Skip to main content

Staff member Ivy Wilson, left, holds the door for a member at the B.C. Compassion Club Society in Vancouver on March 2, 2020.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver’s oldest compassion club has ended 25 years of illegally selling potent products to thousands of its members, shuttering one of the last storefronts left in Canada offering people cheap cannabis in a quasi-medical setting.

The B.C. Compassion Club Society – which quietly sold flower and edible tinctures from underground suppliers – offered personalized face-to-face consultations and specific products that patients often want but can’t get from Canada’s medical marijuana system, in which medicine is mailed directly to people, or from licensed recreational stores.

Medical experts, patient advocates and producers say a core goal of Ottawa’s upcoming review of the 2018 legalization of the drug should be to strengthen the medical-marijuana system by enabling storefront sales of some kind, but they remain skeptical this will happen.

Last week, federal ministers announced the mandated review of the Cannabis Act would be completed by an independent panel over the next year and a half. One of the core goals is to determine “whether all elements of the medical framework are required to maintain reasonable access to cannabis for patients,” Health Canada said in a news release.

Lauren Kelly, clinical trial director at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, wants Ottawa to allow medical cannabis to be sold in pharmacies, which would make it much more accessible to patients who, under current federal laws, have to order online directly from a licensed producer.

“Who’s better positioned to talk about drug interactions than a pharmacist?” asked Dr. Kelly, who estimated there may be as many as 5,000 Canadian children using the drug for medical purposes.

She said families of severely epileptic children using cannabis often buy from licensed recreational stores when medical cannabis companies discontinue or sell out of the products that help with their seizures.

“They go in and say, ‘Here’s what I’m using, what do you think I should use next?’” Dr. Kelly said. “They’re not actually talking to a physician or a pharmacist or someone who might be able to better advise on a comparable product without that kind of bias of, ‘Oh well, we only sell 10 products, so please pick one of these 10 – they’re definitely the best.’”

Rachel Colic, a consultant for Nova Scotian medical cannabis producer Aqualitas and member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s National Cannabis Working Group, said federal data show nearly 100,000 people have let their prescriptions lapse since the dawn of legalization, leaving roughly a quarter of a million registered cannabis patients.

Over the past four years, most licensed producers have shifted away from catering to these customers, radically diminishing the supply of medical strains and products and further pushing patients to buy at retail shops, Ms. Colic said.

Patients who live in areas without licensed stores – nearly 100 municipalities across Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia according to a recent Globe and Mail investigation – often turn to illicit sources, she added.

Ivy Wilson, a spokesperson for the defunct Vancouver compassion club, said many medical cannabis patients have lost income because of their chronic conditions and can’t afford the prices at legal retailers offering weaker products.

For example, she said, the club was selling a small bottle of CBD oil with about 3,000 milligrams of the compound for $115, while similar products on offer through recreational retailers are less than half the price but at least 100 times less concentrated.

The compassion club was able to offer its members such low prices because underground farmers and processors supplied these products while not making much profit.

“A lot of the market that has been deemed illegal and has been deemed criminal is the work of a lot of people who are trying to give those folks some kind of support,” she said of the suppliers.

Before closing, the non-profit tried to acquire a special Health Canada licence to sell products from licensed commercial producers directly to its members at its nondescript storefront in Vancouver’s bohemian Commercial Drive neighbourhood. That effort failed, Ms. Wilson said, because the compassion club could not afford the upward of half a million dollars needed to renovate the site to meet the federal agency’s security standards.

In an e-mailed statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General acknowledged that it was always going to be difficult for the province to transition away from being the centre of Canada’s illicit cannabis market to part of a legal industry. But, the statement said, the special provincial team formed to crack down on the underground cannabis economy has seized approximately $31-million in product and shut down 186 unlicensed retailers. It has also “successfully disrupted” two thirds of the 1,047 illicit cannabis websites it has investigated, the ministry said.

The BC Craft Farmers Co-op which represents more than 200 small- and medium-sized cannabis producers and processors on the West Coast who are licensed or trying to get licensed by Health Canada, issued two statements after the announcement of the federal review. It criticized the government’s heavy-handed penalties that have persisted past legalization.

“Ottawa’s current cannabis licensing system has barely transitioned 100 of BC’s legendary craft farmers to the legal system in almost 4 years of legalization,” the group said in a news release. “There are thousands of great farmers ready to create jobs in the legal market but the system has kept them out.”