In Celebration of the Buddha’s Sister
By Mandy Vance for the Buddha’s Sister
I first walked into the Buddha’s Sister House of Cannabis in the fall of 2014. The hardwood floors were pristine, and the star-shaped lanterns behind the counter were shining warmly. They were shining more brightly when I left!
I was crippled with anxiety when I arrived at the House of Cannabis. Although I am often told I don’t look it, I am highly challenged by symptoms of GAD and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My anxiety takes many forms, from panic attacks to insomnia and IBS. I prefer cannabis to most prescription medications, and at Buddha’s Sister I found my antidote.
I am not alone in this. A lot of Canadians smoke! In 2013, 14.2 per cent of British Columbians admitted to using cannabis. Still, 84,91/1,000 people were arrested for marijuana posession in B.C that year, in spite of the fact that just twelve months before, 73 per cent of the province told the Liberal Party Forum Research pollsters to end prohibition.
By 2017, the new federal Liberal government promises national legalization will be secured. In the meantime the medical marijuana industry in Vancouver has taken off. Since 2010, more than a hundred and thirty dispensaries have cropped up.
The Buddha’s Sister House of Cannabis is one of them, but it is more than a dispensary. Opened in 2014, on West 4th in Kitsilano, the shop is an oasis for the sick and stressed. One patient joked one day that he “drives a long way” for his conversations with staff member Zach. For sale alongside the flowers, concentrates, ointments and bath salts are beautifully-intricate wooden carvings, burning sage, dangling pendants, and dramatic quartz crystals.
In its first year the Buddha’s Sister was host to events that members like myself will not forget, from yoga and meditation to DJ’ed parties in which medicated chocolate fountains flowed before strawberries for dipping. Local and distant customers became fast regulars.
“We have a huge range of customers,” says owner Tina. “We get people who are homeless, and we get patients who are lawyers or doctors. Pharmacists come through here. Students too. There’s a huge range. Anyone from 19 years of age to ninety years old comes in.”
Despite its popularity and the advancing cannabis legalization agenda, the Buddha’s Sister, like many other dispensaries, faces possible closure on April 29, 2016. The City of Vancouver, once un-coordinated in its response to the growing cannabis industry, has announced new licensing regulations that limit possible locations substantially. The Buddha’s Sister is affected by the new guidelines, which were unavailable when it opened.
For a shop like the Buddha’s Sister, which has always worked to respect public order as well as its community while dealing with controversial but important work, the change is a shock. For customers like me, the potential loss of the store is painful, even if online shipping continues. As is, the online shop serves a growing client list, including in Ontario.
In celebration of the shop’s history, we offer an interview with the shop’s owner, Tina. The interview was conducted in September 2015 and has been edited for clarity.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you get into alternative medicine like marijuana and crystals?
My father. He was sick, and he had a doctor who wasn’t giving him any real diagnosis or helpful treatment, so we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. I remember leaving my dad’s apartment one weekend and driving home and feeling really powerless to help him. I just kept watching my dad get sicker and sicker and that drove me into starting to seek out alternative forms of healing. I found this whole industry of holistic health. I started studying crystals, and reiki, and really dove into the whole industry. Shortly after that I went to visit my dad, and he was really sick again, so I made him go to the hospital even though he didn’t want to, and he was finally diagnosed with cancer. That’s when we started to find out about cannabis as an alternative medication, to help with nausea especially.
I know there is some debate that marijuana can actually cure cancer. Or does it mostly only help the symptoms?
It helps the symptoms for sure and it’s been said to help treat cancer. My dad, however… It was left too long before it could be treated. And so I have a problem with the medical system and that’s why I’m in this industry. I stuck with the holistic industry after my experience with my dad, and when dispensaries started opening up in Vancouver, I jumped into that. I wanted to be able to help people. I’ve always had that in me, but especially because of my experience with my dad… And that’s basically why I opened Buddha’s Sister, to help people who are looking for alternative medication and care.
Are you from Vancouver?
I grew up with my dad in Vancouver. I was kind of part time in Vancouver and part time in Tsawwassen where I am now.
Do you see yourself as a political activist?
Yes I do, absolutely.
Was it difficult to set up the shop here? Did you encouter any resistance? How did you go about getting a license?
It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Prior to opening up, I looked into a lot of sources, and I couldn’t find much… I was digging and digging to find some kind of license… I went to different dispensaries that were open and asked different questions. I never got any clear answers. I assumed there was no license, so I just opened up. We leased this space, and no one questioned us at all… I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when we opened up the surrounding community, the retail too, was very supportive. I was surprised.
That’s really great. I would expect some resistance. Do you ever get people who come in from the streets and have an opinion that’s maybe a little…
I have not had a problem with anybody, except one woman who had a problem with the fact that I put the name ‘Buddha’ in the title. That was more of a religious point of view but that was it and we talked about it. Zero resistance.
So is it interesting to be an activist with zero resistance?
