispensaries should be considered one of the most successful outcomes in the wider drug policy reform movement in Canada.
Jenna Valleriani is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Toronto studying social movements and the emergence of new industries.