Medical cannabis has been legally available to Canadian patients since 2001, and more broadly through licensed retailers since 2013, but it’s still a relatively complicated system to navigate.
Unlike other prescription drugs, medical cannabis is not prescribed at all, but rather its use is authorized by a doctor. Not necessarily your doctor either, as many GPs are still hesitant to advise on cannabis for therapeutic uses.
It’s an odd system that has led to the emergence of specialized clinics where patients rely on these healthcare providers to authorize an allowance of cannabis direct from a licensed source.
Some of these clinics are subsidiaries of licensed producers, while others are independent but may still be compensated by a percentage of sales from the licensed producers or retailers they refer their patients to.
As a result, patients may find themselves authorized to buy from a single medical cannabis provider. And since most licensed producers (LPs) only sell their own products (or products from their subsidiary brands), at the end of the day, patients in this situation are limited in choice.
There are ways around these limitations, of course. Patients can split their authorizations between two or more suppliers, or they can move their authorization papers from supplier to supplier in sequence to sample different wares from different providers. But until recently, it was difficult for patients to enjoy the kind of retail experience recreational consumers do, one characterized by variety and choice.
Canada’s 2 biggest ‘medical marijuana’ marketplaces explained
Your local pharmacy won’t be dispensing ‘medical marijuana’ any time soon, but a new model is emerging. This model is best exemplified by medical markets such as Medical Cannabis by Shoppers, Shelter Market, and to a lesser extent, CannMart, with all three offering an array of products from multiple LPs.
To help you determine if these markets are suitable for your medical needs, we sent Shoppers, Shelter, and CannMart the same questions, and have condensed Shoppers’ and Shelters’ answers below. Representatives for CannMart, which runs on a similar model (albeit with fewer listed products than Shoppers and Shelter) did not respond to our questions, but you can learn more about them here.
Craft vs. big name
Shelter Market is owned by the licensed producer AgroGreens, but the company offers products from a variety of licensed producers.
“Shelter Market is committed to putting the needs of patients first, and a big part of that is access,” says Shelter’s marketing manager Gill Polard. “We believe that access to a variety of products and price points to suit a patient’s varied needs is beneficial, so we’re working hard to offer an expanding range of quality options.”
Craft producers available at Shelter include North 40 Cannabis, Canada’s first licensed micro-cultivator and micro-processor; Gnomestar Craft Cannabis, offering small-batch, indoor-grown craft cannabis; Habitat, known for employing time-consuming traditional drying and curing techniques; and family-owned Verte West’s small-batch, hand-trimmed products.
All this focus on small-batch and micro growers creates what Polard calls “a boutique apothecary-style menu featuring a range of top quality and niche products.” It’s an approach that hasn’t gone unnoticed by patients and industry insiders, who frequently take to Twitter to praise Shelter’s products.
Medical Cannabis by Shoppers
“Aside from helping patients access a variety of brands and formats with only one medical document, we also work with cannabis-trained pharmacists to help patients through their medical cannabis journey,” says April Brooks, brand manager for Medical Cannabis by Shoppers (MCbyS), noting that being a subsidiary of Shoppers Drug Mart Inc. means offering “a brand patients know and trust.”
That big-brand energy and the resources it represents have seen MCbyS partner with University Health Network and several LPs in what Brooks calls “a groundbreaking real-world evidence study” designed to help create more accurate quality standards for medical cannabis products. Brooks also notes that MCbyS was quick to act in the early days of COVID-19 in Canada, launching the first emergency compassionate care program and including free shipping for all patients.
Shelter and Shoppers: A side-by-side comparison
|Shelter Market*||Medical Cannabis by Shoppers*|
|Products||Over 137 product SKUs and growing||Over 196 product SKUs and growing|
|Brands carried||11 different licensed producers, plus two in-house brands||Over 26 licensed producers and 13 accessory brands|
|Exclusives**||Cake by Habitat (flower); certain selections from Gnomestar Craft Cannabis and North 40 Cannabis (flower and pre-rolls) and in-house brand Farmstead, which collaborates with North 40 and Verte West||Rho by Avicanna; Cortalex by Cardiol Therapeutics; FlowrRx by Flowr; Nuance by The Valens Company; BioU Uspray by Radient Technologies; Dosist|
|Compassionate pricing||Clients earning less than $30k/yr, or those on government disability assistance receive a 15% discount. First responders receive a 10% discount||Patients earning less than $30k/yr or who are experiencing financial distress due to COVID-19 receive a 20% discount. Seniors receive a 10% discount|
|Shipping||Free shipping on orders over $100; $15 shipping for orders under $100||Free on all orders; express and priority mail available at standard rates. Same-day delivery in the Greater Toronto Area available on some orders|
|Sales and discounts||25% off all first orders and a dedicated clearance section with reduced pricing. Sales every couple of months.||Seniors receive 20% off orders on the first Thursday of every month. MCby S runs monthly sales, as well as one-day flash sales|
|Corporate social responsibility||Plans are in the works says a rep, but having just launched in the spring of 2020, it’s too early to share information.||Parent company Shoppers Drug Mart Inc. supports several women’s health initiatives and charitable organizations, raising and donating $9.8 million through the LOVE YOU by Shoppers Drug Mart program in 2019.|
**Exclusive to medical markets; some of these products can be found at recreational retailers.
How can Canada’s medical markets improve?
“Companies like Shoppers Drug Mart and Shelter Market have allowed patients to seamlessly purchase products from a variety of producers through a single point of access,” says Jonathan Zaid, patient advocate, cannabis industry expert, and founder of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijauna (CFAMM, now known as MCC, or Medical Cannabis Canada). He stresses that while both companies have “solid reputations for customer service” there’s still room to grow.
“Further product information, like complete listing of ingredients for vapes, full terpene profiles for flower, and patient-specific advocacy support on insurance coverage would be great steps for potential improvement,” he says.
Zaid would also like to see more focus on environmental sustainability, with companies eschewing black packaging (which cannot be recycled in most municipalities) and moving away from single-use disposable vaporizers, which are also difficult and expensive to recycle.
Finally, he notes that although product variety and choice is ultimately a good thing, it can be intimidating for new cannabis patients. “It’s important for all producers to meet patients where they’re at to ensure they feel confident in buying and consuming the products that may work best for their symptoms,” he notes. “With so many products available, this becomes a more complex task to successfully solve and requires a patient-centric approach.”