Pubdate: Sat, 28 May 2016
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 The Toronto Star
Author: Christopher Reynolds
Page: 47


Police 'poorly handled' the event, PR expert says

It was meant as a calm follow-up, to showcase drug seizures and
justify the raids on pot dispensaries, complete with smashed door
glass, of the day before.

Instead, Friday's police news conference turned to turmoil as
marijuana advocates hurled questions at Chief Mark Saunders while he
laid out the figures of "Project Claudia."

Officers hit 43 unlicensed marijuana dispensaries across the city
Thursday. They slapped criminal charges on 90 dispensary owners and
employees and confiscated more than 270 kilograms of pot. Among the
spoils were $160,000 in cash, 127 kilograms of oils and spreads, and
142 kilograms of pot-infused cookies.

Saunders said Friday the raids, carried out in sync with city
licensing staff, were "not an attack on lawful production,
distribution or purchasing of marijuana for medical purposes." Rather,
the action was launched due to health concerns over the "unknown and
unregulated amount of THC" in dispensary weed and edibles, as well as
residents' complaints about pot shops' proximity to schools.

"These locations have a broad impact on surrounding neighbourhoods.
There is no quality control on these products," Saunders said. "I was
not pressured politically =C2=85 This is about public safety."

Pot advocates on hand disagreed.

"There's no threat to public safety =C2=85 It's the patients and the
peaceful dispensary operators who are being hurt," said Jodie Emery, a
cannabis advocate and wife of "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery. "Who are the
victims? The patients suffering, sick, are the victims."

Jodie called the raids a "waste" of tax dollars and "a new form of

As tension escalated, police escorted two advocates out of
headquarters, where they joined several hundred demonstrators on the
street who remained unmoved by Saunders' attempt to square the raids
with Ottawa's promise of pot legalization and a recent federal court
decision upholding patients' right to access pot.

Swathed in acrid smoke, protesters carried signs reading, "We support
T.O. dispensaries: Stop the raids," and "Stop busting the sick."

The questionably timed news conference, coming less than 24 hours
before this weekend's Lift Cannabis Expo at the Metro Toronto
Convention Centre, coincided with the arrival of marijuana
heavy-hitters, including the Emeries.

"Our media gallery is open to the public, so anybody is able to
attend," said police spokesperson Const. Meaghan Gray.

Public relations consultant Marjorie Wallens said the event was
"poorly handled and confusing."

She acknowledged the "difficult situation" police are in from a public
image perspective. She also said the raids didn't come out of nowhere;
warning letters from police and licensing officials had been sent to
nearly 80 landlords with pot retailer tenants over the previous week.

"It's hard to get out in front of a story like this for police, when
they have to conduct operations in a clandestine manner to do their
job," she said. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Wallens added that Saunders, criticized for averting more direct
engagement with the public over the past year, "has to be transparent
and open and forthcoming" in the future.

"Police are sort of the man in the middle, as it were," said Dave
Gordon, a managing partner at the Cohn and Wolfe public relations
agency. "You've got this commitment to legalization legislation on the
federal end, and on the other end of the spectrum you've got
compassion clubs and entrepreneurs who've taken advantage of the lag
and started up illegal dispensaries."

The criminal charges - 186 for possession for the purpose of
trafficking, and 71 for proceeds of crime - did not deter at least one
dispensary from reopening Friday, albeit with bare shelves.

"It made me so sick. I haven't slept," said Chris Bino, who works at
Toronto Holistic Cannabinoids in Kensington Market. "But I'm just
worried about the people who need this as medicine. They don't seem to
have addressed that properly."

Other clinics, like Cannawide, around the corner on Kensington Ave.,
remained shuttered, while Canna Clinic, five doors up, continued to
operate Friday unhampered by search warrants or charges.

The 40 or so dispensaries spared from Project Claudia could still face
police action, with investigation continuing. City licensing staff
also say more fines may be imposed for zoning violations if stores
stay open.
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