Dozens of people packed into the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club as a line formed outside the storefront when the unlicensed non-profit dispensary reopened at 3 p.m. Friday, following a raid Thursday morning.
Founder Ted Smith had been anticipating the raid for months, as he watched unlicensed dispensaries around the city shuttered by seizures. He said the legalization of cannabis for recreational use and the current regulations around the sale of cannabis for medical use fail those who rely on it for medicine.
“If this place was to close down, people would lose access to medicines they couldn’t find elsewhere and it would cause them to physically suffer,” he said.
People must show proof of a chronic condition with a doctor’s signature to join the club, which has about 7,700 members.
Smith estimated officers from the province’s Community Safety Unit seized about $10,000 in cannabis products, many made in house, during the raid.
The safety unit falls under the policing and security branch of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, and is tasked with enforcing B.C.’s cannabis regulations, including seizing products from unlicensed dispensaries. The ministry said it does not comment on specific cases.
The club produces high-potency products such as cookies, capsules, extracts and oils in a kitchen in the same building as the retail store. It also sells goods made by other small, local producers, as well as dried cannabis to smoke.
Staff were updating menu boards Friday afternoon to reflect the limited range of products still available after the seizure. Smith said some products had been stashed away and weren’t found by officers.
Health Canada limits edible products to 10 milligrams per unit, but many of the club’s products contain significantly higher levels of THC, something Smith said is necessary to provide effective medical treatment for club members.
The club could face a fine of up to double the retail value of products seized. If the club is hit with a fine, Smith said, it would fundraise in order to cover it.
The sale of medical cannabis is regulated by the federal government, and regulations haven’t changed with the legalization of recreational cannabis. But with legalization came the provincial enforcement unit and a crackdown on unlicensed dispensaries that had been operating for years.
“There’s been far more enforcement under legalization against dispensaries and caregivers than there was under the last years of prohibition. So it really is like prohibition 2.0,” Smith said.
Storefront sales are not permitted under federal regulations. Authorized medical users can order cannabis products — limited to 10 milligrams of THC per package — from producers licensed by Health Canada, register with Health Canada to grow cannabis for their own purposes or designate someone to grow on their behalf.
Smith is hopeful the club will become a licensed operation one day, but cannabis regulations will have to change before that can happen. He’s not willing to conform to the current regulations, which would mean lowering the potency of products, removing the smoking lounge and choosing between producing or selling products.
“We’ve tried and want to comply with the law as much as possible, but the law needs to make sense. So we really hope that our government will come to its senses, but time will tell.”
Smith said the cannabis club, open since 1996, has been raided four times before, but this time felt different. During previous raids, club staff and volunteers were led out of the building in handcuffs. This time, they were allowed to stay inside while officers filled garbage bags with cannabis products.
Despite the raid, the doors were open Friday morning to members who came with their own products to use the club’s smoking lounge. But no products were available for purchase until the afternoon.