Canada's largest chain of pharmacies is looking to cash in on Justin Trudeau's green rush, as they test the waters on selling medical marijuana.
And it looks like they've paid for a team of high-price lobbyists to get the job done.
Shoppers Drug Mart operates 1,300 drug stores across Canada — including the Pharmaprix chain in Quebec — has been in talks with the some the country's licensed cannabis producers of medical marijuana about stocking branded and generic pot products, The Globe and Mail first reported on Tuesday.
Two sources in the legal marijuana industry confirmed to VICE News that the pharmacy chain is in talks with several of Canada's 29 licensed producers about supplying pot products.
"I know that anyone they approached got a very restrictive non-disclosure agreement," said and employee of one licensed producer.
In a statement to the Globe and Mail, Shoppers did not deny their interest. "Pharmacists are medication experts and play a significant role in the prescribing and monitoring of medication to ensure safe and optimal use," Tammy Smitham told the Globe and Mail. "We believe that dispensing medical marijuana through pharmacy, like other medications, is the safest option."
At the moment, federal rules state that medical cannabis must be obtained through government-licensed producers — not a third party. That may soon change, though, thanks to a court ruling which deemed the system unconstitutional on Wednesday.
Smitham did not respond to a repeated request for comment from VICE News. Rexall, the second biggest pharmacy chain, has also reportedly been in talks.
"We have spoken with all the major pharmacies in the last quarter," confirmed Mark Gobuty, founder of the Peace Naturals Project, the first federally-licensed medical marijuana producer to secure a license to distribute cannabis oils. He said interest picked up after Canada's Supreme Court ruled, last June, that patients should be able to consume pot in whatever form they see fit — opening the door to edibles and other extracts. Peace Naturals got its license in December, and "the phone started ringing very quickly after that," said Gobuty, who has a meeting with a third retail pharmacy on Friday.
"I'm certain they have talked to other licensed producers," he said of the big pharmacy players.
Gobuty described the interest as "high, pardon the pun," based on the types of people that they have enlisted to explore the prospect.
He said their queries have revolved around how they can get involved with dispensing oils, along with the potential for their own store brand. On the latter point, Gobuty believes it's too early in the development of cannabis-infused products for them to decide — although the interest is there — to deploy a store brand.
"They have to approach this with caution but their interest is very serious because they're seeing organic growth and incremental revenue," he said. "Cannabis is a natural one because of the uptake by the consumers and the death of reefer madness."
While Shoppers has not lobbied the federal government directly on the matter, Loblaw, their parent company, has recently registered lobbyists to "Policies relating to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and how they impact the role of pharmacists."
The CDSA is the law that governs the criminalization of marijuana.
The language was added to their lobbyist registrations as of July last year, just after the Supreme Court extract ruling and just before the general election which saw Trudeau's pro-legalization Liberal Party sweep to power.
The Loblaw chain now has a five-person lobbying team, two of which were only added in recent months, targeting members of parliament and the Prime Minister's Office, as well as the health, industry, and public safety departments — all of which are involved with medical marijuana regulation.
One of the consultants dispatched to the file by Hill + Knowlten, a top-tier lobbying firm hired by Loblaws, is Sarah Bain, the former director of communications for the Liberal Party.
Although no other licensed producer was willing to say whether or not they were talking with Shoppers, several said they'd be excited about a potential partnership with the chain. "I think it's fantastic for the medical marijuana industry to see sophisticated companies like Shoppers come in, not only with national distribution but with pharmacists who really should be controlling the distribution of medical drugs," said John Fowler, President of licensed producer Supreme .
"A retail front, whether it's through pharmacies or public stores, there certainly is a place for that," said Mark Zekulin, President of Tweed, Canada's first publicly-traded marijuana producer.
Zekulin wouldn't comment specifically on Shoppers, but did say that he envisioned two different processes for buying marijuana — one, recreational; and the other, medical.
What that looks like is up to the Trudeau government, but in Ontario, the Liberal government has already indicated it would be interested in having recreational weed sold at the monopolistic liquor stores it controls. An announcement about a consultation process is expected in the coming weeks and months, but the issues was further complicated today when a federal court ruled that the legal framework ruling medical marijuana in Canada is unconstitutional.
This afternoon, Judge Michael Phelan ruled that the "Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations," enacted under the previous Conservative government, violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving the government six months to appeal or develop legislation.
"We, like everybody else, are waiting for the formal process to begin," said Zekulin.
_Justin Ling and Natalie Alcoba contributed reporting. _
_Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: _@JZBleiberg