Jean Coutu open to selling medical marijuana, but won’t lobby federal government

VARENNES, Que. – The CEO of Jean Coutu, one of the country’s largest pharmacy chains, said Tuesday he is open to selling medical marijuana but won’t lobby the federal government to do so.

“We’re not going to actively pursue this,” Francois Coutu said following the company’s annual general meeting at its new headquarters and automated distribution centre in Varennes, Que.

Coutu said he doesn’t know how profitable the sale of medical marijuana would be for the company, which operates 417 stores in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick.

“I haven’t focused on that because it’s going to be a long way before this is happening,” he said. “There are a lot of question marks that are unanswered at this point.”

Coutu’s position differs somewhat from those of several other pharmacy retailers, including Shoppers Drug Mart (TSX:SC), the country’s largest, that are vying for the opportunity to sell medical marijuana.

The federal government has committed to legalizing and regulating the use of marijuana, including for recreational purposes, and last week established a task force to study how best to do that. Coutu said he opposes the sale of marijuana in pharmacies for recreational use.

Under Health Canada rules, patients using medical marijuana are only allowed to buy it from licensed producers and are not permitted to grow their own, something they were allowed to do prior to 2013.

But in February, a B.C. court struck down that law as unconstitutional, ruling that forcing patients to buy marijuana through the mail from a licensed producer was an “arbitrary and overbroad” violation of their charter rights.

The Canadian Pharmacists Association has said it would have concerns about a lack of clinical oversight if pharmacies don’t play a leading role in dispensing the drug.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said there is some logic in allowing pharmacies to sell medical marijuana. She said pharmacists are governed by professional standards and therefore are well-positioned to be responsible for distributing the drug and preventing false claims.

“Better pharmacies than Joe Schmo on the street,” she said.

“There’s a lot of crazy thinking out there that certain variants of marijuana are better for different diseases and there’s a real risk of people hurting themselves by using unproven medications.”

Jean Coutu’s (TSX:PJC) annual general meeting came after it released its first-quarter results showing it raked in $49 million or 27 cents per share, down from $50.6 million but on pace with the 27 cents per share it earned for the same period a year ago. Revenues grew 1.6 per cent to $723.6 million.