Barely six months ago, Toronto had only a handful of medical marijuana dispensaries to speak of.
Now, you can hardly walk a block without spotting at least a few of them, and neighbourhoods like Kensington Market are fast becoming veritable green light districts. While there's no official tally, consulting firm The Big Toke believes the city is currently home to around 121 pot shops.
But, as was the case in Vancouver, local officials are finally catching on to the dispensary boom and they're freaking out about it.
Mayor John Tory, who last weekend wandered into a Kensington Market dispensary—some of which have massive lines to get through the door—penned a letter to the city's licensing department this week asking for a report on how to potentially license and regulate dispensaries.
Calling the influx "alarming," Tory said "this proliferation brings with it potential health risks for individuals who patronize dispensaries where the substance for sale is completely unregulated. It also affects surrounding businesses and communities, who have valid concerns that must be addressed—in particular, concerns about access by minors."
Tory then asked the city to work with Toronto police and use "whatever enforcement mechanisms are currently available" to deal with the issue. In response, the Cannabis Friendly Business Association is hosting an emergency meeting next week, to deal with what it anticipates could be a major crackdown, including fines, raids, and closures.
Lisa Campbell, chairwoman of Women Grow Toronto, told VICE she's hoping there will be a constructive conversation about regulating recreational versus medical dispensaries instead of having knee-jerk policies put in place.
"I think before any fines go out we need to have a conversation about how will dispensaries be regulated in Toronto and what practices are we going to use," she said. "Are we going to look towards Vancouver's model or other models like Victoria which are kind of more progressive or inclusive?"
Vancouver is currently in the midst of its own crackdown; 28 of around 180 dispensaries have shut down since the city implemented its new licensing scheme (through which they're charging $30,000 per license for non-compassion clubs) and bylaw enforcement officers have handed out a reported $20,000 in fines. The municipality has also banned edibles and restricted dispensaries' proximity to schools and community centres.
But some say the rules are way too strict.
"The dispensary crackdown is heavy-handed, discriminatory, and unjustifiable. Dispensaries are doing no harm, operating based on supply and demand," pot activist and Cannabis Culture owner Jodie Emery told VICE, noting that kids can buy candy where cigarettes are sold but "we don't shut down corner stores."
She said the city can "definitely" expect to be facing legal challenges from dispensary owners.
Victoria is also regulating its pot shops but with far less expensive licensing fees ($4,000-$5,000).
When it comes to licensing, Campbell said "we need to make sure it's not just rich people and gangsters that can afford a license," but she believes the city should be able to tax those who are making big profits. She also said decluttering of the concentration of dispensaries in certain areas might not be a bad idea.
"Having a lineup down the street is not a good look."
Toronto being an "international city" Campbell also explained that we should look to adopt a unique model. In Barcelona, for example, there are recreational and medical clubs and private members cooperatives.
Dispensaries in other parts of the province are already being burned by the legal grey zone.
Jason Allen, owner of The Niagara Dispensary in Niagara Falls was arrested and charged with possession and trafficking earlier this week. Allen said in a Facebook post the dispensary is a non-profit and that he's now struggling to pay legal fees. Meanwhile, the city of Hamilton is trying to shut down a federally-regulated licensed producer.
The confusion has prompted Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to express her own concerns.
"We're in a tricky grey area right now, because we know that the federal government is going to be moving forward with legislation, but there hasn't been that discussion."
Tory is asking the city's licensing committee to have a dispensary-related report ready for their June meeting, while the municipal health board is expected to have a similar discussion at the end of this month.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.