With full marijuana legalization at least a year away in Canada, its largest city is looking to clamp down on the booming illegal dispensary industry within its borders.
Toronto Mayor John Tory sent an open letter this week asking the municipal licensing committee to explore options to regulate the hundreds of marijuana shops that have popped up in the months since the Liberal government came to power with a promise to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" cannabis for recreational use.
Toronto, with a population of around 2.6 million, would become the third city in country to use municipal bylaws to control the stores. Currently, marijuana dispensaries operate in a grey zone, since, for now, the only legal way to purchase cannabis in Canada is with a valid medical prescription from one of the companies licensed by the federal government to distribute the product, either in dried plant or oil form, through the mail.
And with the Liberals not introducing their legalization legislation until next spring, coupled with the fact that very few police forces are shutting down dispensaries, cities have been left to deal with proliferating dispensaries on their own. Several hundred have opened up so far across the country — though accurate statistics are hard to come by — often located in clusters, within close proximity to each other. In Toronto, a new dispensary is opening seemingly every week, some within walking distance of high-end shopping streets and Whole Foods.
The Liberal government has not indicated whether dispensaries will even be included in their future model legalization. Marijuana activists argue these stores serve an important function by making medical cannabis, in all of its forms, readily accessible to patients, while a number of health experts and licensed producers argue they sell unclean and unreliable products.
"Left unaddressed, the number of these dispensaries will only increase," Tory wrote. "This proliferation brings with it potential health risks for individuals who patronize dispensaries where the substance for sale is completely unregulated." The letter urges the licensing committee to look to the other municipalities that have gone about regulating dispensaries, Victoria and Vancouver, both in British Columbia. Both cities have imposed strict criteria for licenses, including that dispensaries should not be near schools or community centers, or very close to each other. The City of Vancouver charges dispensaries a $30,000 fee to get a license.
Tory's letter comes just days after he made a surprise visit to a dispensary in Kensington Market, a downtown Toronto neighborhood that's become inundated with the new shops.
"It's not acceptable," Tory told reporters on Monday. "I do accept the fact, and endorse that fact that we're changing the law, but I've said all along that it has to be done in an orderly fashion."
It was then that Tory promised to tackle the growing number of dispensaries if the federal government was not going to provide any guidance on the matter. "We can't just sit back and have nobody take any action," he continued.
'I do accept the fact, and endorse that fact that we're changing the law, but I've said all along that it has to be done in an orderly fashion.'
But if the way things are going in Vancouver is any indication, imposing regulations on dispensaries in Toronto will not be easy.
Ten dispensaries in Vancouver made it to final stages of the licensing process, while hundreds more are currently in line waiting to be granted licenses. Nearly two dozen more have been forced to shut down by city inspectors, and another 44 have been issues tickets and face fines of $250 for every day they remain open.
But many of them have vowed to fight the city's efforts to shut down, including by taking them to court. Vancouver has said the shops could face $10,000 fines in the future if they stay open.
Tory concludes the letter urging the committee to "employ, in conjunction with the Toronto Police Service, whatever enforcement mechanisms are currently available to you" to deal with the dispensaries before the committee meets to detail a plan next week.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne