Officials are organizing a pilot project in the British Columbia province modeled on a year-old program in the Netherlands.
Currently, there are 78 medical users in Canada permitted to buy government marijuana, which is grown in Flin Flon, Manitoba. An ounce sells for about $113, and the marijuana is sent by courier to patients or their doctors.
But the department is changing the regulations to allow participating pharmacies to stock marijuana for sale to approved patients without a doctor's prescription, similar to regulations governing so-called morning-after pills. Those emergency contraceptives can be obtained directly from a pharmacist without the need for a doctor's signature.
A notice of the change is expected to be made public this spring, allowing for drugstore distribution later in the year.
"We're just at the preliminary stages right now," said Robin O'Brien, a consulting pharmacist organizing the pilot project. "We're not quite sure how it's going to fit."
The Canadian government also has suggested it may decriminalize marijuana, a move criticized by U.S. drug and border agencies, which threaten more intrusive searches of cross-border travelers.
Some patients report that marijuana alleviates the pain and nausea associated with AIDS and other diseases. But marijuana's status as a medicinal drug has not been formally approved, O'Brien said.
"There's no pharmaceutical company that's going to come forward to take it through the regulatory process because they can't get a patent on it, so it's kind of a limbo drug," he said.
The pilot project is slated for British Columbia because the province's college of pharmacists issued a groundbreaking statement last fall supporting the distribution of medical marijuana in pharmacies. Most health care organizations have opposed easier access.