Even though B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth publicly expressed support for the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club, the provincial enforcement unit under his office’s control is trying to evict the 25 year-old compassion society from its original location at 826 Johnson St.
Staff of the non-profit dispensary, which has been selling low-cost cannabis products to patients for more than two decades, were surprised again by the most recent event in a string of enforcement actions by provincial authorities.
The move to evict the club is led by the Community Safety Unit, British Columbia’s law enforcement branch tasked with the cannabis compliance file under the Ministry of Public Safety. But just last year, department head Farnworth wrote to Victoria’s mayor voicing support for an exemption for the club to continue to operate under Canada’s cannabis laws, which its medical storefront currently contravenes.
Because of the explicit support for the club, Farnworth isn’t really in control of his bureaucracy, says VCBC founder and president Ted Smith. The cannabis activist stalwart has been organizing daily protests in front of the Ministry of Health since the eviction notice was served.
“The CSU has just independently focused on the letter of the law, and is crushing us with this eviction,” Smith said in a phone interview. “So, we have to draw the minister’s attention to this inconsistency.”
Explaining the discrepancy between Farnworth’s statements and the enforcement action, the ministry says the CSU “operates the province’s regulatory compliance and enforcement program at ‘arms-length’ and runs a complaint-driven program province-wide.”
“As noted, we have asked the federal government to take a look at better addressing the needs of medical users but it obviously remains a federal responsibility to regulate access to medical cannabis,” spokesperson Marielle Tounsi wrote in an email.
Eviction of the club would mean its members would lose storefront access to their medicine in the short term. On the other hand, its landlord Skipper Properties Ltd. could face fines up to $50,000 and jail time if the club’s lease is renewed.
“You must immediately cease allowing your premises to be used for that purpose or you may be charged with an offence under the [Cannabis Control and Licensing Act],” reads the eviction letter.
“We are hoping to get exemption from the B.C. cabinet,” Smith says. “In the absence of that, we will be filing for an injunction.” The deadline for a legal action in favour of the club is March 31, when the lease expires.
If evicted, staff plan to continue serving club members
While the club will fight to stay in its original location, staff plans to continue serving its members if the eviction is carried out.
“We certainly don’t have another retail location. If we are chased out of here, I don’t know which landlord will welcome that kind of threat,” Smith explains. “We are looking to separate our mail order and delivery, and find a safe little place to do that from, and then set up a tent five days a week and do a retail sales to the downtown core and others at city hall.”
When the City of Victoria submitted its unanimous support for the club to the province last January, councillors noted how access to medical cannabis had actually worsened since Canada legalized recreational use. The club was raided by the CSU once before and once after that meeting.
The VCBC is seeking a federal exemption from the Cannabis Act so it can legally serve its over 8,000 members, and is asking the public to write letters of support to include with its application.
Once again we are URGENTLY asking for letters of support from the #mmj community as we seek an exemption from the Cannabis Act. Please take a moment to write THIS WEEK! Read this link to learn more about what to write and to whom https://t.co/gXlGLPio6W https://t.co/gkx4ZRmXxJ
— Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club (@VCBCtweets) February 17, 2021
At the provincial level, Smith is trying to get the attention of B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix in order to support the club’s exemption in light of the worsening overdose crisis.
“The solicitor general seems to be trumping what is becoming increasingly more researched in terms of the use of cannabis versus opioids, and the safety of cannabis and the benefits of that for patients,” Smith says.
“So we want to get the minister Adrian Dix to recognize this in general, but also to work to support our exemption application with the cabinet,” he continues. “For us, it’s not only our lives, but we know that if we do this right it can change the course of medical cannabis in Canada and make things work better for patients and that is going to be better for everyone, not just the people we help here.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety says it’s unable to comment on any enforcement actions that the CSU takes in response to specific situations.
“CSU officers continue to actively follow up with unlicensed retailers in communities across B.C. and have been increasing enforcement action,” Tounsi says. “As part of these ongoing efforts and where unlicensed retailers continue to operate, the CSU has begun educating those who own or operate properties about the potential consequences for allowing their premises to be used for the sale of cannabis. This is one more tool to help disrupt the illicit cannabis market.”
Update 2021-2-19 11:20 am: This article has been updated with a statement from the Ministry of Public Safety regarding the Community Safety Unit operating at an “arm’s length” from the department.
Top image via the VCBC