Health

Raids and an eviction notice won't be the end of Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club

Members rely on the club’s low-cost, high-THC products, but they say to meet the requirements of the Cannabis Act would be to dismantle the organization

By Jolene Rudisuela
March 25, 2021
Health

Raids and an eviction notice won't be the end of Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club

Members rely on the club’s low-cost, high-THC products, but they say to meet the requirements of the Cannabis Act would be to dismantle the organization

Photo: Zenon Kozak / Submitted
Health

Raids and an eviction notice won't be the end of Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club

Members rely on the club’s low-cost, high-THC products, but they say to meet the requirements of the Cannabis Act would be to dismantle the organization

By Jolene Rudisuela
March 25, 2021
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Raids and an eviction notice won't be the end of Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club
Photo: Zenon Kozak / Submitted

The seventh time Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club was raided, last July, members gathered outside the compassion club, watching in anger as BC Community Safety Officers (CSU) searched the dispensary and seized bags of products.

“You guys are stealing from sick people, I hope you feel good about yourselves!” one man yelled from the street.

The crowd of members and supporters grew and made its way to then-MLA Carole James’s office and then to the BC legislature, many carrying multicoloured signs—some decorated with marijuana leaves—with slogans like “VCBC SAVES LIVES,” and “HEALTH NOT WEALTH.”

Club members were protesting the most recent raid, but they were also protesting for their right to have affordable access to the plant that many have been using to manage medical conditions for years.

VCBC has been operating without a licence since legalization, but the CSU (which enforces BC’s retail cannabis regulations) has never managed to close the club for long. Just as it had in the past, after the July raid the club reopened the next day at 4:20pm. 

“I’ve got such a strong belief in the benefits of this plant and what our club has been able to do for people that I can’t imagine just stopping because it became difficult,” founder Ted Smith told Capital Daily. 

But reopening was much easier when they could just clean up after a raid, unlock the door the next day, and start to rebuild their stock. That’s no longer the case. In February, the club got thrown another curve ball in the form of an eviction notice from their Johnson Street landlord, who was facing legal action for allowing the club to operate at the property.

Ever since, VCBC has been scrambling to find another place to go. 

Satisfying requirements would mean too much change

Smith is easily identifiable with his long, greying hair, sometimes tucked through the back of a hat emblazoned with the word “activist.”

Smith had been advocating for the legalization of cannabis long before it was legal in Canada. Now, more than two years post-legalization, Smith’s fight still isn’t over. 

VCBC is one of the oldest compassion clubs in Canada. Smith started the club in the back of a van in 1996, and its membership has since grown to more than 8,000 people, each of whom use cannabis for health purposes.

While VCBC requires all members to provide proof of a medical condition, the club does not fit the federal government’s definition of a medical cannabis dispensary because not all of its clients have prescriptions. However, it also does not meet the requirements of a recreational dispensary, leaving it in a regulatory no man’s land.

“We’d been anticipating this with legalization, there’s so many different rules and regulations that if we were to try and comply, it would be the complete dismantling of our organization,” Smith said. “I severely doubt if we would have survived financially, and in the meantime, we would have left our patients completely in the cold for all the products they’ve relied on for years. 

“So, in a way, you know, we really haven’t had a choice here.”

The club has its own kitchen where cooks make baked goods, chocolate, and salves, but the organization also sells cannabis flower, kief, capsules, and oils, among other offerings. VCBC’s products are generally much cheaper and contain much higher levels of THC than government store products. 

For many club members, the difference in price and THC content is life changing; however, the majority of VCBC edibles far surpass the legal THC limit of 10mg per serving.

For example, VCBC sells cannabis cookies containing 75mg of THC for $2.50. A pack of two cookies from the government store containing a combined 10mg of THC costs $11.99. The difference in chocolate bars is even larger. VCBC’s chocolate bars sell for $23 but they contain a whopping 750mg of THC; the government stores’ $4 chocolate bars only contain 10mg.

For Nikki Jackson, a member-turned-VCBC-employee, the high THC levels in VCBC products are essential for her pain management.

