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Big Weed Wants Canada to Root Out Illegal Dispensaries

The new pressure comes as Canada's most high profile recreational pot shop — the nascent Good Weeds in Toronto — was shut down by police on Thursday and its owners charged with trafficking and possession.

by Rachel Browne
Jan 22 2016, 10:50pm

Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

The battle over Canada's weed supply chain is reaching fever pitch as the country's state-sanctioned medical marijuana companies call on the government to shut down the hundreds of illegal marijuana dispensaries across the country.

There are 27 federally licensed producers (LPs) of marijuana in Canada, and they're the only ones legally allowed to grow and sell weed, and only to medical patients through the mail. Much to their dismay, the number of marijuana storefronts has exploded into hundreds since Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister with a promise to legalize marijuana for recreational use. 

To dispensary owners and their suppliers, weed is as good as legal, and it's a great time for everyone in the business.

Now, the LPs that have abided by Health Canada's intense regulations and invested millions of dollars to grow and sell medical weed have started lobbying the Liberal government to shutter the pot shops that eat into their profits, put the public at risk, and operate with impunity. While the association representing the licensed producers has previously asked the government to "address" the dispensary question, their frustration has taken on a much harsher tone.

The new pressure comes as Canada's most high profile recreational pot shop — the nascent Good Weeds in Toronto — was shut down by police on Thursday and its owners charged with trafficking and possession.

Related: The Owners of Toronto's First Recreational Pot Shop Were Arrested During a Police Raid

"Police forces need to get involved in shutting them down. There's no two ways about it," Neil Closner, CEO of licensed producer MedReleaf, told VICE News.

"We can only sell or ship through the postal system to people with valid prescriptions. If that's the case for us, why are these people allowed to pop open a shop and sell to anyone who comes through the door?"

But, he said there could be room for retail spaces in the future, as long as everyone operates lawfully. "Once the laws are changed, then people need to follow it and if it allows for physical retail dispensaries, we'll live with that. It doesn't mean that people should be able to flaunt the law right now."

MedReleaf has enlisted Toronto-based firm The CCS Group to lobby the government.

Earlier this week, Canada's largest marijuana grower, Canopy Growth Corp., which owns Tweed Inc., said it had enlisted lobbyists Ensight Canada to urge the government to build the recreational market out of the licensed producer system by first allowing licensed producers to ship recreational weed through the mail to adults older than 19.

Like MedReleaf, they too are hoping the Liberals will nip the unruly pot shops in the bud. "If you accept as a starting point that you should have secure production, traceability, and keeping it away from criminal elements and out of the hands of children, then you can't have unregulated shops opening on street corners all over the country where the regulation is, basically, 'trust me,'" Tweed's president, Mark Zekulin, told the Globe.

Even though Trudeau still hasn't said exactly what his plan to "legalize, regulate and restrict" will look like, many dispensary owners and activists fired back at the licensed producers, charging them with dismissing patients who want to buy and consume their cannabis on their own terms, and profiteering off the backs of those who fought Health Canada to make the substance accessible in the first place.

"These lobbying efforts disturb me because the LPs wouldn't exist today if not for the peaceful civil disobedience of dispensaries in decades past," Jodie Emery, a well-known cannabis rights activist and wife of Marc Emery, Canada's so-called "Prince of Pot," said in an interview.

"When Trudeau got elected, it was a resounding victory, and our movement's goal was accomplished, we thought. But as we've sat back, we've witnessed LPs and former law enforcement calling to continue some kind of prohibition."

Over the last day, she has taken to Twitter to criticize Tweed for its stance on dispensaries.

But Tweed responded, saying that it wants dispensaries to be regulated, not to see people charged by police.

Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, says her organization is gearing up to lobby the government as well.

She says shutting down the existing dispensaries is not the answer.

"We've always wanted to see dispensaries regulated," she said. "But where we have disagreements is if that happens only within the existing system. This [licensed producer] system doesn't serve patients adequately the way it is. If it can be adjusted, then hopefully dispensaries can look at integrating. We're just waiting."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne