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Legally 'grey' dispensary says it's helping medical marijuana users (9 photos)

Marijuana dispensary owner says operation is a 'civil act of disobedience' providing patients access to medicine. A nearby vape lounge says it is providing a public service. Police say they have to enforce the law

‘No asking. No mooching inside or outside. Asking staff or bothering members is prohibited,’ reads a sign on the door of the Sault’s first marijuana vape lounge.

That lounge, called The Vape Escape, and the medical marijuana dispensary Temple Medicinal have recently set up shop in the east end of the city.

“It’s a form of civil disobedience,” says Allan Ward, owner/operator of Temple Medicinal, the self-described cannabis-consulting agency that not only assists patients in getting marijuana prescriptions but also sells them marijuana that they carry at the shop.

“The federal government is taking their time with the laws and legalization (and marijuana) patients need access. There is no access remotely close to the city,” said Ward.

Ward said his business has been intentionally keeping a low profile since the fall of 2016 when it first opened on Trunk Road.

On April 20 – un-coincidentally on international ‘Weed Day’ – the business moved to the nearby strip mall at 677 MacDonald Avenue.

The Vape Escape opened May 1 just a few doors down.

The Vape Escape is set up like a café or a bar and offers a “safe space” for marijuana smokers of all kinds, but its primary focus is medical marijuana use – it’s about a 20/80 ratio, say its owners.

The vape lounge and dispensary operate in simpatico said Katrina Holkko, co-owner of The Vape Escape.

"Say you have your medicinal card and you're buying your medicine next door and you see this wall of different kinds and you’re like… I think I want this one but I’m not sure. Well you can buy it (at Temple Medicinal), come over (to The Vape Escape), try it make sure it alleviates what you need," said Holkko.

Temple Medicinal’s basic business model is for users to pay a $300 application fee to the business that provides them with an ‘information packet’ which includes getting them connected with doctors across the country who are willing to prescribe marijuana via teleconferencing software or even via a Skype call from home.

It’s possible through Temple Medicinal to obtain prescriptions that allow patients to grow their own marijuana, said Ward.

As soon as they have a prescription — though it doesn’t have to be from them — it is then possible to purchase marijuana from Temple Medicinal’s in-house dispensary.

They have on hand a variety of different forms of cannabis from dried versions of the plant, oils, extracts, and a popular concentrated form that sort of looks like toffee called shatter, said Ward.

Some of the product is sourced from local medical marijuana users who have personal growing licenses, said Ward.

The business doesn't carry very much product but what he does have is stored in a secure off-site location he said.

Ward said he believes his business is operating under a “grey area of the law” and he said he is under constant fear of a police raid.

“I’m worried every day I’m going to get shut down,” he said.

Ward is referring to the types of cannabis dispensary raids that recently occurred in southern Ontario in the preceding months.

For example, on May 11, Niagara Regional Police reported that in less than a month they had made four raids on locations selling medical marijuana.

"Although the operators of these places claim that they are providing a service for those who legitimately need marihuana for medical reasons, they are nothing more than drug traffickers," said Niagara police in the press release.

Ward said he does not see what he is doing as wrong; for him it's a matter of giving people access to medicine that they otherwise can't obtain locally, except through black-market dealers.

In 2004, Ward’s leg was crushed in a workplace accident at a steel plant in Hamilton.

“I was eating Oxys and Percocets like candy,” he said. “I used to eat over 15 pills a day in painkillers … it ruined a marriage, I was 250 pounds. I couldn’t get out of my wheelchair,” he said.

Living in the Sault, he would frequently travel to Toronto to get marijuana of a high enough potency to work on him and in 2009 he was stopped and fined $1,000 by police, he said.

“I know how hard it is to get access in this city. I don’t want other patients to have to do that. There are a lot sick patients worse off than I am,” he said.

While medical marijuana is legally available to Saultites by mail order from other sellers, Ward said he believes that having a place in the city that it can be purchased is crucial.

“I have patients that come in on Fridays (and say) my order didn’t come in today; I don’t even know if it’s going to be in on Monday. What are they going to do all weekend?”

Ward said he has flexible pricing for his marijuana.

The product ranges from being priced “compassionately” to costing more, depending on the quality.

Also, if a person comes in suffering from a major illness like AIDS, HIV, multiple scleroses, or cancer, Ward will wave the $300 application fee he said.

