What will hap­pen to mid­town dis­pen­saries when mar­i­juana is le­gal­ized?

On­tario’s le­gal cannabis shops open this year mak­ing the fu­ture un­clear for il­le­gal pur­vey­ors that may trans­form into pop-ups & recre­ational lounges

Annex Post - - CONTENTS - By Marika Washchyshyn

Ta­nia Cyalume, for­mer owner of the once bustling mar­i­juana dis­pen­sary on Bloor Street West called Queens of Cannabis, was forced to shut down her store­front in 2017 when she and her part­ner dis­cov­ered they had been locked out of the build­ing.

“We were shut down by the land­lord. She was afraid of the by­law of­fi­cer, so she changed the locks on us,” Cyalume ex­plained.

Al­though il­le­gal, the dis­pen­sary had been in op­er­a­tion for more than a year and, ac­cord­ing to Cyalume, had never been raided by po­lice.

De­spite this bump in the road, Cyalume is still in the mar­i­juana busi­ness, op­er­at­ing un­der the name Bloom, but has tweaked her busi­ness model slightly. In­stead of hav­ing a bricks and mor­tar lo­ca­tion, she holds pop-up events across the city, such as the High Tea So­cial Club, where cus­tomers can pay $25 to at­tend, and or­der med­i­cated tea, mar­i­juana-in­fused cook­ies and “maybe smoke a joint.”

This is one so­lu­tion to the many ob­sta­cles fac­ing Toronto’s il­le­gal mar­i­juana dis­pen­saries, which in­clude fre­quent raids by the Toronto Po­lice Ser­vice (TPS) and in­creased dif­fi­culty find­ing a land­lord will­ing to take on the li­a­bil­ity of hav­ing them as a ten­ant.

“A lot of peo­ple are do­ing de­liv­ery right now or do­ing pop-up events or go­ing back un­der­ground with­out any kind of web­site or store­front,” Cyalume said.

Still oth­ers re­main fully op­er­a­tional and con­tinue to re­open af­ter every raid or set­back, some­times in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion.

Later this year, Canada will for­mally le­gal­ize cannabis across the coun­try. In On­tario, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment will have a mo­nop­oly on recre­ational mar­i­juana, sell­ing weed only through the On­tario Cannabis Re­tail Cor­po­ra­tion, a sub­sidiary of the Liquor Con­trol Board of On­tario. Prod­ucts will be sold at ap­prox­i­mately 150 sep­a­rate re­tail lo­ca­tions reg­u­lated by the gov­ern­ment. Forty of those stores could be open by July 2018 in step with le­gal­iza­tion, with the re­main­ing open­ing by 2020.

On March 9, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment pledged $40 mil­lion to help mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties deal with im­ple­men­ta­tion costs re­lated to the le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis. Some of that fund­ing will be used to cre­ate a Cannabis In­tel­li­gence Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre to shut down il­le­gal store­fronts and help fight the il­le­gal sup­ply of cannabis prod­ucts.

This is a prob­lem for the es­ti­mated 60 to 80 pri­vately owned dis­pen­saries in the city, of which a hand­ful are in north Toronto.

Ac­cord­ing to City of Toronto, Mu­nic­i­pal Li­cens­ing & Stan­dards, 139 il­le­gal store­fronts have been closed since spring 2016, re­sult­ing in a to­tal of 611 charges.

How ef­fec­tive the polic­ing has been un­til now is up for de­bate. Raids on dis­pen­saries seem to oc­cur on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, though many re­opened weeks later. More than half of the charges brought against those ar­rested have been thrown out in court.

Ken­dra Stanyon, a crim­i­nal de­fence lawyer in Toronto, has rep­re­sented sev­eral dis­pen­sary em­ploy­ees charged as a re­sult of the sweep of raids car­ried out by the TPS dur­ing Pro­ject Clau­dia.

“I re­ally think al­most every em­ployee that has been charged, whether they’re a client of mine or not, has ul­ti­mately re­ceived a with­drawal of their charges,” said Stanyon, who added that dis­pen­sary and “med­i­cal com­pas­sion club” own­ers, how­ever, are still very much on the hook.

Stanyon said many of her clients have re­mained open and will con­tinue to for as long as they can, as­sum­ing they have the re­sources and abil­ity to do so.

“Speak­ing at least for my strictly med­i­cal clients, there is every in­ten­tion to con­tinue to op­er­ate be­cause they see them­selves as pro­vid­ing a very nec­es­sary, re­ally con­sti­tu­tion­ally com­pli­ant ac­cess to af­ford­able medicine for their pa­tients,” Stanyon said.

She ar­gued that many of her clients have built re­la­tion­ships with their pa­tients and are able to pro­vide more af­ford­able or var­ied strains of mar­i­juana that may not be avail­able through the new pro­vin­cial pro­gram.

Cyalume echoed Stanyon’s point that the un­der­ground mar­ket is likely to of­fer more com­pet­i­tive prices, which she an­tic­i­pates will be a few dol­lars cheaper than the prod­uct sold at the On­tario Cannabis Store.

Also, Cyalume noted some dis­pen­saries are able to make “ob­scene amounts of cash” by sell­ing to any­one over 19 years old, with or with­out a med­i­cal mar­i­juana card, and will likely have the abil­ity to con­tinue to re­open over and over.

Jodi Emery, ac­tivist and busi­ness part­ner be­hind Cannabis Cul­ture, thinks there’s a bet­ter way. She’s fight­ing for the pri­va­ti­za­tion of some busi­nesses to al­low Toronto to be­come a leader in the recre­ational mar­i­juana arena, of­fer­ing cus­tomers places like smok­ing lounges and pri­vate bou­tiques from which they can pur­chase cannabis and para­pher­na­lia.

“On­tario Lib­eral doc­u­ments have shown that they know their model won’t un­der­cut the ‘black mar­ket,’ ” said Emery, ref­er­enc­ing the in­creas­ingly ac­tive crack­down on il­le­gal dis­pen­saries. “It will be costly to tax­pay­ers, and they know [their model] won’t make money for years to come. It’s doomed to fail."

Emery is hop­ing to lobby around this is­sue in the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion, sched­uled for June 7. New On­tario PC party leader Doug Ford has pre­vi­ously said he is open to the pri­va­ti­za­tion of pot stores. Ford’s of­fices did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

“We elected Justin Trudeau on this is­sue,” Emery said of her ac­tivism. “We can do it again here.”

TPS spokesper­son Mark Pu­gash isn’t buying the ar­gu­ment that what dis­pen­saries and traf­fick­ers are do­ing is petty crime.

“If you don’t have the author­ity of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, you are break­ing the law,” he said. “If you’re mak­ing five and six fig­ures a week every two weeks in cash and you’re break­ing the law, you shouldn’t be sur­prised that we en­force that law.”

Pu­gash said the force reg­u­larly re­ceives com­plaints from area res­i­dents that range from con­cerns over se­cu­rity to pub­lic health.

“We will con­tinue to be re­spon­sive to com­plaints through the com­mu­nity, and we will ex­e­cute the law in the way that we feel is the most ef­fec­tive," he said.

Clock­wise from left: Jodi Emery, ac­tivist and busi­ness part­ner be­hind Cannabis Cul­ture; the new logo for the On­tario Cannabis Store; Ta­nia Cyalume the for­mer owner of Queens of Cannabis

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