News / Vancouver

Making medical marijuana dispensaries boring (even though they’re kind of illegal)

Imagine you have cancer. Your doctor prescribes marijuana to relieve your pain.

For those who don’t want to smoke the dried government bud or grow the plant, medical cannabis dispensaries make marijuana accessible in other forms such as baked goods, said Rielle Capler, a co-ordinator of a UBC Peter Wall Solutions Initiative project to certify dispensaries.

But dispensaries aren’t exactly legal or well understood.

In an effort to legitimize what they do in the eyes of patients, physicians, lawmakers and the public, the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries teamed up with the UBC researchers to create a certification program.

“We want to make cannabis boring,” Capler said. “That’s what running a dispensary is like – it’s not some crazy thing, it’s running a business. It’s very administrative.”

The team spent a year meeting with dispensaries across the country to come up with an exhaustive list of rules. In 2013, it will begin the certification process and hopes each of Canada’s 37 dispensaries will vie for a stamp of approval.

And the standards are, well, yawn-inducing.

They cover nitty-gritty details including how to confirm a person’s illness, where the marijuana supply comes from, how to label a product and how to train employees.

The process is like any professional organization, say of dental hygienists or pharmacists, but with one catch – it’s in a “legal grey zone,” Capler said.

Under Health Canada medical marijuana regulations, which will be updated in the next month, patients must grow their own weed, designate a grower or buy from the government’s one supplier.

Dispensaries are technically illegal, but a number of B.C. Supreme Court cases have supported them by dubbing Health Canada’s regulations unconstitutional.

The goal of certification isn’t to legalize the drug, but to provide the best, standardized care, said Jamie Shaw of the BC Compassion Club Society, an 8,500-member dispensary and wellness centre on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive.

Patients will know certified dispensaries have nothing to do with organized crime and be able to trust the quality of the cannabis, she said.

Certification will also reduce the stigma of medical marijuana use, she said.

It’s not a bunch of kids looking to score some weed – many of the members streaming into the clinic Thursday needed pain relief from conditions such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and MS.

“They’re older and might have tried smoking once as a teenager,” Shaw said. “They come in when they doctor says, ‘Maybe you should try cannabis.’”

The prices are also rock bottom compared to pharmaceuticals, so the dispensary also serves low-income people, she said.

“One thing I hear again and again is the difference this makes in patients lives.”

 Sign at the BC Compassion Club Society.

Sign at the BC Compassion Club Society.

What happens at a medical marijuana dispensary?

Step 1: Apply for a membership. People need a form signed by a doctor to get service.

Step 2: Take a number and wait. It’s exactly like a pharmacy or a doctor’s office, complete with stacks of magazines.

Step 3: Get the cannabis. A sign broadcasts the menu and a staff member doles out the person’s choice in a private booth.

Teresa's story

Vancouver resident Teresa needed 20 pills a day to function and dull her chronic pain from fibromyalgia, hip replacements and arthritis.

But after 10 years of holistic therapy and cannabis use at the BC Compassion Club Society, Teresa, 54, is down to just three pills daily.

“It really has made a big difference in my life,” she said at the wellness centre Thursday. “It helps me to function, it helps me to appreciate life.”

Teresa, who works with animals, is one of more than 30,000 Canadians that use medical marijuana dispensaries despite their tenuous legal status, according to the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.

And with the imminent release of Health Canada’s updated medical marijuana regulations, it’s people like Teresa who will be caught in the regulatory framework.

She wouldn’t give her last name because of the stigma associated with medical marijuana use – even her family doesn’t know she sometimes takes a bite of a cannabis cookie or a puff from a vaporizer to help her sleep.

“I know there’s legal problems because some people get it to use as a drug, but nothing else really helped,” she said.

But she praised the dispensary, where she accesses counselling, acupuncture and cannabis for low prices from attentive staff. (An acupuncture session costs as little as $5.)

She prefers the natural remedies and her doctor supports her cannabis use.

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