Original Published 23:28 Apr 22, 2022

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Despite years taking opiates prescribed for her pain, Julia Veintrop never found relief more effective and lasting than a potent cannabis  cookie.

Since diagnosis in 2009 at  age 21, Veintrop underwent seven laparoscopic surgeries to treat her  advanced cervical cancer and was dealing with debilitating residual pain  from cervical dysplasia and endometriosis.

Doctors had first prescribed her OxyContin  for the pain and then switched her to methadone. But Veintrop was trying  to taper off from methadone due to the short relief and frustrating  side effects.

Then she stopped by the Victoria Cannabis  Buyers Club in a storefront off Blanshard Street in Downtown Victoria.  Veintrop had heard about the club as a teen attending Hempology 101  meetings on Wednesday nights in the city’s Beacon Hill Park, where  participants shared information on cannabis use. She had been a member  since 2006, but didn’t use its offerings much.

Veintrop told the  “budtender” in the club about her efforts to end her methadone use and  her withdrawal symptoms. They recommended a cannabis cookie with 75  milligrams of THC.

Veintrop tried the cookie. A couple of hours later, she couldn’t remember feeling so pain-free.

“It really was an amazing light in the  darkness for my healing,” Veintrop said in an interview. “I could buy a  cookie and feel a million times better than taking anything my doctors  were going to give me.”

With cookies and then hash brownies, which  came with up to 1,000-milligram doses, Veintrop was able to end her  methadone use, which required her to go to the pharmacy daily. Cannabis,  she said, could bring her pain from a 9.5 out of 10 to a 1.5 with much  more flexibility.

“I don’t know if I’d be here today without that alternative being there.”

Veintrop, now 34, is one of more than 8,000  people who access low-barrier medical and therapeutic cannabis for a  variety of physical and mental health conditions through the Victoria  Cannabis Buyers Club.

The compassion club is one of few in Canada  and has operated under near-constant threat of closure, lawsuits and  numerous raids since it opened in 1996, which only intensified after  recreational cannabis was legalized and regulated in 2017.

But as the club is threatened with closure,  five prominent substance use researchers are calling on Ottawa to  exempt it from cannabis legislation so it can continue providing  low-cost medicine to those who otherwise could not access it.

Cannabis use has also been shown to divert people from increasingly toxic criminalized substances such as heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine.

“For decades, VCBC has addressed an  important gap by providing access to cannabis for people who live with  chronic health conditions and may not be able to access cannabis  otherwise,” the experts wrote in a March 28 letter to the federal  ministers for health and mental health and addictions  shared with The  Tyee.

The club requested a federal waiver to  continue operating in April 2021, and Health Canada declined to comment  on the status of the submission. The federal health minister has the  power of exemptions “for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise  in the public interest.”

“We believe that exempting VCBC under the  Cannabis Act is in the public interest, given the current overdose  crisis and the absence of a plan to ensure equitable access to cannabis  for therapeutic purposes,” continued the letter.

Cannabis has been legal for therapeutic  purposes in Canada since 2001, a hard-fought shift Victoria Cannabis  Buyers Club members and volunteers helped lead. Membership at the club  requires a note from a doctor recommending cannabis use, and that the  individual be 18 or older.

Evidence shows that  cannabis can help alleviate symptoms and conditions including pain,  nausea, appetite loss, anxiety, depression and insomnia, and it is also  widely used as a complementary therapy for people with HIV, arthritis or  cancer.

“We want to provide options for folks to  address their symptoms in a way that works for them… and we’re leaving  this population that has very important health needs, completely left  alone,” said Marilou Gagnon, a University of Victoria professor and  scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research who  co-authored the letter.

Cannabis is also a well-documented harm  reduction strategy amid the worsening toxic drug crisis, which killed  2,224 people in B.C. last year. It offers an alternative to criminalized  substances for pain management, which many people turn to when  prescribed medications are inaccessible or don’t cut it.

“We need to throw at this crisis every  solution that we can. This is an excellent substitution that we’re  taking away from people,” added Gagnon.

Since legalization of recreational  cannabis, the unlicensed club has been raided in 2019 and 2020 by B.C.’s  Community Safety Unit, run by the Ministry of Public Safety and  Solicitor General.

Now, its founder and the organization are facing a combined $6.5 million in fines that could close the club for good. 

The Community Safety Unit was created in  2018 to oversee and enforce compliance with B.C.’s Cannabis Control and  Licensing Act. The unit’s officers focus on the illegal sale of cannabis  and have the power to enter retailers and seize cannabis, among other  enforcement actions. In addition to criminal penalties of up to 12  months in jail or $100,000 in fines, the CSU can issue administrative  fines as it has to the VCBC. 

“We really do need these ministers and  bureaucrats and government to understand how beneficial cannabis can be  in this opioid crisis we have,” said club founder Ted Smith, who  personally faces more than $3.5 million in fines. “We’re saving lives  and we’re being ignored and punished for doing it.”

Smith said he and the club will challenge  the fines in court and request an injunction against future raids. They  are currently waiting for a court date to be set.

The non-profit club provides much different  and more accessible medical options than what anyone could find  commercially. While recreational cannabis is now available, prices are  high and edibles are capped at 10 milligrams of active ingredient, a  fraction of a therapeutic dose for many.

The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club sells a  1,000 milligram brownie for about $10, and offers other methods of  consumption such as suppositories that are much cheaper and easier than  it would be to eat the equivalent dose in commercial recreational  edibles. A typical 10-milligram cookie sells for around $12 in B.C.  right now.

And for many members, the club space is  just as therapeutic as the product. There is a space to smoke and  socialize, known as the Box, and the staff and volunteers behind the  non-profit’s counter are there to discuss your symptoms and options.

Veintrop said the club was a “bright light”  in her life as she withdrew from methadone, providing community and  connection during her difficult and isolating health journey. She later  began working at the club and joined the board for three years ending in  2020.

“It saved my life, being able to come to  buy a cookie and look over in the Box and see my friends,” she said.  Veintrop’s pain has since lessened and she now uses cannabis much less  frequently, still purchasing by mail order from the club to her current  home in East Vancouver.

For Smith, it is frustrating to be kept in  limbo and under constant threat of being shut-down when the research and  feedback indicates they are saving lives. He and the club are still  awaiting a hearing date for the fines, and are reading to appeal any  decision all the way up the courts until an exemption is granted.

“The best way to get people their medicine  is to grant exemptions to compassion clubs,” said Smith. “We are the  frontline of this, and we’re saving lives.”

Gagnon hopes the federal government makes a  decision that reflects the growing body of evidence in support of  therapeutic cannabis and urgency of the toxic drug crisis Ottawa has  said it is committed to ending.

“We invest public money in good science…  and on the other hand we see the policy decisions go against the  evidence we’re producing, and it creates harms and costs that are  absolutely not a priority,” she said.

Veintrop’s last day at the club was on the  day of its most recent raid in November 2020. She’s hopeful the club and  its membership’s support will prevail.

“The club keeps people alive, and then in turn they will keep the club alive,” she said.

This item reprinted with permission from The Tyee, Vancouver, British Columbia