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Drugs

How Cities Could Shut Down Illegal Weed Dispensaries Once and For All

Police raids aren’t working, but cities have stronger tools at their disposal.

by Manisha Krishnan
Oct 14 2018, 6:14pm

Toronto police conduct dispensary raids during Project Claudia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang chuckles when asked about Toronto’s approach to shutting down weed dispensaries through raids.

“We saw what Toronto did and that’s a waste of time and resources, so we didn’t want to go down that route,” Jang, who oversees the dispensary issue in Vancouver, told VICE. “We’ve been pretty permissive here anyways… Just don’t sell to kids and we’re all good.”

The lead up to cannabis legalization has seen hundreds of grey market dispensaries pop up across the country and cities have struggled to cope with how to regulate them, in some cases taking vastly different approaches. Toronto and Ottawa have seen raid after raid—a tactic that even cops have admitted is extremely costly and ineffective. Vancouver and other west coast cities have gone the more practical route, regulating dispensaries with business licenses. But even more lenient municipalities want to see dispensaries they feel are not up to standard cease operations—so what is the best way to make that happen?

Unless there are suspected ties to organized crime, cops in Vancouver don’t raid the city’s dispensaries, of which there are at least 100. But that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t regulate its pot shops. Its approach has been to give out business licences to those dispensaries who comply with certain regulations—for example, you have to be at least 300 metres from a school, community centre, or another dispensary. So far, the city has handed out 15 business licenses and there are four compassion clubs who have a green light to stay open; 79 dispensaries are currently operating illegally.

To deal with those dispensaries who aren’t complying, Jang says the city hands out fines of up to $1,000 a day, the majority of which haven’t been paid. A CTV report from August said the city was owed $1.2 million but had only collected $160,000 of that money.

“People refuse to pay,” said Jang. “It’s not so much about the money being collected. For us it is evidence that someone is deliberately breaking a bylaw which can be used in an injunction.”

And an injunction is really the most effective way to shut down an illegal dispensary. The City of Vancouver has filed 53 injunctions against non-compliant dispensaries and tickets those pot shops weekly. Most of those dispensaries have agreed to join together in a test case—a case that will set a precedent for future cases—to take place in September.

Jack Lloyd, one of the lawyers representing the Vancouver dispensaries, told VICE if the city wins, the court will order the 53 dispensaries to shut down and if they refuse, they will be held in contempt of court and could be ordered to pay the city’s legal costs for the trial. Landlords who own the spaces in which dispensaries operate will also be held culpable.

“The landlords could get hit with [legal] costs as well or contempt, so they will evict for sure,” Lloyd said, adding landlords could even get a bailiff’s order to have the locks on their property changed in order to keep dispensary operators out.

Lloyd has already argued two high profile injunction cases, one against seven Canna Clinic dispensaries in Toronto, which he lost, and another against Hamilton Village Dispensary, which he won.

In the Hamilton case, Lloyd argued a storefront is necessary to give medical cannabis patients reasonable access to medicine. Currently, medical cannabis patients can only legally order weed through the mail via licensed producers.

“Forcing sick people, forcing marginalized people, homeless people, people living in shelters, to order their cannabis through the mail is not reasonable access.” The win means Hamilton Village Dispensary is currently the only legal dispensary in Ontario—the catch is, it can only sell to people with a federal medical license.

Lloyd told VICE there are a few ways cities can close down dispensaries without using police raids. One is to convict an illegal dispensary of a zoning violation—a conviction could result in a prohibition order, with $10,000 fines each day for non-compliance. The other is the injunction route, either via an interlocutory (interim) injunction or a final injunction. The Vancouver test case will be final.

Once Ontario passes its cannabis legislation, Lloyd added police will be able to shut down suspected dispensaries within a day using a close order.

Lloyd said creating bylaws around dispensaries in order to shut some of them down “makes a lot of sense” but not all cities are willing to take Vancouver’s route—likely because of the optics of creating rules around something that’s still technically illegally. That means dispensaries have to be prosecuted criminally, under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

“We’re kind of breaking the federal law too,” said Coun. Jang, in reference to the city’s decision to regulate pot shops. “I think it’s really the mindset of the politicians who are in power, I think it’s ideology. Some people are very right wing and law and order.”

Vancouver-based lawyer Matthew Jackson is also representing dispensaries in the Vancouver injunction case. He told VICE the goal isn’t just to keep a few dozen dispensaries open but to challenge the entire medical cannabis system and allow patients to buy from storefronts.

“The goal is to have two systems, basically: the medical and the recreational dispensaries.”

Jackson said recreational stores will carry dried bud and low concentrate oils, but that won’t be enough for patients with more serious conditions; he wants to see medical dispensaries with a range of products, like edibles, high concentrate extracts, and topical creams.

“A lot of people use high concentrates for example if they excruciating pain or cancer,” he said.

Instead, we are left with a bizarre situation, he said, where recreational users will have access to storefronts sometime this year but medical patients will continue to be left out.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.