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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Compassion Clubs

Working for health and liberty

Kailey Willetts

Reprinted from "Cannabis" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (4), p. 30

The BC Compassion Club Society can now claim “12 years of civil disobedience and 12 years of non-profit medical cannabis distribution in Canada. . . . The BCCCS will continue to work towards ensuring that those who use cannabis as a medicine never have to choose between their liberty and their health . . .”1

Meet Louis

When Louis* was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, he immediately applied for membership in the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS). Louis is also a licensed user through Health Canada’s Medicinal Marihuana Medical Access Division.

Louis used marijuana through several rounds of chemotherapy.

“Not only was I not overcome with nausea, but I was able to gain weight during the last, difficult six-month course of chemotherapy,” Louis wrote in an e-mail interview.

“This last chemotherapy course devastated the nerve endings in my hands and my feet, and I now suffer from peripheral neuropathy,” he added. “Associated with peripheral neuropathy are throbbing pains in my feet that come by for a visit each evening, usually in bed. My neurologist concedes that there are therapeutic properties in marijuana and encourages me to use it .”

Despite being a Health Canada licensed user, Louis doesn’t get his medicine from Health Canada. Instead, he relies on the BC Compassion Club.

The BC Compassion Club

Compassion clubs came to Canada in the late 1990s, based on similar medicinal marijuana clubs in the United States. The goal of compassion clubs is to provide safe access to medicinal, or medical, marijuana when there is no government-sanctioned program, or when such a program is not effectively meeting the need. About 12 major clubs currently provide medicinal marijuana to an estimated 10,000 people across Canada.2

The BC Compassion Club Society—Canada’s largest compassion club, located in Vancouver—opened its doors in 1997. At that time, there was no government-sanctioned program to provide medical marijuana in Canada.

The Health Canada Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR)3 was enacted in 2001. Now people can apply for federal government approval to use marijuana for medical purposes. However,  the Health Canada eligibility requirements are very restricted and the application process is lengthy. There are currently only around 2,800 people licensed by Health Canada to access medical marijuana,4 out of an estimated 600,000 Canadians that use marijuana for medical purposes.5 Currently, the BCCCS has around 5,000 members.6

“The courts have ruled that people who are ill have the right to access medicinal cannabis if they have need of it, without fear of prosecution,” says Jay Leung, communications coordinator for the BCCCS (see sidebar re court rulings).

Compassion clubs exist to provide medical marijuana to people in need, but not all their members are licensed by Health Canada. While the clubs usually have their own strict guidelines for membership and providing cannabis—for chronic conditions, most clubs require a doctor’s note confirming a patient’s condition; for some conditions, a doctor’s prescription may be required—this does not make unlicensed members’ use legal. So, fear of prosecution is still a concern.

Compassion club operations, in fact, are illegal under Canadian law. Under the MMAR, growers can apply for a licence to produce medical marijuana for a licensed user. But the regulations restrict the number of users a producer can grow for (was one; now two) and restrict the number of plants they can grow based on how much cannabis the user is licensed to smoke (usually enough to ensure a constant supply of 1 to 3 grams a day). Producers must also get their seeds from Health Canada.7 To provide the quality product and quantity that their members need, however, BCCCS contracts growers who operate outside the Health Canada regulations, so are “engaged in civil disobedience, and risk getting arrested and charged.”1

“Health Canada programs have been a half-hearted attempt to meet the requirements that the court rulings have mandated,” says Leung.

So, why does Louis get his marijuana from the compassion club and not Health Canada?

Many Health Canada licensed users choose to use compassion club or other sources instead of the Health Canada product. Often, it’s a quality concern.

“I have never used MMAR [cannabis] because they sell an inferior, overpriced product,” wrote Louis.
“We provide a much higher quality of medicine,” says Leung.

