Into the Breach, Part 2

(Read into the Breach Part 1)

“There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

Chris Clay

In the fall of 2014, I found myself seriously experimenting with cannabis for the first time in nearly 20 years. After a recent divorce, I had launched a quest to find myself again and wondered if cannabis might help. I had rarely used it since general anxiety disorder had descended upon me in my mid-20s… However, I discovered that the Vancouver Island Compassion Society (VICS) offered a strain relatively low in THC and high in CBD, and I felt it was worth a try. CBD Rene, a Cannabis Cup-winning strain developed by Mat Beren of House of the Great Gardener, was everything I had hoped for and more. The THC focused my ADHD-driven mind, while the CBD left me feeling grounded and calm.

Grass Clippings & Hay

During the months that followed, I made the commute from Shawnigan Lake to Victoria a number of times to test various strains from the VICS, but nothing left me feeling as calm, focused and grounded as CBD Rene. I then discovered that VICS’ founder Philippe Lucas had moved on to become a VP at Tilray, a mail order “licensed producer” operating under Health Canada’s MMPR program, and that Tilray offered several high CBD strains. Excited by the prospect of buying legal cannabis for the first time in my life, and tired of making the drive to Victoria, I visited my doctor to obtain a medical document, and in early December I eagerly logged in to Tilray’s website to place my first order.

At first, I was confused by the selection. Tilray had sent a slick orientation package that listed all kinds of strains, but the online store only listed several “house blends…. each artfully crafted by combining strains within categories.” It turns out Tilray had taken on more patients than they could supply at the time, and most strains sold out very quickly after they were posted online. However, their “+CBD House Blend” was still available, featuring “a mix of our most popular +CBD strains: Afghani CBD, Cannatonic, Sweet Skunk CBD & Warlock CBD.” That sounded incredibly promising so I promptly placed an order.

1-first-legal-shipment-underwhelming

The very next afternoon, a white Purolator Courier van arrived and delivered my first legal shipment of medicinal cannabis. Filled with anticipation, I carefully unpacked the box – stuffed with treats. They included a free grinder, rolling mat, sticker, brochures, a Christmas ornament… and a white, child-proof bottle containing 15 grams of what I hoped would become my new medicine of choice.

Cutting through the “made in Canada” seal, I gingerly opened the lid expecting to find a lovely blend of world-class cannabis. I had spent years of my life fighting to legalize cannabis, and I could hardly believe I was finally unpacking my first legal batch. Much to my chagrin, the contents looked like lawn clippings and smelled strongly like hay! Despite the unpleasant smell, I packed my vaporizer and gave it a try… I soon found myself feeling nauseous and discombobulated. It was the worst batch of cannabis I had ever seen, smelled or tasted, and the effects were very disappointing compared with my experiences with CBD Rene.

My first legal cannabis shipment looked like grass clippings and smelled like hay.

Team Tilray

Dismayed, I called Tilray’s customer support line and was told that more CBD strains were currently being grown. The new strains would be released as dried flowers instead of the “milled blend” I had been sent. In the meantime, I continued to rely on the VICS for my medicine.

Six weeks later, Tilray finally released CBD Afghani and CBD Sweet Skunk. Both strains were beautiful, fragrant, dried to perfection, and most importantly, very helpful for my ADHD without aggravating my anxiety. Even better, each batch had its THC and CBD levels clearly labeled, which helped me determine which ratios worked best for me. Tilray had redeemed themselves in my eyes, and I took to defending them on their Facebook page when other patients complained of one thing or another. For the first time in my life, I was able to order rare high-CBD strains, legally, from the comfort of my home, and have them delivered the next day. It seemed too good to be true, and unfortunately it was.

2-team-tilray

By Spring 2015, both CBD Afghani and CBD Sweet Skunk had vanished from Tilray’s menu, and my supplies were running low. Panicking, I contacted Philippe Lucas directly and he suggested I try Tilray’s newly released “Cannatonic” strain. It was higher in THC than CBD but I gave it a try anyway, only to find it made my anxiety worse. I then tried emailing Tilray’s customer service centre out of desperation. The response, simply signed “Team Tilray”, advised me that both CBD Afghani and Sweet skunk were “currently in production, though we do not yet know when exactly they will be ready for release. Please keep an eye on your e-mail for updates, as we will let you know before they are released. Have a great day!”

Meanwhile, I had booked a trip to Ontario and, based on my monthly limits under the MMPR program, I wouldn’t be allowed to order anything else from Tilray until my trip was underway. Team Tilray advised me that they could only ship to my home address, so even if I wanted to try another strain, I was out of luck until I returned home. I soon found myself in Ontario, out of medicine, with no legal way of obtaining more and no idea when my strains of choice would be back in stock.

Fateful Encounters

Returning to London, Ontario for the first time in more than a decade, I reached out to the London Compassion Society. I reconnected with old friends who were still involved with the LCS, and they were able to provide me with a high CBD strain called Swiss CBD, a rare variety bred by the Southern Humboldt Seed Collective with a high CBD:THC ratio. It tamed my anxiety better than any medication I had ever tried, and the LCS provided it to me for free because of my past activism (I was told I was part of the “honour guard.”)

