Gone to pot
Marijuana dispensaries: how is this legal? It’s complicated
As news broke recently that CannaLeaf Medical Dispensary on Water Street was selling marijuana to anybody older than 19, and dozens of other dispensaries have opened in cities across the country, one question hangs over it all: how is this legal?
The answer, depending on who you ask, is somewhere between, “It’s definitely illegal,” “It’s a legal grey area,” and, “It’s really, really complicated.”
The first thing to understand is that according to the law, as it’s written now, selling marijuana out of a storefront to anybody is still definitely illegal.
But some people are betting that if they made the right arguments in front of a judge, that law would be shut down.
It’s 100 per cent against the law to buy pot for recreational purposes, and if you’re a medical user with authorization from a doctor, the way you’re supposed to get your marijuana is through the mail from one of 36 licensed providers with official approval from Health Canada.
For sanctioned medicinal purposes, users can also grow their own marijuana, or they can nominate somebody else to grow it on their behalf. But those growers can grow only for themselves or a small number of medical patients, and not do large-scale commercial production.
But over the years, there have been a series of court fights from medical marijuana users arguing, essentially, that the system is too dysfunctional and restrictive, and courts have struck down parts of the medical marijuana regulations.
Many medical dispensaries, including at least one in St. John’s, operate on the view that the rules are still too restrictive, and if they were ever charged with breaking them, the law would be tossed out by the courts.
Health Cannabis, on Water Street, is an authorized producer of marijuana for a small number of patients, and provides access to other people with a valid prescription from Friday to Sunday.
“The reason we operate this way is because cannabis is supposed to be delivered through the mail as per the (Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regula- tions), but reasonable access does not mean waiting the weekend for your medicine,” operator David Ferkul said in an email.
But this doesn’t explain the situation with CannaLeaf, which was open for about two weeks from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, serving pot products to anybody with a valid photo ID proving they were 19 or older.
These places seem to be using the cover of the medical marijuana confusion to make a quick buck.
“Somebody might make a charter argument that these dispensaries are filling a legitimate need for people with medical needs for marijuana,” said Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. “I don’t know how far that argument will go.”
All of this confusion has been aided by the fact that police have let it happen. In big cities, too many storefront dispensaries have popped up for the police to tackle them all quickly, and many police forces have decided that busting these operations is a poor use of their time.
“They may be simply saying, look, we have certain policing priorities and this may not be at the top of the list, until something significant happens or unless there are community complaints,” Oscapella said.
In the case of CannaLeaf, four people were arrested and the police said charges are pending under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. That’s a pretty serious deterrent, but if another dozen dispensaries opened up in town next week and they weren’t causing any problems, it’s an open question whether the police would decide it’s worth their time and energy to lay the groundwork, get search warrants and raid them all.
Ferkul said he’d been told there are as many as three other places opening up around town, not including Health Cannabis.
Hanging over the whole conversation is the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational purposes. So one theory on why the storefront dispensaries are popping up is so they can gobble up a share of the market in anticipation of the coming legalization.
But on that point, Oscapella said it’s no guarantee the storefront dispensaries will be where Canadians eventually buy legal weed.
Some provinces have advocated selling marijuana through liquor stores, and some people have suggested pharmacies might be the best way to go.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said this week that for the Newfoundland and Labrador government, preliminary preparation is underway, but no decisions have been made.
The first thing to understand is that according to the law, as it’s written now, selling marijuana out of a storefront to anybody is still definitely illegal. But some people are betting that if they made the right arguments in front of a judge, that law would be shut down.