Cannabis Life Network spoke with Dori Dempster, the Executive Director of The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary– one of Vancouver’s original dispensaries- about the hoops they had to jump through with the City of Vancouver, including racking up almost $56,000 in fines, on their continuing journey to get a license for their Thurlow location.

The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary is well-known for its focus on helping the local communities at their locations on 1182 Thurlow St. and 880 East Hastings St., and they are joining a few other dispensaries in an upcoming, precedent-setting BC Supreme Court, which Dori tells us all about.

She also speaks on how cannabis can help in the midst of the opioid crisis, the difference between recreational and medicinal use, and so much more.

[Editor’s Note: the interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Cannabis Life Network: Congratulations on your permit approval for your Thurlow location- but I heard you were called back for a second hearing for no good reason. Why was that?

Dori: The first time was for being less than 300 meters away from a school, but after hearing our case the Board of Variance gave us a preliminary permit, so we put a development sign on the street and the city gathered input from the neighbourhood.

When we received no further complaints, the City refused our permit because we were too close to Directions Youth Services on Burrard St.

Directions Youth Services spoke at our first hearing, but they had no problems with our dispensary- they only thought there were too many dispensaries in Vancouver in general. But the City took what they said as opposition to us, specifically.

When Directions didn’t show up at the second hearing, that was the final proof to me that the neighbourhood did not have a problem with us.

Is there a separate process for your Hastings location?

Yes. Both locations had to apply for the original business license, and both were rejected.

May 4, 2016, was when we got the development permit for the Thurlow dispensary. At the hearing for the Hastings dispensary later that year, we didn’t get a word in- the board members looked at our lawyer and said, “We don’t have jurisdiction. Next!”

We paid $420, waited a year and a half, and when we finally get there, they don’t have jurisdiction because MMRU (Medical Marijuana-Related Use) isn’t allowed in manufacturing zones!

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The 880 East Hastings location

Was this related to your BC Supreme Court hearing?

Well, the City filed a petition against us in the BC Supreme Court, as it has done to many dispensaries.

In response, we’ve filed a suit as part of a group of dispensaries that have banded together with 3 lawyers. Essentially, one dispensary- the test case- will be put in front of a judge. All participating dispensaries can provide testimony and witnesses, but only one dispensary is the test case.

The judge will make the decision on that dispensary, and that ruling will be a blanket ruling for all dispensaries taking part.

How much has the City charged you in fines so far?

After our first hearing, the Bylaw Officer gave us a ticket within 24 hours of being approved to enter the process for a license for not having a business license.

Since then, they’ve given us eleven $250 tickets and fifty-three $1000 tickets!

[Editor’s Note: that adds up to almost $56,000]

After our latest hearing, the Fire Marshall and Bylaw Officer showed up within 24 hours, but this time it was to give advice and say goodbye for now and no more tickets.

But as the city moves us through the licensing process at Thurlow, all of our policies, procedures, and staff requirements will be made the same at both locations.

So you’re going to standardize, basically, at both locations?

Yes, and it’s happening now, but as we go through, it’s important that it’s standardized under city bylaws, and not just our own.

We have to follow stricter rules now but that’s ok. We’re delighted to be at this point in legalization and even though it’s a lot more paperwork, it’s for everybody’s benefit.

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The always-changing menu at the Thurlow location.

Do you think the licensing process will get easier with legalization in 2018?

No.

It’s my opinion that the city has done this as a stop-gap measure and they will be more heavy-handed on those that haven’t made it through. They told us at the beginning that 12 to 15 dispensaries were all the dispensaries that the city needed, which is a ridiculous number especially when you have a hundred thriving already.

What do you think of the way that the city is handling the permitting process?

I am appalled. I don’t think our mayor really knows what’s going on here. They’ve tried to strangle the essential harm reduction services that each of these dispensaries provides across the city.

Earlier in the year I got a call from Sarah Blyth, a volunteer at the Overdose Prevention Society who’s at fighting on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. She said the police were coming and the City was saying she needed to close, and she needed our help. We went and stood up for Sarah because she’s saving lives down there.

Between her program and other harm reduction initiatives, we’ve donated well over $30,000 in products since August.

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The Thurlow Peace Wall, featuring art from patients and friends.

How important is the distinction between medicinal and recreational cannabis to you?

In my mind, all use is medicinal.

For the first 7 years, our dispensary only served people with a medical document on file. It wasn’t until I heard Hilary Black, from the BC Compassion Club, speak at the Cannabis Hemp Conference that made me realize that we were gatekeepers ourselves- just below Health Canada- so where does that leave all the people who could not squeeze through Health Canada’s gates?

The decision to only require an adult’s valid ID was made to ensure access for everyone, and when we did, we found a stream of sick people with terrible tales- some doctors threatened to stop seeing patients if they kept asking about cannabis!

A doctor should know what a patient is doing. For a doctor to say, “I don’t want to know you smoke pot!”, or, “I don’t want to know you drink!” is ridiculous. Doctors shouldn’t be imposing a judgement.

That also really undermines the level of care a patient will receive as well.

Absolutely. It’s ridiculous how people can be treated by healthcare professionals but because of ‘legalization’, there is more education coming to the doctors, and that’s wonderful.

As more doctors talk to other doctors, the fear of becoming a ‘pot doctor’ will go away.

Speaking of pot doctors, is that why on your website you don’t recommend specific doctors?

Well, what we don’t do is provide an on-site doctor. Or a naturopath, or someone on a Skype call- that’s ridiculous.

We have always recommended that people work with their doctors, and keep their medical records in one spot.

If you go to a doctor and ask for a signature for pot and he says no, and then you go to another doctor and ask for the same thing- that’s what they call Drug Seeking behaviour!

Your medical file will start filling up and you can’t get proper care because of that behaviour.

So don’t go shopping around for that pot signature. Work with your doctor to get proper healthcare.

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The Cannamunity Board.

Have you noticed an increase in recreational users coming in or is it still mostly medicinal patients?

Whenever we get asked about recreational users, we laugh because people have this stereotypical image, but in reality it’s like Walker Wars here- the other day we had 4 people on walkers trying to get around the lobby.

But all of these people have a variety of needs, and whether young or old, they’re medicating themselves in one way or another.

If you go to the doctor and you talk to them about how stressed you are, what would he tell you?

Recreation is such a common prescription because it’s medicine for the soul, and that’s why people might snowboard or smoke pot- it’s recreation away from the stress, and help for the knees at the same time.