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...

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