Dana Larsen on new CAMCD name, why his dispensary will not close, and putting patients first

This is the first of a multi-part interview with Dana Larsen, one of Canada’s most prominent and outspoken cannabis activists. Dana recently wrote about the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) voting on changing its name, and why, as a founding member of the organization, he was strongly opposed to the direction that CAMCD was going in. That piece is available here.

He is the owner of The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, which has two locations in Vancouver, and he tells us how all the new changes being brought in with legalization will change things for dispensaries and patients, why transitioning into the legal system would prevent his dispensary from being involved with harm reduction efforts in the DTES (and could possibly get him kicked out of CAMCD), and what it means to truly put patients first, regardless of threats from the government to shut down or else.


CLN: What happened at the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) vote on Sept. 19?

Dana Larsen: The CAMCD voted to change their name to the Association of Canadian Cannabis Retailers, which spells ACCR [pronounced as “acres”], and I really think we should’ve kept our focus on medicinal cannabis, but as a group they decided that they wanted to expand their representation to include non-medicinal outlets which is the only kind of legal cannabis outlet we’re allowed to have under the Cannabis Act.

So the CAMCD completely dropped the “medical” from their name?

“Medical” and “dispensary” were taken out of the name and I think part of the logic behind that is if you run a dispensary and you want to become legal and get a permit, you can’t call yourself a dispensary and you can’t have the word “medical” in your name anymore.

You also can’t have a red cross like we do in the logo of our dispensary and you can’t even talk to people about medicinal use.

In the new statement of purpose I tried to amend it to include the word “medical” and that was accepted unanimously so the ACCR statement of purpose includes advocating for medical and social access, but other than that there’s no mention of “medical”, “dispensary”, or “patients” or anything like that anywhere in the statement of purpose or the name of the organization anymore.

How close was the vote?

The vote to change the name was unanimous except for our dispensary voting against it. The vote to add “medical” to the statement of purpose was also unanimous but I still have concerns. I don’t feel that CAMCD is really sticking to their original purpose, which was to advocate for patient access and for the dispensaries that serve them.

I think the group has morphed into a cannabis retailers association and the new name reflects that. I’m not against associations like that existing but I don’t feel that it’s a suitable replacement CAMCD was the only organization that was advocating for patients and dispensaries in Canada and I’m really sorry to see that change in focus and change in name.

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@Regran_ed from @tmcd604 – This is a video of Dori Dempster opening the doors to the Hastings location on the 10th Anniversary, a very special moment as 10 years ago Dori opened this same door to start helping people with the power of cannabis. With her time, effort and love The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary has grown into a huge resource for patients. We are so thankful to have someone so passionate about what we do. Thank-you @FindingDoriDempster . . . Special thanks to @jademapledotcom & @cannalifenet for the video #10Years #FindingDoriDabs #DoriDempster #TMCD604 #ThankYou #Hastings #Vancouver #Dispensary #CannabisHeals #CannabisHelps #CannabisCures #JadeMaple #JadeMapleDotCom – #regrann

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With the name change and what’s going on with the shift in focus will your dispensary remain a member?

We’re still a member for now and we’ll see what happens. There’s some other questions within the group about how to deal with dispensaries that don’t choose to shut down and apply for a license.

I believe by continuing to serve patients and providing a continuum of care that includes extracts, edibles and other products with great medicinal value that won’t be available through these legal cannabis shops for at least a year, and probably longer in my opinion, I think we’re actually sticking to the original mandate of CAMCD.

But there’s a question because it seems if you’re not willing to follow the bylaws or you violate any of the rules, you’re kicked out of CAMCD and that’s a big problem. We’re actually having a meeting on that topic soon and I hope we can resolve that and I would hate to see CAMCD abandon or kick out members who are continuing what they’ve been doing for years, which is supplying patients with cannabis medicine.

And of course, CAMCD was funded by dispensaries, which means that it was funded by patients’ purchases and so I’m really unhappy because I feel that this group is not sticking by its patients in their time of need.

Maybe the legal system will be better for patients in a year or two but who knows- maybe not. But it won’t be on Oct. 18, and in my opinion if a dispensary closes down or stops serving their patients on Oct. 17-18 that’s not putting patients first at all.


How else would obtaining a license keep you from putting “patients first”?

The challenges with getting a license or serving patients after getting a license are multiple. First of all, you can’t discuss medical cannabis with people if you’ve got a retail license. So if someone comes in and says they’ve got cancer or another ailment and they need cannabis to help them, you’re not allowed to guide them or discuss that with them because it’s a non-medical product and you can’t give advice in that way.

