The Current

How compassion club founder Hilary Black changed the course of cannabis law in Canada

Hilary Black started out distributing cannabis in Vancouver with a mountain bike and a backpack stuffed with joints. Since then, she's helped set the blueprint for medical cannabis distribution and advocated for legislation in front of a Senate committee.

Activist is credited as a key voice helping to push the cause of cannabis legalization

Hilary Black is founder of the B.C. Compassion Club Society, and director of patient education and advocacy for Canopy Growth. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Hilary Black was only a teenager when she took her first step towards eventually changing the course of cannabis laws in Canada.

It was the early 1990s, and she had just finished high school. Hemp BC, one of Vancouver's first cannabis stores, had just opened.

"I just started showing up and kind of being a pain until they eventually hired me," Black told CBC's On Drugs' Geoff Turner.

That early fascination sparked her decades-long crusade for cannabis legalization — which would include founding what many describe as Canada's first cannabis compassion club, and speaking before a Senate committee.

She's now director of patient education and advocacy for Canopy Growth, one of the largest cannabis production companies in the world.

Breaking down the walls to access

Many Hemp BC customers were looking to ease their pain as they were undergoing treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Black vividly remembers the first time she personally delivered cannabis to a customer.

She visited an elderly woman, bedridden with arthritis, in her apartment. She rolled a joint for her — and herself.

"She was like a block — so stock in her body. And as the effects of the joint sunk in, she became catlike, able to move lithely," she recalled.

"It was almost like these chunks of cement were falling off her."

Marijuana supporters gather for a 4/20 cannabis culture rally in Toronto on April 20, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

She then made it her mission to bring cannabis to as many ailing people who wanted it as she could.

"In that moment, I saw like a big wall. And on one side is this plant, and on the other side is this ocean of people that are suffering, and that their suffering can be affected by breaking down that wall," she said.

Many unanswered questions remain about the medical potential of cannabis, largely because it has been difficult for scientists to extensively study an illegal drug. Some public health experts have welcomed legalization, as it will allow them to learn more about its effects.

Compassion club origins

By 1997, she gathered a small number of like-minded herbalists, therapists and counselors to establish the B.C. Compassion Club Society.

The idea was to use cannabis as a "gateway herb" into other healthcare services.

The B.C. Compassion Club Society, which Black founded in 1997, is credited for setting the blueprint for wellness-focused cannabis centres across Canada. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Cannabis activist Dana Larsen credited Black and the BCCCS for forming much of the blueprint for medical-focused dispensaries that would open in the following years.

"With their permission and support, we really copied a lot of their materials: the way they screened patients, the way they set up their club. We mimicked that very much and strongly encouraged others to build on that same successful template that she had created there," he said.

Growing awareness

Awareness — and demand — grew quickly. Black, then in her early 20s, found herself under a national spotlight with little media training.

"My friends teased me … and called me the country's first out-of-the-closet pot dealer," she joked. Black and the BCCCS were featured in a marijuana-focused episode of CBC's The Nature of Things in 1998.

Watch Hilary Black talk about marijuana on The National Magazine in 1997:

Hilary Black talks marijuana in 1997

4 years ago
Duration 7:36
Hilary Black of the B.C. Compassion Club Society and Health Canada's Bruce Rowsell speak to Brian Stewart about marijuana on The National Magazine on July 24, 1997.

Despite growing popular support, as a dispensary the BCCCS still operated in a legal grey area. Black found herself in court "over and over" not to defend the club, but her cannabis suppliers.

"I have had a gun held to my head for being at a cannabis grow facility — and I'm a privileged white girl."

Senate committee

In 2002, the Senate invited Black to speak as part of its Special Committee on Illegal Drugs.

"I gave them hell about how unethical and how unjust it was for this plant to be prohibited, particularly in terms of the application for medical purposes," she said.

Black fondly remembers Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired the committee.

The late Senator Pierre Claude Nolin chaired the 2002 Senate committee on illegal drugs where Hilary Black advocated for the legalization of cannabis. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I think that he had already come to understand that cannabis was not the devil's weed, and that there were benefits to this plant and that the harms of prohibition outweighed the risks," she said.

The report specifically lauded the "considerable expertise currently residing in the compassion clubs" and recommended that Health Canada launch clinical studies in cooperation with the clubs.

Future frameworks

The BCCCS's model has since been cited in a 2016 report on cannabis legalization and regulation by a federal government task force.

The task force visited the BCCCS "in order to learn from its experience of providing cannabis in a holistic, wellness-centred environment to patients in Vancouver for the last two decades."

The compassion club also helped inform Vancouver's approach to granting business licenses to cannabis stores.

Marijuana cuttings, taken from so-called mother plants in Ontario, are seen in Canopy Growth's greenhouse in Delta, B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

If a dispensary meets the city's qualifications of a compassion club — guidelines that closely follow the BCCCS' setup — its annual license fee is set at $1,000, instead of $30,000 for recreational stores.

"It meant that you have to be a non-profit organization, you have to really be committed to dealing with critically and chronically ill patients, and you have to be providing other kinds of health-care services," explains Black.

'The work is not over'

At The Current's town hall on cannabis legalization, Black acknowledged that some may see her current position at Canopy Growth as being at odds with her activist past.

"I faced a lot of criticism, being somebody who comes from the civilly disobedient, grassroots community, who now has a position of power inside the largest cannabis company in the world," she told host Anna Maria Tremonti.

She professed a sense of personal responsibility to help smaller, "mom and pop" cannabis companies transition into the newly regulated market through her company's Canopy Rivers investment project.

Hilary Black peeks into a shipment of cannabis clones at the Delta greenhouse. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

With recreational cannabis now legal across Canada, Black can't help but get a little emotional. "It's a monumental moment in history. It's a moment for Canada to be incredibly proud. Words almost fail me in some ways," she said.

"I think that there's probably about 20 people in Canada whom if any one of them didn't exist, we wouldn't have legalization today. And I think Hilary is one of those people," lauded Larsen.

Even still, Black calls the latest legislation "legalization 1.0," with much more work to be done.

"The work is not over. This is a first step."

On Drugs' episode "Cannabis: from prohibition to legalization" produced by Geoff Turner. The Current's town hall event was produced by Kathleen Goldhar, Geoff Turner, Kristin Nelson and Karin Marley.


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