The BCCCS offers organic cannabis and has different strains of cannabis (at least seven), which affect people and conditions differently. Health Canada offers one strain, and only sells cannabis as seeds or dried. While the BCCCS only measures potency (THC levels) anecdotally, they trust their experienced suppliers to provide them with high-quality medicine, which is tested for mould and other harmful products. High-potency cannabis is supposed to contain 15% THC (main active ingredient).1 According to Health Canada’s website, their product currently averages 12.5% THC. But an independent study in 2004 found an average 5% THC level, when Health Canada was claiming 10.2%.8

BCCCS: more than a dispensary

According to Leung, the BC Compassion Club also has “a lot more resources on hand for people to access—just in knowledge and expertise.” The people who dispense the cannabis are able to assist clients in picking a strain that will best help their symptoms. Members browse the dispensary “menu” while they sit in the plant-filled waiting room, before being called upon to receive their medicine. Cannabis is dispensed and paid for in privacy, behind a curtain or bamboo divider.

Medicinal cannabis from the BCCCS is typically $8 to $9 per gram; however, the society offers cannabis at $3/gram up to two days a week. Also, any donated cannabis is passed along to BCCCS members free of charge.1 Health Canada cannabis, comparatively, is $5/gram, plus GST and PST where applicable.7 Health Canada also charges interest on amounts unpaid for more than 30 days9—and, as has been said, the quality is considered to be inferior.

The compassion club offers more options than the traditional cannabis ‘cigarette.’ “Most of the harm associated with cannabis is actually due to the act of combusting,” notes Leung. He adds that BCCCS has vaporizers for their clients to use, which produce the same effects as smoking without the health risks. The club also provides non-smoking options such as cannabis-infused oils and butter, tinctures (cannabinoids are extracted into an alcohol or glycerine base, then dropped or sprayed orally) and a variety of baked goods. And the dispensary sells items such as the vaporizers, forest-friendly rolling papers, glass pipes and more, which help members consume cannabis safely and effectively.

Additionally, BCCCS runs a Wellness Centre in Vancouver that is supported by produce sales. The Wellness Centre offers services by licensed/certified alternative medical practitioners such as herbalists, nutritionists, counsellors, traditional Chinese medicine doctors and acupuncturists. Most of these services aren’t covered by the health care system, but are available on a sliding price scale between $5 and $30 a visit.1

“[The wellness centre] is just as important as the dispensary, but much less well known,” said Leung. It’s part of a holistic approach to health care.

* pseudonym

About the author
Kailey is a Communications intern at the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division and an English Honours student at the University of Victoria
  1. BC Compassion Club Society:

  2. Capler, R. (2006, May). Compassion clubs: An unsanctioned model of community-based medical cannabis distribution. Paper presented at the International Harm Reduction Conference in Vancouver, BC.

  3. Health Canada. (2008). Medical use of marihuana.

  4. Health Canada. (2009). Marihuana for Medical Purposes Statistics (July 4, 2008).

  5. Ogborne, A.C., Smart, R.G. & Adlaf, E.M. (2000). Self-reported medical use of marijuana: A survey of the general population. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 162(12), 1685-1686.

  6. Chan, C. (2009, May 6). Disabled woman evicted for smoking pot. The Province.

  7. Health Canada. (2006). Policy on supply of marihuana seeds and dried marihuana for medical purposes—Frequently asked questions.

  8. Canadians for Safe Access. (2004). Quebec National Institute of Public Health confirms that Health Canada cannabis below 6% THC; CSA proposes a moratorium on research and distribution [press release].

  9. Capler, R. (2007).A Review of the Cannabis Cultivation Contract between Health Canada and Prairie Plant Systems. Vancouver: BC Compassion Club Society.

Sidebar footnotes:
  1. Constitution Act, 1982, [en. by the Canada Act 1982 (UK), c.11, s1.], pt. I (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

  2. Conroy & Company. R. v. Parker (1997, December 10), per Judge Sheppard, Toronto Registry (Ont. Prov. Div.).

  3. Conroy & Company. R. v. Parker [2000] O.J. No. 2787 (Ont. C.A.).

  4. Conroy & Company. Hitzig v. Canada (2003, October 7) ONCA C39532; C39738; C39740.

  5. Ruling loosening access to pot upheld. (2008, October 28). The Globe and Mail.

  6. Tibbets, J. (2009, April 23). Top court ends government pot monopoly. The Vancouver Sun.

  7. CanWest News Service. (2009, May 26). New rules ‘slap in the face’: Medical marijuana advocates. The Vancouver Sun.


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