February 14, 2014 - 2:59 PM
STIGMA GOING UP IN SMOKE
VERNON - Teagan Blair can finally buy his medicine without feeling like a criminal.
The 23-year-old used to buy off the street, not fully knowing what he was getting. That was before the Herbal Health Centre opened seven months ago on Kalamalka Lake Road, just outside the City of Vernon. Undiagnosed with all the symptoms of Crohn’s disease—he suffers severe abdominal pain and debilitating nausea—cannabis is the only thing that makes Blair feel better.
On a Wednesday evening, he joins the after work rush of medical marijuana patients at the dispensary. The selection is huge—everything from cannabis butters to jams and lotions. It’s a scene right out of a bakery with customers pointing at items in the brightly lit display cases. It’s a totally new way for people like Blair to purchase marijuana.
“The relief of not having to look over your shoulder all the time, meeting sketchy people, getting (pot) from a shady guy in a car—this is ten times better. Coming here and feeling comfortable with the people you’re dealing with is amazing,” Blair says.
His favourite product at the Herbal Health Centre is shatter—a hard, amber-coloured chunk of butane-extracted hash oil. It’s potent, and it’s expensive at over $90 a pop. But it works. He can finally keep a meal down and stop taking a cocktail of pills.
"THE STIGMA I HAD ABOUT IT—LIKE WITH SO MANY OTHER PEOPLE—JUST LIFTED"
Imre Kovacs is part owner of the Herbal Health Centre and every day, he watches pain on the faces of his customers turn to smiles; elderly women forget their canes or walkers in the store, their pain temporarily gone.
“It’s not a business I ever pictured myself associated with,” Kovacs says. "I had a negative take on drugs in general growing up, and that was a direct result of the kind of teaching I received in school... everything was painted in a bad light... with cannabis rolled into a ball with other drugs used recreationally like narcotics, crack cocaine, methamphetamine. What changed my mind was seeing how other people used it, how people grew it and I saw nothing but good things. When I saw what was going on... the stigma I had about it—like with so many other people—just lifted.”
It’s a frequent transformation at the Herbal Health Centre where assumptions and preconceived notions are washed away. It’s not surprising that a lot of people accidentally wander in thinking it’s a yoga studio or chiropractors office—anything but the semi-legal entity it is. The new approach is a departure from the stereotypical 420 culture, Kovacs says.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What do people want?’ People like an environment that’s nice to be in, services that are comprehensive, intelligent, friendly staff and a good selection of product. Pharmaceuticals are handled this way, why should (cannabis) be any different? It’s retail, it’s not rocket science, but (the industry) has not been approached that way,” Kovacs says.
THE CENTRE OPERATES IN A FLUID GREY AREA, LEGAL ON ONE LEVEL OF GOVERNMENT AND OUTLAWED ON ANOTHER
They chose to open the Herbal Health Centre in Vernon simply because they already live here and it’s proven to be a good choice. With nearly 500 members, there’s demand—though they already knew that. What they were pleased to find was acceptance from local government. The federal government may view the company as an illegal, though tolerated entity, but the City of Vernon has given it a proper business license. The centre operates in a fluid grey area, legal on one level of government and outlawed on another.
The fear of being shut down lingers in the back of the owners’ minds. But as unpredictable as the industry is, Kovacs knows there’s a future in dispensing marijuana. Whether patients are growing themselves, or receiving by mail order—as Health Canada has demanded under new legislation—there’s skill and expertise in preparing it for consumption.
“It’s not for everyone... there’s a learning curve and usually it’s done with (flammable substances) so working with (it) is potentially dangerous,” Kovacs says.
While accessing marijuana is easier than it’s ever been for Blair, he still had to pay a doctor close to $300 to do the paperwork for his license. If he shared the hesitancy many patients have toward the drug, it would have been even harder to step through the doors of the Herbal Health Centre. He hopes one day it will be easier for people. Once you’ve seen the positive effects it has—like his family, friends and coworkers have—he insists it’s impossible to see cannabis as anything but a miracle.
“There’s not a prescription the doctors can write that (marijuana) is doing for me,” he says.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.
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