By John Brunstein
12 Apr 2016
What is the difference between buying marijuana from a dispensary or a licensed producer? Thanks, KW
Hi KW. Based on the term “licensed producer” you’re speaking about Canadian jurisdiction, so I’ll answer for that context.
Licensed producers (“LP”) are regulated under Health Canada and all product must meet minimum quality requirements before being made available for sale. That is, the analytical measures of THC and CBD have to be accurate as stated, and the material has to have been tested for lack of pesticides, bacteria, molds, fungi, and “foreign matter”. Basically, if you buy from an LP, you’re assured you’re getting what it says on the label, and it’s safe.
Dispensaries are technically illegal operations, working in the nebulous ‘grey area’ which currently exists as Cannabis regulations are changing. As such, dispensaries operate under no quality regulations and have no requirement for independent verifiable testing of product quality (or even identity – it could be 20% alfalfa!). Dispensaries don’t generally grow their own product, so what they do is pass on and sell whatever they were supplied with (from unlicensed, illegal production). What’s this lot of material? Whatever the supplier said it was, I guess. What’s it’s analytical content of THC / CBD? Maybe it’s been tested, maybe not – but since it’s technically an illegal operation, any “testing” won’t have been handled by a legitimate testing lab with a valid narcotics license, so the results are questionable. Testing costs money, too, especially if you want to check for all the pesticides an illegal, unregulated grower might use. This doesn’t mean a dispensary couldn’t pay for this testing, but they’re after all an illegal company with a goal of making a profit. If you’re already operating outside the law, why lose any of that profit margin with expensive testing? “Stick a label on it, tell the customer whatever they want to hear, and make the sale” has to be a very appealing option. Whether that’s what happens or not at a specific dispensary I of course can’t comment.
Figure 1: Dispensaries are popping up in many different cities across North America, whether it’s legal or not
The other difference is on the purchasing and records side – to purchase from an LP you have to have an appropriate prescription, and you have to register with the LP as a customer. Purchasing is then done by mail, phone, or possibly online ordering, with product delivery by mail or courier to you (or your caregiver, or physician). By taking part in this, you’re completely in compliance with the law which gives you protection for your use of the product. Say for instance an employer finds out and doesn’t approve; since you’re fully compliant and within the medical system for your use, you have a strong legal support for your access to a medical treatment.
By contrast, purchasing from a dispensary generally just involves walking in, looking like you’re over 19 years old, and showing (or obtaining) a “medical card” which may or may not be issued by a doctor, and has no actual legal status. If someone wants to make trouble for you with regard to possession, you have little to no defense. If an employer wants to take disciplinary action or dismiss you because you take Cannabis, you do not have a clearly valid claim for being a medical user (since you’ve opted not to go the available legal medical route).
As you can see, there are a lot of advantages to purchasing from an LP both with regard to product safety and your own legal status. Why do dispensaries thrive, then? Convenience, basically. If you’re willing to risk product safety and think it’s unlikely you’ll have legal issues over possession of a small amount of Cannabis product, the convenience of walking into a storefront where you can see the product and buy on demand is clearly appealing.
As laws adapt to the new landscape around Cannabis and formal legislative recognition of its valid uses, it’s likely we’ll start to see an amalgamation between the two systems – for instance imagine if dispensaries were present much as they are now, but if they could only source and provide quality assured product from LPs, and you had a medical use card which didn’t tie you to a single LP. A scenario like this would have the best of both worlds, and it’s an obvious enough solution that it’s likely going to arrive sooner rather than later. Until that day, though, buying from a dispensary trades convenience for a lot of risks.