While medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2000, the medical marijuana distribution process is still evolving. Even as producers and distributors enter the industry legally, specific policies regulating their practices remain in flux.
One big gray area is whether or not Canadian pharmacy retailers will offer medical marijuana — and if so, when can they start?
The short answer: not right now, but it’s possible in the near future.
Why does it matter?
Right now, the role of pharmacies in marijuana distribution is a hot topic in Canada. To start, investors know there’s growth opportunity in the pharmaceutical space. A recent report from GlobalData research shows that the Canadian pharmaceutical market is expected to grow from $22.6 billion in 2016 to around $25 billion by 20211.
So, medical marijuana presents a serious revenue opportunity for the already-growing pharmaceutical industry. And if big box pharmacies could carry medical marijuana, their revenues would likely increase — that’s one reason why this topic is top of mind for investors.
Beyond just the pharmacy retailers, such a change could have a broader impact on the Canadian cannabis industry. The current process of obtaining medical marijuana — registered mail via licensed producers — creates extra registration and unnecessary barriers to patient access. If patients could get their medical marijuana at a local pharmacy, this would be a major step forward in terms of access. That could mean more patient registrations and more medical marijuana use.
What’s the current situation with medical marijuana pharmacies in Canada?
Right now, there’s only one legal way to obtain medical marijuana in Canada: you can purchase directly from licensed producers via registered mail. Health Canada provides a step-by-step guide for this process2.
Prospective patients must meet with their healthcare practitioner and obtain a medical document recommending marijuana treatment. From there, each prospective patient registers with a single licensed producer, who will be their source for medical marijuana products.
Patients get their marijuana from a single producer via registered mail. While patients can switch licensed producers at any time, the process is cumbersome. According to Health Canada, patient who wish to switch licensed producers must:
- obtain a new medical document from their health care practitioner
- cancel their registration with their current licensed producer
- complete a registration form specific to the new licensed producer
- provide the original of their new medical document to the new licensed producer
Additional registration — a barrier to patient access
The current system creates an extra layer of registration for patients. Even if a patient has obtained their medical document, they must also obtain a separate registration with a licensed provider. And if they want to switch providers, they have to obtain a new medical document from their healthcare provider.
But if big pharmacy retailers carried medical marijuana, it’s possible that the policy for switching providers could be loosened, too. In that world, a patient could have their official medical document, keep a copy on file with the pharmacy, and obtain medical marijuana from any pharmacy retailer.
When will it happen?
Ultimately, the decision on how to distribute medical marijuana will rest with Health Canada. In an interview with Marijuana Business Daily, Health Canada said that the issue is on the table for discussion3:
“Health Canada is open to discussing the issue, but action would ‘require support from the provinces and territories, provincial regulatory authorities and pharmacists.”
Other voices have weighed in on the issue:
“We’ve gotten a firm answer from the legalization secretariat that (in-pharmacy sales) are not happening this year and probably not next, either. I think we’re looking at a two-to-three-year horizon for this to happen.” —Trina Fraser, Brazeau Seller Law
And most people agree that medical marijuana pharmacies will take time:
“We had a follow-up discussion with Health Canada and got a clear and firm answer that pharmacy sales at the federal level will not happen imminently.” —Deepak Ananda, Cannabis Compliance Consultancy
The real answer: no one knows exactly Canadian when pharmacies will be able to distribute medical marijuana, but it’s looking like 2019 or later.
Right now, 4 Canadian pharmacy retailers have signed letters of intent to distribute medical marijuana: Shoppers, Lovell Drugs, PharmaChoice, and Pharmasave. Each of these companies have signed supply deals with distributors like Aphria, MedReleaf, Maricann, CanniMed Therapeutics, and Tilray.
While the financial terms of the deals remain private, we do know the size and scope — all in, these deals cover about 2,700 pharmacies across Canada4.
With pharmacy chains and medical marijuana suppliers already signing deals, savvy investors will remain on the lookout for changes in Health Canada’s marijuana distribution policy.