After 23 years, Vancouver’s oldest cannabis club attempts to go legal

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After the City of Vancouver’s recent court win against cannabis stores operating outside the legal retail regime, the municipal government circulated a list of nine scofflaw storefronts it was still trying to shut down.

The B.C. Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) was absent from both the court case and the list despite the fact the organization has quietly been selling the drug illegally since Jean Chrétien was prime minister.​

Spokesperson Ivy Wilson said the non-profit, which opened in 1997, has always defied the laws of the day to provide low-cost products to several thousand members who regularly walk through the doors of its nondescript location on Commercial Drive.

“We started out in a space where there was no legal framework to be selling cannabis and there wasn’t really any go-ahead to do anything that we’ve done,” she said.

The BCCCS still offers an essential service to its members, Ms. Wilson said, because many find the federal mail-order medical marijuana regime too impersonal and the products sold at the new legal recreational stores too pricey.

But now, she says, the club, which still gets its flowers and edible tinctures from local underground suppliers, sees a way it might finally go legit and end the existential threat that has always hung over it.

John Conroy, the club’s long-time counsel, said the BCCCS is trying to sidestep the mail-order medical marijuana system by applying to Health Canada for a special class of federal licence that would allow it to buy packaged products from commercial producers and have them shipped to its East Vancouver storefront.

Mr. Conroy, who led the 2016 constitutional challenge that enshrined Canadians’ right to grow medical marijuana at home, maintains BCCCS is not a recreational outlet subject to provincial cannabis retail laws because it requires its members to have a doctor’s authorization. (It also operates an adjoining wellness centre with therapies such as acupuncture and massage at heavily subsidized rates.)

Health Canada said it does not comment on individual applications.

Mr. Conroy said the club is renovating its premises to adhere to Health Canada’s standards and talking to city inspectors and B.C.’s specialized cannabis enforcement unit about its federal application.

The provincial and municipal authorities have been noncommittal on whether they will crack down on the non-profit, but Mr. Conroy chuckled when asked if his clients would sue any government in the event of fines or seizures at the club.

“I think they understand that if they do go in there and try to limit reasonable access by medically approved patients they will be violating the constitutional rights of those patients and there may be action taken,” he said.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor-General would not comment on individual cases, but said even though cannabis was legalized, companies still cannot sell medical marijuana in stores. The spokesperson added that the province’s specialized cannabis unit has visited unlicensed retailers more than 260 times since its inception last year and raided unlicensed stores in several communities.

The BCCCS has enjoyed strong support in Vancouver’s bohemian Commercial Drive neighbourhood. In 2016, those ties helped it secure approval from an independent city panel to pursue a business licence despite being closer to private schools than municipal rules allowed.

Kathryn Holm, the head of Vancouver’s licensing department, confirmed in an e-mailed statement that the city is aware of the club’s plan to become legal, but she cautioned that staying open during this process could make enemies for the non-profit in Victoria and Ottawa.

“Continuing to operate while attempting to become a legal store is at the risk of the operator with the provincial and federal government, and their end goal of obtaining a licence,” Ms. Holm’s statement said.