Mass raids of marijuana dispensaries across Toronto signals a turning point for pot activists who have been reading the tea leaves on who will be in, and who will be blocked, from Canada's highly anticipated legal weed regime.
The dozens of busts that unfurled across Canada's largest city at noon on Thursday are said to make up the largest operation of its kind in the country's history.
Many dispensary owners were bracing for such a crackdown since the police and municipal licensing committee sent out warning letters last week to 78 shops saying they could be violating zoning bylaws. Several marijuana shops closed right away in response to this, while others vowed to stay open despite the threat of $50,000 fines.
Police carried out search warrants as part of a long-term investigation officially entitled Project Claudia — a name that has yet to be explained — on shops believed to be involved in trafficking of marijuana and in violation of the federal laws that allow medical patients to access cannabis only through the mail from one of the country's licensed producers.
Since the Liberal government came to power in November with a promise to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to recreational pot, hundreds of dispensaries have popped up across the country, often operating anyway in a legal grey zone as various police forces turned a blind eye. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to decriminalize the substance, saying that only government-regulated legalization will keep it out of the hands of children and criminals.
The Toronto crackdown comes just days after Bill Blair, the Liberal government's lead on the legalization file, who was also Toronto's police chief until 2015, told a group of lawyers and executives of licensed producers that the "reckless" dispensaries across the country "don't care about communities, don't care about the health of Canadians," and only exist to "make a fast buck."
Last month, the Liberal government was feted at the United Nations General Assembly special session on drug policy, where Health Minister Jane Philpott announced the it would begin rolling out its plan to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in 2017.
"We know it is impossible to arrest our way out of this problem," Philpott told an audience at the assembly.
But arrest they did, as Toronto officers moved in on Thursday alongside municipal licensing and standards investigations services.
"We're acting accordingly with the information that we have," said Toronto Police spokesperson Constable Caroline de Kloet, who wouldn't say how many shops were being raided, or if any charges are being laid. She said those details would be made available during a press conference tomorrow afternoon at police headquarters.
"Raids en masse like this, there's been nothing to my knowledge like this happening in Canada on a large scale," Eric Nash, a cannabis regulatory consultant in BC said in an interview. "What's happening in Toronto is significant."
"What would have been better than raids is government having a community distribution system that works before taking down compassion clubs and dispensaries," he said. "They should have replaced the system they are now destroying before taking it down, because the patients are now going to suffer."
Marijuana activists and dispensary owners have argued that dispensaries serve a valuable role for medical patients who want to see the product in person, and not have to wait for it to be delivered by mail.
Officers have executed search warrants in relation to Project Claudia
-storefront cannabis distributors targeted
-details to come ^js
— Toronto Police OPS (@TPSOperations)May 26, 2016
Nash argued that many marijuana patients will be in limbo unless the government somehow swiftly replaces the shuttered dispensaries with a way for them to access their cannabis quickly and easily. Even patients who want to purchase their supply from the licensed producers often confront doctors who are unwilling to sign prescriptions for them, he said.
Toronto Liberal Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told VICE News he saw the dispensary next to his constituency office get raided. "It was a bizarre Thursday," he said.
Erskine-Smith has been a vocal proponent of legalization, and of progressive drug policies in general. He criticized the raids as unnecessary, but says he can understand that cities are placed in a difficult situation when businesses sell an illegal substance, adding that his office has received complaints about the dispensary next to it.
"The raids are a perfect example of why we need a regulatory framework immediately," he said in an interview. "But ultimately the crackdown is a waste of police resources and the system will be burdened by new cases when marijuana is expected to be regulated within the year."
"There's no win in this."
He said he was unsure about the future of dispensaries in the legal system, but that different provinces will likely impose their own regulatory framework based on how they perceive marijuana. For example, Vancouver, a hotbed of marijuana activism, has moved to license dispensaries operating in the city.
"I don't know what the perfect model would have been in the interim before we legalize and regulate," he said. "But it does seem to me that in the current environment where Canadians believed substances won't be cracked down on, doesn't seem to me to be sustainable."
Kirk Tousaw, an attorney who has represented medical marijuana patients and dispensaries, said at least four of his clients who run 10 dispensaries in Toronto were raided on Thursday. He also says the total number of dispensaries raided could be closer to 60 — the biggest operation he's ever heard of in Canada.
And if the future legal regime doesn't include some type of storefront retail component, "it's going to be a complete failure," he said in an interview. "If this is a precursor of things to come, then we're actually regressing not progressing."
Tousaw said he supports the sale of cannabis in places such as pharmacies, food stores, and liquor stores, and that there's no reason to arrest people who are involved in dispensaries.
"These are people who know what they're doing. They're pioneers of this system," he said. "Freezing them out will lead to a failed system."
For marijuana activist Jodie Emery, who at one point considered running for the Liberals in the last election, the Toronto crackdown is proof that compassion clubs and dispensaries will not have a place in Canada's future legal weed regime.
"It's becoming clear that the Liberal government is listening to licensed producers and prohibitionists who want dispensaries shut down," Emery said in an interview. "If we saw Budweiser telling cops to shut down every craft brewery, there would be an outcry," she added.
"As a Liberal party member, I am deeply distressed and disgusted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. This is not the legalization Canadians voted for."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne