Toronto police began a massive city-wide raid on medical marijuana dispensaries Thursday.
In a statement to VICE, police said members of the Toronto Drug Squad together with frontline officers and city bylaw officers executed a number a search warrants as part of Project Claudia.
The investigation "targeted various locations identified as trafficking of marijuana outside of the marijuana for purposes regulations," the cops said. More details about charges laid, locations, and products seized will be released at a press conference with Chief Mark Saunders Friday morning.
The city's Municipal Licensing Standards department told CTV it had issued notices to 78 dispensaries operating unlawfully.
VICE witnessed two plain-clothed officers raiding Eden dispensary on Queen Street West at around 1 PM Thursday.
Inside, at least eight employees sat in handcuffs while cops went through the product inside, placing large quantities of bud into large plastic bags. They were also using scales and cameras to conduct the raid.
An employee with the city's licensing department also showed up, but said he could not comment on the situation. Speaking to an officer and an employee in cuffs, he said he would need a "declaration."
Eden customer "Pastel Supernova" who stopped by to pick up some weed was surprised when she realized a raid was taking place. She told VICE the dispensary is clean, friendly, and knowledgeable. "I just think it's lame, there are bigger crimes," she said of the crackdown.
"All the drug dealers in Toronto are cheering right now," another bystander said.
Vancouver-based pot activist Jodie Emery, who is in Toronto to open two new pot shops this week, came to Eden to witness the raid. She shamed police there and said Justin Trudeau is doing more harm to the cannabis community than his tough-on-crime predecessor Stephen Harper.
"The Toronto dispensary raids and arrests, which are supported by the Justin Trudeau Liberal government, are part of the biggest marijuana crackdown in Canadian history, worse than anything seen under the Harper government," she said.
"Peaceful people are being harmed by this law enforcement."
Toronto is currently home to more than 100 dispensaries, but Mayor John Tory recently called for police and the city's licensing department to use"whatever enforcement mechanisms are currently available" to shut some of them down. He said the influx has been "alarming" and poses "potential health risks for individuals who patronize dispensaries where the substance for sale is completely unregulated."
Soon after, Toronto licensing officers and cops started handing out letters to dispensaries, notifying operators they are in violation of zoning rules, and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Zoning violations can result in fines of up to $50,000.
In Kensington Market, where many of the pot shops have proliferated, police loaded large bags of weed taken from Cannawide Dispensary Thursday into the trunks of two police cars.
An employee from a different dispensary, who asked his identity to remain protected, said he was charged with trafficking and possession during one of today's raids.
"It's gonna be legal soon," he told VICE. "By the time it even goes to court it might even be thrown out." He said he couldn't speculate the value of the product police seized.
Jamie Carlton, who manages Qualimeds dispensary, told reporters the raids are "sad."
She said her dispensary, which has not been raided but has temporarily shut down, caters to strictly "legal cannabis patients" who now can't get their medicine.
"I feel like this was a waste of time and it just wasn't the right approach," she said, pointing out that in Vancouver, the city set out guidelines before it began cracking down on dispensaries. However, she said she doesn't approve of storefront dispensaries, and thinks they should be much more discreet.
The Toronto Taxpayers Coalition released a statement Thursday saying the crackdown is disrespectful to taxpayers.
"Taxpayers are footing the bill for enforcement and possible legal challenges through the court. Instead of allocating resources to shut down dispensaries, the City should think outside the box and focus on creating a revenue stream through the eventual sale of marijuana," the organization's president Andrea Micieli said in the release.
Late in the afternoon, Chief Saunders tweeted "enforcing the law and addressing issues of community safety and quality of life is never a waste of time or resources."
Paul Lewin, a Toronto lawyer and cannabis advocate told VICE the raids are "immoral, unconstitutional, and a ridiculous use of tax-payers dollars to arrest people for selling medicine."
"Mark my words, none of these charges will result in a conviction. Everyone will walk," he said.
With files from Rachel Browne.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.