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Canadian Dispensaries: Why Vancouver Allows Them but Toronto Doesn’t

February 21, 2017
Burrard Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Local and international retailers line the 1000-block Robson Street in the West End neighbourhood. (iStock)
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.

Rick Vrecic thought his dispensary was getting robbed. It turned out to be a police raid. Just another day in Toronto.

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. (Editor’s note: Leafly’s parent company, Privateer Holdings, also owns Tilray, which is a Canadian licensed producer.)

Mail-order companies got Health Canada licenses. Storefront dispensaries did not.

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.”


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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 have made 33 dispensary raids since the 2016 Operation Claudia crackdown.

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.


Toronto Totals: 43 Dispensaries Raided, 90 Arrested Over ‘Quality Control’

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].”


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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.”

'Toronto has always been considered a world-class city, but Port Alberni, B.C., seems more progressive and world-class right now.'
Tracy Curley, Toronto patient advocate

“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.”

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.”


Toronto Update: ‘More Raids Coming,’ but Some Dispensaries Stay Open

Randi Druzin's Bio Image

Randi Druzin

Randi Druzin is an author and journalist in Toronto. She has worked at several major media outlets, including the National Post and the CBC, and has written for dozens of publications, such as The New York Times, Time magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and The Globe and Mail.

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  • Doris

    From seeds to sales… Craft Cannabis has owned the cannabis business for the past 50 years.

    One is naïve to think that 3 million Canadian cannabis users will switch to LP’s upon legalization.

    Large Producers cannabis quality is poor at best… Deluge of unhappy customers on LP’S Facebook

    LP’s Gamma irradiated cannabis is not cutting it folks…

    To think that LP’s spraying on flowers and dry cannabis is mind blowing.

    • Hulakai

      spoken like a true weed connoisseur….one who probably grows or knows someone who does. The argument that quality is low on LP product is laughable. The only people who are saying this are ones that grow themselves or know someone who does….sometimes in corn fields. Give it up. You and everyone like you are just pissed that the govt didn’t simply make it legal and that’s that, which is naiive at best, idiotic at worst. I suppose the liquor and beer industry should be unregulated too? Because we would get better product? Come on….give your head a shake. I’ve grown, I’ve bought field weed, and I’ve bought LOTS of LP weed, and the LP.weed is in a class of it’s own. Tested, graded, labelled, nicely trimmed (well, not ALL LPs are good at trimming)…and i know that I’m getting. The only ppl who say the quality is shite are the ones looking for Cannibis Cup THC levels and want to get high as @#$%. The new pot users DON’T want to get high as @#$% and they want to know what they’re putting in their bodies.
      You and all your fellow chronics can just keep growing your intense strains and smoking to get high. I’ll get mine from a source i can trace it back to and tells me what I’m getting.

      do your research next time you want to post. only certain batches are irradiated and those are for people with intense allergies or other sensitivities. No one HAS to buy irradiated and some LPs don’t have ANY that are irradiated….and i have never heard of an LP “spraying”…in fact i know one LP.that will trash an entire crop if one spider mite is found. No spraying.

      • Doris

        Kulalai…43 LP’s cannot even meet the needs of 150,000 medical cannabis Canadians…

        But… they’ll be able to feed 6 millions Canadian when rec hits?

        Hit LP’S Facebook…customers are’nt happy. They are being LP Cartel captive.

        Upon rec… these folks will gladly move over to Craft Growers and LP’s will lose their shirts

        Nimble BC Bud will always be better and cheaper than the over-inflated LP’s junk cannabis cartel.

        Bonno was right! LP’s are doomed!!

        • Hulakai

          Ummmm…first of all, LP stands for Licensed Producer, not Large Producer. A ‘craft’ grower will also be an LP under the new system because they will need a LICENSE to produce and sell legally…and then they too will have people complaining about supply unless they develop huge facilities, which is hard to do (see next point).

          Second, there ARE supply and demand issues FOR SURE. That’s not always the LPs fault. It’s at LEAST partially the government’s fault for taking so damned long to approve applications. The fact that there are only 43 LPs licensed at this point is a joke, although I suspect that part of the lack of approved growers is due to the tough requirements imposed which cost a lot of money and most ‘craft’ growers can’t afford it.

          Thirdly, to imply that all customers of LPs aren’t happy is ridiculous. I’ve dealt with three different ones. One was terrible (out of stock, lack of variety), one was just OK (tough to find strains, but not many of them), and the one I have now is really good. More selection would ALWAYS be a good thing, but it’s still a TON more selection that I could get through friends!

          Lastly, to suggest that everyone who is currently dealing with an LP will switch to ‘craft’ growers is short-sighted. “Recreational”
          growers (I hate that term…it’s not always about recreational use…it’s often for health benefits) will likely focus on just that…recreation….and not grow strains that are low in THC and high in CBD. They’ll leave that for the LPs that serve people with prescriptions.

          I dispute your claim that underground bud is cheaper than LP bud in all cases. Simply not true. I can pay up to $250/oz for good quality herb from someone I know, but I can also get good quality and better variety from my LP for WELL under $200/oz and sometimes as low as $150. As for being ‘better’…until testing facilities are plentiful, affordable, and open to the public, that’s a dubious claim AT BEST.

          LPs are not ‘doomed’, unless legalization doesn’t happen. EVERYONE who produces and sells legally will be an LP.

