Rick Vrecic was working behind the counter at his medical marijuana dispensary in Toronto one day last week when he looked up and saw three men breaking into the building. He thought he was being robbed. But when a group of uniformed police officers burst into the dispensary seconds later, he realized it was a raid.
Officers threw him to ground and put handcuffs on him. “Where’s the Rotty?” they demanded, referring to the service dog owned by one of the dispensary’s volunteers. “Where is it?” The dog wasn’t there. Rick was taken to the police station and the dispensary was shuttered.
The experience was unsettling but not unusual. It was just the latest incident in an ongoing conflict between Toronto authorities and the dispensaries seeking business licenses similar to those granted to their counterparts in a handful of other Canadian cities.
Vrecic gave up opiates and turned to marijuana to treat chronic back pain years ago. He credits cannabis with saving his life and he felt good about providing it to other people with medical conditions.. The police raid and subsequent closure of the store was a major setback. “I’m now prevented from helping people,” he told Leafly. “I’m heartbroken.”
Source of the conflict: limited licenses
The conflict dates back to 2000, when an Ontario court invalidated the prohibition of cannabis for medical purposes. The federal government soon set guidelines for individuals to grow cannabis or purchase it through Health Canada. In 2013, the federal government decided to allow some big producers to grow medical marijuana and it banned individuals from growing their own. Ottawa lifted that ban last August, in response to another court decision.
So far, the government has granted licenses to almost 40 large-scale producers. These companies, known as licensed producers (LPs), send their products to patients exclusively through the mail. The federal government has not offered licenses to storefront dispensaries.
Recreational marijuana is not legal but that is expected to change. The federal government has undertaken steps to legalize it and new legislation is expected to be introduced this spring.
In recent years, Canadians have been purchasing marijuana at dispensaries popping up across the country. Some of those stores sell marijuana only to people who use it for medical purposes, and have prescriptions or other medical documentation to prove it, while others also sell it to those who use it for recreational purposes.
In June 2015, Vancouver responded to the trend by becoming the first Canadian city to regulate medical marijuana. Since then the city has granted licenses to storefront dispensaries that abide by strict regulations regarding location and other issues.
Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, who led the push for regulation, explained the decision by saying dispensaries met the needs of people who hold prescriptions for medical marijuana but aren’t being well served by Health Canada’s licensed producer (LP) system.
“We took a public health approach, with help from experts around B.C., and put our policy goals up front — have a place for those who need [medical marijuana] but keep it away from kids and organized crime, and ramp up fines to get the guys [who fail to meet regulations] out,” Jang told The Toronto Star. Victoria, which is 62 miles south of Vancouver, followed suit as have about 10 other municipalities in B.C. He said the policy goal isn’t clear in Toronto, “except that it’s illegal.”
Dispensary owners want to talk, city won’t
Owners of dispensaries in Canada’s biggest city hope to change that. For years, they have been trying to convince Toronto City Hall to grant them licenses. They seemed to being making inroads last spring, when Mayor John Tory visited a marijuana dispensary and then sent a letter to the Licensing Standards department asking it to study and make recommendations on regulating medicinal marijuana dispensaries in Toronto.
But soon after, police raided dozens of dispensaries across the city. “Operation Claudia,” carried out in May 2016, resulted in the arrest of 90 business owners and employees; in total, 186 charges were laid. By the end of January, police had conducted another 33 raids, averaging about one a week.
Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash has stated that police choose which dispensaries to investigate and raid “on the basis of complaints, concerns and public safety issues.”
A few weeks ago, Toronto police held a conference to announce a spike in dispensary robberies. An officer told the assembled media that there had been 17 robberies at dispensaries since the previous June — and that only nine of them had been reported to authorities. He said some of the robberies had been violent, with employees and customers being stabbed, pistol-whipped and even shot at. Police urged dispensary owners to report these incidents.
Advocates don’t deny the robberies are happening but many balk at the prospect of reporting a crime to police only to be charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking, among other infractions. “Without licensing for businesses, it’s difficult for [dispensaries] to trust being able to call the police,” said Lisa Campbell, spokesman for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association.
