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A Desperate Few Risk Breaking Law To Beat Their Pain: For Cannabis Buyers, The Motive Is Chronic Illness, Not A High.

By admin | September 18, 2004

By Richard Watts
Times Colonist
September 18, 2004.

They file through the nondescript, downtown doorway every few minutes. Most of them look in rough shape, with the second-hand-clothes look that stops short of funky.

They are all here at this Johnson Street storefront seeking medical help. And they are willing to break the law, potentially risk imprisonment, to get it.

These are the members of Victoria’s Cannabis Buyers Club, an organization set up to provide a safe supply of marijuana to people with chronic medical conditions.

And if many members appear tired and short of a few dollars — the women without makeup and the men in broken-down boots — they’ll tell you it’s because they are.

Club member and counsellor Steve Pittner, who smokes marijuana to help with arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome, said it’s just reality that chronic medical conditions and disability pensions make people desperate.

So for Pittner, and every other member of the club, personal desperation outweighs legal proscription.

“People with ailments have a right to have access to this (marijuana),” said Pittner.

And he said access is driving the membership more up-market. Oak Bay matrons and Fairfield professionals are now signing up, looking for a new way to treat medical complaints.

“People are losing their fear,” said Pittner.

Inside the club’s unmarked doorway, the office looks like it could house a college students’ union. Shelves of books line several walls, notices and posters are stuck up with pins and tape and the furniture is mismatched, probably second-hand. The bathroom is at the back. Members can smoke in a puffing room, about the size of two phone booths, where there are two chairs and an ashtray.

In a separate room behind a door, the product is displayed in small jars. Each jar is coded according to growing methods — O for outdoor and I for indoor — and price. AAA is the best and A is the cheapest.

They also come with colourful names like Time Warp, 2 Happy Robots, and Heavy Duty Fruity.

A warning poster for those with allergies hangs on the wall, “Attention, edibles may contain traces of peanuts.”

According to members, the Cannabis Buyers Club now has a membership list of just over 1,700 names in Victoria, although several hundred of those names may no longer be active.

To gain a membership a person must supply written proof of a medical condition they believe might be assisted, or the symptoms alleviated, by marijuana.

Would-be members who don’t have the written proof, but are reluctant to discuss marijuana with a doctor, are advised they need not divulge anything.

But they can and should simply ask their doctor to confirm in writing they are being treated, or have been diagnosed with a particular condition. Doctors are usually willing to go that far, although club members say few are willing to advise patients to smoke anything.

Once they have supplied the proof of medical condition and are signed up, people are given the rundown on the do’s and don’ts of membership.

They are told, for example, the membership card is not a “get-out-of-jail free card.” Members cannot expect to brazenly puff a marijuana joint in public and then just flash the card at a police officer to avoid arrest.

The card cannot be lent or passed on, except to a designated caregiver. The club insists that nieces and nephews trying to sneak a puff on auntie’s card is one of their bigger headaches.

People who belong to the club say about 200 people have had their memberships revoked because they didn’t abide by the rules. Some of the saddest cases involve people who were so broke they sold their marijuana for a few extra dollars.

Once you’re inducted, club counsellors can supply advice on what sort of marijuana might best suit your needs. Members insist some strains and varieties work better for headaches, while others work better for muscular conditions.

Members unsure of what might work best for them are invited to try a small sample in a smoking room before laying in a bigger supply.

The club also offers marijuana in a variety of forms — cookies, vegan, raw-food balls, even capsules containing olive oil infused with marijuana. There are also ointments and salves to apply to the skin.

Payment depends on the cost of the marijuana product. The club maintains it is run as a non-profit organization offering help to people.

Many of the members don’t talk about the club’s legal battles. For them it really is about people with chronic medical conditions helping others with similar complaints.

Remy Campbell, 28, has a neurological condition called dystonia, which at one time had her painfully contorted by involuntary muscle contractions and in a wheelchair. The condition has been corrected by a hospital procedure and she can now dance where once she could barely move.

But she continues to help out with Cannabis Buyer’s Club.

“When I came in here I was still in a wheelchair, and it was such a boost for me to come in here,” said Campbell.

Working with the club, she said, helped turn her into a lobbying, public-speaking force trying to educate people about her condition. And so she continues to work as a councillor at the club.

“It’s really a force for good,” said Campbell. “When I sign up new members I can relate to the struggles these people are facing.”

Club member Penny May, who uses marijuana to help with arthritis and migraine headaches, said she tried a great many medications prescribed by her doctor. But few offered any lasting relief, and some came with horrible side effects.

“The last one I tried made my tongue swell up so badly I couldn’t even talk,” said the 53-year-old former realtor, now on a disability pension.

“But (now) I can wake up feeling like I can’t even face breakfast and I have two or three puffs, and I’m fine,” said May.

Ted Smith, the 34-year-old former philosophy student who founded the club, insists the organization is all about people like May. It’s a club for people who turn to marijuana for relief from medical conditions.

Smith said he and most other active members accept the risks, “We know we have a risk of incarceration for providing our services.”

Smith believes the club is on the cusp of impending changes. There will be either increased liberalization or a harsher crackdown, he said.

He and the club don’t intend to stop pushing for more liberalization, eventually full-scale decriminalization.

“Eventually we are going to put ourselves out of business.”

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