It's no secret that Toronto police have been tough on the city's dispensary scene.
Last May, cops raided 43 dispensaries and laid 186 charges against the people working in them. Earlier this year, Marc and Jodie Emery of Cannabis Culture were arrested in an operation called Project Gator that specifically targeted the couple's chain of dispensaries. They could be facing life in prison.
The threat of being raided hasn't stopped dispensaries from continuing to operate in Toronto—though cops say there are far fewer now than there were a year ago. However, those that are open are increasingly being violently robbed, part of a trend that's been holding steady over the last few months. Not all dispensary owners feel comfortable calling police after a robbery for fear of being raided and charged.
Meantime, the federal government has dropped the Cannabis Act, a bill outlining its plan for legalization and in an exclusive interview with VICE, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted that prohibition laws in this country aren't fair. They target people of colour and those in marginalized communities, he said, echoing what advocates have been saying all along. The bill does not outline how weed will be sold in individual provinces, nor does it indicate the fate of dispensaries.
In light of these developments, VICE sat down with Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash to pick his brain on the robbery issue and to ask if the cops' approach towards dispensaries has shifted at all.
VICE: What do you think is the general scope of the problem with dispensary robberies in Toronto?
Mark Pugash: I think it's a problem with dispensaries, which are clearly against the law and what we've seen is a very alarming increase in armed robberies, the vast majority of which involve firearms. There's an additional problem where some dispensaries not only choose not to report, but they don't give police access to security cameras. That's extremely concerning—I would have thought to staff but also to customers. I think it shows a general contempt for public safety and the safety of staff and customers.
Toronto police have said in the past that if dispensary owners report robberies, product could be confiscated and charges could be laid. Is that still the case?
Why would anybody even challenge that? What the dispensaries are doing is against the law. They are breaking the law. They want you to believe there is a grey area in the law, there is no grey area. Anyone selling marijuana that isn't licensed by the federal government is against the law. The idea that dispensaries somehow have some charmed status, that they're not subject to the law as anyone else would be, I think is an indication of the fact that they simply don't get it.
Do you think though that the fear of being charged or having their product confiscated is causing them not to report robberies to police?
I'm not going to speculate. But what I find absolutely astonishing is that dispensary owners, who have tried to give people the idea that they're somehow there to help you, I think this reveals what in fact they are—they're running criminal businesses that are making large amounts of money. The Toronto Star reported in the last month a man stopped at Pearson Airport with just under $600,000 in cash in a suitcase. He claimed it was two weeks proceeds. So these are criminal enterprises that are making large amounts of money. If they don't report (robberies), I think we're entitled to draw the conclusion that they don't care for their employees they don't care for their customers, and they're quite prepared to enable violent armed robbers. I think it's reprehensible. And anyone who talks about disincentives for people who are breaking the law on a massive scale, I think just misses the point completely. We can't even take that discussion seriously, there are so many fundamental problems.
As you've said, it doesn't seem these dispensaries are going away. Even some that have been shut down have reopened. We've already established that these robberies are posing a public safety issue. Do you think if police stopped raiding these dispensaries, people would be more likely to report robberies?
I think that's an absolutely outrageous question. The idea that because illegal businesses are raising large amounts of money, we should not enforce the law, is perverse. I have no idea how anyone could raise that sort of issue. There are people who are making huge amounts of money, I have no idea if they're paying taxes on them or not. We have no idea where they're buying it from. Are they buying it from organized crime? We don't know. We know there are health risks in what they're selling. They deny it, but independent lab analysis shows traces of rat feces, mold, and incesticide. We even see problems with insecticide in legally licensed marijuana. 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.
Why has raiding dispensaries been such a priority for the Toronto police?
I'm not sure what you mean by 'such a priority.' We have to balance against a lot of other resources. Our homicide unit continues doing what they do, our sex crimes unit does what they do. We execute warrants where we have the resources. But we have to prioritize that against everything else. And people often think it's either that or something else. This is an organization that's capable of investigating homicide, sex crimes, frauds, hold ups, and a wide variety of other things. Launching large and small scale investigations, at the same time executing warrants against illegal marijuana dispensaries.
I guess what I mean is, for example, there was Project Claudia and then Project Gator. These seem to be fairly large scale operations—why?
Project Claudia was large scale. We saw an explosion in the number of marijuana dispensaries in the early part of last year. We had a lot of feedback from the public, people who were concerned. We took a step that we've never taken before. We gave landlords a one week head's up. We said we believe your building is being used for illegal purposes, you have obligations under the law, if you don't live up to your obligations there are remedies under criminal law and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. So we gave people a week's notice, there was no surprise, there was no stealth. In spite of that, the vast majority carried on. Since then, the responsibility has devolved to our divisions. We haven't had a major project of the scale of Claudia since then.
With Project Claudia we've seen a lot of the charges tossed out.
Yes, but what you haven't seen is a large number of cases where people have been charged have agreed to civil forfeiture, which means they give up large amounts of cash and large amounts of products. I think that's a result. You're conceding that whatever you did was against the law.
You've talked a little bit about how these dispensaries are making large amounts of money. In your mind, is there a difference between a dispensary that only caters to people who are sick and medical patients versus those that are operating purely recreationally?
They are against the law period. The law does not distinguish between those who claim to be helping people who may have medical conditions. The law says if you sell marijuana and you're not licensed by the government, you are breaking the law. That's it, pure and simple. I think it would be interesting if they were honest and said 'Yes, we're running criminal businesses, we're making large amounts of money, we won't tell you if we're buying this from organized crime, we won't tell you about the health risks, we won't tell you about traces of rat feces.' But they're trying to give it this noble veneer and it's just a lie. It is absolutely and unequivocally a lie.
I'm curious what you think of the Vancouver model. Vancouver obviously has a pretty big dispensary scene. They only had two robberies last year and their police have sort of openly said they're not enforcing pot possession laws and they're not going after dispensaries.
I've been asked before to comment on what Vancouver does and I won't. It's fundamentally different, the history is different, the expectations are different, the culture is different. And so for me to comment on anything other than the City of Toronto would be inappropriate.
Where do Toronto police believe these dispensaries are getting their product from?
It's not for us to speculate but why won't dispensaries tell people where they get their product from? I think people have a right to know. If they're buying it from organized crime, I think it makes their culpability even more extreme. What do the people they pay for the product do with their money? Do they go down to the Canada Revenue Agency and pay their share of tax? Or does it finance other activities with organized crime including guns, drugs and other things.
Many dispensaries say they offer services that licensed producers don't—you can go into the store, you can examine the product, maybe you can get things that aren't available right now with our licensed producers. What do you make of that argument?
It's irrelevant. You can't say the law doesn't apply to you because you want to continue running an illegal business. The argument that you're doing a better job breaking the law than someone else is an argument I think any sensible person would reject.
When it comes to charging people with pot possession, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the laws in this country are applied unfairly at times, where people of colour, marginalized people are targeted more than others. Do you have a response to that?
I can tell you that arrests purely for possession of small amounts of property are astonishingly rare and they are not a priority. And in fact we haven't charged any customers in any of the dispensaries where we've executed warrants. The target is illegal businesses that are making large amounts of money, selling product of unknown origin that poses a health risk to people.
Do you think the dispensaries that are currently operating should be allowed to be in the legal market?
That's an issue for politicians, that's an issue for the province and the city. They will decide what the regime is. Our job is to apply the law. When the law changes, we will apply the new law.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
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