Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders walked into his press conference Friday morning with a "message."
"If you don't have a license from Health Canada and you're distributing marijuana, it's unlawful," he said. Unfortunately for Saunders, hardly anyone could hear him over the chorus of accusations being shouted by a rowdy crowd of weed activists who hijacked the event.
Saunders held the presser at police headquarters to release details about Project Claudia, the drug squad investigation into dispensaries in Toronto that resulted in raids at 43 pot shops across the city Thursday.
In total, the chief said 90 people were arrested and 186 charges were laid, mostly relating to trafficking and cash from proceeds of a crime. A massive amount of cannabis in its various forms was seized, including 269 kilograms of dried bud and more than 400 kilograms of edibles; the cops also confiscated 23 grams of cocaine from one of the locations and $160,000 in cash.
Saunders, speaking above a large display of seized edibles, said Project Claudia has been in the works for a few weeks, sparked by 50-70 community complaints regarding the influx of dispensaries.
He had a few talking points he was clearly hoping to stick to, primarily that under the law "there's no such thing as a dispensary" and that a lack of standardization of products sold in dispensaries poses risks to the public.
"There is no quality control whatsoever on these products and as you can see they're marketed in way to disguise the unknown and unregulated amount of THC in the products," he said.
That comment set off a barrage of angry questions from activists in the crowd, who hammered Saunders one after the other without giving him a chance to respond.
"Is that an assumption or do you actually have documentation from hospitals and stuff that prove these are a health concern?" asked one activist, following up with, "Where are you suggesting these people go to? Back to the black market? Back to the alley ways? You think that's not a health risk, getting your medical marijuana from an alley way?"
A few of them began shouting "show us a victim" and "show us the evidence" proving weed is in fact harmful.
"How can you justify it's a health concern when it's the most benign substance you can ingest?... It has literally never killed anybody," they continued.
At one point, barely audible, Saunders asked two people to be removed from the room so he could have a "legitimate" conversation. One of them, longtime Vancouver-based activist Jodie Emery, who is in town to open two new dispensaries this weekend, simply moved forward and continued berating Saunders.
"The patients are the victims," she proclaimed.
When asked again by reporters what evidence he had of children—or anyone—consuming and being harmed by marijuana from dispensaries, Saunders said there is none.
"I don't have any evidence of that and I don't want any evidence of [that]" he said, adding another concern is that people don't know the people they're purchasing weed from at dispensaries, nor the source of the product. Asked by VICE where he expected the thousands of patients who use dispensaries to get their marijuana from now, he said those who have a Health Canada prescription will still have access.
Saunders would not say how much Project Claudia cost. On Thursday the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition released a statement saying the dispensary crackdown is a waste of money; a Mainstreet Research Poll conducted earlier this week indicates 75 percent of Torontonians polled support dispensaries and 58 percent are against a crackdown.
Saunders said most the 43 dispensaries busted had been complained about by neighbours. He said he consulted with the city of Toronto, which laid 79 zoning and licensing charges Thursday that carry $50,000 fines, and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, prior to carrying out Project Claudia.
"I feel very strongly the charges will stick," he said.
After the press conference, activists carried on protesting outside police headquarters, smoking weed while slamming the cops and Justin Trudeau.
"Legalization is the new prohibition," said Emery.
Saunders said police will continue to investigate dispensaries, but with the feds set to legalize marijuana by sometime next year, it's unclear who will have the last word.
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