[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Culture magazine in April 2006]
At an unpublished location in downtown Toronto, an intentionally nondescript storefront doles out comfort and hope in the form of cannabis medicine for nearly 1,600 patients. In operation since 1998, the CALM compassion club is one of Ontario’s largest medical cannabis dispensaries.
Boasting three full-time managers with nearly 15 years of combined compassion club experience and a volunteer workforce of 10, CALM began when its founder joined a university hemp club and learned about the efficacy of cannabis for HIV and AIDS. Shortly thereafter, he began using cannabis to treat his migraine headaches. The relief he experienced made him a believer.
“I heard how cannabis was being used for HIV. The university was located down the street from the gay district here in Toronto. I just sent feelers out to see what was going on, and the feedback was that it works. So I had a feeling [the club] would be well received,” said Neev, who also serves the role of CALM’s director.
In its third downtown Toronto location, CALM has for eight years helped deliver medicinal cannabis products and counseling to the area’s sick. The most common avenue by which the club receives new members is family doctors and specialists. “Once they get feedback from the patients they’ve referred, they feel more comfortable about sending others,” said Neev. Word of mouth is also a significant recruiting mechanism for the club.
The most prevalent ailments found in the club are HIV and AIDS. “I believe we have one of the highest HIV populations of all medical clubs, which makes our demographic mostly white, mostly male, and mostly between 30 and 45 years old,” said Neev.
Domenic, CALM’s general manager, described the club’s environment. “Clients know that when they come here, they’re safe and won’t get ripped off. We have a very visual distribution where they see exactly what they’re getting,” he said. Domenic described how the club employs subtle touches—such as classical music, aromatherapy, and professionally dressed staff—to create an environment that’s as healthy and stress free as possible.
“Organizations like TCC [the Toronto Compassion Club] and CALM exist because the powers that be at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels realize the need to help sick Canadians and that they can’t do it,” said Jon, CALM’s manager.
“So we live in this grey area, we compassion clubs,” he continued. “We’re seen as a necessary evil. We’re allowed to exist right now because we take care of a segment of the population that [the government] can’t. But I’d like to see the whole perception changed from a necessary evil to just necessary,” he said.
More Than Medicine
In this respect, CALM is, by design, more than merely a cannabis dispensary. Instead, it’s an invitingly warm and soothing environment for its members. CALM staff are focused on and nearly obsessed with ensuring that each member experiences a holistic, nurturing, and stress-free environment. Operating under the belief that stress exacerbates illness, the staff has worked hard to create—pardon the pun—a calming environment for its members.
“This should be like a pharmacy,” said Domenic. “Cannabis should be distributed in the same professional manner, at the same educated level, and with the same security,” he said, adding, “Our members deserve that; they’re sick people.” The atmosphere at CALM is a stark contrast to the avenue by which most members obtained their medicine prior to joining the club: the black market. “We’re providing a valuable social service,” said Neev.
Tracy, CALM’s Projects Coordinator, described how one of the club’s members, a single mother suffering from fibromyalgia, during her first cannabis purchase suffered the bad luck of buying from an undercover police officer. “She was traumatized,” said Tracy. In the secure and professional environment of CALM, however, this once fearful mother says she actually enjoys shopping for her medicine.
One approach employed by the club is that of treating symptoms instead of diseases. “Someone who’s having sleeplessness due to multiple sclerosis might use the same strain as someone with sleeplessness due to cancer,” said Neev. As part of this effort, CALM maintains separate strain and baked goods feedback logs in its lounge, allowing members to share their efficacy experiences with others.
CALM is somewhat unique among compassion clubs in its community outreach efforts. “CALM is a little different in that it takes on many side projects, such as the Global Marijuana March. We have several ambitious projects on our 12-month schedule,” said Neev. The club is also very involved with Toronto’s annual Pride Day in late June and helped produce the risqué 2006 Budbabes wall calendar (Tracy’s brainchild).
Ensuring Quality Medicine
Members of CALM can choose from a wide variety of forms of cannabis medicine, including herbal bud, tinctures (in the form of mouth sprays), hash, and a plethora of edibles, including brownies, chocolate and vanilla truffles, apple spice cupcakes, extra strength sativa brownies, and several flavors of indica and sativa cookies. The club carefully labels edibles as either indica or sativa and, when possible, references relative potency.
For herbal bud, CALM identifies each strain’s balance of indica and sativa as a ratio. “80/20 S,” for example, indicates a hybrid strain with 80 percent sativa and 20 percent indica. According to Domenic, this helps ensure that patients find the right medicine for their particular ailment and stress level. It also allows members some independence in their choice of medicine.
CALM employs several processes to ensure the quality of the cannabis it dispenses to its members. “The most common is a microscopic inspection,” said Neev. “This reveals any mold or fungus, the main reasons we might turn down a product.”
“It’s always a challenge finding consistency,” he said. “At the drop of a hat, a grower may have to move. They may be out of commission for six months. If they’ve had a robbery, they’ll probably quit for at least a year or two,” he lamented.
CALM has enjoyed long-term relationships with most of its gardeners. “We try to foster communications directly with the grower so we can refine any aspect of the production process,” said Neev. “We learn what kind of nutrients they’re using. We find out which boosters or supplements they’re using.”
The club reports that it is able to establish direct relationships with 80-90 percent of growers. “Most growers want to work with us, but sometimes they’re far away; there’s a million reasons why a grower might not want to work directly with us.” However, Neev reports that most growers who supply CALM consistently provide a high level of quality. If growers don’t maintain certain standards, CALM simply refuses to work with them.