At the age of 19, Jackson was dying from malnutrition. Her constant digestive issues led doctors to a misdiagnosis of Crohn’s disease, which later turned out to be a mixed bag of infections and streptococcus organisms causing severe pain and inflammation in her digestive system. At one point, Jackson says she was on 15 different prescription drugs to manage her pain, on top of her anxiety and depression. Since first coming to the club in 2012, she has replaced them all with capsules and other products from VCBC.

“When everything else opened up, I did explore the other options,” Jackson said. “But with my digestive issues, I can’t eat a lot of anything really. So, it needs to be a high dose in a low amount, which is what the club provides and has always provided.”

She added that it’s too expensive to get the same dose at regulated stores, and as an employee, she hears the concerns of members who are worried about paying for their cannabis products if VCBC is shut down for good. 

“Everyone is saying that the legal stores don’t have the quality or the prices they can afford, or even use for medication,” she said. “So the panic is, ‘where am I going to get my medicine so I can sleep through the night’ kind of situation. But we’re assuring them… we’re not going anywhere.”

Aside from reducing THC levels, under government legislation VCBC would have to choose between their retail store or making products in their kitchen—current laws do not allow businesses to do both. Also not allowed under the rules is the Box, VCBC’s safe on-site consumption lounge where members can freely smoke and consume cannabis.

The Box has remained closed throughout the pandemic, but Smith says in the past this space has been a key element in creating a community among members. When COVID-19 wasn’t a concern, VCBC would often host games nights, picnics, and other social events. 

“This is a family as much as it is a medical facility,” he said. 

Last January, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps wrote a letter to the premier on behalf of council in support of VCBC, urging the provincial government to grant it a temporary exemption to the provincial Cannabis Control and Licensing Act.

“Over the past days, weeks and months Council has heard from concerned medical cannabis users that they might lose access to the type of services provided by the VCBC. This could negatively impact consumer’s health, quality of life and their sense of connection and community,” the letter reads.

VCBC has applied for a provincial exemption, but the application was denied. 

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General would not comment on VCBC’s case specifically, but in a statement, a spokesperson said the province will not exempt activities that are illegal under the federal Cannabis Act. 

According to a spokesperson for Health Canada, the federal government can give exemptions to individuals or organizations for a medical or scientific purpose, or if it is otherwise in the public interest. 

VCBC is currently working with lawyers to apply for a federal exemption. 

Cannabis in the opioid crisis

Since the eviction notice, Smith and other club members, along with their placards, have been a frequent presence outside of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s office. Smith wants it known that the club has the tools to help with the escalating overdose crisis if given the chance.

“We want to make it clear that we’re not just kind of going away here and that we are determined to make sure that this service that we’ve been able to provide and develop for 25 years continues until we become legal or something better comes along,” Smith said. 

While BC is currently facing record-high overdose levels, Smith founded VCBC at the height of another medical crisis: the AIDS epidemic.

In the ’90s, Smith was inspired by a woman in James Bay who made marijuana cookies, brownies, and salves for people with AIDS to ease their symptoms.

“I got to hear firsthand how much it helped them,” he said. “I met a few other patients and was inspired by what was happening in the United States, because there was medical marijuana laws and clubs open down there. And that was what it took.”

Prior to 2001, the possession, use, and trade of marijuana was illegal in Canada, even for medical use, but things would start to change in 2000 when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the law prohibiting the possession of marijuana was unconstitutional. The person who sparked this change was a 44-year-old with epilepsy, Terrance Parker, who had been fighting for 23 years to legally smoke the plant to help control his seizures.

A year later, Canada adopted a formal system to regulate the medicinal use of marijuana: the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations. That same year, VCBC opened its official storefront location on Johnson Street, to more easily provide the product to members for medical use.

Now, Smith is a passionate advocate for the role cannabis could play in helping mitigate the overdose crisis. Cannabis edibles are an excellent alternative to opioids prescribed for pain management, he says, but the costs and the THC limit in government stores could make some patients turn to street drugs. 

While the benefit of cannabis use for medical purposes is well-documented, there is now a growing body of research that corroborates Smith’s claims of benefits for some opioid users.