The Vape Escape is also perhaps controversial, although its owners say they feel they are not only within their rights to provide a safe space for marijuana consumption but that they are also providing a crucial public service.

“If you live (in an apartment building) and your neighbour doesn’t like the smell of it — because it kind of has a smell and an odour… if I’m going to burn cannabis you’re going to know about it next door — and if it’s not something that you are into, you are going to make a complaint. Now I’m risking my apartment to use my medicine. It becomes kind of a conundrum — now what do I do? Do I go to a park? Well that’s where kids go. Do I just wander around the woods? Well then now I have to go for a walk to use my medicine. What if I’m using it because I have mobility issues? This provides a space for you to come and use it. Like someone would go to a bar at the end of work. They can come here and take the edge off — play Operation,” said Holkko, whose business provides board games.

The Vape Escape owners say they are aware recreational users of marijuana consume cannabis there — something its owners say they permit by not asking for proof of a prescription.

They said they feel the onus of legal marijuana consumption is on the user.

“This place isn’t illegal — it’s legal — and, basically, we assume most people going in have their medical card. Eighty per cent of the people coming in have their medical card and twenty per cent don’t. I just don’t think the cops would want to come in to bust the 20 per cent,” said Randy Dolby, also a co-owner of Vape Escape.

The Vape Escape makes most of its business through daily, weekly, monthly, and annual memberships to the lounge.

It doesn’t sell marijuana or cannabis products — it just rents out bongs and vaporizers.

Smoke and air quality are controlled with a large carbon air filter at the back of the room.

The business operates sort of like a bar or café having live bands, DJs, even stand-up comedy.

Before opening up shop Ward said he reached out to most of city council and local police.

“I talked to city police and they told me they were fine with it as long as the city was fine with it (and the response from city council) was pretty positive, there weren't too many negative responses. I approached everybody personally,” said Ward.

Ward said to regulate how he conducts his business, he is following guidelines set out by the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, a group that describes itself as a ‘not-for-profit corporation established to promote a regulated community-based approach to medical cannabis access.’

Ward says the guidelines mean he follows rules such as not operating within sight of a school, and that he maintains quality control of his product.

The legality of marijuana dispensaries has been called into question by the City of Toronto.

In its annual report released this month, Toronto's Municipal Licensing & Standards department said that in 2016 the city received information and complaints about 143 medical marijuana dispensaries and, while working with Toronto Police Service, laid 347 charges against property owners and employees at these locations.

"There are 38 authorized licensed producers in Canada, and 23 in Ontario. Licensed producers distribute medical marijuana and cannabis oils by mail to authorized users. Storefront distribution of medical marijuana or cannabis is illegal and not permitted,'" reads a statement put out by that department on its website. 

Jeffrey King, a solicitor and prosecutor with the city of Sault Ste. Marie's legal department, said the city does not license businesses under the types of categories under which the Vape Escape and Temple Medicinal appear to be operating

“It would be safe to say they are not operating in any fashion as licensed under the municipality,” said King. “We rely on provincial and federal legislation and the federal legislation here would be the (Controlled) Drugs and Substances Act… so that is what we rely on to regulate the use, selling, and purchasing of that substance currently within the city of Sault Ste. Marie. There has been no bylaw or regulation that has been developed or passed through council to regulate or license dispensaries.”

King said the city received complaints about marijuana being dispensed from a storefront in Sault Ste. Marie, but could not confirm that it was directly related to Temple Medicinal.

King said that if the city received any complaints in the future it would direct the information to city police.

Const. Sonny Spina, of Sault Ste. Marie Police Service, said he believes city police were contacted by Ward but that the conversation was about city bylaws — not a police issue, he says — and not about the legality of the business.

Spina said besides that inquiry, The Vape Escape and Temple Medicinal were not on the police's radar and there has been no investigation launched into them.

"We investigate violations and enforce the law, regardless of whether people believe the law will change at some point in time we have no choice but to enforce what the laws are now. As it currently sits, the possession and selling of marijuana is still illegal and we have to enforce that law, and we will do that until such laws change. We don’t have a choice in that," said Spina.

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Jeff Klassen

About the Author: Jeff Klassen

Jeff Klassen is a SooToday staff reporter who is always looking for an interesting story
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