dispensary tmcd
The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary on Thurlow location in Vancouver's West End .

Dispensary owner Dana Larsen on why he’s staying open despite court order to close

Dana Larsen, the owner of The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, told CLN why his dispensary will remain open despite a recent BC Supreme Court ruling that ordered his and a few dozen other dispensaries closed.

He also talks about the next steps the dispensaries are taking in their battle for survival, which includes appealing the BC Supreme Court decision and requesting a stay, and he also corrects some common misperceptions, like what the media got wrong about the Jan. 31 deadline to close.

CLN: Do you have any updates on the dispensary test case?

Dana Larsen: Absolutely. The decision that was given by the BC Supreme Court judge was not really complete because he kind of skipped a big part of the issue.

We went before the judge asking for clarification on two issues.

The first was whether a city like Vancouver had the right to issue licenses and regulate dispensaries that are violating the law, and the answer was yes, they do- which is interesting because it opens up the city to be able to license other harm-reduction places if they want, even if the harm-reduction places are violating federal law… so that’s actually good in some ways.

But in the broader and more important issue of medical cannabis access and whether the current system was working and whether dispensaries still had a role to play in meeting patient needs.. The judge didn’t rule on that and somewhat sidestepped that very important question.

So on Jan. 9, we filed an appeal of that decision in the BC Court of Appeal and we also requested a stay against the injunction that is trying to shut us down.

The Supreme Court judge had put an injunction in place forbidding us from operating and the city could go back to that judge and say, “Look, these places are still open and they’re in contempt of court, do you want to take action?”.

We want a stay on that until this issue is resolved and so the question for the appeal court judge is whether the potential harm of shutting down all these dispensaries is greater than the harm of letting them continue operating until these questions are resolved in the court.

We are cautiously optimistic that the judge will agree with that logic and put a stay on this injunction until this question of medical cannabis access has been resolved.

So are the same dispensaries that were involved in the previous test case also involved in the appeal?

The test case covered dispensaries that were generally unable to get a permit because of restrictive bylaws that the city put in place, but they were still operating, which includes one of two locations of The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, along with a few other dispensaries, and as far as I can see so far we’re all a part of this appeal.

I know that Cannabis Culture, for instance, has announced the closing of three of its locations, but they are still interested in appealing and moving forward.

Will The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary stay open?

We’re not shutting down and we’re going to continue serving patients as we have for the last 10 years but we’re still getting it all together and talking to the other dispensaries as we formulate our legal plan.

From what I’m seeing, the vast majority of dispensaries that were involved in the test case do want to be a part of the appeal and we’re moving forward on this.

So after the court ruling, is it true that the dispensaries have until the end of January to close?

That’s not quite right, actually. There was some reporting on that but it wasn’t accurate. There’s no timeline or deadline in place for anything.

The city lawyers have been putting some pressure on us and our lawyers saying that they might come in and take action at some point and they can certainly do that by going back to the judge and say we’re in contempt of court.

It wouldn’t be a big case and the judge would probably agree with that, and then the city could send a sheriff down to lock our doors… I don’t think it would be a raid with the Vancouver Police Department arresting people and seizing cannabis… it would be more of an enforcement of the contempt of court order where they’d chain the doors shut or something like that.

If we reopened after that, we’d very likely face either massive fines or immediate jail time. You don’t get a trial at that point because it’s not about the law. It’s about the judge having already made a decision and you not abiding by it.

dispensary Dana Larsen chilling outside The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary.

How would the stay help you out?

We’re hoping that the stay will come into play and change the dynamic. The judge in the appeal court has up to 30 days to rule on the stay that we’ve requested, which means they could rule on it tomorrow, or in 28 days.

We’re not quite sure about the timeline and if the city will act.

I don’t think Vancouver city council wants a big dramatic showdown with forced dispensary closures and protests.

I think they’d rather see a transition happen but there are certainly a lot of mixed messages coming from the city’s staff lawyers and I’m not really sure how it’s all going to go down but for me, my top priority is serving our members and patients as we have been for 10 years.

As long as we’re needed we’re going to be there doing it to the best of our abilities.

Despite the changes in the law with the Cannabis Act and legalization, I would say that medical cannabis is actually harder for patients to get now than before the Cannabis Act was passed.

There’s less dispensaries and the licensed producers have less cannabis product and so the legal system is certainly not replacing the medical system by any means and I think we still have a very important role to play so we’re going to keep serving our members.

If the dispensaries closed, what would that mean for patient access?

It would be very problematic. There are a lot of people in Vancouver and across Canada that rely on our dispensaries and mail order service. Not only do we have a very broad selection of cannabis, there are also a lot of products that have a huge medicinal benefit that are just not available through the legal system.

That ranges from all kinds of extracts, edibles, capsules, suppositories, and high-THC products. All of those are unavailable right now.

Maybe one day those products will be available and dispensaries like ours won’t be needed, but I expect we’re still a few years away from that point.

There seems to be a critical shortage of cannabis bud across Canada because they haven’t licensed enough growers and producers and so even if they open a lot of shops, it sounds like those shops aren’t going to have a very good selection of products for quite a while.

We’re seeing that some of the legal shops across the country have been closing a few days a week or laying off employees because there simply isn’t enough legal product. There are only a hundred or so dispensaries open across the whole country- there should be thousands!!

They’re really going to have to increase the legal supply by huge factors to meet demand and in the meantime, aside from recreational users, medical users and patients are really stuck in the middle of this and they’re kind of being forgotten in this rush to cash-in and corporatize cannabis.

dispensary tmcd The always-changing menu at The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary’s Thurlow location.

Will the legal battle with the city affect The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary’s mail order cannabis service?

