The recent Courier story about the Vancouver Police Department decision not to make enforcement of the criminal law against medical marijuana dispensaries a priority left out much of important history behind the rise of these organizations.
Dispensaries in B.C. arose 15 years ago in the cities of Vancouver and Victoria as a result of the federal government's failure to provide for lawful access to medical marijuana. Essentially, sick Canadians were being forced to street dealers to obtain marijuana for medical purposes. Dispensaries met an unfilled need, providing medical cannabis to critically and chronically ill Canadians in a safe and supportive environment. They have been tremendously successful.
However, because technically illegal, dispensaries (particularly in the early years) did their good work under constant threat of police action. Operators were arrested and faced very significant consequences for their compassionate activities. This led to a number of Charter-based challenges to the government's medical cannabis system.
One of these challenges, in Ontario, forced the government to create regulations in 2001 permitting lawful but highly restricted access to medical cannabis. That regulation (the Marihuana Medical Access Regulation or MMAR) itself was challenged as overly restrictive a number of times. It did not sanction dispensaries despite their high levels of success. Over the years Health Canada's medical marijuana program has been found unconstitutional and unduly restrictive no less than five times.
Two of the most important decisions arose in British Columbia. One struck down the supply-side growing restrictions in the MMAR and another struck down the government’s restriction of the products available to patients (only dried plant matter, no extracts or edible products) as arbitrary and unduly restrictive.
Now the government has created an entirely new set of regulations which, again, fails to include dispensaries despite their 15 year history of successful work in Vancouver and many other communities.
The fact of the matter is the dispensaries, while nominally illegal (though a law that violates the Charter is void from its inception, so perhaps not illegal at all), provide a valuable and necessary health service to tens of thousands of people in the City of Vancouver. The VPD is absolutely correct to not make enforcement of the government’s failed medical marijuana program a top priority in the city. They should be commended for not wasting taxpayer dollars creating criminals out of compassionate health care providers.
Kirk Tousaw is a Duncan, B.C.-based lawyer who represents several medical cannabis dispensaries. He regularly litigates Charter issues arising out of the government’s flawed medical cannabis system. He volunteers as on the boards of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Sensible B.C. Society. More information can be found at tousawlaw.ca.
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