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Shoppers Drug Mart is deploying blockchain technology to attempt to hold medical cannabis to the same rigorous tracking standards as any other pharmaceutical product.

Ken Weisbrod, the company’s vice president of business development and its lead executive for medical cannabis, will announce details of a pilot program Monday morning at the World Cannabis Congress in Saint John. Shoppers, Canada’s largest pharmacy chain, is partnering with Toronto-based TruTrace, formerly known as Blockstrain, to track supply-chain data for medical cannabis products using a distributed ledger that allows for continuous updating and authentication. The first phase of the project will launch next month with full implementation set to be complete before the end of 2019.

Mr. Weisbrod, who is also a practising pharmacist, said the idea is to establish an industry-wide track-and-trace standard similar to what already exists for legal, doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals. Shoppers, which already dispenses medical cannabis online, sees this as a necessary step towards distributing cannabis directly from its more than 1,300 locations across the country.

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"We feel very strongly that [cannabis] needs to be back in our stores for our patients and our physicians, that is really the focus of this ... there is no set standard right now and we would love to see a standard set of indices that we can relate back to and see exactly what is inside the bottle for our patients,” Mr. Weisbrod said, noting there are “gaps in the system” currently in place for tracking medical cannabis products.

“[The Cannabis Act] contemplates a tracking-and-tracing system that should exist and I think it is incumbent upon the industry to put that together for the government,” he said. “When I scan a product into our Health Watch system, it will give me a [drug identification number] that is linked to a drug monograph with the actual full ingredient list, the incipients, the active ingredients, who manufactured it and when, the lot number, all those standard things that are really common to us as pharmacists, that is what we are really trying to prove out with this.”

The announcement comes just days after the Senate committee on veterans affairs published a June 12 report on medical cannabis use among former Armed Forces personnel “urging the government to ensure availability on pharmacy shelves,” according to a Senate spokesperson’s summary of its report.

While Shoppers is currently the only pharmacy operator authorized by Health Canada to sell medical cannabis, other major chains such as London Drugs and Rexall have started training staff on how to advise patients about medical cannabis. The Ontario College of Pharmacists, meanwhile, recently mandated all practising pharmacists in Canada’s most populous province must complete medical cannabis training by March, 2020.

Lack of consistent product standards has been cited as a barrier to dispensing medical cannabis from Canadian pharmacies in the past. Greg Eberhart, registrar of the Alberta College of Pharmacy, said in a 2017 position statement that “more research is required” before pharmacists can confidently dispense cannabis.

“Currently, medical cannabis is not subject to the same controls and standardization required of prescription drugs dispensed from pharmacies,” Mr. Eberhart said. “Once we can assure that cannabis produced for medical purposes has been standardized with quality controls that are at least as consistent as those for prescription drugs, and once better evidence is available about its efficacy to support pharmacists and other health professionals to make more informed decisions and provide more consistent advice about its proper use, then and only then should cannabis for medical use be considered for distribution through Alberta pharmacies.”

For TruTrace, the project is far more than just a proof of concept with the hope of one day establishing that needed level of standardization. The company did not generate any revenue in its most recently reported quarter, and chief executive officer Robert Galarza said Shoppers “will be our bellwether client, by far."

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However, Mr. Galarza cautions the legal cannabis industry still has a long way to go before its products can meet the same supply-chain standards as big pharma.

“The way it used to work, you would have guys cultivate, they’d pull buds off some plant, package them in zip-lock baggies, they’d make a couple calls to find out what the hot item was and what would get the best price and that is what they’d write on all the Ziploc baggies with a sharpie and then send them out the door,” Mr. Galarza said. “Unfortunately, that philosophy, it didn’t go away with legalization.”

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