Victoria’s Cannabis Buyers Club speaks to life free of pain, stigma around a drug that heals and the trial that could change it all
Gayle Quin was 13 the first time she learned that smoking weed helped her. She suffered from debilitating menstrual cramps and intense bleeding, a condition that would later be diagnosed as dysmenorrhea. But back when Quin was a young girl, such conditions and medicines for those ailments were far from being realized with modern science.
Now, 40 years later, there are moments when Quin, 54, wonders if we’ve advanced at all. She still suffers from judgment when she tells a doctor she uses cannabis to aid her increasing number of conditions. Due to this, Quin says she hasn’t had a doctor in years — finding one that openly accepts cannabis as a treatment form is rare. And those doctors that do are overbooked with patients and waiting lists.
The healing path
International Medical Marijuana Week is celebrated Feb. 13 to 19 this year. On the heels of one of the most progressive cases to hit B.C.’s Supreme Court, medical-use cannabis has come under the microscope once again. Owen Smith, the 29-year-old head baker for the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada, was arrested and charged in 2009 for baking in his apartment and “possession for the purpose of trafficking THC and unlawful possession of marijuana” because, while the plant itself has been decriminalized for medical use, its products have not. Smith launched a constitutional challenge against Health Canada’s medical marijuana access regulations, but the trial (which began last month) has turned into a debate of opportunity: can testifiers finally prove to judicial officials that edible cannabis products are every bit as effective, and no more criminal, than the legal plant counterpart? The country is holding its breath on each side of the argument, waiting to see.
Back when Quin was first learning about the healing properties of cannabis, she decided early on to start growing her own plants. Raised in a church-going Christian household in the ’60s, however, she faced judgment and punishment from her family. When Quin’s mother discovered the plants growing in her daughter’s cupboard, she threw them out and destroyed them. But Quin didn’t let that stop her. She found more seeds, then planted her own private cannabis garden, hidden on a nearby knoll outside the house. She began reading every study she could find, she looked up recipes, she learned from friends and she began what would become a life-long research project into the medical uses and healing properties of her plants.
“I always figured, God gave us seeds, and the first page in the Bible talks about using what nature provided us, so I argued with my mother about that a lot,” says Quin, with a laugh. “It made sense to me.”
The day I meet Quin inside the club’s headquarters on Johnson Street, it’s easy to see her discomfort. Last summer, she had her right breast removed due to cancer. She hasn’t taken any medicine today — she’s been working on lowering her dosages since her surgery — and tells me she’s paying for it.
“I think the biggest misconception people have about medical-use cannabis is that everyone is just using it to get high,” she says. “I don’t want to be a zombie — that’s why I don’t want to be on a host of drugs. I just want to get on with life, be functional and not be in pain. This is what works for me.”
Over the years, Quin has suffered from fibromyalgia, hepatitis C, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies, severe back and shoulder injuries and more. Her most recent condition, cancer, left Quin unable to work with the club for months, but finally allowed her to receive a registered Health Canada Card last year — a card which legally allows Quin to use the medicine that’s worked for her since she was a girl.
Quin has been working with members of the buyers club for the last nine years, but came back post-surgery last November for infrequent visits, and more regularly just this month. Of the dozen or so club clients that come through its doors during our interview, five or six stop in to welcome Quin back, and sometimes share a tearful hug over her recovery. Someone jokes, “I feel sorry for cancer, because it picked on one of the strongest women I know!”
Quin has been billed by many as a kind of “Pot Angel.” With her gentle nature and soft-spoken tones, she’s acted not only as a leading researcher and creator of the club’s vast lotions and potions, but also an impromptu counsellor, reflexologist and acupressurist to many of its clients.
“I’ve seen people come in here who have been given weeks to live. They don’t just have to deal with intense pain, but with this new knowledge that they’re not going to be here much longer, or that they’re getting evicted because they can’t work, or that they’re losing their kids because the ministry is taking them away,” she says. “This isn’t something I disconnect from at the end of the day — these are my friends, and I want to do everything in my world to help them.”
