I Spent an Afternoon at Canada’s First Weed Vending Machine

I visited the BC Pain Society, where Canada’s first pot-dispensing machine hawks half ounces for $50, and chatted with some worried weed smokers about the coming changes to our marijuana laws.

May 15 2014, 2:07pm

Close up of some of the products available in the weed vending machine. All photos via the author.
Twenty minutes after I met Andy Bishop, a self-described “cosmic country” musician in Vancouver, 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-dispensing machine hawks half ounces for $50.

The vending machine has been up-and-running for a month, even though dispensaries have technically been illegal since April 1. New legislation banned all growers except for those certified by Health Canada. A recent injunction allows at-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 they don’t care about cracking heads at these dispensaries, so long as they only sell to patients. The current vending machine 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 Van.

I meet Varabioff in his office inside the dispensary. His vending machine sells 10 different strains. “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 says.

The second machine will have the same 10 strains, but will be fitted with grams instead of eighths, quarters, and half ounces. The single gram is going to sell for $5—half of what prohibition pricing dictates. Varabioff considers this to be the best price in North America.

Andy Bishop lights up after using the weed vending machine, even though he usually saves the Kush for later in the evening.
Their best seller is the Master Kush. “It's blowing off the vending machine, three, four times a day I'm filling it,” says Varabioff. 

When Bishop arrives, all he needs to provide is a membership from another dispensary, one piece of photo ID, and a filled-out form.

Even though he’s been smoking pot since he was a teenager, Bishop only recently started using it for medicinal purposes. Bishop is 31 years old and a 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. And I heard they're not accepting the nature path prescription, only federal approved ones. For someone like myself, it's harder to get those,” he says.

Bishop settles on a gram of Master Kush from the aptly decorated vending machine and asks for some rolling paper before lighting up. The product is top notch, it’s gentle on the throat and very mellow.   

Besides the vending machine, the B.C. Pain Society also has a gumball machine with single grams.
Bishop tells me he recently checked out Seattle, but he found it more restrictive. He says there are laws that prohibit dispensaries within certain distances of parks and schools. Not here: Clark Park is just across the street, so is Stratford Hall, a K-12 school.

As we start blazing inside the dispensary, I meet two more Vancouverites with pot scripts. 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 says.

After Prit we meet Justin Johnson, a part-time worker at the BC Pain Society who prefers smoking concentrates (which are not considered legal under Health Canada’s new rules) but is an avid vending machine user. "I use a solvent extraction,” he says as he brings a canister to the table. It’s filled with the same stuff you would use to refill your lighter. He also shows me a small container of resin that resembles honey and another product that looks 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. Who has time to sit there and smoke that much? I have a life, a son, a career,” says Prit.

"This is called shatter," Johnson says. The polymer solid will rip the lipid from the cannabis plant, I’m told.

Johnson then heats up a titanium nail attached to the bong with a small blowtorch, which is a direct pathway to being super duper stoned called dabbing. The dude takes a hit and immediately the room smells like metal. It's not the same earthy smell you'll get from smoking. I’m also 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," he says between coughing. "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 turns to the new legislation. "The government should always allow the patient to grow their own, they're trying to standardize it like Monsanto. They want us to get all of our pot from the government ready to roll, that's gross," says Johnson.

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 federal approved prescription. Both are reasonable fears when it comes to the new legislation.

"At the end of the day it's about much more than the vending machine," says Johnson. During the two hours or so that I’m sitting in the dispensary at least 10 people use the vending machine, not bad considering it’s 1 PM on a weekday.

Bishop agrees with Johnson, at this moment 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 okay for them to have. They’ll have to do something illegal because they won't be able to afford it," says Bishop.

By now I can really feel the effects of the Kush. It’s time to head home for a nap, but not before picking up some coconut curry noodles.