Canadian grocery chain operator Empire Co. is taking its first formal steps to provide cannabis access to its pharmacy customers after announcing a partnership with Pathway Health Corp. to develop a medical marijuana program. 

Pathway will provide pharmacists who work for Empire's pharmacy businesses across a network of grocery chains that include Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland, and FreshCo with a certified online training program to educate them on how medical cannabis can be prescribed to patients. 

Pathway will also provide Empire's pharmacists with a management system that can offer medical cannabis assessments to patients and connect them with a physician for further evaluation through either physical or virtual care.

"We believe it is essential for Canadians to have access to support from experienced health-care professionals to help them navigate medical cannabis safely and effectively," said Marie-Claude Vezina, vice president and general manager of Sobeys National Pharmacy, in a statement. An Empire representative wasn't immediately available for further comment on the company's medical cannabis plans. 

Pathway will begin deploying its medical cannabis program throughout Empire-owned pharmacies in Nova Scotia, followed by a rollout across Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada later this year. 

Medical cannabis usage in Canada has been on the decline since recreational cannabis was legalized in October 2018. There are 292,399 Canadians who had an active medical cannabis prescription as of March 2021, down from a peak of 369,614 in September 2019. The market was valued at approximately $445 million in 2020, representing roughly 15 per cent of the total Canadian cannabis market, according to the Brightfield Group. 

Despite the relatively smaller market size compared to Canada's recreational cannabis space, medical marijuana has drawn interest from large companies like Loblaw Co.'s Shoppers Drug Mart unit which operates an online dispensary for active patients. 

Wayne Cockburn, president of Pathway Health Corp., said in a phone interview that once a pharmacist deems it appropriate for a patient to receive a medical cannabis prescription, they will be connected to a Pathway Health physician. That physician will be able to process a prescription for the patient and then connect them with a licensed Canadian producer to receive their medical cannabis. Under current regulations, pharmacists can’t dispense medical cannabis from a pharmacy. 

"The pharmacist is really the first step. The patient goes there and says, 'You know, I'm having trouble sleeping, I've got pain.' The pharmacist makes an assessment at that point in time and if they think it's appropriate then it goes to the next step. That's where we would come in," Cockburn said.

Cockburn said the partnership with Empire's pharmacy group comes ahead of potential changes to cannabis regulations that would allow the sale of over-the-counter products that only contain cannabidiol (CBD) and not through a regulated or licensed retailer. 

Health Canada established a scientific advisory committee last year following a public consultation process in 2019 that sought feedback from Canadians on allowing certain cannabis products, including CBD-only items, for sale without the need for medical practitioner oversight. It's unclear when Health Canada will make a formal decision on the matter. 

"This is a brand new consumer packaged goods category for [pharmacies] and they're going to have to make shelf space for this. They've got no experience with it at all at this point in time, so they're looking to work with somebody to help them get ready for this," Cockburn said.