If Vancouver can, why can’t Toronto?
Why has the city refused to grant licenses to dispensaries? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Toronto city officials say it’s simple: Dispensaries are illegal under federal law. “Under current [federal] regulations there is no legal framework that would permit storefront retail dispensing of cannabis and cannabis products,” Tracey Cook, Executive Director of Municipal Licensing and Standards, told Leafly. In other words, the city’s hands are tied.
But medical marijuana advocates aren’t buying it. More than anything else, they attribute the impasse to big business. They feel the city is catering to the interests of the large-scale licensed producers.
A week before the Operation Claudia raids last May, the Financial Post reported that Cannabis Canada, an industry association for licensed medical marijuana companies, had approached Toronto city officials a year before because, according to an association executive, the proliferation of dispensaries was “getting out of hand.”
The Post reported that Toronto’s dispensaries had become “a headache” for licensed producers because the dispensaries were selling more product than the legal market, and were doing so with no regulation or oversight. That raised safety concerns and “threaten[ed] to undermine the legal, regulated industry.”
“Here in Toronto, there are millions of dollars invested in licensed producers,” medical marijuana patient advocate Tracy Curley told Leafly. Curley has met with Toronto police to discuss the legal status of dispensaries. “There are more licensed producers in Ontario than in any other province. The lobbying efforts by those businesses to close down dispensaries is a factor [in the city’s refusal to license dispensaries].”
The LPs say there’s no threat
“I can’t speak for every corporate entity but I can speak for us — and we haven’t lobbied to have dispensaries shut down,” said Jordan Sinclair, spokesperson for Canopy Growth Corporation, a medical marijuana company based in Smith Falls, Ontario, 200 miles northeast of Toronto.
“We don’t see dispensaries as a threat. We’re growing at an incredible rate. We’ve been experiencing double-digit growth, and we’re expanding as quickly as we can to keep up with demand.
“We’ve made a decision to abide by all of the regulations you have to follow to be a cannabis business. We’re choosing to follow the rules and there are some people out there who are choosing not to. They’re looking for somewhere to place the blame, or frustration, when they can’t operate the way they want.”
“I don’t see dispensaries as bad for our business,” added Michael Gorenstein, CEO of Toronto-based Cronos Group, which owns two licensed producers, one in Ontario and one in British Columbia. “Short term, dispensaries don’t affect us because demand is greater than supply. Long term, I think it would be good for business if we were able to distribute through licensed dispensaries,” he said. “We would provide consumers with the same access as more consolidated retail channels, allow new small businesses to participate in the booming cannabis industry and preserve the craft appeal that cannabis consumers frequently desire.”
(Editor’s note: Leafly is owned by Privateer Holdings, which is also the parent company of Tilray, a Canadian licensed producer.)
The licensed producers are not the only corporate entities that have a vested interest in banning dispensaries, say advocates. They note that Galen Weston Jr., whose father is the second-richest person in Canada, has publicly expressed his hope that the behemoth chain of supermarkets and drug stores he heads up (which include Loblaws and Shopper’s Drug Mart) may one day be given the green light to sell medical marijuana.
Cook declined to comment on the advocates’ claim that corporate lobbying was behind the city’s refusal to grant licenses to dispensaries. Instead, she circled back to the federal law governing the distribution of medical marijuana.
When asked why Toronto has so far chosen not to license dispensaries like Vancouver, Cook said that “regulations passed in jurisdictions in British Columbia are for ‘marijuana-related businesses’ not for the sale of marijuana/cannabis itself, as this is not permitted.”
Nevertheless, marijuana is being obtained legally at some locally-licensed dispensaries in British Columbia.
Campbell told Leafly that the long battle is frustrating. “It’s really hard to keep up the fight for licensing in Toronto when the city refuses to have a dialogue,” she said.
Curley added: “Toronto has always been considered a world-class city, but tiny Port Alberni, B.C. [which grants licenses to dispensaries] seems more progressive and world-class right now.”