There’s a constant flow of low-income people through the basement lobby of the nonprofit Eden Medicinal Society at the corner of East Pender and Main streets. After flashing compassion-club membership cards at the receptionist, these Downtown Eastside residents wait patiently before being buzzed through a locked door and into a spotless medical-cannabis dispensary. There’s not a whiff of marijuana in the air.
According to a report by Eden’s research coordinator and manager, Adolfo Gonzalez, there are approximately 2,500 members, with 250 being served each day. They have access to “a minimum of 40 strains of cannabis”—as well as superfoods, herbal remedies, and natural supplements—to help them cope with pain and other conditions.
“Right now, we’ve got the science behind us—not just the medical science,” Gonzalez tells the Georgia Straight during an interview in his office behind the dispensary. “We’ve got the social science behind us. We’re reducing crime rates. We’re reducing people consuming hard drugs and reducing their addiction to over-the-counter drugs as well.”
Dana Larsen, who manages the nonprofit Vancouver Dispensary Society, tells the Straight that there are more than 20 of these establishments in Vancouver. The first was the B.C. Compassion Club Society, which opened its doors in 1997. The Vancouver Dispensary Society, which has facilities near the corner of Thurlow and Davie streets and at 808 East Hastings Street, was created in 2008.
“After us, the floodgates opened, because we did it very publicly and openly,” Larsen says in an interview at the office of Sensible B.C.
He’s on the boards of other dispensaries, and he rattles off a list of illnesses that qualify people for medical marijuana, including AIDS, cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, various spasmodic conditions, intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s, psoriasis, eczema, and sleep disorders.
However, this growing industry is under attack on a number of fronts. In June, the N.I.C.E. Dispensary in New Westminster was raided by police. And in 2011, the Mounties shut down a dispensary in Burnaby, claiming that it was trafficking in marijuana. “We met with the mayor and one of the city councillors beforehand,” Larsen recalls. “They were superenthusiastic. All the neighbours wrote letters and said how good we were. The RCMP came in and raided us anyway. It was very arbitrary.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative government has caused an uproar by rewriting rules governing the medicinal use of pot. As of April 1, 2014, medical doctors and nurse practitioners will be the only ones allowed to prescribe cannabis, taking naturopaths, traditional-Chinese-medicine practitioners, and others out of the process. Storefront or retail operations, including dispensaries, are also not permitted under the new regulations, and according to Gonzalez’s report, there are no provisions for cannabis-based products, such as tinctures, edible goods, and creams. Personal-production licences expire at the end of March, which will force users to buy from licensed large-scale commercial producers.
“People who are currently having access at $2 or $2.50 on the gram when they’re growing it, now are going to be paying $10, minimum,” Gonzalez predicts. “In reality, when these corporate guys take control, they’re going to send things skyrocketing through the ceiling. They’re going to leave a considerable portion of the population out in the cold.”
The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act defines cannabis as a drug. This means that anyone found guilty of possession is liable for up to five years in prison. That’s a major reason why the City of Vancouver and other municipal governments won’t offer business licences for medical-marijuana dispensaries.
On the line from Barcelona, where he’s attending a conference, Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang tells the Straight that the city won’t interfere with anyone who follows established federal protocols.
“The practical approach for us is this: if you are selling marijuana and you have a licence to do so from the federal government—and if you’re selling to folks with a card or a prescription—we’re fine,” he says.
However, he mentions that he’s also receiving “lots of calls” about some medical-marijuana dispensaries. “I’m getting complaints from some parents that street touts are actually saying, ‘Come in, young kid. I can get you a card and you can buy it legally,’ ” Jang reveals. “And that’s what’s starting to get me a bit concerned. I’ve actually asked our staff to look into a number of establishments where I’ve had some reports directly from the local neighbours and parents on that.”
He later adds: “We had closed down some we know that had been selling to people without prescriptions…the VPD has investigated. They’ve shut down or moved on.”
The Vancouver Police Department’s drug policy acknowledges a need for both harm reduction and treatment but makes no mention of marijuana dispensaries. In February 2012, Cannabis Culture magazine reported that Vancouver police had conducted their first raid on a medical-marijuana dispensary—iMedikate on Renfrew Street—and two people are scheduled to appear in provincial court later this year. Linda Marlene Klokeid faces two counts of trafficking in a controlled substance and one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Her son, Mark Thomas Klokeid, is charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking.
