Police say the violent armed robberies of marijuana dispensaries in Toronto are a growing “public safety issue” made worse by the lack of reporting by owners.
Toronto police Supt. Bryce Evans said that since June 2016 there have been 13 robberies of illegal marijuana dispensaries in the city. Suspects were armed with handguns in 10 of those incidents.
“In two of those robberies, shots were fired within the stores by the suspects,” Evans said, adding suspects had also been armed with knives and pepper spray during the robberies.
“Six of those 13 robberies were not reported by the owners or employees, rather by customers and/or persons within the area of the robbery.”
Evans said in the four dispensary robberies that have occurred since Jan. 1, two of them involved handguns, one involved knives and in one case a shot was fired in the store.
“Employees and customers have been stabbed, pistol whipped and pepper sprayed,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the employees and customers had been traumatized by these violent armed robberies.”
WATCH: Toronto acting inspector says marijuana dispensary robberies a ‘public safety issue’
On Dec. 21, police said four or five masked suspects armed with firearms “stormed” the Canna Clinic marijuana dispensary located at 213 Ossington Ave. and ordered employees and customers to the ground as they stole an undisclosed amount of marijuana products and cash.
“A customer present during the robbery went to Canna Clinic the following day and inquired if they had reported the robbery to the police,” Evans said. “The employees denied that a robbery had occurred and this customer took to social media.”
Evans said police then attended the dispensary and were met with employees who were “not forthcoming,” “refused to answer any questions” and declined to share surveillance video with investigators.
Jodie Emery, a marijuana activist and owner of several Cannabis Culture dispensaries in Toronto, told Global News her staff at the Queen Street location reported a recent robbery to police and were subsequently raided and arrested.
“That’s the response that dispensaries get when they do call the police for help when they’re being robbed,” she said, adding that no charges were laid.
“It’s totally insulting that they’re holding a press conference claiming dispensaries are trying to cover up these robberies when they got raided when they called for help.”
Evans said he stood by the information reported and that no one from the dispensary had contacted police after a Jan. 4 robbery.
“I find it disturbing that the owners and operators of these storefronts refuse to cooperate, turn over evidence and instruct their employees not to call the police or speak to the police after they become victimized,” he said.
“Instead of constantly pointing the finger at police and blaming police I ask the question, when are the owners and operators going to take full responsibility for their actions of opening illegal marijuana storefront dispensaries?”
In May 2016, Toronto police raided dozens of marijuana dispensaries in the city, seized hundreds of kilograms of marijuana and laid more than 250 charges under an investigation dubbed Project Claudia.
Evans said the raids were due to concerns over the “rapid increase of opening of illegal dispensaries” and the “lack of quality control” that could affect public health and safety.
“We will seize any illegal narcotics on the premises during the robbery investigations,” he said. “As we would do in any incident — domestics, neighbour disputes, home invasions — when in our attendance we observe illegal narcotics.”
WATCH: Toronto marijuana dispensary robbed at gunpoint
Evans said he suspects the targeted robberies could be related to gang activity due to the involvement of guns and masked suspects.
“We know money is a motive for criminals, the availability of money and drugs together, significantly increases the attention of the criminals,” he said.
“The owners and the operators of these illegal storefronts through their actions and some through their lack of actions, has given an open invitation to victimization.”
Emery, who is the wife of marijuana activist and self-proclaimed “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery, said marijuana prohibition is what is compromising public safety.
“I think the police and the government’s messaging that all dispensaries are illegal is actually putting all of those employees in harm’s way,” she said.
“If we do call the police we get punished. So people won’t call the cops if they’re going to get raided and that means people who do go rob these robberies know they can get away with it.”
Toronto Drug Squad Insp. Steve Watts said the situation has evolved into a “public safety issue.”
“The reality is, is when there is large amounts of controlled substances and money in one location, that is absolutely a target for certain types of suspects,” he said, adding a total of 33 dispensaries have been raided by Toronto police since June.
“Whether you’re a patron, whether you’re an employee, the bottom line is — you are at risk when there’s a takeover style robbery that comes in and that is reality.”
Watts said dispensaries generally hold multiple kilograms of marijuana depending on the location, in addition to some taking in up to $30,000 a day in cash.
Police are encouraging victims of dispensary robberies to contact investigators or Victim Services Toronto for assistance.