Toronto police have cracked down on dozens of marijuana dispensaries across the city’s downtown core — raiding storefronts, confiscating files and seizing large quantities of marijuana.
Drug squad officers and City of Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards officials executed search warrants at 43 dispensaries Thursday, after 78 property owners out of a “known” 83 dispensaries had been given notices by the city Wednesday stating they were in violation of zoning bylaws.
The notices advised dispensary owners that they could face charges and fines of up to $50,000 if they continued to operate. In total, 90 people were arrested and 257 charges laid.
Toronto police chief Mark Saunders led a press conference Friday morning on the raids of 43 locations, dubbed Project Claudia, which netted 270 kilograms of dried marijuana, 30 kg of resin, 25 kg of hash and 27 kg of pills.
Investigators also confiscated 73 kg of marijuana-infused chocolate, 142 kg of cookies, 129 kg of candies, 101 kg of bars, 135 e-cigarettes, 457 drinks, 127 kg of oils and spreads and 121 kg of other marijuana products.
Police said the raids were part of an initiative called Project Claudia, which they said aimed to target dispensaries selling marijuana outside of federal medicinal marijuana regulations.
Staff members were seen in handcuffs in various photos on social media as officers entered numerous dispensaries in the Kensington Market, Queen Street West and Danforth areas.
Michael McLellan, a consultant with Eden Medicinal Society, said the dispensary only ever served licensed medical marijuana patients in contrast with other dispensaries who would serve to “anyone.”
“Employees were placed in handcuffs and detained,” he said. “We don’t know anything more about that at this time.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory told Global News the decision to crack down on the dispensaries was made by licensing authorities and police, but he had previously called on them to take urgent action on the matter.
“Well I just think that what we can’t have is marijuana dispensaries popping up like wildflowers all over the city and neighbourhoods and in retail strips,” he said Thursday.
“As to how the law is enforced, you have to ask the police and the licensing people about that but I think we have to have some order to all this and that’s all I’ve been saying.”
City Councillor Jim Karygiannis announced Wednesday that he was caught off guard by the raids.
“Personally I’m appalled that this is happening,” he said. “Cracking down on people and closing them is not the way we need to go.”
Jodie Emery, a marijuana legalization advocate and wife of Canada’s self-described “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery, said she was shocked to see dispensaries raided and employees arrested and charged.
“I think these raids are unjustified, cruel and only costing taxpayers and harming peaceful people who are not doing any damage to the community and have the support of the taxpayers,” she said.
“Tens of thousands of peaceful, sick citizens are now lost about where to find their medical marijuana access. There are many, many sick people still suffering who are now suffering even more knowing that their source of cannabis medicine has been cut off by the police.”
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash told Global News on April 14 that although dispensaries were “illegal,” police had discretion on whether or not to lay charges.
“We use our discretion to decide when it is appropriate and when it isn’t, and our position on the dispensaries is, if we have a complaint, or if there is a public safety issue, then we’ll investigate it, and we do,” he said, adding that the drug squad instead prioritized the drug trafficking of dangerous drugs such as fentanyl.
“We have scarce resources, which we have to allocate, which means we make decisions about where we put our resources, and we put them where they will do the most good.”
Emery said the raids signalled a “shocking change” in the way police have approached the issue of marijuana, in contrast to national public opinion.
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“Canadians want marijuana to be legal, which means they don’t get arrested for pot. So having 80 stores shut down and raided, hundreds of peaceful citizens given criminal records — this is appalling. It’s shocking and despicable. Shame on the Toronto police and shame on John Tory,” she said.
“This is just a new form of prohibition and it’s costing taxpayers money enforcing something that citizens are no longer in support of.”
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Deepak Anand, the executive director of the Canadian National Medical Marijuana Association, said the raids were “important” to the enforcement of federal regulations.
“In the interest of public and patient safety, there are federal provisions around the production, sale including distribution of medical marijuana in Canada that are important for the police to safeguard,” he said.
Medical marijuana patient Robert, who spoke to Global News under condition that he would only give his first name, said he thought the raids were “heavy-handed.”
“It’s harmless, it’s harmless,” he said. “It’s just a bit of weed and it’s not hurting anyone.”
It is not yet clear how many search warrants were executed but police were seen seizing large quantities of marijuana products from locations across the city.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders will present the results of the raids and the total number of charges laid with city staff at a press conference Friday morning.
With files from Peter Kim and Gabby Rodrigues