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Prescription Pot Providers

By Hempology | October 8, 2003

Victoria’s two medical marijuana outlets carry on despite raids

From Monday Magazine, October 8th, 2003

By Andrew MacLeod

On a Friday Afternoon, the Vancouver Island Compassion Society’s downtown street-front office
is lively, with half a dozen or so people taking a turn of a few minutes each in the back room
with Robin, a wiry-looking man with glasses and hair in a pony tail. Potted plants, worn
but comfortable seating, and a coffee table spread with magazines make the waiting area feel
a lot like any other alternative health clinic. but after the clients have been served and
shuffled out into the street, and after passing through the curtain for a tour, you’re hit
but a pungent, slightly skunky smell.

The four-year-old VICS provides hash and several kinds of marijuana in a variety of forms -
buds, cookies, tinctures – to some 340 members. Just a couple of blocks away, Victoria’s
other big local supplier of medical marijuana, the eight-year-old Cannabis Buyers’ Club,
formerly known as Ted’s Books, provides a similarly wide variety of products to some 1,200

Depending on a person’s illness, and how their body reacts, each finds a product that works
for them, says Phillipe Lucas, the VICS executive director. Each client has a recommendation
from a doctor saying cannabis may help with some of their symptoms, usually suggesting
it for relieving pain or nausea. The club has worked with over 100 local physicians,
which Lucas says is evidence that many front-line doctors recognize the herb’s benefits
for people with illnesses like AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis or hepatitis C.

But despite that doctor-level acceptance, the Canadian Medical Association doesn’t seem to
want physicians involved in prescribing pot, says Lucas, and Health Canada doesn’t seem
to be serious about providing access to the plant, either. The government recently released
pot from plants grown by Prairie Plant Systems in an old mine near Flin Flon, Manitoba, which
Lucas’ advocacy group, Canadians for Safe Access, charaterized as “weak, non-organic and
potentially unsafe.”

In particular, they said, the government-issue marijuana had lower levels of the active
ingredient THC than did a sample supplied by VICS. The government sample also had higher
levels of lead and arsenic. Says Lucas, “I’m recommending Health Canada stop the distribution
of this cannabis, which is only going out to a dozen people anyway, until they can show it’s

The low quality gives the impression that Health Canada is providing marijuana because the
courts say it has to, says Locas, not because it’s serious about supplying people with
marijuana as medicine.

That leaves patients with a limited choice: they can use the quasi-legal suppliers like
VICS and the CBC, or try their luck on the streets. But as Georgia Sue Winnacott-Allan, a
retired nurse who was at the Compassion Club buying medicine for her partner, says, “I
feel it’s undignified for a woman in her mid 50s to be going downtown to buy marijuana.”
For her, VICS and the CBC, where she sits on the board, are the only choice.

But even these groups have a tenuous relationship with the local police. VICS was raided
once at a previous location in Oak Bay, but they fought a landmark case that saw marijuana
and money returned to Lucas and the club in the end. Over at the CBC, where “Ted’s Books”
sign is no longer in the window, they’ve been raided a total of five times, including four
times in one six-month period.

“The police have learned it might be illegal what the club’s doing, but it’s not wrong,” says
Smith, who adds that his bail conditions – he was busted for trafficking in 2002 – prohibit
him from being directly involved in the club’s work. He’s heard things have been quieter
in the last eight months, he says, but the raids left the CBC $35,000 in debt to suppliers,
at times making it difficult to maintain the trust necessary to keep the medicine flowing
through the store.

While the CBC has had more trouble with the police, Smith says many of the problems were
brought on by clients doing “stupid things” like reselling marijuana bought at the club,
or smoking in public and then telling the cops where their pot came from.

The CBC provides marijuana to anyone who can prove they have a condition for which
Health Canada says the plant is appropriate, whether the patient has a doctor’s
recommendation or not. That belief in wide access has led to a large clientele, many
of whom liev in poverty and may not have seen a doctor in years.

“I know Ted’s organization helps out a lot of people who’re really sick, and I’d like to
see the city allow them to keep doing that,” says Lucas, who says that no matter how
careful an outlet is, you can’t control what people do once they’ve left your office.
“We know beer and cigarettes are getting out to our 16-year-olds. We’re not blaming
the retail distribution system.”

Both VICS and CBC walk a line between providing a quiet service for sick people and being
public advocates for medical marijuana, an issue that easily blurs into being
advocates for full-scale decriminalization of the plant. Yet they’ve chosen somewhat
diferent lines – Smith is more of an in-your-face activist, while Lucas positions the
VICS as a centre for research. From time to time, the two have stepped on each other’s
toes, but in the end the clubs are largely complimentary, and share similar goals. As Smith
says, “In many ways it’s good to have the two clubs, especially if [Lucas is] bugging all
the beaurocrats.”

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