Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club hopes to get legal standing

A show of support from the City of Victoria and the B.C. government is giving members of the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club new hope that they might soon be able to operate legally.

After two raids by provincial officers in less than a year — about $60,000 in cannabis products were seized — the provincial government appears to be softening to the non-profit’s model.

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Unlike recreational dispensaries, the unlicensed club requires prospective members to provide proof of a chronic condition with a doctor’s signature.

Operating since 1996, it sells a range of products, including many homemade baked goods, salves, capsules and gummies, to more than 8,000 clients at a lower cost than products in the legal system.

They also sell products with higher THC content than regulations allow, something founder Ted Smith and club members consider an inadequacy in the legal system.

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 more than 1,000 mg a day to manage their conditions.

Smith describes his customers as “typically elder, with multiple problems,” using cannabis to treat issues such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, chronic pain and mental-health problems.

“I’m helping people who are suffering who wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t there for them,” Smith said after the province’s second raid, which saw more than $50,000 in products seized by Community Safety Unit officers.

Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general, sent a letter to Victoria city council last month, saying he had raised the issue with his federal counterpart and encouraged the exploration of a licence that would allow the club to continue providing certain services.

Farnworth was responding to a January letter from Mayor Lisa Helps in support of an exemption for the club that would allow it to operate without the threat of future raids.

He wrote that the province could not authorize activities that are illegal under federal law, but he encouraged council and the club to contact Health Canada about an exemption. The federal body regulates the sale of medical cannabis and prohibits storefront sales, while the province regulates non-medical cannabis sales.

A spokesperson for Farnworth said he was not able to comment on the ministry’s position, because of the Oct. 24 election.

Smith said the Farnworth’s letter stopped short of outright condoning the club, but it was far more supportive than the province has been in the past. Before the second raid, in mid-July, the province also encouraged the club to contact Health Canada, but indicated no interest in advocating on the club’s behalf.

Smith took it as a sign that the province would hold off on action while the club reached out to the federal regulator, until provincial officers took him by surprise.

With Farnworth’s “cautious support” now, Smith said it feels like the pieces are starting to come together for the club.

“This is really encouraging, because now we’re going to the federal government with two levels of governments supporting us,” he said.

Smith said the club is preparing a package of information and letters of support — including Farnworth’s letter, a letter from the city, from club members and others in the cannabis industry, and from other non-profits — for Health Canada that it plans to send at the end of the month.

Council unanimously passed a motion this month to have the mayor write to Health Canada indicating the city’s support for finding a way for the club to operate legally. That letter is being drafted, the mayor said.

Coun. Ben Isitt, who put forward the motion, said he hopes the federal government will support the city’s request for an exemption from regulations to help the group continue to operate.

“I think it’s not a stretch to say the Cannabis Buyers Club provides an essential service in our community,” he said. “There’s people with very debilitating medical conditions, who have a sense of belonging, and a community and access to medicine. And I think it would be wrong in context of the legalization of cannabis to see this essential community service suspended.”

A spokesperson for Health Canada said the federal regulator may authorize an exemption from the Cannabis Act in “rare and exceptional circumstances” if the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest. Exemption applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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