On January 31st about 60 of us filled a room at the Fernwood Community Centre in Victoria BC to attend the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club’s 20th anniversary AGM. I will say without equivocation that the meeting sparkled. Here are some highlights, and issues to ponder.
1. Renowned activist Ted Smith, who has spent most of his adult life fighting for medical cannabis, started the VCBC in 1996. He ran the club until 2013, when he handed control of it to a non-profit society. Since that time Dieter McPherson, who chaired the AGM, has served both as the club’s president and its executive director. Dieter announced at the meeting that 2016 is his last year for playing these roles simultaneously. He is likely to stay on as executive director; in 2017, VCBC will be looking for a new president.
2. Dieter is on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), which has recently crafted a regulatory and certification scheme for medical dispensaries. This scheme has been adopted by the Victoria City Council; the Council plans to license CAMCD certified dispensaries this coming June. It has also been embraced by the many dispensaries on the Island, and on BC’s mainland, who wish increase their credibility with BC doctors, and with the general public.
3. VCBC spends nearly 3/4 of its budget on cannabis. It spends a further 1/5, almost, on salaries. Its staff is paid $16.00/hour. This is not yet a living wage, but there are good benefits, and there is reason to hope that matters will improve both with City Council licensing, and with legalization in Canada in 2017, or 2018.
4. To meet additional requirements from City Hall, VCBC will need to acquire a video security system, a vault with a metal door, and perhaps a fridge to fit inside the vault. These items will make the club a more secure place to work, and also a more normal-looking place to work. They will also, in my view, increase VCBC’s potential as a setting for a spy-thriller. Especially the vault.
5. VCBC has over 3,500 active members. It is holding its own financially, a remarkable achievement considering the number of dispensaries in the city. Three years ago Victoria had a handful of compassion clubs; today it has 34.
6. VCBC has Victoria’s only on site vapour lounge, a small room at the back of the club that accommodates 8-12 people. As the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) of BC and Vancouver Coastal Health oppose all substance inhalation in work places, the newly licensed clubs will likely not be allowed in house vaping spaces. VCBC will not be pursuing this issue. They have enough to deal with. But Ted Smith plans to pursue it. He hopes to persuade the city council, and barring this, plans to open a vapour lounge co-funded by licensed dispensaries, and run by volunteers; volunteers do not come under the jurisdiction of the WCB.
7. The next step in the Victoria’s licensing process is a town hall meeting to be held on February 22nd. This meeting will be informal: everyone who wishes to speak may do so. Dieter has asked that club members and associates who attend maintain a polite attitude, even when faced with the usual shrill and ignorant opposition. Up for discussion, among other things, will be cannabis edibles. Vancouver has rejected the sale of edibles, but it looks like Victoria may accept it…much thanks here to Ted Smith’s lobbying efforts.
Some larger issues that emerged from the AGM:
1. 2016 will be an electrifying year for cannabis both locally and federally. It will also be stressful. As Dieter has noted, the medical dispensaries have acquired some daunting enemies. Canada’s federally licensed producers and their lawyers will be arguing their right to maintain dominance over the industry. On the other hand, they may be considerably more interested in the new recreational market than in the medical one. It is possible that the dispensaries will remain the apothecaries. But if they do, there are further questions.
Who will fund medical research for cannabis? Medical cannabis dispensaries are dedicated, but they are not wealthy. Who will be pushing for research?
It will be cheaper for the LPs to grow for the recreational market. Growing pot will not require the intense levels of attention to hygiene and oversight necessary for growing medicines. But then who will be growing medicine? Or will the LPs try to insist on growing medical cannabis too? And who gets to make the extracts?
What will prices be like? In Colorado, recreational cannabis is less expensive than medicinal, and for that reason, customers in general prefer it. Will that happen here? Will medical specialists become the industry’s poor, low profit cousins? Would that matter?
2. Then there is the liquor industry, another powerful player. The LCB, a member of BC’s formidable government employees’ union, has announced its wish to control the new recreational cannabis retail business. I would not be surprised to see the BC provincial government accept this idea, should it be handed regulating powers. The BC Liberals adore liquor. They permit independent (as opposed to government run) shops, actively promote ‘happy hour,’ and have announced that supermarkets will soon be carrying liquor.
So…would that mean some independent cannabis stores and eventually, cannabis in supermarkets? Will the province encourage a cannabis-equivalent to happy hour? What will the prices be like? Will they lure patients?
There are people for whom cannabis has provided an effective exit from alcohol excesses. Surely they should not be required to enter a liquor store in order to buy the antidote? Besides, is it keeping with public health to sell cannabis and liquor together?
3. Generally, it is a fair guess that medical cannabis will be more costly than its recreational counterpart. Many patients are on low, fixed incomes, and can barely afford what is on the market. As cannabis is a legal medicine in Canada, shouldn’t its cost be covered by provincial medical plans? Can we imagine the BC Liberals adopting this idea? I can’t. What about the provincial NDP?
4. As Dieter has pointed out, removing cannabis from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) would be a simple and effective legalizing strategy for the federal Liberals. Many of us have been calling for such a move. But if they follow this route without adding some special legislation, cannabis simply ceases to be a ‘drug,’ and is no more eligible for medical funding than are vitamins and herbs. I confess that this consequence had not occurred to me before. If no special legislation is provided, patients will remain stuck with heavy expenses, especially for the concentrated oils now used to fight cancers. To protect them, dispensaries may again have to go to court. Litigation is very expensive, and this price that would reflect itself in still higher medical costs. Will the federal Liberals consider seriously the needs of patients?
I am anxious to see, post city council licensing, what will happen to the shops that call themselves dispensaries, but do not require much, if any, medical documentation. They are a recent, but substantive, addition to the cannabis landscape. They are problematic for public relations, and are part of the reason we can’t complain when the media keeps calling medical dispensaries ‘pot shops.’ Masquerading as a medical dispensary strikes me as neither innovative nor fair. Of course, some owners will argue that they do wish to sell medicines, but do not wish to accord authority to diagnose illnesses to the medical profession. They will allow patients to diagnose themselves. I am no worshipper of MDs, but if we wish to see more respect given to medical cannabis, allowing self-diagnosis is not a good road to take. Joining hands with doctors, accepting their expertise in making diagnoses, and educating them on cannabis, will get us there much faster.
Then again, who knows what most docs are thinking? Only very few prescribe. Maybe some of the rest, or most of the rest, are hoping that, with legal cannabis available, they can step out of the picture altogether. On some days, I think they should. Such are the mind puzzles that result from attending AGMs of this kind. This one was met with wild applause, well deserved. I think I’ll try one of VCBC’s monthly meetings next.