If you live in an urban centre, it would be difficult to miss the explosion of dispensaries in the past few months. If you live in Vancouver, you are rolling your eyes at the rest of the country – the rapid proliferation of “dispensaries” in Vancouver has been going on for years, to the point where despite the fact that they are all currently illegal under federal law, the City has begun the process of issuing business licenses.

This must be said first: All dispensaries are illegal. I have heard many self-identified experts try to call them a legal grey area, but they are not.

In Section 122 of the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), it clearly states:

122 In filling an order referred to in section 121, a licensed producer must not transfer physical possession of the dried marihuana to the client or to an individual responsible for that client other than by shipping it to that person.

That’s right – the only legal way to obtain your medical marijuana (not to be confused with recreation weed which remains in all its forms illegal) is through Canada Post. The dispensaries are all illegal.

That being said, they are clearly filling a much needed gap in the healthcare system. Every other prescriptions from your doctor would be filled by a pharmacist – an expert available to help you navigate the often complicated world of pharmaceuticals. They are on hand to explain how the drug might interfere with your other prescriptions, to answer questions about potential complications, to help identify warning signs and offer advice on a whole host of other reasonable questions you might have about a drug your doctor prescribed.

This is the niche that the good dispensaries fill. For a long time, medicinal cannabis was only prescribed by doctors as a drug of last resort, more often as part of a palliative care regime than anything else. And so the Compassion Clubs started popping up, helping those who were desperate for relief from their pain secure marijuana from a safe source.

From these clubs emerged dispensaries. Many of them are doing great work. Under the current MMPR (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations) regime, patients have no real opportunity to meet with someone in person to ask questions about the different strains and potencies. They have no one to talk to about different means of consumption. No one to teach them how to roll a joint or show them how a vaporiser works or explain the difference between CBD and THC. Good dispensaries fill that incredible important niche for medicinal cannabis patients.

I say good dispensaries, because there are some truly great dispensaries out there. There are also some terrible dispensaries. They open up across the street from daycares or close to schools, they lack proper security, proper training. And if there were health and safety standards, they would certainly not meet them. They don’t meet labour codes or fire codes, and put everyone around them at risk.

I have heard self-appointed experts say that the good dispensaries far outnumber the bad dispensaries. I don’t know, I guess I hope that’s true. But no one is counting, no one is keeping track, so anything you hear on the subject is anecdotal. What we do know, is that of the 176 dispensaries who applied for licensing under the City of Vancouver’s new regulations, only 14 were approved on the first round.

The City of Vancouver is now dealing with dozens of appeals, and we will have to wait and see how many are successful. But regardless of how the City weighs in, all of them, even those 14 licensed dispensaries, remain illegal under federal law.

It is clear that the current MMPR restrictions are absurd. The federal court has already struck down the ban on home growing for licensed patients and I am confident that if the federal government does not work to improve the current medicinal regime, the courts will continue to rule against the government.

I am of the belief that moving forward we should work hard to maintain the separation of medicinal cannabis from recreation and therapeutic marijuana. While they are in essence similar products, they serve very different purposes. As research on the medicinal benefits of cannabis on everything from PTSD to childhood seizures to arthritis continues to show promising results, it would do a disservice to us all to lose this momentum in favour of a single system that could easily get overrun with commercial recreational priorities.

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