On the morning of Thursday, May 26, 2016, Trevor Harris* was sitting in a Toronto dispensary cutting cannabis into small amounts, grams and eighths, preparing it for sale. It had been a slow morning for the budtender. He had just finished helping a customer choose a topical product, a balm to treat their rheumatoid arthritis, but the store was now empty so he was in the back, prepping the supply. This was not an unusual scenario, but things were about to take a turn.
Harris heard a deep, resonant thud arriving from outside. He got up from his chair and looked out the window. The dispensary was located among a collection of dispensaries in the east end of the city, and a few storefronts away, Harris saw Toronto Police officers breaking down the door of another shop. He rushed to the front of the store to get a closer look. By the time he got to the front window, police officers were at his door.
Moments later Harris and his co-workers were in handcuffs. Soon after, the store was emptied out, the cash and cannabis seized. Harris, who has a medical marijuana license, was charged with several bylaw offenses.
Harris and his co-workers were in handcuffs, the store was emptied out, the cash and cannabis seized.
The next day, at a cantankerous press conference at Toronto Police headquarters, Chief Mark Saunders addressed the raids. Standing behind a podium, Saunders shifted his weight foot to foot and pursed his lips as he fielded questions from reporters, and protesters shouted in the background. “Where are the victims?” they asked. “What harm is being done?”
Saunders went over the results of the raid, which were also displayed on a table next to him and on shelves behind him. He was surrounded by giant ziploc bags, filled with colourful edibles—lollipops and gummies and cannabis infused sodas. The streets now safe from these wares.
“It is a genuine health concern because there is no regulatory process behind this,” Saunders said. “So you don’t know if you go into one store and you purchase one brownie or one muffin or cupcake, you go to the next store—how much THC is in this one versus that one? You don’t know—and where did it come from, and how is it manufactured, and what is the quality control of the premises that actually made it?”
Watching at home, Harris grew increasingly irate. “The thing that angered me the most was the lies,” he says. “Saunders was saying things were unregulated, and you don’t know where the product is coming from, and I was swearing because he was showing the products we were selling. Not only do they have the ingredients right on the package, but they also have dosage information. It was just another example how out of touch government and law enforcement is. It angered me so much. It was not lies based on deceit but lies based on ignorance.”
In total, the police raided 43 dispensaries that day in a coordinated, citywide operation dubbed Project Claudia. It resulted in 90 arrests and 186 charges. The vast majority of those charges have been resolved with peace bonds, a promise to keep the peace, and many dispensaries have reopened. The raids, meanwhile —each one demanding hundreds of hours of police labor and tens of thousands of dollars to conduct—have continued unabated.A month before Project Claudia began, Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott announced that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would introduce legalization legislation in the spring of 2017.
On the heels of this announcement, the dispensary market in Toronto, which had previously been operating in relative obscurity for decades, exploded. “There was this little period where I promise you it felt like cannabis was legal in Toronto,” says Cory Thompson, who owns two dispensaries in the city. “There was this overall feeling that cannabis was legal in Canada. Like quasi. It’s coming. We’re there. It’s all good. Then boom. The raids start. They start swarming all the dispensaries.”
“I wanted to be a patient and patient provider at the table but they aren't even listening to us.”
Thompson has multiple sclerosis and in 2012, while confined to a wheelchair, he began studying the medical potential of cannabis. Intrigued, he sought out a compassion club which secured him affordable access to the plant. He purchased a pound of bud, turned it into oil, and a few days later, his big toe moved. He skipped his next doctor’s appointment. Three weeks later, he was out of the wheelchair and moving with the assistance of a walker.
During his recovery, Thompson had to travel long distances to pick up his medicine, making trips that were often difficult and exhausting. It was enough to push him into business. With a partner, he opened a compassion club of his own, with reduced prices for medical patients. After a few years of operation, the club was raided and shut down.
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“It’s frustrating,” he says. “If you want weed you can go get it but if you want medicine, and you need it at an affordable rate, what I call dignified access, that’s few and far between.”