Quin’s partner and one of Victoria’s most infamous activists, Ted Smith, created the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada and Hempology 101 on those very principles: helping people who, often, have nowhere left to turn.
“When I started the club, it was just me in my van, touring around Victoria and handing out what I could to people who were desperate for relief,” says Smith, who has since been arrested four times, convicted twice (for handing out cookies) and jailed once. “At the end, it’s always worth it, because we are providing an essential service that so few others are willing to do.”
Only months after Smith began his service van, one woman offered to let him use her apartment for a more sustainable operation. The club blossomed there for six years, then finally took up shop at its current downtown location. Now, with close to 3,800 active members, the group will celebrate its 17th anniversary this year.
For those unfamiliar with the club’s strict mandates, all clients must have either a registered card, or be able to show proof of a chronic condition. Due to federal law, mental health conditions — which include insomnia — do not count for coverage, which means the club also cannot issue medicine to those patients. What the club does is still technically illegal. The group has suffered from four police raids, has been through four trials and has beaten 11 trafficking charges so far. Yet they have a strict rein on their own operations: any member caught re-selling goods is barred from the club, with legal actions to follow.
And the club has plenty to celebrate, including an ever-increasing number of strains to offer patients, the upcoming release of Smith’s textbook Hempology 101 and the 13th-annual Cannabis Convention that Hempology 101 is hosting at UVic on Sunday, Feb. 19, as part of international awareness week. These past few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster, however, for members who are trying to leave their mark on the outcome of the trial. Smith (who bears no relation to the accused baker Owen Smith) has had a team of staff, clients and even a doctor stand trial to testify about the positive impact cannabis-infused baked goods have had in their lives.
“The reason why this trial is so important is because it recognizes the fact that, while cannabis can help so many people, not everyone wants to, or can, smoke it to benefit from the effects,” says Smith. “In some cases, the food and recipes we offer becomes the only thing people can stand to eat in a day. It can mean the difference for an AIDS patient having the will to keep surviving, or a cancer patient finding their appetite again.”
While Quin was undergoing treatment for her cancer, both she and Smith took a hiatus from the club to tend to her health. Smith talks about his “Buddha Balls,” a nutrient-rich energy ball made with medicinal cannabis oil, which would often nurse Quin through a day when she could keep little down.
“My body aches, my joints freeze up; all I can think of is curling up in a hot bath, but you can’t live in a bath,” says Quin. “There were times when I’ve had to drink an entire bottle [2 oz] of Cannoil in a day. Some days, I’ve eaten nothing but pot food, just because I’m in so much pain. They’ve made it legal, so why can’t we go to the pharmacy to get what we need? Operations like this should be in every cancer clinic.”
Quin prepares a selection of goods for our cover photo and explains the best purpose for each one: Cannoil for muscle relaxants, cookies for digestive problems, capsules for stronger pain relief, lozenges and lip balms for oral treatments. After the photo, she says she will use some of the products for her own treatment that afternoon.
“Sometimes, we have people coming back here and saying, ‘Hey, did you forget the ingredients? I couldn’t even tell I had eaten anything,’” she says. “But then we will ask, ‘Well, is your back still hurting?’ or ‘How did you sleep?’ and people will say, ‘Actually, I’m fine.’ So they often still don’t realize how little you need.”
For Quin’s relief, this week has been a bad one for her with the stress of testifying in the trial, along with her long healing process. She is hopeful that this will finally be the discussion Canada has long needed to get on board with people’s right to be free of pain. Still, as the group prepares for closing arguments on Feb. 27, Quin has her hesitations.
“I know that with our current government, it’s so hard to get hopeful about any advancements right now, but all we can do is tell them our stories and hope that real people will listen and understand,” Quin says. “The idea that someone thinks my not being in pain is affecting them just boils me. But it’s sure as hell not going to stop me from helping those who need it.” M
To learn more about the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club visit the club’s website at www.v-cbc.ca, or call 250-381-4220.