The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club Society, under threats of shutdown and facing millions of dollars in fines, is opening its indoor smoking room today.
Ted Smith, founder of the non-profit dispensary, said the 10-seat room on Johnson Street known as “the box” will reopen to members due to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It will the happiest room in Greater Victoria,” Smith said Thursday.
The club says it has more than 8,500 members who use cannabis products — usually in doses higher than federal regulations permit — to treat medical conditions ranging from anxiety to cancer. It has been established since 1996.
Smith said because of pandemic shutdowns and laws that prohibit smoking indoors, members have been without a safe place to “take their medicine.”
“They’ve been on the street or in their backyards out in the weather with no place to consume — and most of them are alone,” said Smith. “What we provide is a safe place and a place to gather with friends.”
Unlike government and private dispensaries for recreational cannabis, the unlicensed Cannabis Buyers Club requires prospective members to provide proof of a chronic condition with a doctor’s signature.
In February, the club and Smith were fined a total of $6.5 million for selling cannabis illegally. The fine followed inspections in May 2019 and two raids in November 2019 and July 2020.
In a Jan. 24 letter from B.C.’s Community Safety Unit, which is responsible for enforcing cannabis regulations under the province’s solicitor general, director Jamie Lipp said the fine was equal to two times the retail value of the cannabis sold, possessed or produced by the society.
Lipp determined that the retail value of the cannabis seized during the two raids was just over $168,000 and that the retail value of the cannabis sold by the society between November 2019 and July 2020 was just under $1.5 million.
B.C.’s cannabis regulations say that if a corporation is liable for a fine, a director who authorizes or allows the contravention is also subject to the penalty.
Lipp said he has also proposed to fine Smith more than $3.2 million.
The club has filed court applications and is seeking an injunction. An online campaign has been started to raise $50,000 to help the club pay for legal expenses.
Smith called it ironic the reopening of the club comes just days after the province launched a public survey on recreational cannabis consumption spaces, something he said should have started long before cannabis was made legal for sale.
The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said the survey will allow for feedback on whether indoor consumption spaces should be permitted, and if so, how they should be regulated. The survey runs until May 9.
Smith said the fight to keep the club’s lounge open has been “a victory, as WorkSafe B.C. and Island Health have tried to shut it down in the past.
He argues that his “patients” have constitutional protection to use cannabis and that the facility is not a public space, but a private medical facility.
Calls to B.C.’s Community Safety Unit for comment were referred to the solicitor general’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
— with files from Louise Dickson