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Jack Knox: Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club seeks exemption to pot laws

Give this to Ted Smith and Victoria’s Cannabis Buyers Club: They were never part of the underground economy Ottawa hoped to rein in when it made marijuana legal. No, everything they have done has been in full view.
Members of the Cannabis Buyers Club stage a protest Wednesday at Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James’s office on Fort Street

Give this to Ted Smith and Victoria’s Cannabis Buyers Club: They were never part of the underground economy Ottawa hoped to rein in when it made marijuana legal.

No, everything they have done has been in full view. Canada’s oldest compassion club has openly sold cannabis products from its Johnson Street storefront since 1996.

It survived all those years by existing, precariously, in a grey area left by court decisions that said Ottawa had made access to medical marijuana too difficult. In fact, the club used its own clashes with officialdom — it was raided by police a handful of times — as springboards for its campaign for marijuana-law reform. (In 2003, Smith, the club’s founder, helped finance the legal battle with sales of $25 “Cannabonds,” redeemable with a quarter-ounce of high-grade pot once the legalization fight had been won.)

The result was a landmark 2015 decision in which the Supreme Court of Canada found cannabis extracts such as oils and edibles could be used as medicine. Smith figures that was the ruling that made legalization inevitable in the Great Green North.

Except legalization didn’t mark the end of the drama, did it? The club was raided again in November, this time by B.C.’s new cannabis-law enforcement arm, for defying regulations that Smith argues still don’t meet the needs of those who rely on medical marijuana. Government-imposed prices are so high, and the effectiveness of available legal products so limited, that Smith portrays it as a case of ailing, often impoverished people being cut off from the medicine they need. In fact, he says, it was far easier for Victorians to buy a wide variety of relatively inexpensive medical-marijuana products prior to legalization.

So now the club wants Victoria city council support while it pushes for changes to the rules. Today, it will seek council’s backing as it applies to the provincial government for a temporary exemption to B.C.’s Cannabis Control and Licensing Act. The idea is that the exemption would permit the club to operate as it currently does — making potent cookies, capsules, salves, suppositories and so forth on site and selling them cheaply — while it works things out with the province.

Smith says the club wants to get to the place where it’s operating within the law — but he also makes it clear that it’s the law, not the club, that has to change. That means allowing the club to both produce and sell its products, and to allow its smoking lounge.

If it seems a tad presumptuous for a little Victoria pot shop to demand that not only the provincial government but Health Canada change their ink-isn’t-even-dry-yet cannabis rules, Smith seems unfazed. He frames it in terms of an either-or proposition: if the law doesn’t let the club meet the needs of its 7,700 members, those members’ only options will be to turn to A) government-licensed stores, which don’t offer the products buyers want at prices they can afford, B) the street, which does, or C) other drugs, such as opioids.

That highlights a broader issue that has been increasingly apparent since legalization in October 2018: the gulf between what the legal system provides and what consumers want is allowing the black market to continue to thrive. If all you let bars serve is $20 pints of Lucky, chances are people will go to bootleggers instead.

Even at the low end of the price/consumption scale, the difference is marked. The club charges $6 a gram for the same marijuana that the licensed system sells for $10, a difference of $120 a month for someone who smokes a gram a day. “That’s a lot of money for someone on a fixed income,” Smith says.

For those with serious disorders, the difference can be much greater. Health Canada guidelines say edibles should contain no more than 10 milligrams of THC per unit, with a single capsule costing maybe $5, but some people ingest far more than that. “I can eat anywhere from 400 milligrams to 2,000 a day,” said Nikki Jackson, a club member and employee who deals with Crohn’s disease, back pain and anxiety. At the cannabis club, she can buy a chocolate bar containing 750 mg of THC for $25. The equivalent in low-dose, high-cost legal product would be too much too swallow, physically and financially.

Jackson was among a group of club supporters picketing MLA Carole James’s Fort Street office on Wednesday, calling for change. After 24 years, they said, the status quo still isn’t working.