That’s a problem, and another big issue is that the most medicinal cannabis products simply won’t be available through the legal shops. The only thing being legalized are raw, smokeable buds and although buds have a lot of medicinal value, the real medicinal value of cannabis lies in extracts, capsules, edibles, suppositories, and those kinds of products.

The government say those things will be available in a year or so- and maybe they will be, and maybe they won’t- and maybe there will be controls on their availability and potency. But either way, for the coming year, patients who’ve been relying on dispensaries to get those products are going to be out of luck if their dispensary transitions into the legal system.

So maybe in a couple of years, patients will have better access than they do now, but in the short term and maybe long term, patients who see their dispensaries close or transition will have to go to a different place or back to the street to get the medicinal products they need.

To me, that’s not putting patients first. That’s really putting the survival of your business over the needs of patients and that’s not something I want to do at our dispensary. We intend on staying open and continuing to serve our patients as we have for the last 10 years.

I’m not willing to turn these people away and say we’ll no longer provide you with your medicine because we want to get a permit. I’d rather keep supplying patients with what they need.

So hopefully, ACCR will adopt a policy that is more inclusive and that doesn’t threaten or eliminate dispensaries from the group that want to continue serving patients. It’s a very contentious issue and we’ll have to see what happens at the next meeting.

So right now, is it like the government is basically telling medical patients to either go online and get their cannabis in the mail?

The legalization of cannabis in Canada does not affect the medical system at all. If you’re a medical cannabis user you’re still supposed to go to your doctor and get the paperwork done, then you pick an LP (licensed producer) and you order from them through the mail.

That is a very difficult system to access. It’s expensive and there’s the same taxes involved as there are for other users, you’ve got to wait to get it in the mail, there’s limits on how much you can access, and it’s a big hassle.

So without changing that program, I expect that many doctors will be more reluctant to sign medical paperwork and they’ll just tell patients, “Go to the legal market and buy it at the shop. What are you bothering me for?”

For some patients, that will work. If they only need dried buds, they can go to a legal shop once one opens in their neighbourhood- but there’s only going to be one open in Kamloops right away- and maybe they’ll have better access to that. But if that patient has questions and wants to talk to someone about their cannabis use in a medical way, or that patient is in need of anything other than dried bud, then they’ll simply be out of luck.

I really think that CAMCD or ACCR should be focusing on a continuum of care and make sure that patients have the medicine they need during this transition time and that they have access and not be told they have to wait a year or longer before we’re able to supply them with these products that they desperately need.

Many of our members don’t have a year to wait- some might not even be alive in a year- and I’m not willing to cut them off in that way.

I know it’s a difficult time for a lot of dispensaries that are trying to serve their members and aren’t really sure what to do and a lot of them are afraid.

But I really think we should be putting patients first and continue to serve them rather than just focusing on our own needs.

Medical cannabis more often than not brought to you by Canada Post.

You mentioned on social media that getting a license would stop you from donating cannabis to the Overdose Prevention Site. Why is that?

We do all kinds of donations and we offer discounts and we give away a fair amount of cannabis to different groups, especially to a couple of different opioid substitution projects. If you’ve got a license you’ve got to buy your cannabis from licensed producers and you can’t give it away and you can’t offer it tax-free to people. You can’t do any of those things!

You’ve got to sell it in accordance with the regulations and you’ve got to charge all the appropriate taxes and you’ve got to control it in that way. So making free cannabis available to medical users and people in the DTES who might be heroin users or opioid addicts… that’s simply not going to be allowed and I think that’s some of the most important work that we do!

The people that we provide it to- for instance, outside the Overdose Prevention Site- they might not be registered patients with the government or their doctors, but they’re people who need medicinal cannabis, and we see ourselves as providing low-barrier medicinal cannabis to those in need, something that will be impossible for us to keep doing if we got a permit from the BC government.

So you’re saying it’s way too limiting and doesn’t allow you to help people because the government is basically telling you what to do and who to buy from and all that.

The government is making it very clear that they’re legalizing non-medical cannabis. What they call “recreational cannabis”, which is a term that I really do not like, and we only sell medicinal cannabis at our dispensary. It may be the same product, but when you come in and talk to us we can give you medicinal guidance.

We can provide many products that aren’t available through the legal system and give you a discount, or free cannabis if needed and all these things will be impossible because the legal system is only for what they call “recreational cannabis” and if you try to sell medicinal cannabis through the recreational system, you get in trouble.

[Editor’s note: Stay tuned for Part 2 where we talk about ending the War on Drugs, the potential of entheogenic herbs in harm reduction, his new book, and more!]