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COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the biggest protest and celebration for the Victoria cannabis community on Monday, hitting one group particularly hard.

April 20 is recognized by the community as a day to come together and smoke weed at 4:20 p.m. At first it was to protest laws banning the sale and possession of the drug, but since legalization, the day has become part celebration and part protest against perceived flaws in the government’s regulation of the legal cannabis industry.

The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, which was raided in mid-November by the province and reopened a day later, has been anticipating a crushing fine ever since, and had hoped to raise awareness of its situation at the 4/20 event.

“This was an opportunity to tell thousands of people about our situation and what opportunities they may have to help us,” said founder and long-time cannabis activist Ted Smith

The unlicensed dispensary, said to be the oldest compassion club in Canada, requires customers to provide proof of a chronic condition with a doctor’s signature to join and has more than 7,500 members. Smith said the club was built on supporting patients with AIDS and hepatitis B in the mid-90s and has since come to provide relief for people with a wide range of medical conditions, including many cancer patients.

“If our club is forced to shut down, many seriously ill people would suffer without the medicines we’re able to provide at very inexpensive prices, at a fraction of legal prices,” he said.

What would have been the 23rd annual 4/20 cannabis event in Victoria was also designed as a fundraiser launch for the club, which Smith said is expecting to be hit with a fine upward of $800,000. Smith has been turning down invitations to virtual 4/20 celebrations.

The organizers of Vancouver’s unsanctioned 4/20 festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people, hosted a “home hotbox session” Monday afternoon.

While alcohol sales have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — sales surged by 40 per cent in March — cannabis sales haven’t seen the same rise.

Viviana Zanocco, spokesperson for the province’s Liquor Distribution Branch, said there was a spike in cannabis sales at government-owned retailers in mid-March, around the same time the province declared a state of emergency in response to the virus. Sales have since tapered off, she said. “People stocked up a little bit, and then they realized they would still be able to get product, and so they’ve kind of gone back to normal.”

Dispensaries such as the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club and Cloud Nine experienced a similar spike early on, then a return to fairly normal sales levels.

“They definitely increased, mostly because they were buying larger amounts, I think out of fear that we would be deemed a non-essential business and therefore would have to shut down,” said general manager Sacha Romeyn.

High5 Retail in Victoria experienced a similar spike in March — sales were up about 25 per cent — and continues to see a roughly 10 per cent increase in sales, said manager Jess Basi. Other local dispensaries say they have maintained fairly steady sales, while some are feeling pinched by the pandemic.

In Victoria, groups have gathered in Centennial Square on April 20 for more than two decades, before moving to the legislature lawn last year, the first 4/20 since legalization.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

© Copyright Times Colonist

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