Blunt Battle In BC Capital: Victoria Is Licensing Dispensaries But Stomping on Safe Consumption Sites

In the future, it will seem absolutely absurd to everyone that cannabis products could be sold legally in stores, but somehow consuming them, even a pot cookie, remains a federal crime.  Yet somehow, despite being wise enough to create otherwise decent regulations for dispensaries, that is what Victoria city council intends upon doing right now.  Meanwhile police continue to arrest patients for smoking or possessing herb in public.  It is enough to make a person scream.

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Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps with Herb

Without citing many good reasons why the city will not allow on-site use of cannabis products, Mayor Lisa Helps figures everyone will comply without a fight, despite knowing there is a free lounge for patients at the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club.  “We expect that there will not be consumption of cannabis at any of the places that are going to be open as a result of this new licensing regime.” Though the city wants to snub out smoking, the VCBC and the local public vapour lounge, The Green Ceiling, are fighting for your right to toke.

On Fri Oct 7, the day before owner Ashlee Abraham celebrated her birthday, Victoria bylaw officers slapped The Green Ceiling with a $500 fine.  A verbal warning had been given the day before.  Open since April, The Green Ceiling has quickly become the center of the local cannabis scene as one of several businesses that have come together, and opened in the same building to create a new CannaMall.

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Ashley Abraham displays Art at the Green Ceiling

However, the city is not willing to sit back and let either The Green Ceiling or the VCBC continue to operate without a fight.  The letter given to Ashlee is very clear.  “As of Sep. 22, 2016 the cannabis related business regulation bylaw has been adopted and under section six a person carrying on a cannabis related business must not c) allow a person to smoke, vape, consume or otherwise ingest cannabis or products containing cannabis on the premises,”

Meanwhile Victoria police, like others across the country, continue to arrest people for smoking, despite the federal government’s pledge to legalize.  Apparently charges for possession offences have declined from 18,470 in 2012-2013 to 13,343 in 2015-2016, but that is not good enough.  While judges are often forced to accept guilty pleas or find defendants guilty due to overwhelming evidence, thankfully many judges are not willing to harshly enforce these harsh laws.  

In a recent case involving a patient from the Vancouver Island Compassion Club, which is very strict in its membership requirements to ensure only very sick people can join, police arrested and charged Leslie Hall for being in possession.  At the BC Victoria provincial court Judge, Christine Lowe, had no choice but to find him guilty, but gave him an absolute discharge without blinking an eye.  In her decision she states, the “current state of affairs where businesses may be acting contrary to the law and, in doing so, lull some customers into thinking they are acting according to law.”  Clearly the right and left hand are not very well connected.

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Staff at the Green Ceiling

Lounges that cater to cannabis smokers provide many direct economic benefits to the local community, and also benefit the general public by keeping us hidden from view with filtered air systems to minimize the smell.  “To allow sales of cannabis, but not allow a space for consumption of it is a big disservice not only to those who consume cannabis, but also those who don’t,” Ashlee Abraham said to the Times Colonist. “Because public consumption, when you don’t have lounges, is in parks, it’s in the streets and it’s in alleyways.”

The city council has struggled with this issue during the debates for licensing dispensaries but have given mixed signals.  In an interview with the Times Colonist, Helps agreed there is a need for safe spaces for medical marijuana consumption, but “charging people to take medicine goes directly against the public health system we have in Canada.”  This makes it appear like there is support for a lounge under some conditions, with special emphasis on the profit motive.

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the V-CBC Member Lounge

Despite saying there is a need for safe spaces for patients, there is no room in the regulations for such an opportunity.  Dispensaries hoping for a vapour room must ask for a variance as part of the application process.  With no clear rules on the requirements for a dispensary and little financial incentive, most dispensaries are expected to sit back and leave patients to suffer the weather and police.

There is lots of support on the Victoria city council for the VCBC and we fully expect them to vote in favour of us keeping a smoking room when we have our public hearing.  City councilor Marianne Alto was very clear in her statements to council. “I think that managing on-site consumption will help us manage public use and will also help us manage unwilling exposure.”

Ben Isitt, who I actually ran against when I took at shot at the mayor’s seat in 2002, is also very supportive of our club, though not so much for The Green Ceiling. “I think there’s particularly compelling arguments in the non-profit societies for allowing people to consume the substance,” Isitt said. “I think that argument’s a bit weaker in the for-profit establishments, where I personally don’t see a pressing need to allow people to consume the product.”  

vcbc-logo-mid-transparentDuring most of its existence the VCBC has offered a safe place for patients.  After moving into an apartment from my van in May 1996, we realized very early on that patients needed a safe place to go to consume their medicine.  Over time the daily 420 became quite large, with often there being so little room to sit people were on the ladder up to the loft and standing in the small kitchen.  Anytime a patient needed a toke they were welcome during club hours and we would smoke a joint or two with them, asking for no more than a hug in return.

When we first moved into the storefront at 826 Johnson St we could not allow smoking, and kept the old apartment open during the day for members to visit if they needed to sit and smoke.  Nine months after moving into the store we opened a small closet into which we got a fan.  Affectionately called “The Box’, this tiny room gave members a place to hide from the world, and get close to others that had all sorts of medical issues.

Six years ago we moved our cannabis distribution center into the main lobby, and opened a new lounge in the space we had used to sell herb.  This bigger space allowed more members to relax much more comfortably, with a Volcano vaporizer always available for members to use if they cannot afford one themselves.  So many members have been using the space that the VCBC has had to try all sorts of rules to give members lots of opportunities to use the room without it being overcrowded all day long.

The board of the VCBC has really struggled with how to proceed.  The club does not want to appear hostile to council, as they often refer to us specifically as a dispensary they want to protect and help.

Unfortunately the head of the bylaw department has informed the VCBC that it will receive $500 fines if it continues to operate a safe inhalation room.  This fine could be appealed to council, who we hope will support us but might not be happy that we did not wait until our hearing.  We do not want to start off this process by upsetting bylaw officers, but we have our members’ lives hanging in the balance.

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V-CBC members using the lounge

As of press time, it is impossible to say how things are going to work out at the VCBC or The Green Ceiling.  The VCBC is likely to try several strategies to avoid getting a ticket while still finding ways for members to use the Box.  With so much support for patients to have a safe place, we are certain in the long run our room will remain open.

The Green Ceiling has not been fined since the first ticket, as of press time, but they are defiantly fighting the ticket and bylaws using every means possible.  Expect to see several large public protests at City Hall over this issue. With such a beautiful space and wonderful atmosphere, city council should be proud to have this business in Victoria and should be using it as an example of how vapour lounges should be set up.

There is a battle over consuming cannabis happening in many other areas.  We reported on the battle in Ontario in the last issue and the City of Vancouver has done the same there.

The cannabis culture is not like any other community and we will not longer tolerate being pushed into the corner and told to stay hidden.  Now that dispensaries have broken through the fears that held back cannabis distributors it is time for the rest of us to stand up and fight for our right to consume this plant together in public spaces.