For the time being, Thompson is optimistic that his dispensaries will remain open. He is extremely thorough with his client screening, checking paperwork and medical records and calling doctors, but he’s not sure what the future holds. The threat of robbery or raid, Thompson says, even for those doing their due diligence, is a thought that never really goes away.
“It’s fucking trying, man. It’s not what I signed up for. I thought we were going to get regulated. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be a voice for the future, for regulation, for patients voices to be heard.
“I wanted to be a patient and patient provider at the table but they aren’t even listening to us.”
Shocking News from Ontario
Last week, things got worse for dispensary owners. The Ontario government unveiled their plan for legalization. The province intends to restrict sales of legal cannabis to 150 government-run stores and a government-run website. Like vermin, the independent dispensaries will be eradicated.
Almost immediately, the announcement prompted anger and disappointment. “Prohibition is not being lifted,” Harris says, “They are exchanging prohibition with extreme regulation.”
“This is a tyrannical plan from the provincial government,” says Jack Lloyd, a Toronto-based cannabis lawyer. “It’s a ridiculous plan and it doesn’t respect the cannabis culture that exists. It doesn’t respect the cannabis community that exists. It’s an attempt to deracinate our entire community and it doesn’t respect patients’ rights.”
Lloyd is not interested in the recreational side of the issue. The government can have that, he says, “but medical cannabis dispensaries are vital and patients deserve to be able to go to a storefront dispensary to be able to access their medicine.”
“Prohibition is not being lifted. They are exchanging prohibition with extreme regulation.”
Last month, in Ontario Superior Court, Lloyd argued that dispensaries cannot be prohibited from operating when the government’s current medical cannabis system is broken and can’t keep up with demand. He was fighting on behalf of the Hamilton Village Dispensary, which had been ordered to shut down by the City of Hamilton. The judge sided with Lloyd, ruling that the dispensary could stay open as long as they were supplying medical cannabis to patients with a valid prescription.
A similar case will be before the courts next week in Toronto. What happens there will impact how the city handles dispensaries moving forward. “If they win there, the city is going to be forced to license them,” Lloyd says. “This is the big fight.”
Paul Lewin is one of the lawyers involved in that case and, like Lloyd, he’s frustrated by the proposed Ontario regulations.
“This plan is not very popular across a large part of the cannabis community,” he says. “[The dispensaries] are going to be driven further underground, which of course makes things less safe for Toronto. Prohibition has that effect, you drive industry further underground. So instead of well-lit stores on main streets in which they are security guards and tested products, it’s a little more old-school, which is a little less safe, but I don’t think they’re going away. The cannabis community has suffered through 100 years of prohibition and they are resilient.”
Lewin, who represented many of the employees who were caught up in Project Claudia, says that the raids disproportionately affect young working Canadians.
“These are very serious charges that are being laid against these young people,” he says, “Some of whom were having a hard time finding a job, some who are medical patients and have great sympathy for other medical patients and have valuable knowledge and skills. They are facing very serious jeopardy. They are still Harper-era mandatory minimums on the books. I think it’s really irresponsible to be using the criminal law in this way.”
It is difficult to identify the motivating force behind the raids, though they are some popular theories.
“I think it’s being pushed by higher ups,” says Paul Lewin. “I can tell you that many cops are not very excited about these raids and realize that it’s really a very low policing priority. This is being pushed from above. Dispensaries have been operating openly in Toronto for about 20 years and no one cared too much about them until we started to get closer to legalization. Ironically, it’s on the eve of legalization, when the government announces their plans for legal cannabis, that they want to launch an enforcement summit to shut down dispensaries? They’re most concerned now? When it’s about to be legal? Which really tells you what their priorities about. They’ve got this public health fig leaf that they are trying to hold up but it’s not about public health, it’s about them making money and protecting their turf.”
“It reeks of cronyism. (LPs) are using the police to enforce their business plan. It’s terrifying.”
