Vancouver’s Cannabis Buyer’s Club
Canada’s largest medical marijuana club is no longerunderground.
Although Canadian doctors can prescribe marijuana as a medicine, there is currently no legal way to fill the prescription. To meet the need, underground buyers’ clubs are opening across the country. In Vancouver, the Cannabis Compassion Club has gone public and has found overwhelming support.
Nestled in the heart of Vancouver’s industrial zone, on the second floor behind an abattoir, lies a hidden sanctuary for the sick and terminally ill. Referred there by doctors, friends, even the occasional police officer, these patients are flocking to the small healing center to buy a herbal remedy their pharmacies cannot stock.
Since last April, the Cannabis Compassion Club has been supplying high-quality marijuana to seriously ill patients in a safe, comfortable environment. Under the direction of 21 year-old club founder Hilary Black, a staff of volunteers sells roughly a quarter pound of medicine daily to over two hundred members with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and a host of other ailments. For members, it is a welcome alternative to seeking out black market dealers in back-alley streets.
The club’s roots date back to early 1996, when Black was working in the Hemp BC retail store. “There were always a lot of people coming in looking for information about medical marijuana, and actually looking for the herb itself,” she said. With a friend, she eventually decided to start the Vancouver Medical Marijuana Buyers’ Club, an underground delivery service “which basically consisted of a pamphlet and a pager.”
The main goal was to provide a safe, inexpensive supply of cannabis to legitimate medical users, so they could avoid the problems associated with the black market. Marijuana bought on the “street” is sometimes moldy or adulterated with other substances, which poses an extra health risk to those already seriously ill. It is also sold by profit-driven dealers who keep the prices high. “There shouldn’t be any money to be made buying cannabis on the black market and selling it to people who are sick,” says Black.
In the summer of 1996, Black left the fledgling club for Amsterdam. Landing a job at Positronics, she became involved in their medical marijuana program. She immersed herself in the network of researchers, patients and growers, and also grew close to California activist Todd McCormick, former director of the San Diego Compassionate Use Club and a medical user himself.
With the passage of Proposition 215 in November, Black and McCormick moved to California just as buyers’ clubs were starting to open all across the state. After spending the winter visiting various clubs and growing some medical herb, Black felt she was ready to establish a more permanent club in Vancouver. “Things were freeing up in California and medical marijuana activists there are a dime a dozen, yet in my hometown, nothing. It was time for me to come home and get something done.”
Upon returning to BC last April, Black founded the Cannabis Compassion Club using a friend’s office as headquarters. A month later, she had her own office and word began to spread among doctors and patients. Instead of an underground delivery service, the new club provided a supportive social environment where members could buy small amounts of marijuana and have a common place to meet eachother.
By summer, about 100 members had joined the Compassion Club and the media became interested. Starting with two articles in the Vancouver Sun, the club’s activities have since garnered national coverage including stories by CBC radio and television, CTV News, Chatelaine Magazine, and The Ottawa Citizen.
With the newfound attention, things began to snowball and in August the club moved into its present location on Commercial Drive. It’s expanding fast, and there are now more than 200 members.
To keep up with the growth, Black is having to dedicate an increasing amount of time simply trying to locate consistent supplies of marijuana. She insists on buying only high-quality cannabis that is potent and properly cured. Though it’s occasionally donated, most of the herb is currently purchased from BC growers, often for top dollar.
The biggest problem has proven to be US dealers, who are flocking to BC for its world-renowned pot and reselling it south of the border to reap tremendous profits. “They’re my biggest competition,” Black says. “Americans are driving the prices up.”
Cannabis is certainly the focal point, but the Compassion Club has evolved into an alternative healing center, providing counseling, massage, Reiki and other therapies to clients that are generally disenchanted with Western medicine. Black says the club is “more about compassion than it is about cannabis.” Patients themselves are actively involved, and a large support network has developed.
It’s difficult to believe that the entire operation is illegal under Canada’s drug laws, and that both staff and patients potentially face years in prison if arrested. Though the debate over medical marijuana seems to have finally reached Ottawa (see following article), the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act does not contain any special provisions for therapeutic use of marijuana, and selling any amount of cannabis remains a criminal offence.
Fortunately, the Compassion Club has attracted widespread support from the public, certain politicians, and a number of diverse organizations. As a result, police have adopted a “hands off” approach.
The day after the Vancouver Sun ran its
initial story on the club, city police media liaison Constable Anne Drennan announced the club would be left alone as long as it wasn’t selling for profit or to children. “We’re really not interested. It doesn’t cause us any kind of concern,” she said.
A week later, Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry, herself a doctor, acknowledged her support and told the Ottawa Citizen, “I think it has been shown that there have been some really good clinical outcomes of using marijuana for terminal diseases.” She continued, “We have skirted the issue. It’s time for the debate.”
While Parliamentarians finally begin tackling the issue in Ottawa, thousands of seriously ill patients, with a nod and a wink from their doctors, will continue to risk criminal penalties by seeking marijuana. Activists like Hilary Black will continue to break the law by providing it to them.
Bruce Rowsell, director of Health Canada’s Bureau of Drug Surveillance, tried to discourage medical use of marijuana during a debate on CBC television. “There is anecdotal data, and a lot of it, about the medical uses of marijuana,” said Rowsell. “Unfortunately, none of this has been based on scientific studies.”
However, Rowsell has since acknowledged that the Canadian government hasn’t spent a dime on researching the issue since the 1972 Ledain Commission report.
Can’t say no
Black is more determined than ever to continue, as she has seen the medical benefits of marijuana first hand, in hundreds of people. AIDS patients, fighting wasting syndrome, begin to gain weight. Cancer chemotherapy patients lose their nausea and actually regain their appetites. Patients from all walks of life, who are sick and often dying, are seeking a natural herb that will provide some form of relief. They don’t want to be told to wait for more research, they just want their medicine.
“You can’t say no,” Black says. “You can’t deny medicine to a person who needs it.”
Contact the Cannabis Compassion Club
The Compassion Club, Little Italy Postal Outlet, Box 21550 Vancouver, BC V5N 5T5; tel (604) 258-7458
Want to help the Compassion Club? Donations of buds, leaves or dollars are always needed and appreciated.