The confusion surrounding marijuana dispensaries—legal or illegal?

Is that newly opened ‘medical’ marijuana shop down the street legitimate? The answer is a legal grey area depending on who you ask, and when you ask it by.

These dispensaries look like any other shop, and even have a receptionist at the front desk ready to convince you that their marijuana is beneficial to your health. Seems legit, right? — that depends.

Currently, marijuana remains as an illegal drug under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. Unless the sellers are licensed by Health Canada, selling marijuana out of a storefront is completely illegal. Unlicensed dispensaries that claim to sell marijuana for ‘medical’ purposes are supplied by illegal growers, and sell untested and unregulated products that are just as unsafe as marijuana sold on the streets.

Individuals over the age of 19 can walk into one of these unlicensed dispensaries and purchase illegal marijuana. However, some illegal dispensaries are more strict, and require proof of prescription—not necessarily a prescription for medical marijuana, rather for anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other conditions.

Only individuals with a specific medical document provided by a health care practitioner are actually eligible to buy regulated medical marijuana. Those who obtain a prescription should have no problem buying medical marijuana from one of the 82 legal and licensed dispensaries in Canada.

Dispensaries that are not licensed by Health Canada are subject to raids by police authorities. Enforcement will confiscate the illegal merchandise, and the employees present are supposed to be charged with possession and sales.

Local police authorities claim that they will continue to address illegal cannabis possession and sales until any legislation is passed.

Surprisingly enough, drug-related crime rates have actually gone down even after the establishment of unlicensed dispensaries. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016 there were approximately 55,000 cannabis offenses reported. Which is approximately 6,000 less than reported in 2015. At 81%, the majority of these offenses were charges of possession. Interestingly, it seems that the majority of cannabis related drug charges are for possessing the drug rather than selling it.

So why are these shops being opened when possessing and selling cannabis for non-medical purposes is still illegal?

Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau introduced legislation to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis by July 2018. Introduced in the HOC by the Minister of Justice, Bill C-45 permits cannabis related activities that are currently prohibited. In light of this new legislation, unlicensed dispensaries were established hoping that marijuana would be legalized by the time that they opened.

Unlicensed dispensaries that sell unregulated marijuana out of a storefront are illegal, but temporarily tolerated.