Pot dispensaries are sprouting up all over Canada. Here’s why.

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Medical marijuana dispensaries are popping up across Canada. Is it legal?
WATCH ABOVE: Explained in 90 seconds. How are illegal marijuana dispensaries popping up across the country staying open? – Apr 20, 2016

The Canadian Cannabis Clinic on Danforth Ave in Toronto’s east end looks clinical — there are no references to marijuana culture at all, anywhere.

There isn’t any pot, either — that would break the rules.

The clinic, which screens patients who want to use medical marijuana and connects the ones that get approved to legal producers, does everything by the book.

But, as spokesperson Ronan Levy points out, the four brand-new marijuana dispensaries down the street don’t.

“It’s absolutely frustrating to be the only legally operating cannabis business on the Danforth,” he says.

“As of right now, there are five marijuana-related businesses (nearby) — four dispensaries selling cannabis illegally, and one clinic, which is this location.”

Patients who get the green light from the clinic are mailed their marijuana, he explained.

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How many dispensaries are there in Canada? Nobody seems to know for sure, not even the Vancouver-based Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries. Spokesperson Jamie Shaw offered a “best guess” at 90 in Vancouver and 60-70 in Toronto. “It’s been a little hard to keep up,” she explained.

“We’ve been asking government for regulation for 20 years, but for the last three or four we’ve been telling them that if they don’t do it there will be way too many dispensaries,” she says.

On a one-kilometre stretch of the Danforth, there is now a dispensary for every two Greek restaurants, the specialty the street is usually known for.

WATCH: The city of Vancouver is trying to control the budding business of pot shops that have sprung up in the city, while Ottawa figures out the legal framework to regulate weed. Robin Gill has the first installment of Global National’s “Managing Marijuana” series.
Click to play video: 'Vancouver pot shops await federal legalization legislation'
Vancouver pot shops await federal legalization legislation

Illegal but tolerated, for now, the dispensaries have their eye on a chunk of a future legalized marijuana market, says University of Toronto graduate student Jenna Valleriani.

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“They’re hoping that whatever legalization system unfolds, that it’s going to kind of grandfather these kind of pioneering dispensaries,” she says.

Valleriani is studying marijuana markets.

All, in theory, serve only people authorized to buy medical marijuana, but some are more rigorous than others, Valleriani says.

“You can see the difference in dispensaries in the city — the ones who operate more on a kind of patient care model, versus other ones that seem to be more recreational.”

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“I have seen some with really lax guidelines. You can have prescription bottles from three years ago that are expired, and that would be enough. There are some that have really strict intake guidelines.”

“There have been dispensaries that have opened that are recreational,” Shaw says. “They’re not actually medicinal. The older dispensaries are very strict about only serving people with medical documentation.”

Update: “We are extremely strict on our policies.” Adam Blender, director of operations for the Vancouver-based S.W.E.D. Society, which operates one of the Danforth dispensaries, wrote in an e-mail.

“Multiple people are turned down every single day,” he wrote. “Many people come in to our store thinking anyone may purchase medicinal cannabis.”

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S.W.E.D. stands for “Smoke Weed Every Day,” he explained. He did not respond to questions about the legality of the company’s operations.

“If and when recreational legalization does take place we know we will be the gold standard for medicinal marijuana dispensaries,” he wrote.

The other three dispensaries did not respond to interview requests.

Illegal or not, the Toronto police don’t see them as much of a priority, unless there are complaints.

“You asked if they are illegal — the answer is yes,” says Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash.

READ MORE: Pot at the pharmacy? Here are some ways marijuana could be sold in Canada

But police have better things to do than worry about it.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was elected on a promise to legalize marijuana. Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, now a Liberal MP, is in charge of the file.

Update: In a speech at the United Nations Wednesday morning, federal health minister Jane Philpott said the federal government planned to introduce marijuana law reform in the spring of 2017.

READ MORE: Canada to introduce pot legalization legislation in 2017

“Our government has committed to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana in a careful and orderly way. We will take the time that is necessary to get this right,” said a statement released by Blair’s office Tuesday. The statement promised ” … a system of strict regulation, with strong sanctions for those who sell outside this system, to ensure we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals.”

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READ MORE: Tax revenue from legal pot could hit $5 billion each year, CIBC says

What will a legal Canadian recreational marijuana market look like?

One model, appealing to some provincial governments and public-sector unions, is to use existing liquor store systems. Another, which the exploding number of dispensaries seem to be pointing toward, is a system of free-wheeling private retail stores. Pharmacies have their eye on the medical side of the marijuana market.

In the meantime, as the options are mulled over behind closed doors in Ottawa, the dispensaries are busy creating bricks-and-mortar operations across the country.

WATCH: Toronto mayor unsure how to regulate expanding marijuana dispensaries

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Tory unsure how to regulate expanding marijuana dispensaries

“I think there are 50 dispensaries in Toronto, and a year ago there were six,” Levy says. “They’re going to encounter these companies, and whatever system they bring in, if it doesn’t include a role for the existing dispensaries, they’re going to fight it.”

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Under legalization, do by-the-book medical marijuana clinics have a future? Levy argues that they do. In Colorado, he says, the medical marijuana market tripled in size under legalization, as patients who were more comfortable with a fully legal system felt able to buy pot. They will also need medical advice from a doctor open to prescribing medical marijuana, which not all are.

“There are hundreds of different varieties available in Canada, all different, with different consumption techniques. It’s a lot to learn for a doctor who’s probably overworked and has a full patient roster.”

In the meantime, dispensaries follow an “unspoken set of guidelines,” Valleriani says.

“They know what will get them shut down and what won’t, and operate within those guidelines. They’re illegal, but they have policies and practices that are meant to help them survive without legal protection.”



Mon, Feb 9: It’s the paradox of the pot dispensary. Medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal but more than 60  operate openly in Vancouver alone. Jill Bennett reports.


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