Cannabis Digest Blog Post:  VCBC Meets with Health Canada, Episode #1


The past couple of years at the VCBC have been some of the most challenging years in our club’s history.  Cannabis was legalized for recreational use in October 2018 across Canada. Though the Liberals federally legalized recreational cannabis, we knew that the fight for patients rights was long from over.  Cannabis in Canada is regulated differently across different jurisdictions.  Health Canada and the federal government are in charge of medical cannabis regulations.  The Cannabis Act has left the provinces to regulate and enforce recreational cannabis laws, which means there are differences for recreational rules across the country.

In Novemeber 2019 the BC provincial government raided and emptied our store of medicines because we were providing cannabis to patients without a recreational license. We were raided for the sixth time in the club’s history, but the first time under the new Cannabis Act.  In March 2020, the global coronavirus took hold and on March 17th we had to say goodbye to the heartbeat of our community and we closed The Box, our safe inhalatio lounge, for everyone’s safety.  Four months later in July 2020 the Community Safety Unity (CSU) under the authority of the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General, raided us a second time. Seven months later in February 2021 we received notice that the CSU was then threatening our landlord with jail time for continuing to lease the store to us.  We negotiated a resigning of our lease with the support of JFK Law firm, but the attempts from the provincial government to shut us down have been persistent and powerful.

We continued to operate and to run our store as we have been for the past two decades because the health and well being of thousands of patients relies on our work and our products.  To comply with the current legal system would require that we give up on our long standing growers, to buy low quality LP cannabis, and to produce 10mg THC edibles which are completely inadequate for patients’ medical needs. Therefore in April 2021 we submitted our formal Exemption Application to Health Canada requesting an exemption from the Cannabis Act. We requested that we be able to produce edibles over 10mg THC edibles and to sell them in a store front medical retail setting.  We also have asked for an exemption to vertical integration so that we can license our bakery as a separate business and as a fully legally compliant processing facility so we can make the best quality medicine for patients. 

It had been a year since we submitted our application and we did not hear anything from Health Canada while we endured one obstacle after another.  We were sitting in limbo and operating business as usual, waiting for the government to either work with us or to say no formally.  In that time, we received a massive fine against our Board of Directors and Ted Smith himself totaling almost $6.5 million.  We received the fine in January 2022 from the CSU due to our non-compliance with the provincial recreational rules. This fine is one of the biggest fines the BC provincial government has ever issued and it is being used against us for providing medicine to patients in need.

In the spring of 2022 the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic began to relax and we decided to go ahead and host our annual 420 celebration at the BC Legislature.  In our truest activist nature, the gathering was both a celebration and a protest against the fines.  The event had a decent turn out, we raised $800 in our member-only raffle, we had some DJs perform and we had some speakers discuss the ongoing injustices in the cannabis industry.  The event got cut short due to the windy weather, but the crowd turnout at the height of 4:20 pm was commendable with approximately 200 people present.

Little did we know that when we got home we would receive the most exciting news of the year:  at 4:28pm PST on April 20th, 2022 we received confirmation from Health Canada that they wanted to talk to us about our Exemption application! The board and management cried when we got the news.  We gathered together late in the club to fantasize about the possibilities and quizzed each other on the unknowns.

On Wednesday April 27th at 10 am we met via a teleconference with several representatives from Health Canada.  It was led by David Greenwood who works as Senior Regulatory Affairs Officer for Health Canada. The meeting was overseen by Daphne Jurgens, Acting Director for Health Canada in Medical Access and Client Services.  There were several other policy analysts and relevant policy regulators in attendance and we will update with their names and titles shortly.  From the VCBC side, Ted Smith spoke on behalf of the club.  He was in attendance alongside Clea MacLean the VCBC Vice President, Julia Furstenau Treasurer , Jacq Kittel Store Manager, as well as our legal representation Kirk Tousaw and Jack Lloyd. 

The discussion was brief, and to start off the meeting the representatives from Health Canada let us know that they would not be able to provide an answer about our exemption application. The intent of the meeting was to ask some clarifying questions on our application and to ask us what we want the exemption to look like in the end. We were denied the request to record the conversation.  The meeting would be exactly 45 minutes, and they let us know that they would be emailing us a summary of the conversation. The point of the summary would be to show their understanding of our answers, and that we would be able to respond and flush out the answers and add any clarifying information. We were told we will receive this summary within a week of the meeting.

Mr. Greenwood asked rapid fire questions to Ted Smith, and they asked a total of 40 questions in 45 minutes.  Their questions ranged from asking for a brief summary to our proposal, to minutia of where the cannabis would be sold and stored.  We were asked if we had a history of criminal activity or of non-compliance with federal regulations. They wanted to know if we had partner organizations or ties to any indigenous communities. We answered their questions about minimizing diversion of cannabis to non-members, we discussed the layout of our business and we spent a lot of time talking about the 10mg limits on cannabis edibles.

The crux of our exemption application is asking Health Canada for a temporary exemption to produce medicine over the 10mg THC limit currently in place.  If and when we receive an exemption, we will apply for a processing license for our bakery.  Our bakery will be a separate business that is vertically integrated with the VCBC.  That means we can control the quality and price of the medicines available to patients.  The regulators asked us if we were in the process of applying for either a retail or a processing license currently.  Ted explained that without the exemption for the 10 mg limits, there would be no point in subjecting our small scale non profit to the turmoil of applying for an expensive and difficult license.  Especially if the licenses available would not allow us to supply the medicines our patients rely upon everyday.  We would not be able to sell anywhere near the range of capsules, topicals, suppositories, bath products or edibles that our patients require for their health care.

At the end of the meeting, Ted made it clear that we want very badly to be in compliance with the legal medical cannabis regulations.  We continue to operate outside the legal regime because we will not sacrifice the well-being of our patients.  It is our strongest desire to work with the government to develop a distribution model that meets the needs of all the stakeholders.  Ted explained that if we cannot develop a pathway to work with Health Canada, and if they deny our exemption application, we will be forced to take the judicial path to take the government to court, again.  Patients need high dose, high quality, and low cost medicine to manage complex and chronic illnesses.  The healthcare system is falling apart at the seams, there are doctor shortages across the country, and the opioid epidemic rages on.  The VCBC’s non-profit medical cannabis compassion club model has been working for patients for 26 years.  We look forward to the opportunity to work with Health Canada to continue our work well into the future. 

 

Jacqueline Kittel