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Shoppers Drug Mart applies to be a distributor of medical marijuana

Drug store chain only has plans to distribute the drug, not produce it

Shoppers Drug Mart has submitted an application to distribute medical marijuana _ a move that, if permitted, could change how patients get access to the drug.

But although the pharmacy chain says allowing it to dispense cannabis would improve patient care, some industry players are voicing concerns that users could face higher prices and have access to fewer strains.

Federal regulations only allow registered patients to buy cannabis directly from licensed producers, who send the product to clients by mail.

That means that even if Shoppers Drug Mart's application is approved, Canada's largest pharmacy chain won't be permitted to sell medical marijuana through its stores unless Ottawa revises the rules.

Shoppers Drug Mart spokeswoman Tammy Smitham says the company is hopeful that the federal government will do so, arguing that it would improve ``access, safety, quality and security'' for patients.

Industry association Cannabis Canada says adding a middleman such as a pharmacy could provide some benefits _ for example, medical marijuana users would be able to consult with their pharmacists face-to-face _ but it may also come with some downsides.

Consumers may end up paying a higher price, says Colette Rivet, executive director of Cannabis Canada.

"There's a dispensing fee on all pharmaceuticals,'' Rivet said. "At Shoppers Drug Mart they pay a certain price for the pills but then they add a dispensing fee to cover their administrative costs.''

Another concern is that the variety of strains available on store shelves could be quite limited, Rivet said.

"That is critical for patients because they react differently to different strains,'' she said.

Mark Zekulin, president of licensed producer Canopy Growth Corp., said it would be vital that pharmacists are educated about the drug if they're going to sell it in stores.

"What if you show up at the pharmacy for assistance ... and they haven't been properly trained and they're not necessarily engaged in understanding the product? You end up ultimately with a disservice,'' Zekulin said.

The number of clients registered with Health Canada to use medical cannabis has grown. At the end of June there were 75,166 registered clients under the medical marijuana regime, according to the Health Canada's website.

That's up 40 per cent from the previous quarter, when there were 53,649 clients, and more triple the number from a year ago when only 23,930 people had registered to receive the drug.

Smitham said Shoppers, which is owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. (TSX:L), has applied to Health Canada to become a licensed medical marijuana producer _ but only for the purpose of distributing the drug.

The retailer has ``no intention'' of producing cannabis, she said, calling the application an administrative requirement in order to be able to distribute medical marijuana to patients.

The Canadian Pharmacists Association has said it is concerned about a lack of clinical oversight and that pharmacies should play a leading role in the distribution of medical marijuana.

When asked if they plan to follow Shoppers' lead, pharmacy chains Rexall and Jean Coutu said Monday that there are still a number of issues that still need to be resolved.

Rexall spokesman Derek Tupling said the company continues to monitor the situation, while Jean Coutu spokeswoman Helene Bisson said the issue "raises many questions'' to which the various levels of government have yet to provide answers.

When asked about Shoppers Drug Mart's application, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott highlighted the ``strict regulatory regime'' in place for access to medical marijuana.

"There is an appropriate process by which people can become a licensed producer,'' Philpott said. "It's a rigorous process that I am not a part of ... they will work their way through the process.''

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