It’s great. I’ve had so many people come in and say “I love this space. I love the style of this. I love the fact that you incorporate spirituality and other alternative medicines in your dispensary. I love how it’s not closed off, with bars on the windows” – or different things like that, like you see in other dispensaries. People love the energy here and are happy and surprised. People have pre-conceptions about what a dispensary will be like. And when they come to this one they’re like “Oh… this is kind of nice.” And you can see people step out of the closet a little more. You know, they see it’s okay to use alternative medicine to cope with your illness. It’s a safe space to do it. That’s important and our experience so far.
Vancouver is a good place to start doing that, though I was surprised to see you in Kitsilano.
I think people in this area are into alternative healing so we fit in okay here. Some people don’t like the dispensary next door. They don’t like ‘drug culture.’ [That dispensary] is here for different reasons than us. We are here to heal. We have good intentions.
How do you define good intentions? Is this about the medical/recreational divide? What are your feelings on that?
Well, I… For us, our intentions are to help people feel comfortable, to educate them about our product in a clean and safe space, whereas maybe some dispensaries are just about making money and will sell anything to anyone. They don’t care about the struggles and frustrations that people go through with different illnesses. There are lots of reasons to use [marijuana], all kinds of reasons, and buying should be a nice and safe experience.
How do people join your dispensary? What do you say to people who come in off the street, not necessarily with a card?
They have to have a card. We have an in-house doctor, here on Thursdays, so we provide a patient with easy access to get their papers done. We do have people who come in here and say their doctor is hesitant to give them a note… There is an educational component involved in what we do. People see our in-house doctor, they bring in someone with them, they bring in confirmation of their diagnosis, and then we help them out.
This doctor is homeopathic?
She’s a psychologist actually.
Who comes in here on average?
Anyone who comes in must be 19. Mostly we see males, but we are starting to see a softer edge. More females feel comfortable coming in here because of the style of our shop. We get people who are homeless, and we get patients who are lawyers or doctors themselves. Pharmacists come through here. Students. There’s a huge range. Anyone from 19 years of age to ninety years old comes through here. Some people come in once a day. Some people come in twice a day. Some people come in every second day, once a week, once every few weeks. It varies. We have a lot of good, regular customers though. We have people that travel from Surrey, Maple Ridge, North Van, Richmond, Ladner, Tsawwassen… People spend the time to drive here, which we are very happy about.
What kinds of illnesses do you see people come in with?
The most common issues are with stress, insomnia, epilepsy, cancer, and Crohn’s. Those are the top five reasons people come to us. People also come for depression, psoriasis and arthritis. We note in people’s files what they are experiencing. We pay attention.
Is there a limit to how much people can buy from you?
Health Canada limits us to sell 52 grams per person per thirty days. Of course, a patient could go to numerous dispensaries to get more than that. This is where I feel there is a lack of structure. There’s not enough communication between dispensaries. I mean, there could be big improvement in knowing what’s going on with patients to better monitor what people are purchasing. Right now, I don’t know, there is no structure.
In parts of Holland, there is an electronic system that monitors what people buy.
Yeah, Canada is way behind in this area compared to other people. We smoke, but we are behind [on policy]. We need to do a lot of catching up. We don’t work with Health Canada. We have reached out and asked to, but they don’t know what their policy is going to be. There are no direct guidelines for me. A couple of other dispensaries and I are willing to work side by side with authorities, and I have noticed a bit of cooperation between different dispensaries with the same concerns in the industry. There is some networking. We want to lead the way to establish some guidelines and stable order for people to work through. I know a lot of people are confused and some businesses here need to do work on cleanliness, developing protocol… I’ve walked into dispensaries that look like a druggie’s home. The energy is not good and I don’t support that kind of business model.
What attracted me to this place was definitely the cleanliness, the commercial aspect but also how spiritual it is. It feels like a lot of love went into this place.
Do you worry the medicinal component will get lost when prohibition is ended?
It’s possible and that’s okay to a point. In Colorado there are taxes coming in now, and big changes happening so the industry is a medical and a recreational one. It can work, I think, but there’s a lot of uncertainty right now. We don’t where we stand and that’s hard.
So you as a dispensary owner are not totally sure what you would like legalization to look like?
Not exactly. It’s got to benefit everybody, be an agreement that works for people. It can’t be about the government wanting a bunch of money, though the taxes help. [But only money] won’t benefit everyone the way legalization could. This isn’t alcohol or tobacco. Marijuana is different and should be treated separately from those products. I hope it keeps away from the liqour and tobacco kind of model. If they do that, it will change the whole thing.
I think for a lot of people it is a lot like alcohol or tobacco. That’s an easy comparison for them to make.
But it’s not the same. The death rates from cigarettes and alcohol… The overdoses associated with alcohol… Diseases that come from it like liver disease… These are not a problem with [marijuana]. No one has died from it. People use it as a medicine, and it affects people very differently depending on their illness. This is what I mean about the lack of education in this whole thing. People assume marijuana is so bad but that’s an old-school idea… This is a sacred plant. If you respect it, and use it that way, the benefits are extreme.
The Buddha’s Sister is located at 2918 West 4th Street. If you are interested in saving your community dispensary, sign a petition in store.