Some point to Canada’s licensed producers (LPs), the federally approved growing operations whose relationship with the dispensaries is acrimonious, at best. Many of the LPs are staffed with board members with political ties and individuals who were once waging the war on cannabis and are now putting themselves in a position to cash in once legalization arrives.
Former Toronto Police chief Bill Blair is handling the legalization file for Trudeau’s government. Kim Derry, who served as deputy chief under Blair, is the security adviser for THC Meds Ontario. Former Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman is also employed by the company. Canopy Growth, the largest publicly-traded medical marijuana company in Canada, was founded by Chuck Rifici while he was CFO of the Liberal Party of Canada.
“It reeks of cronyism,” Lloyd says. “The problem is they are using the police to enforce their business plan. It’s terrifying, to be frank. And mark my words they are going to go through and arrest literally hundreds of Canadians under the age of 25, who believe in the cannabis plant and work in this world and really would never have anything to do, or never have any interaction otherwise, with criminal law.
“They could have very easily, simply licensed all the existing dispensaries and that would have solved this problem. Instead, they’ve elected to declare war on a group of political activists, moderate civil disobedient activists, cannabis enthusiasts and cannabis legalization activists. They are just arresting the culture. To say that it’s draconian is an understatement.”For patients and recreational users seeking access to cannabis, the shifting ground underneath the dispensaries can be difficult to navigate.
Michelle Smith started going to dispensaries because she wanted to find an alternative for sleeping pills. “I’ve always been an anxious person, and I’m a troubled sleeper,” she says. “The side effects of sleeping pills are kind of gross, so if there’s something I can use that’ll give me the same outcome with fewer side effects, like a metallic taste in my mouth or a headache, I’m all for it.”
Smith is now on her third dispensary. The first one she visited, a Canna Clinic, was raided the day after she signed up. Every experience has been different, she says, but they’ve all been positive. “I think it speaks volumes about the business acumen of dispensary owners in Toronto that I’ve never felt threatened in any dispensary I’ve been to here. I’m a newbie to a lot of this and everyone so far has been kind, resourceful, respectful, and fun.”
For dispensary owners, finding people to employ has also gotten increasingly difficult as the raids continue.
For dispensary owners, finding people to employ has also gotten increasingly difficult as the raids continue. “Right now, I’m completely overwhelmed,” says Cory Thompson. “It’s hard because staffing is an issue. In that grace period, there was an abundance of qualified professionals who wanted employment, now everyone is scared. So I end up doing a lot of it myself.”
For budtenders, the environment remains precarious. Jessica Lee has been through two raids as a budtender. “Both times time it felt like a movie,” she says. “They come in so fast, you think it’s a joke or something but then you start thinking, what am I going to do? Am I going to have a job? Is my name going to be the newspaper? Is my family going to find out?”
Her parents did find out, as the stress and mounting legal fees, still ongoing, made it an impossible situation to hide. Her motivation for getting into the business, Lee says, was the opportunity to be involved in an emerging market and to help people, and now that she’s started doing that, she doesn’t want to stop.
“You really see it does help people. You hear their stories every day,” she says. “The more you get raided, the more you want to stay in. It makes you angrier, and it makes you want to fight for it.”
Facing the Uncertain Future
After the Project Claudia raid, Trevor Harris left the industry. “I can’t risk getting arrested and getting a charge,” he says. “It was shitty too because I was paid well and suddenly found myself without a job.”
Others, though, like Lee, have returned.
On a recent weekday evening, one young budtender working in the west end of the city walked a customer through a selection of CBD products, answering questions about CBD’s ability to mitigate anxiety. “I like helping people,” he said, once the customer had left with a package of capsules. “That’s what this is about.”
With further raids on the way, he says he’s not worried.
“All my lawyer fees are covered already. If the cops come through that door I say here’s my wallet here are my keys to my house and here is my lawyer’s phone number. I’m not saying anything else.
“Besides,” he continues, “The public backlash to the raids has been heavy. And what are they going to do, put people like us”—he motions to his coworker, a young woman dressed in a university sweater—“away on felony charges? Of course not. That would be crazy.
All images by John Hryniuk
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.