In the weeks since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, a number of shops bearing green crosses have popped up across Toronto. Inside, glass cases display jars of various strains of marijuana, packages of cookies and chocolates, and lollipops.
"We're here to give patients what they need. And now is a great time to be in this business," said Amy Weinstein, manager at 416 Medicinal, a medical cannabis dispensary that opened on King Street earlier this month.
Weinstein says that with Trudeau as prime minister, marijuana sales are as good as legal, even though he has yet to say exactly how legalization will work in Canada. Her clinic sells only to people with prescriptions, something she says sets her apart from other shops that aren't so rigorous. "We do everything by the book," said Weinstein. "Not that there's a book, but if there were one, we would be doing everything by it."
Her's is one of at least six new marijuana dispensaries to open in the city over the last few weeks. Toronto's marijuana boom is happening fast, even though it's still illegal. Under federal law, it's only the 26 companies licensed by Health Canada that can produce and distribute cannabis by mail to patients with medical prescriptions for it. Any other type of transaction is prohibited. But in the minds of these business owners, what they're doing is legitimate because they're providing medicine to people who need it.
In spite of the strict regulations, Vancouver's marijuana retail market — the biggest in the country — has been thriving with more than 100 dispensaries and compassion clubs open for business. This year, it became the first city in Canada to regulate the industry, prompting former Health Minister Rona Ambrose to send a threatening letter to the city saying she expected it to uphold the law. But many in the business are flocking to Toronto to get away from Vancouver, which they say is over capacity.
Alain Baldini, who runs two dispensaries in Vancouver, opened his first in Toronto two weeks ago in downtown Kensington Market. "With Trudeau being elected, that's when we knew it was time to come here," he said. "And Vancouver is just flooded. There's way too many people there, and Toronto, they are very few and far between, and it's an even bigger market."
He hopes the City of Toronto will begin regulating the industry quickly so that it doesn't become unmanageable. This summer, Toronto mayor John Tory said he supported the decriminalization of marijuana.
Mark Pugash said the Toronto Police will exercise its discretion and investigate on a case-by-case basis. "We respond to complaints and public safety issues," he said. "We have to put our resources toward what's going to do the most good."
He gave the example of large numbers of people smoking marijuana during marches, saying that they don't arrest everyone there, even though they are breaking the law.
Baldini says the biggest difference between getting product from dispensaries like his or through the government's licensed producers is customer experience. "A lot of people don't like having it mailed to them. It's not fair to the patient," he said. "Here, you get to look, smell, touch, feel. We have knowledgeable staff, you get to know the patient, have conversations. It's more of a hands-on approach."
"You want it to be your Cheers, where everybody knows your name. You want to feel at home."
Earlier this month, federal police in Nanaimo, British Columbia, sent letters to dispensaries in the city ordering them to shut down within a week or face criminal sanctions. The deadline has passed and the police still haven't taken action, but the threat still looms. Police in Saskatchewan raided a compassion club in October, and laid charges against staff.
But that doesn't bother Baldini, who says he will take any new regulations in stride. "I'm not scared, I'm not nervous. We've had a good run either way," he said. "Whatever the government changes the system to, then so be it. We will try to follow all the rules that they put in front of us."
Trudeau issued a mandate letter to Canada's new justice minister this month, asking that she work with the public safety and health departments to "create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana."
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