The vast majority of criminal charges laid by the Toronto Police as part of the biggest cannabis dispensary bust in Canada have been dropped, VICE News has learned. In all, around 80 percent of those who were arrested will likely never have a criminal record for the charges.
After the high-profile Project Claudia raids were carried out last May, which police boasted were necessary to preserve “public safety,” 90 individuals faced more than 180 charges.
But charges against 72 of those people have since been withdrawn or stayed, meaning the Attorney General declined to pursue the charges to a verdict.
“I feel very strongly the charges will stick,” police chief Mark Saunders declared at the time.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the federal agency that prosecutes drug cases, told VICE News that 27 of those arrested, many of whom were facing charges of possession for the purposes of trafficking, had their charges dropped after agreeing to enter into a peace bond.
Those under a peace bond will have to abide by certain conditions for a certain period of time — similar to parole conditions. After that time, their charges will go away.
Nine of those arrested in the raids have been committed to trial or preliminary hearings, and five individuals have not yet set a trial date. Only three people have entered guilty pleas and have been sentenced. The court lost jurisdiction in two other matters, and the court still has a warrant out for one person facing charges.
Project Claudia came about after police say they received public complaints regarding the numerous dispensaries that popped up across the city in the months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected with a promise to legalize recreational cannabis. The raids also came after Trudeau openly expressed his frustration with the dispensaries and called on police to “enforce the law.”
Jack Lloyd, a Toronto lawyer who represents many clients facing cannabis-related criminal charges, including under Project Claudia, said he’s heartened that such a large percentage of them are getting stayed or withdrawn in court, especially as such charges continue to be laid. But he criticized the significant use of police resources being dedicated to the issue.
“It’s like using a bazooka to swat a fly,” said Llloyd. “And every time they raid one of these shops, it causes someone that wants to access their medical cannabis to access it in a less safe manner. The police have manufactured this unsafe atmosphere.”
Currently, only companies regulated by the federal government can sell medical marijuana, only to those with prescriptions, and only through the mail. The government’s proposed law legalizing recreational cannabis is expected to come into effect by next year.
“The suggestion that we should stop enforcing the law to me is perverse and breathtaking.”
Lloyd also pointed out that for the shops that do reopen following raids, they are increasingly being targeted by armed robbers and other acts of violence compounded by hesitation among many dispensary workers to call the police in the event of an emergency.
In a previous interview with VICE Canada, the force’s spokesperson Mark Pugash condemned dispensaries as “criminal businesses that are making large amounts of money” and if they don’t report acts of violence to the police then they “don’t care for their employees they don’t care for their customers, and they’re quite prepared to enable violent armed robbers.”
Pugash also rebuffed any concerns that the raids are a waste of time and money.
“So you have a public safety risk, a health risk, and the suggestion that we should stop enforcing the law to me is perverse and breathtaking,” he said.
Project Claudia sparked regular mass dispensary raids across the country. In another operation earlier this year, Project Gator, that spanned Toronto, Hamilton, and Vancouver, charges were brought against Canada’s top pot activists Marc and Jodie Emery, as well as three others.
In late June, Toronto Police announced they had raided seven other dispensaries and residences in Toronto and Vancouver as part of Project Lincoln, which saw 80 employees with Canna Clinic dispensaries charged with drug-related offences. Most of those currently facing charges are in their 20s.