Cannabis is a natural herb with a long history of medical use. It has been shown
to alleviate suffering from a large number of medical conditions and symptoms
and is used as either a complement or an alternative to pharmaceutical, overthe-
counter, or “street” drugs. Research and experience have indicated that
cannabis can be safely self-administered and self-titrated.
Currently the recreational use of cannabis remains illegal in Canada. Medical
use is only legal under severely restricted circumstances through Health
Canada’s Medical Marijuana Access Division. Established in 1999, this program
has licensed just over 1000 people in Canada to use cannabis legally, and the
official legal supply of cannabis remains problematic.
2. Community-Based Medical Cannabis Dispensaries
Medical cannabis dispensaries, also called compassion clubs, supply cannabis for
therapeutic use upon a valid recommendation or confirmation of diagnosis from
a licensed health care practitioner.
Compassion clubs reflect a community-based response to the suffering of
critically and chronically ill Canadians who might benefit from the medical use
of cannabis. They provide access to diverse strains of high quality raw plant
cannabis and cannabis-based products in a secure environment conducive to
healing. They also provide education about the safe and effective use of these
products. In addition, some dispensaries subsidize access to other natural
health care services that would otherwise be unavailable to their clients.
Compassion clubs also advocate for clients in regards to the use of cannabis
as a medicine in an illegal and highly stigmatized context. This has included
giving input and feedback to Health Canada’s medical marijuana program,
and testifying before the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs and
the House of Commons Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs.
Several compassion clubs work with local, provincial and national health
care organizations, initiate and participate in research studies, and give
presentations to the community at large, colleges and universities, and at
international, national and local conferences.
Pre-dating the federal medical cannabis program, the history of Canada’s
compassion clubs dates back to 1997, when the British Columbia Compassion
Club Society opened its doors in Vancouver as a non-profit medical cannabis
distribution organization. Since that time, a number of similar dispensaries
have been established throughout Canada, but because of the overwhelming
legal obstacles facing these organizations, only a few have been able to
remain in operation for an extended period of time. Together, compassion
clubs currently serve about 10,000 people living in Canada who use cannabis
Communities, law enforcement, and criminal courts across Canada have shown
support and tolerance for compassion clubs that self-regulate to ensure their
services are strictly for medical purposes.3 The Senate Special Committee on
Illegal Drugs and other government bodies have recommended that these
organizations be licensed and legally recognized. However, despite the wellestablished
and constitutionally protected right for Canada’s sick and suffering
to access cannabis, and the crucial and acknowledged role of compassion clubs
in providing cannabis to those in need, Canadian dispensaries are currently
operating without legal sanction or protection.
3. Harm Reduction
Based on a philosophy of harm reduction and improved public health,
compassion clubs effectively balance legal concerns around the criminal
prohibition of cannabis with a respect for the personal autonomy of individuals
in making important healthcare decisions. Currently, this balance entails
engaging in civil disobedience while striving to operate in a manner that
addresses the concerns of all relevant stakeholders.
By offering a safe and secure means of access to high quality medical cannabis,
compassion clubs reduce the potential harms often associated with illicit
distribution. Medical cannabis users who are not clients of compassion clubs
must obtain cannabis from other sources. These sources may be unreliable,
unsafe, and difficult to find, and the cannabis they have available may be of
lower quality, less effective, and/or at higher cost than that provided through
most community-based dispensaries.
A well-run compassion club also reduces the risk of potential criminal
repercussion associated with illicit cannabis distribution. Law enforcement
officers and courts may choose to respect and recognize ID cards from
recognized dispensaries as adequate proof of legitimate medical use. Courts
have given discharges to compassion club operators who run their clubs in a
transparent, accountable and responsible manner.
4. Purpose of Guidelines
It is imperative to protect the rights of Canadians to access medical cannabis
strains and products that best suit their particular condition, are cultivated and
produced in a method of their choice, and accessed through the source or outlet
that best serves their needs.
The following guidelines carefully balance client autonomy, the diversity of
individual dispensaries, local community concerns, and adherence to municipal,
provincial and federal laws, all within the context of Canada’s current cannabis
These guidelines are designed to:
1. Provide a base-standard for self-regulation of dispensaries based on
current best practices in Canadian compassion clubs;
2. Support medical cannabis dispensaries in providing a high standard of
care that clients can and should expect;
3. Help both distributors and end-users achieve maximum safety and
therapeutic potential within a setting that is conducive to healing;
4. Formalize the good reputation established by compassion clubs, thus
ensuring those with medical need have continued access;
5. Promote an understanding of medical cannabis dispensary practices
to all levels of government, the justice system, law enforcement, and
6. Allow for effective cooperation amongst dispensaries utilizing the same
base-standards of operation.
7. Organize participating dispensaries into a more cohesive voice for the
legitimization and legal acceptance of community-based cannabis
production, research and distribution.
These guidelines are not intended to imply that organizations or individuals
that are dispensing cannabis in another context or manner are not fulfilling
Dispensaries should continue to monitor the political and legal climate, as well
as research findings, and adjust these guidelines accordingly.