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Victoria's Two Medical Marijuana Outlets Carry On Despite

On a Friday afternoon, the Vancouver Island Compassion Society's
downtown street-front office is lively, with half a dozen or so people
taking a turn of a few minutes each in the back room with Robin, a
wiry-looking man with glasses and hair in a pony tail. Potted plants,
worn but comfortable seating, and a coffee table spread with magazines
make the waiting area feel a lot like any other alternative health
clinic. But after the clients have been served and shuffled out into
the street, and after passing through the curtain for a tour, you're
hit by a pungent, slightly skunky smell.

The four-year-old VICS provides hash and several kinds of marijuana in
a variety of forms--buds, cookies, tinctures--to some 340 members.
Just a couple of blocks away, Victoria's other big local supplier of
medical marijuana, the eight-year-old Cannabis Buyers Club, formerly
known as Ted's Books, provides a similarly wide variety of products to
some 1,200 clients.

Depending on a person's illness, and how their body reacts, each finds
a product that works for them, says Philippe Lucas, the VICS executive
director. Each client has a recommendation from a doctor saying
cannabis may help with some of their symptoms, usually suggesting it
for relieving pain or nausea. The club has worked with over 100 local
physicians, which Lucas says is evidence that many front-line doctors
recognize the herb's benefits for people with illnesses like AIDS,
cancer, multiple sclerosis or hepatitis C.

But despite that doctor-level acceptance, the Canadian Medical
Association doesn't seem to want physicians involved in prescribing
pot, says Lucas, and Health Canada doesn't seem to be serious about
providing access to the plant, either. The government recently
released pot from plants grown by Prairie Plant Systems in an old mine
near Flin Flon, Manitoba, which Lucas' advocacy group, Canadians for
Safe Access, characterized as "weak, non-organic and potentially unsafe."

In particular, they said, the government-issue mari-juana had lower
levels of the active ingredient THC than did a sample supplied by
VICS. The government sample also had higher levels of lead and
arsenic. Says Lucas, "I'm recommending Health Canada stop the
distribution of this cannabis, which is only going out to a dozen
people anyway, until they can show it's safe."

The low quality gives the impression that Health Canada is providing
marijuana because the courts say it has to, says Lucas, not because
it's serious about supplying people with marijuana as a medicine.

That leaves patients with a limited choice: they can use the
quasi-legal suppliers like VICS and the CBC, or try their luck on the
streets. But as Georgia Sue Winnacott-Allan, a retired nurse who was
at the Compassion Club buying medicine for her partner, says, "I feel
it's undignified for a woman in her mid-50s to be going downtown to
buy marijuana." For her, VICS and the CBC, where she sits on the
board, are the only choice.

But even these groups have a tenuous relationship with the local
police. VICS was raided once at a previous location in Oak Bay, but
they fought a landmark case that saw marijuana and money returned to
Lucas and the club in the end. Over at the CBC, where the "Ted's
Books" sign is no longer in the window, they've been raided a total of
five times, including four times in one six-month

"The police have learned it might be illegal what the club's doing,
but it's not wrong," says Smith, who adds that his bail conditions--he
was busted for trafficking in 2002--prohibit him from being directly
involved in the club's work. He's heard things have been quieter in
the last eight months, he says, but the raids left the CBC $35,000 in
debt to suppliers, at times making it difficult to maintain the trust
necessary to keep the medicine flowing through the store.

While the CBC has had more trouble with the police, Smith says many of
the problems were brought on by clients doing "stupid things" like
reselling marijuana bought at the club, or smoking in public and then
telling the cops where their pot came from.

The CBC provides marijuana to anyone who can prove they have a
condition for which Health Canada says the plant is appropriate,
whether the patient has a doctor's recommendation or not. That belief
in wide access has led to a large clientele, many of whom live in
poverty and may not have seen a doctor in years.

"I know Ted's organization helps out a lot of people who're really
sick, and I'd like to see the city allow them to keep doing that,"
says Lucas, who says that no matter how careful an outlet is, you
can't control what people do once they've left your office. "We know
beer and cigarettes are getting out to our 16-year-olds. We're not
blaming the retail distribution system."

Both VICS and the CBC walk a line between providing a quiet service
for sick people and being public advocates for medical marijuana, an
issue that easily blurs into being advocates for the full-scale
decriminalization of the plant. Yet they've chosen somewhat different
lines--Smith is more of an in-your-face activist, while Lucas
positions the VICS as a centre for research. From time to time, the
two have have stepped on each other's toes, but in the end the clubs
are largely complementary, and share similar goals. As Smith says, "In
many ways it's good to have the two clubs, especially if [Lucas is]
bugging all the bureaucrats."

Pubdate: Thu, 09 Oct 2003
Source: Monday Magazine (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003 Monday Publications
Contact: editorial@monday.com
Website: http://mondaymag.com/monday/