“First, it has to be mold and pesticide free. Once we’ve established that, we look for quality,” said Neev. “Even if it looks good, it might not actually be good,” he said, explaining how the final determinate of a potential crop’s fate is an old fashioned subjective smoke test from an experienced staff member. “Every so often, we’ll get something that doesn’t look all that great but has a really good kick or body buzz,” he said.
The need to establish the absence of mold and fungus has been dealt with in a creative and surprisingly inexpensive way at CALM. Employing a special microscope designed to work with a computer via its USB port, CALM inspects samples of all medicine under 60 times magnification. “The microscope is an excellent barometer,” said Neev. The club has been using photos produced by the microscope to catalog the strains it offers.
When possible, CALM takes its quality assurance effort a step further, inspecting the gardens themselves. “We make sure that they’re clean and the wiring is safe,” said Neev. “We check everything to ensure that it’s a high quality growing environment.”
CALM doesn’t publish prices outside its membership, but said that it’s competitive with the black market. “I’d love to see marijuana given away to sick people,” said Neev, “But we’d be incurring problems.”
In accordance, the club enforces a strict resell policy. “To help prevent reselling, we can’t make it like a dollar or two a gram, because the resell value is just too high,” said Neev. “We have to be competitive with the black market, but not so competitive that we’re feeding the black market,” he added. Of CALM’s 1,600 members, about 50 have been relieved of their membership for reselling.
CALM employs a diverse staff, allowing it to fluidly communicate with and counsel members from equally diverse backgrounds. All staff except one are serious medical users, all with different conditions.
The club’s management is derived almost entirely from the ranks of its membership, allowing those who manage the club to better empathize with members. But, as pointed out by Neev, recruiting staff from the membership is a double-edged sword. “The benefit is that you have firsthand experience. The drawback is you don’t have certified experience,” he said. “We do some of the pharmaceutic functions of a nurse, but we’re not nurses, we’re not pharmacists.”
It’s difficult for those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting this safe and professional downtown dispensary to truly understand the positive tone of CALM’s staff and membership. In a private moment on the patio of a nearby smoking café, Jon described how he quit a good paying job to engage in the more selfless pursuit of working at CALM and chasing something other than money. “We have kind of a solemn duty to help our fellow Canadians, you know?” he said soberly.
Probably the most accurate gauge of the effectiveness and quality of a compassion club is its membership. CALM boasts members ranging in age from 19 to 79. While most members have HIV or AIDS, the club’s relatively large patient base finds within its ranks nearly every major malady.
Mona, who requested that her last name be withheld, joined CALM six years ago as its 456th member. This 79-year-old medical user’s conditions include asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis. “If God grew anything better, he kept it for himself,” she said about the medicine she receives from CALM. But Mona’s uniqueness includes more than her status as CALM’s oldest member. She has been using cannabis to treat her ailments for more than 60 years, longer than most cannabis users have been alive.
When asked if, after six decades of use, she believed she could be addicted to cannabis, Mona confidently said no. “I can quit it. If I haven’t got it, I’m not going to go out and shoot somebody or steal something or do something I shouldn’t. If people think that, they’re wrong,” she said.
Mona said she appreciates CALM’s cannabis because it doesn’t cause negative side effects or lead to addiction, unlike many of the pharmaceutical drugs she’s been prescribed over the years. She described the painful experience of becoming addicted to Percodan, a pain killer used to treat moderate-to-severe pain. “When they found me, I had thrown up and was in the middle of the floor, shaking,” she said. “I didn’t know my name.” Mona reported that she’s been able to significantly reduce her dependence on pharmaceutical drugs because of her use of medical-grade cannabis from CALM.
Mona obtains all of her medicine from CALM. When asked what she would do if CALM went away, she immediately became jittery and her voice cracked. “Oh, don’t tell me that, don’t tell me that. They help a lot of people here.”
Greg, a 53-year-old member, suffers from severe osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. A veteran member of CALM with more than six years of membership under his belt, he reports that he’s been able to dramatically reduce his reliance upon pharmaceutical drugs simply by making medical-grade cannabis a part of his daily life.
Greg, who works in the information technology industry, said that he couldn’t perform his job duties if cannabis didn’t reduce his reliance upon pharmaceutical drugs. “Without cannabis, I couldn’t do my job,” he said. Greg said his use of cannabis as medicine, “Is about being able to function…about being able to work.”
Jennifer, a 21-year-old suffering from bipolar disorder, is one of the newest members of CALM. Previously a heavy drug user, she said she has learned much from CALM’s staff.
“If I’m feeling really manic and I smoke an indica, I can calm down and take a break. And if I’m feeling really low and depressed and can’t get out of bed, I smoke a good strong sativa and I feel great,” she said.
Like Greg, Jennifer explained how cannabis reduces the negative side effects of her pharmaceutical drugs. “My hands shake from all the lithium,” she said during an interview at CALM. “If I smoke a joint, they stop shaking and I can write,” she said with a smile.
Gloria, a CALM member who suffers from fibromyalsia, migraine headaches, and osteoarthritis, has been using medical cannabis for about 30 years. She learned about CALM from her doctor, who recommended that she take medical marijuana to treat her symptoms.
Gloria said she appreciates the quality of the cannabis made available from CALM, which she said is a great deal better than the street pot she used to purchase to treat her ailments. “I never knew what I was going to get [from the black market]. It was totally different from what we get here at CALM,” she said.
Gooey Rabinski is a counterculture writer who has contributed dozens of feature articles to magazines such as High Times, Skunk, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana (2015 Edition), available on Amazon Kindle.