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'We're Not Going to Take This Lying Down': Busted Pot Shops Plot Comeback in Toronto

More than 90 marijuana dispensary workers were arrested on 186 charges for selling weed illegally on Thursday in what is believed to be the largest such crackdown in Canadian history.

by Rachel Browne
May 27 2016, 8:30pm

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

A day after police busted into his marijuana shop in Toronto's Kensington market, the owner of Cannawide is still keeping the doors open — even though the place is empty.

He's been there all day talking with lawyers and patients about what to do next following a massive citywide crackdown on dispensaries that has gutted a market that exploded into full view with the election of pro-legalization Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"We're not going to take this lying down," the owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said in a phone interview. "Right now, we're trying to get our patients to help us in the fight against the city and the police force that's involved, and back us up."

He added that he would have been willing to give his name to the media before the raids happened. "Now with charges laid, I've been given legal advice to stay private."

He's not sure yet if he'll sue the city for the raids, but says he's mobilizing his staff and clients to launch a letter-writing and phone call campaign targeting city councillors and whoever else will listen. He's just waiting for the go-ahead from his lawyer to start selling his products — dried marijuana and edibles — once again.

"There's nothing stronger than our patient base," he said. "This whole thing took us by surprise, we only got a warning three days ago, but I'm trying to stay positive."

A day earlier, more than 90 dispensary workers were arrested on 186 charges for selling marijuana illegally. Toronto police had been turning a blind eye, until landlords began receiving letters from the municipal licensing board last week warning of a crackdown.

Related: A Massive Toronto Police Raid on Pot Shops Signals a Turning Point in Legalization Battle

After receiving a number of complaints from community members, the police force launched Project Claudia to investigate the stores and what was inside. On Friday morning at a press conference, police said they seized 269 kg of dried cannabis, along with a slew of edibles, including 72 kg of cannabis chocolates and 142 kg worth of medicated cookies — a selection of which was proudly displayed in large plastic bags.

"There is no quality control whatsoever on these products," police chief Mark Saunders told reporters, as marijuana activists heckled and berated him with questions throughout the conference.

Since the Liberal government came to power in November with a promise to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to recreational pot, hundreds of dispensaries have popped up across the country, often operating anyway in a legal grey zone.

Thursday's raids left many pot players rattled, and defiant. One dispensary actually left a note on its door telling police owners had dropped the keys with the shop next door if they wanted to raid it again. Canada's most prominent pot activist couple, Marc and Jodie Emery, took a much more hostile tack, vowing to open two new dispensaries next week in Toronto.

"Criminal charges? I don't care about that. I'm going to open dispensaries anyway, and they can come at me," Marc Emery, who has been jailed for cannabis-related offenses several times, said at a protest outside of police headquarters on Friday. He served a five year sentence in the US for selling marijuana seeds in the mail.

Dispensary owners and activists have been left wondering what's going to happen to their business and how they will fit into the Liberal government's plan for legalization — not set to be introduced until spring of 2017. For now, the only legal way to get cannabis in Canada is with a valid medical prescription through one of the federally licensed companies that produce and sell the product through the mail. Trudeau has refused to decriminalize the substance in the interim, saying that only government-regulated legalization will keep it out of the hands of children and criminals.

For John Fowler, president and director of Supreme Pharmaceuticals, a company recently granted a federal license to produce medical cannabis, the raids were an unnecessary way to control to illegal marijuana dispensaries and the products they were selling. He says the heavy-handed police response is only fueling "anti-government" and "anti-regulation" sentiment among marijuana activists and illegal shop owners.

"A functioning marijuana industry that meets the objectives of all levels of government in Canada has now become harder to obtain after these raids than it was before," Fowler told VICE News in an interview.

"The police crackdowns have made it more risky for buyers because at least the dispensaries didn't sell it to minors and they didn't sell other drugs," he said. "It's not ideal to have anybody break the law, but just like speeding, lots of people do it, and it's not the end of the world."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne

jodie emery
Marc Emery