Pubdate: Sat, 25 Mar 2017
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Hamilton Spectator
Author: Nicole O'Reilly
Page: A10

BRINGING "the black market into the light"

There are at least 18 storefront marijuana dispensaries operating
illegally in Hamilton. Despite raids by police, these storefront
operations keep bouncing back, primed for the time that pot becomes

STEP INSIDE ONE OF HAMILTON'S medical marijuana dispensaries and you
will find rows of dried marijuana stored inside sealed glass jars,
everything from bath balms to shaving cream, and knowledgeable staff -
often called bud tenders - willing to help you find just the right

The businesses range from spa-like to head shop, yet all are in public
storefronts, demanding to be seen. But make no mistake - they are
illegal. Owners know their businesses are illegal but believe without
them, patients would not be able to access relief. They claim the
product, which is only available online from Health Canada's licensed
providers, is too expensive, can be difficult to access and isn't as
good as what's available from seasoned (albeit illegal) growers.

Far from clandestine organizations, most are begging for attention,
risking both their livelihoods and their freedom in a fight they claim
is about human rights.

At a rally at City Hall last month, more than 30 advocates gathered to
protest a crackdown by city bylaw. None held back their identities and
all wanted to talk to reporters there.

One dispensary owner, Royal Farmacy's Shane Hansen, said he "is
willing to be a martyr" for his 900 patients, risking his money and
freedom. He's not alone.

AT THAT TIME, 17 dispensaries operating in the city were ordered to
cease and desist for zoning infractions - specifically for operating
without a licence - after the Downtown BIA complained. That's because
there is no such thing as a licence for a medical marijuana dispensary
in Hamilton, and, according to licensing director Ken Leendertse,
there never will be unless federal laws change.

The law is poised to change, with the federal government promising new
legislation to legalize the recreational market this summer. But when
the law will come into effect and exactly how and who will be included
in marijuana storefronts remains unclear.

The number of dispensaries in Hamilton is a bit of a moving target
with police and the city's bylaw department constantly finding new
ones and others closing.

At last count, there were 18 operating in Hamilton, and five that had
been permanently shuttered, Leendertse said. Two stayed closed after
police raids, two were closed down by property owners after the bylaw
order, and one had a problem with cockroaches.

Leendertse has assigned a special two-person bylaw team just to look
at dispensaries.

In total, the city has issued 21 zoning violations, five sign bylaw
violations, nine business licence violations and two property standard
violations. The city is working on voluntary compliance, but has
issued one charge (a $350 provincial offence notice for a food violation).

PACIFICO LIFE owner Tamara Hirsh says her businesses operate under
strict standards, including security cameras, sales only happening in
a locked inner room and storing merchandise in a heavy-duty safe when
closed. Patients need a medical marijuana licence or doctor's note and
must answer an eight-page intake form. Like other dispensary owners,
these rules are self-imposed and do not change the fact that their
businesses are illegal.

Hirsh is a marijuana believer. She turned to the medicine after
becoming sick from a neurotoxin she was exposed to when she ate a
contaminated fish while on vacation.

She claims her product is top notch, including having it regularly
tested at an undisclosed lab to make sure it's not contaminated with
dangerous pesticides and to understand it's chemical makeup. There is
a big range in strains with users claiming that some work better for
different ailments.

Hirsh believes that without speaking out, Canada will end up with a
marijuana system - both medical and recreational - that completely
ignores experts on the front lines.

"If people don't speak up, we will be completely eradicated," she

She is particularly worried about the lobbying power of "big pharma,"
which is showing interest in the licensed market.

At that rally last month, Hamilton police were watching, too, but
found the event peaceful and decided not to interrupt.

VICE AND DRUG Det. Craig Leishman said police are only after those
trafficking marijuana and will not charge patients who buy their
marijuana illegally at dispensaries or the employees who work there.

"We deal with dispensaries the same way we deal with everything else.
We conduct investigations," he said. "If we get more complaints about
one premise, we address the public's concerns."

Most of the complaints come in anonymously.

Police find that some are strict about only selling to patients with
licences and others get complaints about looser rules, including
selling to teens.

Unlike other drug investigations, Leishman said police find dispensary
owners co-operative and open. Officers have even had raids broadcasted
live over social media.

Dispensary owners are not linked to any other criminal activity,
police said, echoing findings across Canada that debunk the myth
dispensaries are linked to organized crime.

"We believe that all the dispensaries are people that are strong
believers of marijuana advocacy," Leishman said.

These dispensaries are also businesses - ones that when not facing
fines or having their product raided by police, are also profitable.

"If you were to sit and watch these dispensaries, and the amount of
people from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. there's a plentitude of people going in
and out," Leishman said.

Marijuana sells for around $10 a gram, but can vary depending on

Since 2013, Hamilton police have executed 10 search warrants at
dispensaries, seizing upwards of $100,000 worth of product each time.

Many of the bigger businesses are back open in a couple of days, but
some can't afford withstanding multiple raids and big fines.

Hirsh said she's not sure how much she can take. She has raid
protocols in place and is waiting to see what will happen when bylaw
comes back.

Ignoring the cease-and-desist letter can come with a $50,000 fine and
up to $25,000 a day thereafter. She's put everything into her business
and has plans to expand. But daily fines would bankrupt her.

Hirsh's lawyer, Kirk Tousaw, says he's working on a way to possibly
fight these bylaw orders but wouldn't share details.

Tousaw has made a name for himself as a marijuana advocate, including
being among the legal team representing well-known Vancouver-area pot
advocates Marc and Jodie Emery, who own Cannabis Culture and were
arrested by Toronto police earlier this month in a crackdown that
included raiding the Hamilton King Street East location. Police raided
a Toronto store again Thursday.

These arrests simply "clog up the court system," Tousaw said, arguing
that it's well within the government's power to exercise discretion.

He's also the lawyer behind a Toronto dispensary's Charter of Rights
and Freedoms challenge alleging current medical cannabis access rules
"unreasonably restricting patient access to medical cannabis

Tousaw argues the medical system is a failure because it takes years
and millions of dollars to become a licensed provider, a system that
ignores grassroots experts.

"If we have a system of legalization that essentially freezes out
everybody who knows what they're doing, (the government will be)
setting up a system for failure," he said.

"The only way to do that is to bring the black market into the

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Cannabis becomes a controlled substance in Canada under the Opium and
Narcotic Control Act.

The government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs
recommends decriminalizing simple marijuana possession and personal

The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that banning marijuana for medicinal
purposes violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Canadian Medical Marijuana Access Regulation (MMAR) grants legal
access to cannabis for medical patients. Health Canada authorized
patients can grow their own or access from an approved small producer.

New regulations shift rules away from personal production to licensed
commercial growers.

Patients and producers under the old MMAR system ordered to destroy
marijuana and seed, but a Federal Court judge grants a temporary
injunction allowing patients to keep growing.

In February a Federal Court judge struck down regulations that
restricted patients' rights to grow their own cannabis, giving the
Liberal government six months to come up with new rules. The new
Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations became law on Aug.
24, allowing licensed patients to access medical cannabis from
commercial licensed producers or to apply to Health Canada to produce
a limited personal amount, or designate someone else to produce it. In
November, the Final Report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization
and Regulation is published laying out more than 80 recommendations
for recreational legalization. The 106-page report includes
recommendations on everything from restricting advertising and kids'
access to marijuana, to tapping provinces to regulate recreation
marijuana wholesale at dedicated storefronts.

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says legislation to legalize
the recreational marijuana market is expected by this summer from his
Liberal government.
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