My visit back to London brought up a lot of memories surrounding my decade of activism in the cannabis community, and it reminded me how my focus had eventually shifted to medicinal cannabis. After operating the country’s first hemp store from 1993 to 1997, I moved to BC’s Sunshine Coast to grow for the Compassion Club in Vancouver. Although I was on probation because of the constitutional challenge, I was very open about my activities and my garden was featured in The Nature of Things with David Suzuki and Canadian Geographic magazine along with local community newspapers. I served on the Club’s first board of directors, and for a time I worked on-site as an administrator. I also served on the VICS board of directors in its early days, when I relocated to Victoria.

I left London feeling rejuvenated and grateful, especially after finding out the LCS would continue to supply Swiss CBD to me upon my return to BC. Finally having a stable supply of high CBD / low THC cannabis provided an immeasurable boost to my overall mental health. In the months that followed, I realized that I had my mojo back; I also felt increasing stirrings of discontent as I examined the direction my life had taken. Before long, I was yearning to do something epic, and a vision for a medicinal cannabis centre in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley began to take shape.

For several months, I continued my quiet life – working from home, building websites, corresponding with clients by email… The catalyst for change came on June 22, when legendary activist and Cannabis Digest publisher Ted Smith invited me to his birthday party. In attendance were staff and administrators from various compassion clubs and dispensaries, activists, cannabis growers, and edible and concentrate producers. Fired up after connecting with so many people in the industry, I could hardly sleep that night. The next day, I resolved to put out a few feelers to see where they led.

Warmland

cannabis-digest-final2I had expected to encounter barriers of all kinds. Instead I found wide-open doors at every turn. I met with Ted privately soon after the party, and he shared both wisdom and contacts with me. Next, I retained renowned constitutional lawyer Kirk Tousaw for legal advice and backup in case of trouble; during our initial meeting, I learned that he had even done his masters thesis on my Supreme Court challenge. I met with Mat Beren, who agreed to supply his award-winning strains and seeds, including my all-time favourite, CBD Rene. I also discovered that he had developed both CBD Afghani and CBD Sweet Skunk, the lovely strains that I was occasionally able to order through Tilray. I met with Dieter MacPherson, executive director of the Victoria Cannabis Buyer’s Club, who convinced me to do a soft launch and keep things low key at first – sage advice during a time when Stephen Harper was still in power and his minions were sending cease-and-desist letters to dispensaries across the country. I met with many other people over the next few months. With only one exception, a city official in Duncan who angrily proclaimed: “dispensaries aren’t coming here,” everyone was overwhelmingly supportive as my plans coalesced.

I soon found an ideal location at the front of a mall on the Trans Canada Highway in Mill Bay, nestled in the Cowichan Valley just south of Duncan. The valley was named Quw’utsun’, or “the warm land”, by the Coast Salish people and Warmland seemed a perfect name for the shop. After a whirlwind of planning and many long days and nights, Warmland Medicinal Cannabis Centre quietly opened its doors on August 21, 2015 – exactly 60 days after Ted’s fateful birthday party. Eighteen years after closing my last shop and fifteen years after winding down my last cannabis garden, I was back.

It’s now seven months later, and Warmland has now grown to nearly 500 members. Alongside the traditional high-THC cannabis flowers and edibles, the centre also stocks a wide range of CBD infused products: honey, tinctures, capsules, baked goods, oils and more. New members are signing up daily, seeking cannabis to treat all manner of ailments – chronic pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, anxiety, sleep disorders… The list seems endless. Each day brings new stories of pain and suffering, but also of hope and healing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large portion of the members are senior citizens experimenting with cannabis for the first time – often in attempt to wean themselves from opiate painkillers. Many members are also disillusioned patients fleeing from the MMPR program, tired of the problems associated with Health Canada’s mail order system, and the large corporations seeking to monopolize the industry.

Warmland’s grand opening featured talks by Ted Smith, Kirk Tousaw and Owen Smith, who described their own Supreme Court challenge which legalized cannabis edibles and extracts. The centre also hosted the South Cowichan Chamber of Commerce’s annual Christmas Party and, more recently, the Vancouver Island chapter launch for the international networking organization Women Grow. An on-site Museum of Cannabis History is in the works, and with the courts reaffirming the rights of patients to grow their own cannabis, Warmland is expanding its selection of cannabis cultivation books and genetics.

The Heart of Access

When I first discovered the ridiculousness of Canada’s cannabis laws in the early 1990s, it seemed that change wasn’t too far off. The Liberal government was pondering decriminalization; activists were hammering away at the laws through court challenges; and cannabis culture stores soon multiplied across the country. Then came the dark times – the last, best hope for change failed in the Supreme Court of Canada, and Stephen Harper’s rise to power killed all hope of political reform for a decade. Now, Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways” are here and legalization is nigh. No one yet knows what’s going to happen when the dust settles (even pharmacies and liquor store unions are jumping on the bandwagon), but as Justice Michael Phelan wrote in the Allard decision, “dispensaries are at the heart of cannabis access.” Constitutional lawyer John Conroy agrees, signaling that: “the next fight is making sure the dispensaries are legal.” Twenty years after my first arrest for selling cannabis, I’m back in the fray to help ensure legalization is done right.