In one of the first studies to survey the clientele frequenting Canada’s medical marijuana dispensaries, researchers at UBC Okanagan have found that there are advantages to the neighbourhood pot store model that should make Canadian provinces and territories think twice before shutting them out of their legalization plans.
While versions of the medical marijuana dispensary have been in existence in parts of Canada for decades, the phenomenon started to pick up steam after a 2001 court ruling which found that Canadians have a constitutional right to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Since then, the government model, requiring citizens to be registered under the Marihuana for Medical Purpose Regulations (MMPR) and to obtain their supply from one on a list of now dozens of licensed cannabis producers, has been the only legal avenue for accessing the drug.
But the federal program does not have as many adherents as one might think. Surveys have shown that only about five per cent of Canadians who use medical marijuana go through licensed producers and that only seven per cent of those registered under the MMPR rely exclusively on these producers.
So, where are these people getting their weed? Home-grown pot is still a common source, as are street sales, but medical dispensaries are now a major supplier for people using pot for medical purposes —in fact, of those registered under the MMPR, a full 80 per cent say they frequent dispensaries.
Those stats are saying something about the attraction of medical pot shops and, perhaps, about their social utility going forward into legalization in Canada, say the authors of a new study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.
“Dispensaries do serve a role in our society, especially for some people with chronic illnesses who use cannabis for medicinal purposes,” says Zach Walsh, psychology professor at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna and study co-author, in a press release. “There is a self-regulatory model that already exists and improvements can be made in a legalized environment.”
Researchers surveyed 445 adults using cannabis for medical purposes, 366 who were drawn from a national sample and 79 who were surveyed at a local dispensary in BC. Of those surveyed, 215 said that they go to dispensaries for their cannabis and 230 who use other sources.
The results showed that dispensary users were more likely to be older than those in the non-dispensary cohort, that they were more likely to report HIV/AIDS and arthritis as the reasons why they seek out medical cannabis and that they were more likely to have discussed the use of marijuana for their medical condition with a physician and to have registered with the government under the MMPR. As well, dispensary users were more apt to use greater quantities of cannabis that those sourcing from other options and to place more importance on having access to certain strains of marijuana.
In all, respondents rated dispensaries equally or higher to other sources in terms of quality of product, safety, availability, efficiency and feeling respected during the transaction. The only negative of the dispensary experience turned out to be cost, which respondents found to be higher than other options.
The results speak to the social value of having dispensaries as part of the legal distribution chain, say the authors. “Dispensaries act as intermediaries between CTP users and growers, which is necessary for those who do not have direct access,” say the authors. “Although more costly, dispensaries may provide other services valued by clients that were not measured in this study, such as social capital and advocacy.”
Last month, the Ontario government came out in favour of having government-run stores be the sole providers of legal cannabis in the province, once marijuana is legalized next July.