Vancouver Counter Culture

A few weeks after I broke my wrist, around the same time that my radius was thinking about getting back together with itself, a study came out from Tel Aviv university, showing that giving lab rats cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) – a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana – helped their fractured bones heal quicker and stronger.

Huh. Well, that was interesting.

Now, normally that study wouldn’t mean much. After all, a promising animal trial doesn’t suddenly legalise marijuana. Normally I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Normally, I wouldn’t even be able to find CBD oil.

Fortunately, this isn’t normally. This is Vancouver. City of marijuana dispensaries.

Medical marijuana – while legal in Canada – is extremely restricted. You must have a prescription from a practicing physician, it must be a severe, chronic condition, and then you can only purchase off one of the very few select providers. There are eight government approved providers in all of BC.

Vancouver, on the other hand, apparently decided to ignore the government, and set up its own dispensaries.

In 2013, there were fourteen marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver, and people kept expecting them to be shut down. Except… they weren’t. In fact, since the city council made it pretty clear that busting dispensaries was pretty low on their to-do list, more and more opened up. Now, there are around one hundred dispensaries in Vancouver – outnumbering even Starbucks.*

Just to be clear, these dispensaries don’t even come close to meeting the government’s very strict laws around medical marijuana. These are storefronts selling illegal drugs on the main street of down town Vancouver.

This explosion in numbers recently prompted the city council to do some serious thinking on the matter. I’m guessing it went something along these lines

  • Gee, folks here sure do like to get high

  • You know, a moderately stoned population isn’t necessarily a bad thing

  • We should probably keep it away from schools, though

So, the city council passed a by-law regulating marijuana dispensaries: they instigated a licensing structure, restricted the number that can be within a certain area, and enforced a three hundred metre distance from schools.

This prompted a letter from the Federal Health Minister, pointing out that these marijuana dispensaries are actually still illegal, and maybe Vancouver should shut them down? At which point I presume the council government got distracted by a lava lamp, and forgot to reply.

As of August, 176 owners have applied for business licenses to run marijuana dispensaries.

Lets just go over that again; 176 people have applied to the local government for a licence to run an illegal business.

I love Vancouver.

A Vancouver marijuana dispensary

One of the many not-so-subtle marijuana dispensaries in the city

So, given that it’s harder to find a pumpkin spice latte in Vancouver than it is CBD oil, I decided to visit a dispensary to help my wrist heal.

It took a few days for me to get the courage to enter. It felt vaguely seedy, like going into a strip club or adult shop. What if someone saw me? What if my boss saw me? Then I remembered that my boss was already a member here, so that worst that would happen would be one of those slightly awkward conversations when you see someone outside of work and try to make small talk before realising you don’t really have anything in common apart from your job.

Besides, my boss was on set right now. So, with that in mind, I headed in.

Inside was clean and brightly lit. A small waiting room opened out into a café in the back, where rows of jars carrying different strains lined the back wall, like optics at a bar.The demographic ranged from twenty-something typical “stoners”, through to a wealthy older woman with a prada handbag. Two monitors were playing sports, and several people lounged about in sofas reading, chatting or rolling a joint with some of the supplied papers.**

The first step was to see their in-house “doctor” for a “prescription”.

The consultation room was a small shoe closet by the front door with a iPad on a table. I sat opposite it while the “doctor” – a naturopath – lounged on a deckchair somewhere on the sunshine coast.

She asked me to explain why I thought I was a good candidate for medical marijuana.

I told her about my wrist and explained the recent study. “Okay, so you’re looking for an alternative way to balance your qi?” She asked.

“I… what now?”

She repeated herself and I nodded in agreement. Sure, whatever. “Okay, I’m sending your prescription through to the receptionist. Send the next person in, please.”

And with that, the consultation was over. The receptionist handed me a small green card with a number on it, and I became a member of a cannabis clinic.

I headed through into the café. At the counter, a guy in his late forties was discussing the different strains with an employee. He was looking for something relaxing, without being too psychotropic. The employee pulled down a jar of “LA Confidential” and held it out to him to smell as she ran through the various effects.

The last time I’d bought pot had been as a teenager in rural New Zealand. My friends and I drove to a stranger’s house in a seedy part of town, in the middle of the night, where we’d had a whispered conversation through the door with the dealer. Eventually convinced that a couple of 17 year old kids weren’t cops, the woman opened the door just wide enough to hand us the small tinfoil package of pot and take our $20. I remember seeing a slice of her life through that open doorway; the house was run-down and filthy; I could see knives black with hash oil on the kitchen table next to scales and a pile of ripped tin foil. There was a kids plastic tricycle in the hallway.

This place looked as if Steve Jobs had gone into marijuana rather than electronics.

Part of me wonders if this isn’t part of the largest sting in the history of policing. What’s to stop the police from raiding the dispensaries, shutting them down, and charging all the members?

And then I remember that if they did that, Vancouver would probably grind to a halt.

So why do the dispensaries make you jump through so many hoops, when the hoops don’t lead to a legal sale? Why the charade of making someone see a “doctor” when the doctor is just a naturopath who rubber stamps the membership? Why make people be members when the club itself is still illegal?

I think it’s just Vancouver’s way of saying “look, we can have nice things” in the lead up to pot legalisation. By self-regulating,  not selling to addicts or children, and by keeping gangs out of the business, the dispensaries are trying to show that legalising marijuana won’t be the downfall of civilisation as we know it.

Or else someone just got really high one day and thought this would be a good idea.

I’m not sure if the oil would do any good. For all the positive hype on the internet, CBD oil may just be 21st century snake oil. But at least here I could try it in a safe – if not entirely legal – way.***

* But not Tim Hortons, because Canada.

** However, not smoking. Buying pot may be fine, but smoking indoors is just rude.

*** Of course, buying CBD oil is still actually illegal, so I’m going to leave it up to your imaginations what happened once I got my membership.


3 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    Very Entertaining Miss.

  2. Vikram on

    long time no posts

  3. Michael on

    It’s been around 2 years since your article about working in film in Vancouver, can you give us an update about how it’s been since then?

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