In 2018 the CRD passed amendments to the Clean Air Act to include cannabis smoking or vaping. Recently both Island Health and Worksafe BC paid a surprise inspection to the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, which has maintained a smoking room for patients at 826 Johnson St since 2001. The club has been given an opportunity to obtain permission from Island Health and Worksafe BC to operate a safe consumption site for cannabis.
The VCBC is creating this six month plan of action to assist its members, staff and board as it engages with the public and CRD directors to create a variance process in the Clean Air Act.
The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club was founded in 1996 with a mandate to provide access to cannabis products to patients diagnosed with a serious medical problem. In 2001, after losing several court decisions, Health Canada created a medical cannabis program, the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations. The MMAR was challenged in court on many occasions, eventually being changed to the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations and now the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations.
The VCBC suffered raids on its storefront 4 times in 2002-03 and then on its bakery in 2009. All 15 cannabis charges laid against the staff in those raids were beaten in court, including taking the bakery trial all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where the unanimous Smith decision of 2015 made cannabis extracts legal for patients. Before that court decision the only legally authorized means of consuming cannabis was smoking or vaping.
The VCBC has maintained a smoking lounge for patients since its formation in 1996. Shortly after moving into a storefront in 2001, the closet was converted into a smoking room which has operated every day since. Neighbours in the condominium next door were completely unaware of this lounge when the zoning hearing was held last year, indicating how well ventilated the compassion club has been for many years.
For many years Island Health and other levels of government have supported safe injection drug sites for people at risk of disease and death from using some drugs. Treating intravenous drug users with respect and dignity saves lives, reduces health care costs and minimizes any potential negative impacts on the public. For many patients, cannabis consumption facilities are part of the spectrum of harm reduction.
Soon after creating a rezoning process for cannabis dispensaries in Sept 2016, the Victoria city council passed a motion through second reading to support consumption at the VCBC and another old compassion club. However pressure from Island Health, Worksafe BC and other authorities stalled that motion before it became law, leaving members uncertain of the smoking rooms future. Victoria council and Mayor Helps have constantly supported the VCBC in its effort to provide patients safe access to high quality cannabis products and a safe place to consume them.
In 2018, amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed by the CRD to effectively treat cannabis consumption the same as tobacco. Before that time complaints about smoking cannabis were brought to the attention of the Victoria police. Police only attended the club to address any complaints of odour once in Aug 2001, before the small smoking room was open.
With the passing of the Clean Air Act, many landlords and strata councils took an even stronger position against cannabis use in their buildings, with many tenants and condo owners receiving threatening letters about the use of cannabis. These consumers, often patients requiring a constant dose to maintain their pain levels, are being forced to the curb to use their medicine. Unless a person is a homeowner, few can smoke cannabis in their homes and there is no opportunity for commercial indoor cannabis consumption.
Also, in 2018, the federal government legalized cannabis for adult use. Issues regarding consumption were left to local authorities. Both federal and provincial legislatures have indicated support for lounges similar to long established ones in Amsterdam.
There are two parallel tracks that we need to build in order for this plan to be successful. These two processes will be simultaneously unfolding. Clearly there is little chance these two processes will end at the same time but every effort will be made to complete each task as soon as possible. By building partnerships with Island Health and Worksafe BC, the VCBC will be able to ensure a safe environment for staff, patients and the public.
New regulations regarding cannabis consumption will allow organizations to apply for a variance. That variance will be determined based on whether or not the workers are as safe, or more safe. We will present several arguments to Worksafe BC that having a properly ventilated smoking room has no negative health consequences for staff, and, that the additional eyes and ears present in our club deter robberies. Given that armed robberies are the greatest threat to staff, having members there from opening to closing adds a very strong presence to the club that cannot be understated.
Once we have received this variance we will install a new ventilation system. Worksafe BC has offered assistance from their engineers to ensure the ventilation system meets their requirements. The design of the room will feature safety measures for both members and staff that will ensure the space retains its healing atmosphere.
Companies will be invited to compete on bids to build the new ventilation system. Since this will be the first legal medical indoor cannabis lounge, companies are expected to submit very competitive bids as the public relations benefits of being our partner will be significant. A fundraising campaign to pay for these improvements will be required, as it will cost thousands of dollars that the club does not have.
Building from the strong support VCBC has with City Council, we will encourage the CRD board to create a variance process in the Clean Air Act. This would allow the CRD to grant approvals to hospice centers, hospitals, seniors homes and other care facilities, as well as consider temporary use permits for events like April 20 to happen at Royal Athletic Park. It would also create the possibility that commercial spaces for recreational consumers could obtain a license to operate.
Lobbying the CRD directors will done in a variety of manners. The first step in lobbying CRD directors is to determine each individuals position. We will know if we have any more advocacy to be done at that level. Hopefully there will already be strong support for creating a variance process, but if not then we will focus on those most likely to change their mind.
We are starting a petition to the CRD for this variance process in early June, collecting signatures by door knocking, standing on street corners, and hosting public information meetings, while also placing the petition in stores and medical facilities. Going on a public education campaign will enable us to inform citizens about this exemption to the Clean Air Act and other issues regarding the legalization of cannabis.
If CRD directors are expected to create this variance process, there needs to be strong public support. To assist in this education campaign we will produce small flyers to explain the Clean Air Act and how this variance will help reduce the smell of cannabis smoke in neighbourhoods, parks and sidewalks by giving patients an indoor ventilated room. Everyone who gets upset at the smell of cannabis smoke should be just as happy to issue exemptions as those who require the use of a safe space.
Attempts to connect with harm reduction advocates within Island Health will also be made. Since Island Health has put so much effort into creating safe injection sites for hard drug users, there should be ample support in its ranks for patients who need to smoke cannabis. Indeed, once properly educated in the various benefits of cannabis, Island Health should be playing a leading role in crafting the variance we require.
Once this exemption is available, the club intends on being the first applicant. It should not take long for the CRD to create the details of the variance process once it has been created.
Though it will take some time for the regulations to be developed and variances granted, there is every reason to believe that authorization to have a smoking lounge can be obtained in a reasonable amount of time. Given that the club has operated a smoking lounge for so long with few problems, there is no doubt we can continue safely and discreetly managing a smoking lounge with no noticeable impact on the neighbours.
This plan will not just focus on medical cannabis patients, as there are many reasons for this variance process to be created. Others inconvenienced by the smell of smoking cannabis should favour it being done in rooms with proper ventilation systems. While we obviously expect from cannabis consumers, a great deal of our education campaign to amend the Clean Air Act will be geared towards individuals who disapprove of cannabis use.
This plan of action will require time, but places the best interests of patients first. Everyone at the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club is keen to be compliant with all aspects of the law and we will work hard to complete this mission as soon as possible.