Some of the products available in the weed vending machine. All photos by the author
Twenty minutes after I met Andy Bishop – a self-described “cosmic country” musician – in Vancouver, British Columbia, I watched him buy weed from a vending machine. Bishop, who has a medical prescription to use marijuana, agreed to meet me for the first time at the BC Pain Society, where Canada’s first pot vending machine hawks half ounces for $50 (£30).
The machine has been up and running for a month, even though dispensaries have technically been illegal since the 1st of April, when legislation banned all growers except for those certified by Health Canada. (An injunction currently allows home growers to keep doing their thing, but the court order’s not meant to last.)
Places like the Pain Society operate in a legal grey zone, but it hasn’t slowed business, especially since the Vancouver Police Department has explicitly stated it doesn’t care about cracking heads at these dispensaries so long as they only sell to patients. The current vending machine, which sells ten different strains, has been such a hit that a new one is going to be installed tomorrow. The society’s president, Chuck Varabioff, is planning to open two more in East Vancouver.
“We keep the most popular stuff here, so that we have a quick turnover. Nothing goes stale, nothing stays here for more than a week,” he told me.
The second machine will have the same ten strains, but will be fitted with grams instead of eighths, quarters and half ounces. The single gram is going to sell for $5 (£3) – half of what prohibition pricing dictates. Varabioff claims this is the best price in North America.
Andy Bishop lights up after using the weed vending machine.
Their best seller is the Master Kush. “It's blowing off the vending machine – three, four times a day I'm filling it,” said Varabioff.
When Bishop arrives, all he needs to provide is a membership from another dispensary, a piece of photo ID and a completed form.
Even though he’s been smoking pot since he was a teenager, Bishop only recently started using it for medicinal purposes. Bishop is a 31-year-old guitarist who’s played in semi-decent indie rock bands. When he started having pain in his wrists, he looked for a solution that didn’t involve pills.
He’s had the script for six months, and so far Vancouver’s been the easiest place to score medicinal weed.
“I was happy when I got a card here, thinking I would be able to use it back east, but in Toronto it was very hush-hush. I couldn't even get to a dispensary," he said. "And I heard they're not accepting the nature path prescription, only federally approved ones. For someone like myself, it's harder to get those.”
Bishop settled on a gram of Master Kush from the aptly decorated vending machine and asked for some rolling papers before lighting up. The product is top notch – it’s gentle on the throat and very mellow.
Besides the vending machine, the BC Pain Society also has a gumball machine with single grams.
Bishop told me that he recently checked out Seattle, but he found it more restrictive – there are laws that prohibit dispensaries within certain distances of parks and schools. Not here: Clark Park is just across the street, and so is Stratford Hall, a public school.
As we started blazing inside the dispensary, I met more Vancouverites with pot scripts. (During the two hours or so that I spent in the dispensary, at least ten people used the vending machine – not bad for the middle of a weekday.) Freyja Prit is a real estate agent who uses weed chocolate to manage pain from terminal cancer. “Some of the older ladies feel more comfortable talking with me. So I'll sit down with them and talk about the types of uses,” she said.
I also spoke with Justin Johnson, a part-time worker at the BC Pain Society, who prefers smoking concentrates (which are not considered legal under Canada’s new rules) but is an avid vending machine user. "I use a solvent extraction,” he said as he brought a canister to the table that's filled with the same stuff you would use to refill your lighter. He also showed me a small container of resin that resembles honey and another product that looked like dark brown glass wrapped in paper.
If there’s one thing every medicinal user has an opinion on, it’s technique. “I take an eighth of a teaspoon of my infused oil and it's the equivalent of sitting there and smoking four to five grams," said Prit. "Who has time to sit there and smoke that much? I have a life, a son, a career.”
Johnson was a little more hardcore. As I watched, he heated up a titanium nail attached to his bong with a small blowtorch, an advanced stoner technique called dabbing. The dude took a hit and immediately the room smelled like metal instead of the pleasant earthy smell you get from smoking. I was suddenly aware and thankful for the huge air vent sitting in the middle of the room.
"You'll probably get high if you sit around me," Johnson said between coughs. "What you just saw me do is the equivalent to one gram of marijuana in one go."
Justin Johnson smokes resin.
After a few more hits, the conversation turned to the new legislation. "The government should always allow the patient to grow their own – they're trying to standardise it like Monsanto," Johnson said. "They want us to get all of our pot from the government, ready to roll. That's gross."
Most folks at the Pain Society seem to think pot will be more expensive if the government takes control. Others fear they won’t be able to get a federally approved prescription. Both are reasonable fears.
"At the end of the day it's about much more than the vending machine," said Johnson.
Bishop agreed with Johnson – right now, getting your fix is pretty simple, but that might change. “This new law is unconstitutional because you’re not allowing people to have medicine that you said it was OK for them to have," said Bishop. "They’ll have to do something illegal because they won't be able to afford it."
By then I could really feel the effects of the kush. It was time to head home for a nap, but not before picking up some coconut curry noodles.
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