No, not at all. In fact, there are plenty of mail-order and home delivery services that are picking up steam. Ultimately, any success they have in closing down storefront dispensaries will only be replaced by other forms of cannabis access that are harder to interfere with.

I think we will see a lot more mail order services in Canada and we’ll continue to see that grow because the fact is, whatever the substance, if you overtax it and treat it too harshly, there’s going to be a thriving underground market.

We have that with tobacco even though it’s been legal in Canada for a very long time! In Ontario, for instance, some studies said that up to half of the tobacco sold in the province is not legal because it’s taxed so high that it’s lucrative to sell untaxed tobacco, and I think we’re going to see the same thing with cannabis. These taxes, restrictions, and lack of access (and often low quality cannabis) will result in the legal market staying quite small and most people continuing to purchase from the black market.

I’m happy Canada is legalizing and going through this transition but unless they open things up and do a much better job making it accessible, I think we’ll have problems like lack of access, delays and stigma in Canada for years to come.

The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary on Thurlow is home to many medical cannabis patients.

Given Vancouver has only licensed 3 dispensaries in the 3 months since legalization, do you feel that The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary is better off for staying open?

I think we’re making the right decision to stay open, and we’ve actually been getting busier in the last few weeks because other dispensaries are closing and people are losing access, and we’re seeing an increase in people seeking cannabis from a safe source and we’re one of the only games in town for that.

While I’m glad that the city is licensing other shops and this is moving forward, it’s going to be a problem for quite a while and I’d rather the government focused on getting their act together in creating a reliable legal system for cannabis rather than focusing on shutting down people who are only doing what the government and Canada decided needs to be done, which is making cannabis available to adults who want them.

Until they can do a better job than what we’re doing, I think they should leave us alone.

It’s very interesting because in the city of Gibson, a small town off the Sunshine Coast, the city council has just issued a business license to a local dispensary called S & M Medicinal Treats. The’re not licensed under federal or provincial law, but Gibsons gave them a permit to continue operating and providing medical cannabis because they see a need for it in Gibsons.

So Gibsons can offer a temporary permit to a dispensary there that’s not compliant with provincial or federal law, but a major city like Vancouver, which has actually had dispensaries for 20 years, can’t?

I’d love to see some temporary permits issued by Vancouver to dispensaries, especially ones focused on medical use.

medicinal cannabis dispensary

What would change at your dispensary if you did get licensed?

I’m in an interesting situation because The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary has two locations, and the one in the West End on Thurlow could probably get a provincial permit and operate. It has a development permit and we were moving forward, and I guess I’ll apply, but I’m really torn because even if the province and city came in tomorrow and said we could have a legal dispensary, we’d have to stop selling all the products we’re selling now and order from the BC wholesale cannabis branch.

On one hand I’d be tempted but on the other hand, it would not only mean letting go of most of my staff and a huge reduction in the business we’re doing, I would have to turn away thousands of members and tell them, “You can come shop from me now, but I don’t know what kind of cannabis I’m going to have and more importantly, all these other products you’ve been relying on… maybe i’ll have them again in a few years when the government gets its act together.”

I’d have a very hard time telling my members with conditions like cancer, AIDS, or epilepsy that I couldn’t help them for a few years.

I want the permit and I want to operate within the legal system, but I don’t want to say goodbye to my members and turn them away if I don’t have to, and I’m not the only dispensary owner who’s feeling the challenge of wanting to comply and yet having a higher obligation to the members. Those two things are not compatible at this time unfortunately.

How else does your dispensary help the community?

There’s other things we do, too. My dispensary has long been donating cannabis to the Overdose Prevention Society run by Sarah Blyth on East Hastings. For over a year, we provided them with cannabis for free which they would either sell or give away to opioid users who needed cannabis.

We wouldn’t be able to do that under the legal system.

We also donate to the Cannabis Substitution Project that Neil Magnuson runs out of the VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) offices and he gives out cannabis donated by us and other dispensaries to people who could really use cannabis as a substitution to opioids.

All of these things are forbidden under the legal system.

It’s strange how on one hand, the city is so progressive when it comes to InSite and clean needle exchanges because they realize the value in harm-reduction, but when it comes to cannabis, the city is trying to shut down dispensaries providing an alternative to opiods.

I wouldn’t say that the city council is harshly anti-cannabis, and certainly many cities have been much more restrictive about dispensaries and cannabis access, but I do think Vancouver could be doing a lot more.

And you’re absolutely right, there is a hypocrisy there when we recognize and implement harm-reduction strategies, which I very much support, but to offer safe places for opioid and injection drug users while denying safe places for cannabis users and prohibiting smoking indoors and any kind of a lounge

And prohibiting us from getting a permit to use cannabis in a park for a public event and stigmatizing cannabis more than opioids, nevermind alcohol and tobacco, that’s a real hypocrisy and we really should be supporting cannabis giveaways and subsidized cannabis for opioid users to reduce overdose deaths and to stop people from having to choose from opioids or being in great pain. There are a lot of options and cannabis is one of them.

In the USA they’ve been finding that states with dispensaries have significantly lower overdose death rates and opioid use than states that restrict cannabis.

In the middle of an opioid crisis it’s the wrong time to be experimenting with shutting down dispensaries and taking these kinds of actions. They should be subsidizing and supporting cannabis for vulnerable communities.

dispensary tmcd
The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary on Hastings.

Anything else?

I hope that people who read this contact Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, but be polite, these people are not our enemies. Our elected officials need to know that people want dispensaries to continue operating and don’t want to see a crackdown.

We need to know politicians that we’re paying attention and there will be repercussions if they come down too heavily.

We just need things to slow down, get some perspective, and let the legal system move forward a bit more before we start taking any drastic action.