Vancouver dispensary operator says legalization fails medical cannabis users

According to Dana Larsen, medical users pay more for product that’s harder to find

cannabis dispensary medical dispensaries

Dana Larsen says medical patients have trouble gaining access to the right weed because legalization prioritizes recreational use. Photo by Dana Larsen.

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Long-time Vancouver cannabis dispensary operator Dana Larsen sees some benefits from Canada legalizing weed in 2018. But he believes the way the federal, provincial, and municipal governments have rolled it out is having a detrimental impact on medical cannabis users.

“They seem to have been forgotten,” Larsen told CannCentral in a recent phone interview. “Legalization seems to be more about making money and cashing in and big business and stocks.”

Larsen is a director of the Vancouver Dispensary Society, which does business as the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary. He insisted that since October 2018, Canadian patients have encountered more difficulty obtaining access to medical cannabis.

“Doctors are even less willing to prescribe now since they say it’s legal,” Larsen noted.

In addition, he pointed out that legal shops don’t focus on medical marijuana.

“It’s been very clear,” he said. “They only sell recreational cannabis.”

In fact, he stated that private licensed cannabis retailers are forbidden from offering medical advice or assistance in this area.

Moreover, according to Larsen, medical users fork out more money for legal cannabis than before legalization. That’s due to a $1 per gram tariff.

“So medical users are paying for their cannabis with new taxes,” he said. “It’s harder to get. And there are restrictions on things like potency and THC content.”

More medical dispensaries open in Vancouver without licences

Larsen also maintained that licensed producers are focusing on the recreational market. As a result, that’s created shortages of medical cannabis.

“They’re not putting medical patients first,” Larsen declared. “I read a lot of people on Twitter and other social media complaining they signed up with a licensed producer. And now that producer is continually running out of products. That’s because they’re providing it for the broader market and not holding onto it for their patients.”

In the meantime, the Community Safety Unit within the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General has been cracking down on medical dispensaries operating without provincial retail store licences. Last October, the CSU raided the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, generating a significant amount of media coverage.

“We reopened the next day,” Larsen said.

He’s observed more dispensaries without provincial licences opening in Vancouver since a new council came to power in 2018. In his opinion, it’s because municipal restrictions and the provincial government have prevented enough legal dispensaries to meet demand.

“The risks are not that great if you’re brave enough to stand up,” Larsen said. “Nobody is going to jail for medical cannabis—or for dispensaries.

“Some people have been fined but fines are very hard to collect,” he added. “So I think they’ve really missed an opportunity.”

Due to COVID-19, the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary adjusted operations, only allowing takeout service for those who place orders in advance.

Judge rules in favour of medical cannabis supplier

However, a June ruling in another western province has given Larsen hope.

In a case against businessman Shaun Howell in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, the accused won a constitutional challenge. This came after the Crown charged him with unlawfully growing around 700 plants and trafficking in cannabis.

Justice Robert Graessner ruled that Howell “is entitled to grow and possess marijuana for his personal medical needs”. That’s because federal limitations on THC concentration violate the guarantee to “liberty and security of the person” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Howell swore an affidavit that he used cannabis for medical purposes, plus he supplied it to a woman named Lisa Kirkman. In turn, Kirkman swore an affidavit that it was for herself and her son as “patients”.

In addition, Howell’s partner, Sarah Wilkinson, swore an affidavit describing how her daughter’s struggle with Ohtahara syndrome was alleviated with cannabis use. Various medical experts also swore affidavits in the case.

“Mr. Howell’s affidavit speaks to the high cost of medical cannabis from LPs, noting the average price of a gram of LP cannabis is about $10,” Graessner wrote in his decision. “He believes that a number of patients are of limited financial means, often living on public assistance, and gave the example of one of his ‘patients’, a person with autism who was on public assistance, sometimes homeless and sometimes living with his family.

“That patient required 20 grams of cannabis per day to treat his autism symptoms and he simply could not afford to pay for it,” the judge continued. “Mr. Howell says that he provided this person with 20 grams of cannabis per day at no cost, stating that his added cost of doing so was small.”

Larsen says deficiencies in access harm medical users

For his part, Larsen said that the federal government introduced potency and THC limits in an arbitrary manner. And he feels that they shouldn’t apply to anybody, and especially not to medical cannabis users.

“The deficiencies in the medical-access system sort of give us an opening to fill that tap in a legal way,” Larsen said. “And the courts have been quite sympathetic to that.

“As long as the governments and courts acknowledge that cannabis is a beneficial and useful medicine—and that people are not able to properly access it through the legal system—that gives sort of legal justification for us and other dispensaries to provide it to the people in that manner.”

He ended the interview by noting that while he’s proud of his dispensary, he is looking forward to the day when it will no longer be needed.

“I would be happy to shut down…if the legal system was providing better quality and lower prices to our patients,” Larsen noted. “But I feel, unfortunately, that this is still a long, long way away.”

Charlie Smith

I'm the editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver, as well as a CannCentral contributor.

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