Difference Makers: Jamie Shaw on dispensaries, access, and cannabis as treatment

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      This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.

      Long before she served as an expert witness in the landmark case that saw a federal judge rule that Canadians have a constitutional right to grow their own medical marijuana, it was the unexpected advice of a doctor that led Jamie Shaw to visit a compassion club for the first time.

      The lobbyist, writer, and communications expert has spent almost 20 years in the cannabis industry, working to create more streamlined access to marijuana, both locally and nationally. Seated across from the Straight at a West Broadway cafe, Shaw remembers the day she tried to keep a straight face when her doctor said pot might be the solution to what she was experiencing at the time.

      “I would get these attacks out of nowhere, and I didn’t know what they were,” she recalls. “He would try me on different pills like Prozac or Ativan, and they would either not work, or I was a zombie staring at the wall, and when you’re me who’s used to doing a million things, that wasn’t cool.”

      A ‘million’ might be an exaggeration, but over the years, Shaw has certainly had her fingers in more pies than she can count, and she says she wouldn’t have it any other way. Though she thought it ridiculous at the time, her doctor diagnosed her with anxiety. Now, Shaw credits the condition as one of the reasons she’s able to function at such a high level.

      Shaw has previously served  as a director, board member, and spokesperson of the B.C. Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) as well as the president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), but these days, she deals with government relations for MMJ Canada, where she works with regulators to develop reasonable frameworks for businesses in the cannabis industry.

      She’s also a writer for Lift and CanLio, and was the founding vice-chair of the Vancouver chapter of Women Grow, an organization for female entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

      After stepping down from her roles at BCCCS and CAMCD, Shaw played a huge part in the development of dispensary regulations in both Vancouver and Victoria, acting as a consultant to both cities.

      While she says the regulations are not perfect, she’s most proud of her contribution to a framework that seems to outpace every other city in the country.

      “Sure, there are issues with them, but when you look at Toronto or Kingston or anywhere else, the only reason I think dispensaries even really have a chance right now is because of the Vancouver and Victoria models,” she says.

      The licensing process has proven to be a challenging hurdle for many dispensaries to overcome, but Shaw remains committed.

      “I’ve been helping people get through the [licensing] process, so if they get rejected and go to the board of variance, I’ve been representing a lot dispensaries there,” she says.u

      She calls the regulations “a work in progress”, and admits there is work to be done with regard to the supply chain, but what she’d like to see ahead of Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposed legalization has less to do with dispensaries, and more to do with the social aspect and culture that comes with cannabis.

      “I’d like to see Vancouver have a head start on vapour lounges, edibles, and cafes,” she says. “These things have been developed, and the city could learn from these models now while they’re trying to figure out how to do these things in the future.”

      Shaw says another avenue that should be explored with regard to cannabis is its ability to be used as an opiate replacement, and with no end in sight to the fentanyl crisis, she says it’s one worth considering sooner rather than later.

      “We know that cannabis can be used as an opiate replacement, and I would like to see programs working with Insite, going a step further, where we are not just saying, ‘try to get off these harmful drugs’, but using cannabis to help people do that,” she says.

      One of the greatest problems with access, Shaw says, is that the College of Physicians continues to advise people that cannabis isn’t appropriate for certain conditions, including anxiety and addiction.

      “We’ve got the College saying that if someone has any kind of addictive issues, they shouldn’t be prescribed cannabis—so all of the people that used it to quite smoking, and all of the people that used it to quit drinking, or to get off of opiates, should not have been allowed to have it? It’s a very strange position for them to take,” she says.

      Despite these sentiments, Shaw has seen firsthand the way access to medical cannabis has positively affected people's lives.

      “When I worked at the compassion club, one day a week, I’d work at the desk and serve on the front lines, and you’d hear a new story every day,” she recalls.

      “But I’ve also seen it with my dog, who couldn’t walk and got another year and half of quality life from tinctures, or my relative who had been over-prescribed opiates in the United States and had major issues with her heart and her liver because of it. Now she’s on pot cookies.”

      It’s these, and other success stories, that have kept Shaw in the industry for so long.

      “I like being on the front lines of something, and doing things that are pushing boundaries, and when you see the difference that it can make in people’s lives, it’s phenomenal.”

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