In June, the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries launched a certification program to enhance public confidence. The association also released a 66-page document with a lengthy list of standards, which was created with the help of a Peter Wall Solutions Initiative grant to UBC researchers. Jang says it would be helpful for dispensaries to display any credentials.
Back at Eden, Gonzalez acknowledges that some dispensaries may be little more than “weed shops”. But he insists that his organization, which is licensed by the federal government for now, conducts valuable observational-research programs that can help save lives.
“For example, we’re working with ‘phoenix tears’—and, more importantly, herb resin, which is the new-and-improved version of this cannabis concentrate. which has been demonstrated in laboratory analysis to put cancerous cells into a retroactive state,” Gonzalez says enthusiastically. “It’s the only natural thing that is known to mankind to do this. So it’s very exciting work.”
He reveals that this resin is provided to cancer patients “at cost” for about $15 per gram, and he later mentions that hemp seed is an effective and healthy form of protein. “It helps you boost your white-blood-cell count, which makes it easier for you to rebuild your tissue to fend off illness.”
He also tells the story of a patient who suffered severe brain damage and lost her basic motor capabilities after falling off a six-storey building. He insists that cannabis is keeping her alive.
“She has a very negative reaction to opiates,” Gonzalez says. “If she doesn’t control her pain and her spasms, her [brain] swelling goes up and she dies.”
In addition, the compassion club collects testimonials, including the following from a member who suffers from sciatica: “If it wasn’t for Eden, I’d be down on the corner, still buying $6 rocks [of crack cocaine]. On top of smoking rock, I was taking all sorts of pills to deal with the pain from my sciatica. The drugs were not helping, and the pain was unbearable. Cannabis made my pain go away better than anything else. Because of Eden I could get good stuff that I could afford. They helped me get clean, and stay clean.”
Citing a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Gonzalez’s report notes that a “growing body of evidence supports the use of cannabis as an adjunct or substitute for prescription opiates such as methadone in the treatment of chronic pain”. That’s followed by a testimonial from another Eden client claiming that cannabis pills enabled him to reduce methadone dosage.
According to Gonzalez’s report, a majority of Eden’s staff have completed online courses with the Cannabis Training University. Eden’s operations coordinator, Rohan Gardiner, was a manager with the Green Cross Society—which tests medical marijuana—and is himself a patient under the medical-marijuana access regulations.
Dr. Evan Wood, a physician who works with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, tells the Straight by phone that there has been an “incredible proliferation of dispensaries” in California, noting that nothing of this magnitude has occurred in Vancouver.
He adds that in California, some dispensaries have been created by people with HIV who have become “huge champions” of cannabis for treating wasting syndrome and gastrointestinal problems.
“Coming from the world of HIV/AIDS, I’ve seen patients who benefit from medical cannabis,” Wood comments. “I believe if you have a serious illness and you derive benefit…and that doesn’t hurt anyone else, the government shouldn’t have a say in what you do.”
Wood is a spokesperson for Stop the Violence B.C. It’s a coalition of public-health and legal experts, academics, and law-enforcement officials who promote research on whether legalizing and strictly regulating cannabis outside of any medical context will counter organized crime and reduce marijuana access by minors.
In the meantime, Gonzalez is hoping to mobilize local politicians, including Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies and Mayor Gregor Robertson, to help Eden remain open after it loses its federal licence. He’s hoping that they, along with various academics, can help put pressure on the federal government to grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
“In reality, what we’re going to try to do is follow the same process that Insite [Vancouver’s supervised-injection site] followed to get the same kind of harm-reduction licensing,” Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez, 31, moved to Canada as a young adult from Mexico, which is being devastated by the war on drugs. During his interview with the Straight, he expresses concerns about the various societal forces, including the pharmaceutical industry, that benefit from continued marijuana prohibition. He emphasizes that doctors who refuse to prescribe marijuana are not evil people—it’s just that their training doesn’t expose them to the drug’s benefits. For that, he holds the colleges of physicians and surgeons partially responsible because they play a role in medical education.
“Oftentimes, people ask me, ‘Adolfo, why do you choose cannabis activism? There is so much activism out there. Why choose that?’ ” he says. “I answer that it connects to everything else in society—and people here don’t get it. But I come from Mexico.”