          • Doris

            Canopy Growth is about to go belly up! Linton is going crazy..

            Metrum and Organigram are also down and out. Myclobutanil caper.

            LP’s are doomed…terrible service…junk weed….hermies…recalls…

            The best bud will win.

            And the best crew comes from Temple of Calyx…D420K…The house of the Great Gardener…Liberty Farms …and thousand of others collectives who work hard to overgrow.

            These guys OWN the MARKET dude!!!!

            Can’t wait to see how your LP cartel weed fares in next cannabis cup.

            I can tell that you do not know the market.

            Go back to and your fairy tales…;?0

          • Hulakai

            you just proved my original point “dude”. Good luck!

          • Doris

            Good luck to you. also..;?)

            But…but…i… just don’t see 5 million Canadian cannabis users switching to LPEE’S.

            Why would they?

            Your cannabis dealer friend was your best man. Remember that wedding?

            Yup…LP’s are doomed!

            Bonno was right.

  • Tim

    Yes, and after they do get regulations the ones that aren’t successful going through the liscensing process just ignore the regulations they wanted and stay open anyway and sue everyone in sight. Marc and Jodie Emery’s Cannabis Culture chain actually waited until after the city’s deadline for license applications and then opened several locations in defiance of the regulations. Dispensary lawyers are arguing in BC supreme court (so far unsuccessfully) that cities have no juristdction to regulate what is still an illegal product.The Vancouver experience demonstrates that trying to regulate this industry doesn’t work.

    • Hulakai

      the Vancouver model has just created confusion, and it’s still just as illegal as in Toronto, and now the Emerys are now creating more problems by trying to be crusaders even after the govt has finally moved forward. everyone should stfu and wait for the regulations to be set, and THEN lobby for changes instead of continuing to blame “the man” because the few that grow and sell are seeing their business dry front of their eyes. I have no sympathy for field growers and “compassion clubs” that can’t provide a shred of credible information about their product. It’s no safer than buying moonshine. This new industry is in its infancy folks….settle down and wait for the new system before you say its no good….and for those complaining about govt and corps being involved….lets see what you have to say when you’re collecting OAS and CPP and going to the doctor every week….all paid, in part, by tax revenue of which the new marijuana industry will be a big contributor. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Generating tax revenue from pot sales while providing a better selection and product is the best of both worlds and the ONLY way the general going to accept legal pot and drop the stigmas.

      • Tim

        I was actually hoping the Vancouver model would succeed because the fate of the BC bud industry depends on it in my view. This industry, illegal though it is, is worth an estimated $6-7 billion dollars annually to the BC economy and it’s loss would have a devastating effect on the former lumber towns in the BC interior and would negatively impact the BC economy generally. Also, even the LPs enjoy today the fruits of the innovation in this industry since it’s inception in the early eighties in the area of genetics, grow techniques and concentrations. Now if the LP industry was centered in BC, the traditional home of Canadian cannabis, as it should be I’d be supportive but to simply transfer that economy to Ontario is a very disturbing proposition for me as a British Columbian.

        Of course since the dispensary operators turned out to be greedy individuals who don’t seem to care about the survival of their industry as a whole and cannot see outside of the narrow scope of the existence of their individual shops and have failed entirely to unify and coalesce behind the citys’ bold initiative on their behalf and unite behind the regulatory scheme I’m having trouble rooting in their favor. Their greed and shortsightedness will seal their fate for them. If the LP businesses were centered in BC, Canada’s traditional cannabis heartland, and not mainly in Ontario I’d be inclined to support the current legal medicinal industry transitioning into the recreational market. But not at the expense of the economic well being of my province. I do find the notion the the professional botanists that work for these companies cannot grow good marijuana to be absolutely ludicrous. It’s not that hard a plant to grow well and I have had the opportunity to sample buds from a producer called Broken Coast (I won’t say how) and it was a very nice smoke, potent and clean burning. The activists should quit trying to make out that the quality isn’t there with the LP products, there are truthful arguments in their favor without resorting to silly stuff like that.

  • Robert Gerus

    The Mayor and the cops it was all planed to bust medical marijuana shops because it’s not law yet and Trudeau is sitting on his selfie boy ass smoking a joint and laughing at the rest of Canada, he will not make it legal, because he’s a lire lire pants on fire. Fuddle Duddle

  • Bob Carter

    Canada we have 4 ways of obtaining medical Cannabis, you can buy it
    from these Government sanctioned producers that will do anything for
    money, you can buy quality Cannabis from Gray market Compassion
    Clubs/Dispensaries, I get 30g for $200 and these growers have been
    growing since the mid 90’s. A patient Can have a caregiver grow for them
    for less then $100 for 30g, and if a patient still can’t afford it they
    can grow for themselves at a cost of about $10 for 500g, all of which
    except for the Corporate Capitalist Fat Wallet Government producers,
    have been kept illegal by Health Canada by violating court order since
    2000!! Is it time to STOP THE MONOPOLY and allow complete and fair
    access to Patients??

    • Hulakai

      do your research before you spread BS like this next time. ANYONE with a Rx can grow their own or have someone else grow for them….and btw, $200 for 30grams is on the high end for me and i buy from an LP when I’m not growing something myself.

  • MG Deegan

    I am a Canadian I am real shit from gaum and Canada & Washington