Sarah Leamon: Heavy-handed B.C. government cannabis enforcement punishes Vancouver medicinal users

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By now, many of us have the seen footage from the scene of an unlicensed dispensary raid that happened yesterday in Vancouver’s West End. 

The Medical Cannabis Dispensary, located on Thurlow Street, was the site of an unpleasant police visit yesterday morning, around 10:00 a.m., when officers attended the store and cleared out the shelves. 

Dana Larsen, who owns the shop and is an otherwise well-known cannabis activist, told journalists that he is compliant with all city bylaws and regulations.

He says that his shop is in the process of transitioning into the legal system. 

The Medical Cannabis Dispensary has been in operation—without issue—for nearly a decade. 

The raid was conducted by officials from the province and under the authority of the provincial government.

Under its jurisdiction, product was seized and transported off site, unavailable to patients who waited outside, some of whom were clearly in distress. 

But this isn’t the first-time pot shops have been shut down and dispensaries have been raided. The struggle to stay open has played itself out dramatically over recent months, even reaching itself into forums such as B.C. Supreme Court.  

And progress has been grim. 

Dana Larsen talks to reporters after a raid on the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary on Thurlow Street.

Appeals to the court have been largely unsuccessful. In December 2018, more than 50 dispensaries were ordered to close their doors after the City of Vancouver filed injunctions to shut them down. 

For well over a year, existing cannabis dispensaries struggled to bring themselves into compliance under new laws. Many have described the process as drawn-out, difficult, and expensive.  

While some retailers have been scared into voluntarily shutting their doors as they transition from the gray zone into the legal scheme, others have remained open, taking their chances in order to continue supplying medicine to patients in need. 

But the risk they take is enormous.  

The provincial government is authorized to hand down fines of up to $100,000 to store owners caught selling cannabis without a provincial licence. Jail time is also not out of the question. 

While onerous penalties may be required in order to force compliance under a newly enacted legal scheme, there is a ripe sense of irony in sending retailers to jail for nonviolent cannabis offences in an era of streamlined pardons and legal weed. 

What’s more, medicinal cannabis patients need medicinal cannabis. Without access to their medicine, they suffer. 

Access means more than simply having a store to purchase a product in. 

Access means speaking to a trusted expert, who can provide insight, guidance, and advice about which medicine is best for which patient. It means having a variety of products available, designed to address specific symptoms and needs. 

Access means options.

It also means affordability. 

Many cannabis patients find themselves in precarious employment situations, unable to work due to chronic pain or debilitating illness. Many are aged and living on fixed incomes. 

This often means that the cannabis products available to them at licensed dispensaries are inadequate, cost-prohibitive, and unproven, which translates into cannabis patients either experiencing gaps in treatment or going without altogether. 

With the soaring cost of living in the Lower Mainland, an ongoing housing crisis, and a public health crisis claiming the lives of thousands, the thought of denying patients their medicine by shutting down their trusted pharmacies is nothing short of shameless. 

Although the law is squarely on the government's side in terms of raiding dispensaries and fining owners, that doesn’t automatically make its approach morally justifiable.

The manner in which our province has profited from, tolerated, and even assisted cannabis dispensaries prior to legalization sits in stark contrast to the newly acquired aggressive—and quite frankly, unethical—approach to cannabis enforcement. 

All in all, it comes back to that age-old notion—just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.

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