Vancouver Island Health Authority begins issuing warnings for edibles

On March 14, the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) conducted an inspection at the Gorge Street Medijuana Dispensary located at 603 gorge Rd E, based on a telephone complaint filed with the regulatory agency.

On March 14, the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) conducted an inspection at a Victoria cannabis dispensary in response to a telephone complaint filed with the regulator.

Based on the complaint and inspection, VIHA says they have issued an order to that dispensary to no longer sell edibles. If marijuana edibles are observed in the facility during future visits, says a letter, issued by VIHA “enforcement actions such as the issuance of violation tickets and or other enforcement actions will be considered.”

Shannon Marshall, the communications director for VIHA, said the health agency will soon be issuing similar warnings to other dispensaries selling edibles in their jurisdiction.

“A member of the public went into a marijuana dispensary and they had made a complaint to us about the sanitation of the dispensary and the fact they are selling edible food products there.

“They called our environmental health officers and based on that complaint, they did an inspection and they issued an order for that dispensary to no longer sell those food products, because in accordance with the public health act and the food premises regulation—and that’s a federal statute—all food ingredients have to come from an approved source, and there’s no approved source for marijuana edibles at this time.

“So based on that, we had to issue an order to that particular dispensary to no longer sell edible products and we will be following up with the other dispensaries that are selling edibles products in the Island Health area."

VIHA’s mandate, says Marshall, is to enforce Public Health Act and the Food Premises Regulations. Anyone selling or making food products must be approved by VIHA.

Victoria recently passed regulations that will allow dispensaries to apply for business licenses. Unlike Vancouver, which passed similar regulations, Victoria’s rules allow for the sale of edibles. VIHA’s jurisdiction would take precedent over Victoria's regulations.

James Whitehead, the owner of Gorge Medijuana Dispensary, the business in question, says he's frustrated by and skeptical of the actions, but does understand why VIHA felt they had to take action. He is also happy that they are not targeting oils, which still means patients have access to an oral ingestion, even if not in a food product.

"I feel bad for the people who are going to be denied access to edibles, if that's their most convenient form of ingestion, but (what we're doing) is still illegal and the fact that VIHA is permitting capsules and dried cannabis, other cannabis products, without intervening in that, is positive, given that they could say that all cannabis products are banned."

"It's not the best thing ever, but it's also not the worst. Everybody who does this has to acknowledge what we're doing is federally illegal, and if the civic bodies are going to be brave enough to create rules and legislation, we're kind of lucky that they are and they're not just outright saying no and raiding us. So if this is a chance to avoid being raided and a chance to get a civic business license to live to fight another day, that's what this comes down to. And I'm just being very pragmatic in saying that. I don't agreement with it in principle, but I agree with it in practicality."

"I never built up a large edibles audience in my business," he says, "because I've always known this ban was coming. I never thought that Island Health would get their head around how to (regulate cannabis). That's way beyond their scope."

Whitehead says bylaw officers visited his shop twice yesterday, and once today. He says he's surprised his shop was the one targeted, when they only sell nine different edible products, compared to many competitors, who he estimates may see up to half their sales in edibles.

"A complaint is a complaint. The power of a complaint in this industry is very strong, perhaps stronger than the power of a complain against a coffee shop or something like that."

As for cleanliness, he's surprised by that accusation as well.Whitehead says his dispensary has stainless steel countertops and an extensive cleaning protocol. He also questions why a customer would come into a dispensary and then file a complaint with VIHA, rather than speaking to the owners of the dispensary.

"I know my stores are very clean. All my staff come to work in a suit and tie, or a lab jackets, we have a cleaning schedule and an ample amount of cleaning products and I know that we are a clean store. So was the complaint legitimate? Was the complaint from a competitor? Was the complaint from somebody who doesn't like dispensaries? I'll never know. Generally speaking, when someone has got a complaint and is actually a customer, usually we'll hear about those complaints first hand, as opposed to them calling up the VIHA."

Alex Robb, a liaison for Trees Dispensary, which has several locations on Vancouver Island, says part of the concern for dispensary owners and patients is that cannabis edibles are a more effective tool for pain management than smoking or vaporizing, and he hopes public health agencies like VIHA and the BC Ministry of Health can recognize that edibles serve a purpose from a harm reduction standpoint. Trees has not received a warning letter as of press time.

"There’s a mountain of evidence building that cannabis edibles are the best way to deal with chronic pain, rather than opioids," says Robb. "Doctors ought to be prescribing more cannabinoids, not to be smoked, but something that can be taken in an edible format—something that’s easier, less unhealthy, is longer lasting, and has better pain reducing effects.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that for those authorized to use cannabis for medical purposes, it is no longer an offence to possess marijuana derivatives, saying “the prohibition on non-dried medical marihuana undermines the health and safety of medical marihuana users by diminishing the quality of their medical care.”

However, the only legal sources to buy consumable edible cannabis products currently are via Health Canada’s ACMPR, with a handful of producers selling cannabis oils and at least one producer selling decarboxylated dried cannabis for consumption.

 This article has been updated to add comment from James Whitehead. This article originally referred to Mr Whitehead as Mr Whitehall. Our apologies. 

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