At Cannabis Culture, a Toronto dispensary that remains one of the city’s few open cannabis storefronts, the line of customers went out the door and down the block yesterday. One week after Toronto police raided 43 medical marijuana dispensaries and arrested 90 owners and employees, patients are scrambling to find access points—and when they do, they often confront long lines and limited inventory.
The mood at this Queen Street dispensary—which actually had its grand opening the day after the raids—was cordial but grim. Co-owners Jodie Emery and Erin Goodwin, well-known Canadian cannabis activists, greeted customers and encouraged staff members. Raymond Hathaway, a paralegal, sat at a desk near the door, explaining to a patient how his denial of access to cannabis entitled him to file a human rights complaint. “Tell me where else in the world do you need the help of a paralegal just to access your medicine?” he said. Later that day, Hathaway sent a letter to the city announcing his intention to sue over rights infringement.
As patients streamed in to Cannabis Culture, many seemed upset, bewildered, or just plain angry at the situation.
Cannabis Culture in Toronto, after the crowds.
“I came from across town to get my medicine,” said one patient, who had seen local media coverage that Cannabis Culture was serving anyone 19 or older who needed marijuana. “Wow, look at all the people!”
“Thank you, thank you so much” several customers said as they left.
Just yesterday, store staff were rattled when Toronto police came in to investigate the long line down the block. While they left without laying charges, patients are not lingering. They hustle in and out as quickly as they can.
Co-owner Erin Goodwin said she was resolved to stay open as long as possible.
Cannabis Culture co-owner Erin Goodwin: standing firm.
“We have long lineups here at the store, people are thrilled to be getting their medicine, and we’re happy to be helping them,” she told me yesterday. When asked about the prospect of being raided, Goodwin said, “We’ve been told by the police that more raids are coming, but the staff at Cannabis Culture are going to stand firm. Even if we get charged we will keep opening. We’re proud of what we’re doing.”
“We’re demonstrating what legalization should look like,” co-owner Jodie Emery told Leafly. “Peaceful, open, honest transactions between consenting adults. No force, no coercion. Simple supply and demand. And until the government can prove demonstrable harm from these businesses, we deserve to stay open, especially considering dangerous, deadly drugs are sold in bars and restaurants every single day.”
As rumors of another round of raids abound, Toronto’s dispensary community is recovering from last week’s police action and bracing for more. Some dispensaries have shuttered their doors, while others remain defiantly open to serve patients. One week ago Toronto had many well-functioning neighborhood dispensaries. Today the city has an unreliable patchwork of stores with unpredictable medicine supplies and long lineups at the few locations still open. In this tense environment, controversy also swirls around who called for the raids—and why.
Across the city, dispensary owners are trying to understand the rationale for the harsh law enforcement approach instead of civil discourse. Many dispensaries had operated for years without issues with police. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who got raided and who didn’t. It was initially thought that dispensaries that only served patients registered with the Health Canada’s MMPR (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations) program would avoid police action, but that wasn’t the case. Whatever the rationale, one common comment about the police who conducted the raids was that they were very polite. Many were even apologetic, saying, “We’re so sorry” over and over.
At last weekend’s Lift Cannabis Expo in Toronto, dispensary owners uneasily mingled with licensed producers.
In Canada, licensed producers like Bedrocan and Tilray operate under Health Canada’s MMPR, and their patients receive medicine through the mail. Storefront dispensaries are not licensed by Health Canada, and their federal legal status remains unclear. Dispensary owners argue that while their operations may be technically illegal, so is the federal government’s MMPR program, which was ruled unconstitutional by Canada’s Supreme Court in February. (Full disclosure: Leafly is owned by Privateer Holdings, which also owns Tilray.)
Among the many conversations, there was much discussion on how the raids came about. The dispensary community initially directed its anger at Mayor John Tory and Police Chief Mark Saunders. Dispensary advocates argued that their response was far too harsh to address a reported 50-60 complaints. Why not, dispensary owners wondered, reach out and talk to the dispensaries the way Victoria and Vancouver city officials had done prior to regulating?
After the passage of a week, though, the focus seems to be shifting towards the role former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair may have had in encouraging the raids. Blair is now a Toronto MP. Five months ago Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Blair as his government’s point man on recreational cannabis legalization.
On Tuesday, May 24, Blair met with a group of licensed producers and financiers at a high-end hotel in Toronto. Blair gave the audience a damning assessment of all the dispensaries. “The current licensed producers are competing with people who don’t care about the law, who don’t care about regulations, don’t care about kids, they don’t care about communities, don’t care about health of Canadians,” he said. “They’re pretty reckless about it. And so they’re selling anything to make a fast buck before we get the regulations put in place.”
Two days later, Toronto police initiated the first raids in “Project Claudia.”
Regardless of how the raids were initiated, the repercussions will be felt more months and years to come. At a meeting earlier this week with a local criminal defense attorney, a group of dispensary owners arrested in the raids worried about the fate of many young staff members who now face criminal charges. “These are just young kids starting their lives, trying to do something positive, looking for their first job,” one said. “They don’t deserve to pay for that with a criminal record.”