Large North American pharmacy chains may finally be taking an interest in the medical marijuana industry that, until now, has been the domain of smaller, mostly local dispensaries in legal and "gray market" jurisdiction - though it's certainly the case that the debate has gone much further in Canada than in the U.S.

In Canada, medical marijuana is currently only available through licensed producers regulated by the federal government. And all medical marijuana is dispensed in the mail using Canada Post. There are no regulations for selling medical marijuana through retail outlets, despite a growing number of illegal dispensaries.

In late February, Shoppers Drug Mart - a Canadian chain with 1,300 locations countrywide - said it was exploring the possibility of dispensing medical marijuana. It said the traditional pharmacy system was best positioned to dispense marijuana as medication.

"Pharmacists are medication experts and play a significant role in the prescribing and monitoring of medication to ensure safe and optimal use," spokeswoman Tammy Smitham told The Globe and Mail newspaper. "We believe that dispensing medical marijuana through pharmacy, like other medications, is the safest option."

National association supports pharmacies dispensing cannabis

In late April, the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA) - a group representing individual pharmacists across the country - came onside with Shoppers' position. The CPhA called on the federal government to let pharmacists take the lead on managing and dispensing medical marijuana to Canada's 50,000+ eligible patients.

"Pharmacists are medication experts and play a critical role in the management and monitoring of medication to ensure safe and optimal use," Phil Emberley - Director of Professional Affairs for CPhA - said in a press release. "And it is patient safety that is ultimately at the heart of CPhA's decision to update its position on the role of pharmacists in the management and dispensing of medical marijuana."

This was a radical change in position for the CPhA. Just three years earlier, the association had said it didn't want to get involved in the industry. It had concerns about the lack of research regarding the safety and effectiveness of marijuana, potential resistance from provincial and territorial governments, and the possibility that stocking cannabis would make pharmacies more prone to robbery.

Is Walgreens eyeing the medical cannabis industry?

Now this is reading the tea leaves - er, cannabis leaves - because the debate about the role of pharmacies in the U.S. isn't nearly so far along. But Ricardo Baca of The Cannabis just published a piece about Walgreens and their potential interest in medical marijuana.

Baca highlights a recent post on Walgreens' Tumblr feed, in which a blog contributor writes about the potential benefits - and negative health impacts - of medical marijuana.

"Research has also shown marijuana provides pain relief in ways traditional pain medicines don't," writes Dahlia Sultan, a resident at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Pharmacy. "Medical marijuana can improve appetite and relieve nausea in those who have cancer and it may help relieve symptoms such as muscle stiffness in people who have multiple sclerosis."

The blog post does explicitly state that Walgreens "is not a licensed medical marijuana provider." But Baca rightly notes that it's still a big deal for them to publish favorable views on the medicinal properties of marijuana: "...for America's largest retailer of pharmaceuticals to speak this straightforwardly about cannabis certainly signals a sea change," he writes.

banner image: Flickr / Mike Mozart