Looking back at past fifteen years with the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada

By Ted Smith

Fifteen years ago it occurred to me that society had created a medical emergency.

The proposed goals of prohibition were health, peace, and prosperity. After decades of enforcement and lies, the war on drugs has dramatically hurt our ability to function as one big, happy family. A cry for change was ringing in the air. A cry for freedom was resonating on the streets. A cry for help was faintly heard from the hospital beds. A cry for a sense of community was shared among the desperate.

Things became clear to me soon after I moved to expand Hempology 101 from Vancouver to Victoria in Sept. of 1995. Hanging out in the Sacred Herb, I met many sick people who used cannabis. Though I really got involved to help make hemp legal for my family to grow, the very real needs of the seriously ill became impossible to ignore.

Denis Peron started the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club in 1994—the first medical dispensary in the world. People infected with AIDS were dying quick and ugly deaths from the disease and/or the experimental drugs they were being given. After losing his partner to AIDS, Denis put the gauntlet down and paved the way for clubs to open across California.

One day in the fall of 1995, I met a lady at the Sacred Herb who made cannabis cookies and skin products, and learned she was helping people with AIDS. My mind reeled with the medical possibilities of these alternatives. Many evenings were spent discussing what kind of a club should be formed, ideally and practically.

Under the circumstances, getting busted was considered inevitable. If the club was to be successful, we had to make sure we only provided services to people suffering from serious medical problems or the police would bust us, media would ridicule us, and judges condemn us as glorified drug dealers.

With few medical cannabis court decisions to consider, the right to provide an abortion based upon medical necessity, fought for by Dr. Henry Morgentaler, was used as the legal foundation for our work. Basing our mandate upon the Morgentaler decision, several legal opinions and our understanding of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we determined membership would be extended to people with proof of a doctor’s diagnosis of an incurable disease or permanent, physical pain.

Forming a cooperative association to legally provide medicine has always been the goal of the club, though we are waiting to get a license to operate first. A board will likely consist of two growers, two members, and two staff (each voted upon by their peers), combined with three directors-at-large (doctors, lawyers, educators, etc.), for a total of nine.

Until the day comes that we can legally incorporate the group without fear of arrest, the International Hempology 101 Society is providing a means to educate the public, and providing basic infrastructure like a phone and pamphlets.

A pamphlet was printed with no more than a pager number as contact info. With a bike to ride in town and a van/home to deliver with elsewhere, my life took a turn for the better when we officially started the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club in Jan. 1996.

Being a homeless, loudmouth, heat-score presented certain challenges. Having no money, I would first visit the member to get the cash, then go find someone with good herb, returning with the medicine as soon as possible. For the first few months I actually refused to charge above what I was paying, partly because my basic needs were taken care of by living in a van and eating in soup kitchens, partly because the sick people I was meeting were generally poor, partly because I figured donations from the industry would support me, and partly because everyone was so kind to me—smoking me joints, feeding me, offering me clothes, places to stay, etc. After a few months, it became clear that if the club was to grow beyond its meager beginnings, I would need to charge more than cost.

Many people were getting involved in the cannabis movement in the mid-1990s. Hemp stores were opening across the country, with new products showing up every week, and the history uncovered by Jack Herer in The Emperor Wears no Clothes was becoming public knowledge. Providing education and medicine seemed ideal areas to focus on. After showing the new Victoria CBC of C pamphlet to the Vancouver Hempology 101 chapter in Jan. 1996, I encouraged them to do the same. Hillary Black was selling herb to sick people out of the back of Hemp BC at the time, but did not use any formal name for her enterprise. As word got out about her work and demand grew, Hillary decided to partner with a young name, Theo, and follow my lead. With a pamphlet and a contact number, the Vancouver Medical Marijuana Buyers’ Club was formed.

Activists in Toronto found out that medical cannabis distributors were openly operating in B.C. A short-lived group formed in the summer of 1996. By Dec. 1996, Cannabis As Living Medicine officially declared its existence in Toronto, still under the leadership of Neev Taperio. A few months later, in Apr. 1997, the Toronto Compassion Center opened just outside the downtown core, with Dominic Cramer as (and still) captain of that ship.

Not all medical cannabis clubs that started have survived. The original flagship, the San Francisco CBC was raided by police and shut down. Of course, many clubs sprung up all over California when the San Francisco CBC disbanded, and activists focused towards legalizing medical cannabis across the entire state with Prop 215 in 1996.