New research out of UBC shows a connection between cannabis use and reduced exposure to fentanyl among drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. About half of the 819 study participants were using fentanyl, either intentionally or inadvertently, despite being on opioid agonist treatments like methadone or naloxone. Of that portion, those who used cannabis during the study were 10% less likely to have fentanyl-positive urine.

“These new findings suggest that cannabis could have a stabilizing impact for many patients on treatment, while also reducing the risk of overdose,” the study’s lead Dr. Eugenia Socías said in a statement.

“With overdoses continuing to rise across the country, these findings highlight the urgent need for clinical research to evaluate the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids as adjunctive treatment to [opioid agonist treatments] to address the escalating opioid overdose epidemic.” 

This is the basis behind Victoria non-profit SOLID Outreach’s Cannabis Substitution Program. The peer-run harm reduction organization has been operating the program since 2018 to help members reduce their dependence on harmful street drugs.

“Everybody’s a little different,” said Josh Irvine, SOLID’s human resources director and supervisor of the substitution program. “Some people will actually use it as a quote-unquote crutch to curb some of their usage. Some will use it as a way to mitigate their withdrawal symptoms. Some of them actually use it as an abstinence product as well.”

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Program participants can access one edible or joint each day for free, or purchase products at cost from the organization. 

An evaluation of the first year of the program, conducted by the University of Victoria in partnership with SOLID, showed that program participants were using a variety of drugs, but most commonly heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids. The prevailing reason participants joined the program was to reduce or stop their use of these substances. Of the 71 participants, 58 reported a decrease in illicit drug use, 47 reported better sleep, and 41 reported better pain management.

The evaluation notes that more research is still needed, but the initial findings were positive. 

Irvine said SOLID is operating the program with an exemption from the provincial government, which was granted without a federal exemption thanks to a letter of support from Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick. An application for an exemption from Health Canada is in the works.

The plan is for the program to continue indefinitely, Irvine says, adding that he hopes SOLID’s work can be used as a model in other cities.

A 20-year fight

The first time VCBC was raided was in 2002, a year after Canada began allowing the use of dried marijuana for medical purposes. Three more raids by police followed in 2003. 

The 17 trafficking charges that came from these raids were all dropped, acquitted, or overturned in the Court of Appeal “through one constitutional argument or another,” Smith says. 

Things were quiet until 2009 when police conducted a fourth raid, this time on VCBC’s bakery facility. Head baker Owen Smith, who was found with more than 200 pot cookies and cannabis-infused oils for the club, was arrested and charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking and unlawful possession of marijuana. 

He was acquitted in April 2012 after the BC Supreme Court ruled the prohibition on marijuana cookies and other edibles for licensed users was unconstitutional. The case later took Owen all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada whose unanimous ruling expanded the definition of medical marijuana to include edible products. For the first time, medical marijuana patients in Canada would be able to legally use marijuana in all its forms, including extracts and derivatives. 

“We’ve been, in many ways, not just in Canada but elsewhere, world leaders in this whole matter,” Smith says. “It’s been a fascinating journey… You know, 25 years ago I was pretty much a lunatic. And now cannabis is legal.”

However, Smith says the federal cannabis regulations are far too strict, adding that he believes the legislation is just a way for large companies to take over the cannabis industry. The Canadian cannabis industry has already come to be dominated by a handful of large corporations with billions of dollars. The vast majority of organizations similar to VCBC, meanwhile, were forced to close and couldn’t reopen after the legislation came into effect. 

VBCB was raided twice after legalization by the CSU: in November 2019 and in July 2020, which Smith says came as a surprise because, just months earlier, Victoria City Council had sent their letter of support to the provincial government.

But despite the challenges, Smith has no plans to give up the fight. Along with the federal exemption application, VCBC is making an emergency appeal to the provincial government in the hopes of getting a harm-reduction pilot project approved, similar to what SOLID has done. 

And as the eviction date looms on March 31, Smith says the organization has found a possible location to move into, but if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t work out, VCBC will set up a tent outside City Hall as a form of very public protest. 

“At this point, I’m not even really afraid I’ll be going to jail for very long,” Smith says. “In the past, we have come to work expecting to go to jail and not get out anytime soon. And we still came to work because we believe in what this club does.”

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