The Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club, which has offered an affordable medical alternative to those in need for two decades, has been ordered to shut down.
Phil McMillan, who founded the club in 1999 and has worked for it ever since, said provincial officers with the Community Safety Unit have given notice that operations must end by Oct. 31.
The Community Safety Unit is a branch of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General that was created to enforce illegal dispensaries. Whether or not the club is illegal has been a matter of local debate for 20 years, but McMillan says he will comply with the order when his supply runs out prior to the deadline.
The closure, he said, will be devastating for the club’s over 1,000 members.
“Since this was announced, I’ve gone from having the world’s best job to my job [expletive] sucks,” he said. “Now every single day we’re bombarded with distraught and despairing members who are basically going, ‘What am I going to do without you?’”
The Community Safety Unit has provincial powers to enter without a warrant, search and seize product. It can also issue fines of up to $50,000 for individuals and up to $100,000 for corporations. Imprisonment for up to 12 months is also a possibility.
McMillan said he believes he could fight the shut down order in court, but not at the risk of the financial health of the club’s volunteer board members.
“For the last 20 years I’ve been gambling my own personal freedom,” he said. “I was more than willing to do that. But I am not willing to gamble [board members’] homes. And [the government] know that. Really, it’s just a mafia tactic. Can’t control you so I’ll threaten your family.”
Although Nelson’s identity has long been intrinsically tied to cannabis, there is currently no legal way of purchasing cannabis in the city.
Three stores have been approved by the city to attain a licence to sell recreational cannabis, but those businesses have yet to open.
The compassion club, meanwhile, has continued to operate at 606 Front St. without a licence on the grounds it is a non-profit dispensary providing medicine with protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Fines and the threat of an injunction were issued last year by the city, but they were waved off by McMillan.
Outside of Nelson, the post-legalization era has been hazy for both the provincial government, producers and would-be retailers.
Finance Minister Carole James said earlier this month the province has not yet made a profit from its own sales. A report by Statistics Canada released in July found legal prices are as much as 80 per cent higher than cannabis sold illegally.
Producers and retailed meanwhile have also complained about the high price of going legit.
Those prices, McMillan said, are unaffordable for his clients who will now need to find other ways of buying medical cannabis.
“They’re going back to the bus stop. They’re going back to the back alleys,” he said.
“It’s why we started. We kept on having 80 year olds coming into the (now-closed cannabis store) Holy Smoke wanting to try medical cannabis and we’d have to send them off to the bus stop across the street to go and hopefully not get ripped off by whoever was selling there.”
The Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club became an unofficial entity in September 1999 and was modelled after the B.C. Compassion Club Society that had been established by Hilary Black two years earlier in Vancouver.
McMillan said he was also encouraged by the case of Terry Parker, an Ontario man who had treated his epilepsy with cannabis before police raided his home and charged Parker with trafficking. The charges were later ruled unconstitutional by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2000.
The club achieved non-profit status in March 2000, then McMillan struggled to find office space for the next six months. The club finally set up shop at a location on Josephine Street, which was its home for the next 15 years.
McMillan says now he’s surprised the club survived as long as it did. He nearly had to shut it all down after the World Trade Centre attack in 2001 because of border security, and it took six years for the club to become financially stable.
But during difficult times, McMillan visited a wall in the club’s backroom where he keeps photos and notes of clients who survived diseases like cancer.
“In moments of weakness, stress, depression, whatever, I could always come back here and sit in the back room and stare at why I did this,” he said.