In the spring of 1996, a member of the club, Kathleen Cherrington, invited me to sell medicine from her apartment in the afternoon, leaving me the evening to do deliveries. Soon after setting the club up at her place, she had to move. So, I moved out of my van into the tiny apartment on Johnson St.

That fall, Hillary left for Europe and California, taking a break from managing Hemp BC before returning in the spring of 1997 to find no medical club operating in Vancouver. With Hillary at the helm, the BC Compassion Club Society began selling medicine in May 1997.

Having started the club for sick people with the hope it could look after itself without me, I was very happy when Phil Lucas appeared ready to get a storefront and take things to the next level. We changed the name of the club to the Vancouver Island Compassion Club, though it did not last long.

After several months of planning, Phil finally told me that when he opened the store members of the club would have to have a form signed recommending the use of cannabis as medicine, but clearly the majority of the people I was selling medicine to would not have been able to get these forms signed by their doctors. This was not acceptable to me, and I decided to keep the CBC of C CBC of C alive. Phil founded the Vancouver Island Compassion Society in Oct. 1999.

One year later, a series of arrests shook things up. The VICS was raided and moved to downtown, then I was arrested at the University of Victoria for sharing a handful of joints (Nov. 8, 2000), and then again one week later on International Medical Marijuana Day for giving out 420 cookies. These arrests brought more attention to my work, bringing new members through the door daily.

At around 4:20 on a Friday in Mar. 2001, Victoria police raided the apartment building. Unable to get a warrant for me because I was running a medical club, the police busted someone else selling pot downstairs and told me that I should get a store.

We did deliveries over the weekend, and saved money for rent. By Tues. I had the keys to 826 Johnson St. With no power the first day, we sold herb by candlelight with no more than two folding chairs and a coffee tray for furniture. Though I had met about 400 sick people in the first five years, the club was pretty small, at least compared to now. Our landlord felt the need to have a legitimate business in the main part of the store, so on Apr. 1, 2001 we opened Ted’s Books—the best April Fools joke I have played to date. From there, the club blossomed.

For a time we also had a branch operating in Coombs—a town in the middle of the island. John Cook soon came on board, opening a chapter of the CBC of C in Halifax, in 2002. He still does deliveries.

The storefront was raided by the police four times between Jan. 2002 and Feb. 2003. After the third raid I ran for mayor, figuring it would at least give me something to do in jail. The club continued to operate every single day through the raids—getting back to work as soon as everyone was out of jail.

During these times I was put down by other cannabis activists as being no more than a back alley drug dealer selling bad drugs for profit. I was threatened. I was assaulted. I was robbed. My girlfriend at the time became seriously depressed from the pressure. Sales dropped, and I was forced to cut staff.

Petitioning City Hall to support us by giving us a business license and to meet with Health Canada paid off. Though we did not get an actual license to operate, the city wrote a letter condemning the MMAR. NDP MP Denise Savioe and NDP MLA Rob Fleming were our two greatest supporters on council at the time.

When we were in court, every single charge was beaten, one way or another, starting in the fall of 2004. In my first trial, I convinced Justice Chaperon that we were not in this for profit because the guy who brought the police to our door did it out of vengeance for being cut off for buying for someone else.

Since that time, our club has turned into a dream come true, though there are many things yet to do and improvements to be made. After being thrown into debt $80,000 we finally turned things around and were about $20,000 ahead by the fall of 2009. This allowed us to expand upon the number of benefits the staff and members could take advantage of, including dropping our prices twice, and giving paid vacations.

We bought a car to start delivering medicine to people living up Island, under the impression that there were no other clubs at all except the two in Victoria. A lot of money was also spent trying to create a research project, resulting in the International Hempology 101 Society being drawn into labour relations on Sept. 11, 2009, resulting in a great deal of wasted time and energy.

Many staff hours have been devoted to fighting the Conservative government’s proposed mandatory minimum jail sentence laws—Bills C-26, C-15, and now S-10. For a while we had too many staff working at the club, too, the combined result forcing the club back $40,000 in debt.

We also had our bakery get raided in Dec. 2009, then used the empty apartment for a few months after trying to assemble as many of the newly acquired Cultivation Games as possible.
The club now has 29 food and skin products, many of which are not available anywhere else in the world. Our small smoking room gives members a chance to socialize, making the space feel almost like a college fraternity for normal people struggling with extra-ordinary challenges.

Managing the CBC of C has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Now, with about 3,400 active members, the CBC of C has grown beyond my wildest dreams. I am humbled at the respect shown to me by members and the community in general. Knowing that the CBC of C is the oldest operating medical dispensary in the world, fills me with pride and amazement. Thanks to everyone who has helped out along the way.