Clint Younge was tormented by bullies as a boy in elementary school in Stoney Creek, Ontario, long before he discovered the power of cannabis.
His classmates made fun of his nervous tics, a side effect of the high-dose pharmaceuticals he was being prescribed for ADHD. “Kids didn’t know back in the ‘80s,” said Yonge. “Slang terms of calling people F-words and attacking the LGBT community. That was common back then.”
By his 20s, Younge said he was struggling with mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to his childhood, so he started researching cannabis and began using it as a treatment. He found the substance more effective than any prescription drug he tried.
“It saved my life,” said Younge, who’s now 35 and is the CEO of MMJ Canada, a cannabis dispensary chain from B.C. The company, which states it provides cannabis to “eligible medical patients,” expanded into Ontario for the first time last April. There’s one location in Hamilton and two in Toronto that serve about 17,000 people a year combined.
Younge points proudly at the wide array of cannabis products the Bloor Street shop has on offer this week including more than a dozen strains of dried bud and infused topical rubs. The “Karma Cannabis” bath bomb is one of his personal favourites.
“Cannabis made me the good person I am today and it’s allowed me to filter out the bad from the good,” he explained. And it’s that ability to dispel negative thoughts that’s now helping him through the turbulent times for stores like his in Ontario as the province implements its plan for recreational cannabis sales that calls for the eradication of all dispensaries.
He and his counterparts at other dispensaries across Ontario are ramping up efforts to convince city councils and opposition provincial parties of their legitimacy and unwillingness to abandon the businesses they say employee hundreds and help heal thousands.
“Consider yourself on notice.”
“I’ll fight like it’s the only thing I have in my life,” said Younge, who spoke to city councils in Hamilton and Toronto this week as they mull Ontario’s plan to curtail recreational sales from stores like his.
If Ontario’s proposal gets passed by the legislature, the province will set up a strict cannabis retail system overseen by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) that will not include dispensaries or their suppliers. The Ontario-run recreational pot stores will be stocked with weed from the producers licensed by Health Canada. There will be an e-commerce site and 40 standalone stores to start, and 110 more by 2020. No plans were announced to operate storefronts specifically for medical cannabis patients, who can legally only purchase their supply through the mail from licensed producers, or grow their own. Many choose dispensaries instead.
“Consider yourself on notice,” Ontario attorney general Yasir Naqvi warned all dispensaries at the press conference announcing the new provincial cannabis plan earlier this month.
It’s unclear exactly when the purges will begin. Police forces in Toronto and other cities have already been conducting mass dispensary raids, targeting some shops multiple times only to have them re-open the next day. Younge himself was charged with possession of cannabis and resin for the purpose of trafficking at his Hamilton shop last fall.
Tyler James works in community outreach and strategy for Eden, another B.C. dispensary chain that opened shops in Ontario around the same time as MMJ. Toronto police have raided them multiple times in recent months, but James said it doesn’t do much to deter them. He said they serve around 15,000 customers a year at their Ontario locations.
James said the success of Ontario’s recreational market depends on including dispensaries. If they don’t, he said the black market will continue to thrive because of accessibility and diversity of products — such as strains, edibles, and extracts — that won’t be available in the government-run stores at least for the foreseeable future.
He added that Colorado has hundreds of compassion clubs and recreational dispensaries that serve a population less than half the size of Ontario.
“Basic numbers and economics means that the government plan will not work. They will need our assistance” said James. “We can help to at least try to meet the accessibility and the demands on the market from day one.”
James put his arguments forward this week at the Toronto licensing and standards committee hearings, a municipal regulator, on legal cannabis. He said his company has launched a concerted effort to lobby the provincial Liberals, as well as the opposition parties.
“We have a very large community and voter base. And next year is [the provincial] election so we feel that if we group together and we mobilize, there’s a possibility that there’s a change of government,” he said. “In which case we are imploring Toronto to have a contingency plan in the event that there’s a change in government. And other parties to have a contingency plan as well.”
But Ontario is showing no sign of backing down, and has yet to consult with dispensaries.
“Now that we have announced that there will be a sole legal retailer in the province, it should be clear to everyone that dispensaries are illegal and will be shut down,” Andrew Rudyk, a spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of the attorney general, told VICE News in an email on Thursday.
The ministry was “not able” to provide figures on the number of dispensaries in the province or how much the industry is worth.
“Though more consultations are required to set the price of cannabis in Ontario, we will be guided by our focus of keeping these illegal pot shops closed,” Rudyk said.