Toward the legalization, regulation and restriction of access to marijuana: Discussion paper – 3.3 Designing an appropriate distribution system

3.3 Designing an appropriate distribution system


In Canada the only legal marijuana sales take place by licensed producers and they are restricted to using the mail. This provides reliable, low cost delivery to all parts of the country in a discrete manner that does not encourage increased usage. It also helps keep prices low as no overhead is required to maintain a retail distribution system. However, illegal sales in Canada also occur in a variety of ways including through store-fronts ("dispensaries") and over the internet.

Legal sales in other jurisdictions occur through a variety of means. For instance, in Colorado, the law allows for cities and counties to decide if they will permit recreational stores. To date, over 300 stores have been established, selling dried marijuana and a range of edible and other products. In Washington, the state is issuing a specified number of licenses for the legal operations of dispensaries.

In both Colorado and Washington, public consumption is not allowed. To address consumption in public, some jurisdictions, such as Uruguay and Holland, allow venues for the legal consumption of marijuana, such as "coffee shops" or clubs.

As discussed in Section 1, perceptions around the risk of a substance and its "normalcy" in society can affect levels of usage. The choice of a distribution system can impact these perceptions and thus may ultimately have an effect on usage rates. The distribution model could also have more direct consequences for health and safety. For example, in recognition of the more serious impairment that results when alcohol and marijuana use are combined, both Washington and Colorado do not allow marijuana to be sold in stores that also sell alcohol. Finally, different delivery models carry different considerations e.g., ability to prevent sales to minors, access in remote locations, local tax base, ability to distinguish between sales of legally produced marijuana from illicit product, and so on.

Possible Options

  1. Phased-in approach to distribution: In the initial stages of legalizing marijuana, only allowing a proven system of distribution (e.g., through the mail, as is currently done in the medical marijuana regime) could minimize the risks of uncontrolled/illegal retail sales outlined above. This system could enable access for adults while using caution in taking a step that may inadvertently put youth at increased risk.
  2. Storefronts: On the other hand, allowing for some ability for the sale of marijuana to occur in a legal, regulated retail environment may be required in order to provide an alternative to the current illegal sellers that exist in certain Canadian cities. Ensuring that the marijuana sold in such establishments comes from a legal source would be critical.
  3. Local choice: Alternatively, decisions on appropriate distribution mechanisms could be left to provincial and territorial governments to determine the best approach based on their unique circumstances. This scenario could result in different models being adopted across the country.

Regardless of the distribution model ultimately chosen, significant efforts by all orders of government and by law enforcement will need to be put into shutting down illegal operations, be they store-fronts or internet operators. See section 4 for more discussion on this point.


  • Which distribution model makes the most sense and why?
  • To what extent is variation across provinces and territories in terms of distribution models acceptable?
  • Are there other models worthy of consideration?

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