Pubdate: Sat, 25 Mar 2017
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The London Free Press
Author: Dale Carruthers
Page: A1


Justin Polci says he's running out of options.

The 37-year-old Londoner was prescribed medical marijuana seven years
ago after injuring his back.

Health Canada requires Polci to order his product through the mail
from one of the more than three dozen government-approved producers.

But the father of two, like thousands of other prescription marijuana
patients across Canada, has turned to illegal pot dispensaries to get
some of his medicine.

Critics say licensed marijuana producers who supply those in medical
need often run out of stock, take too long to deliver product and are
plagued by recent contamination scandals.

That's pushing users like Polci to buy from Canada's estimated 500
illegal pot shops, where they can see what they're buying, avoid
minimum purchase requirements and speak with knowledgeable clerks.

"I have to get my medical marijuana to have an everyday life," said
Polci, who prefers smoking marijuana to the opiate pain-killers he's
also prescribed.

Medicinal marijuana user Justin Polci fires up a joint at his south
London home on Tuesday March 21, 2017. (MORRIS LAMONT, The London Free

Recent police crackdowns on dispensaries across Canada, including
raids in London earlier this month, have many medicinal users like
Polci, who's prescribed five grams of cannabis a day, worried about
where they'll get their supply.

The head of a marijuana business association says the licensed
producers aren't equipped to handle the surging demand for
prescription pot.

The were 98,460 registered medicinal marijuana users in Canada as of
Sept. 30, 2016, up from 75,166 just three months earlier, according to
the latest numbers from Health Canada.

"There is not enough licensed-producer cannabis in this country to
meet even a fraction of the demand if they were to flip the switch and
everybody was to become a law-abiding citizen and only (buy) it though
the mail. They would sell out in 30 seconds," said Ian Dawkins,
president of the Cannabis Commerce Association of Canada, a national
trade association that represents dispensaries and other
marijuana-related businesses.

Medicinal users displeased with the problem-plagued licenced producers
are voting with their feet by using dispensaries, Dawkins said.

"It's immoral to tell that person that he or she has to shop at a
licensed producer," he said.


Another factor fuelling the explosion of storefront pot shops is the
federal Liberal government's pledge to introduce legislation in the
spring legalizing and regulating marijuana's recreational use.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed former Toronto police Chief
Bill Blair, now a Liberal MP, as the point man on the plan to overhaul
Canada's pot law.

But critics say the Liberals' promise has left police forces in a
bind, with many turning a blind eye to the illegal operations while
others crack down on them. London police raided five dispensaries
across the city on March 2.

"There's just general confusion on the ground because of the
commitment the federal government has made but has not implemented, so
we're kind of stuck in this grey area," said New Democratic justice
critic Alistair MacGregor, who blames the Liberals for creating
"chaos" when it comes to policing dispensaries.

"The federal government is simply missing in action."

In Vancouver, dispensaries must apply to the city for a permit to
operate or risk being fined.

Authorities in Toronto, where there's more than 100 pot shops, have
taken a more heavy-handed approach, launching waves of raids on
dispensaries since last May. The city has also gone after landlords,
warning them that their buildings could be shuttered if they continue
to rent to dispensary operators.

London police have always maintained the dispensaries are illegal and
the existing law would be enforced.

Police showed they weren't just talking tough when they raided Tasty
Budd's last summer, less than one week after the Halifax-based
franchise opened on Wharncliffe Road.

After Tasty Budd's reopened days later in defiance of police, more
dispensaries started sprouting up, including one in the city's core.

The number ballooned to six before police launched the latest raids,
seizing nearly $170,000 worth of product and charging eight people
with drug trafficking.

Though bylaw officials were involved in police-led operation, London's
bylaw enforcement boss says there's no plans to go after dispensary

"We have not been in contact with landlords," said Orest Katolyk,
adding that the pot shops are banned under a city bylaw.

"Because (marijuana) is an illegal substance today, it is a violation
of our zoning bylaw."

City tax records show that four of the six London dispensary buildings
are registered to companies, while two list individual owners.

Rosanna Stumpo-Bal, who's listed as the owner of the Dundas Street
building that houses the now-shuttered Chronic Hub, declined to comment.

"How did you get this number?" Stumpo-Bal asked, before hanging up on
a reporter.


The London crackdown on dispensaries, which came two days after Blair
met with London police Chief John Pare, left just one standing.

The London Compassion Society has quietly provided medicinal marijuana
to its carefully-screened members since 1995.

Operating out of a non-descript former dentist's office on Oxford
Street, the single-storey building has controlled entry and a
surveillance camera pointed at the entrance, ensuring only approved
members scheduled to pick up their orders are allowed inside.

The Compassion Society considers itself a so-called compassion club,
not a dispensary, but the line between the two has become blurred.

Compassion clubs operate as non-profit operations that offer lower
prices to members with valid medicinal licences.

Now, illegal dispensaries trying to avoid unwanted attention from
authorities are branding themselves as compassion clubs, even though
some sell cannabis to customers without a medicinal licence.

It's unclear why the Compassion Society was spared in the March

Free Press attempts to reach the Compassion Society weren't
successful. Sources say the crackdown has left both its operators and
members on edge.

Police previously raided the Compassion Society in 2007, when it was
located on Richmond Street, seizing nearly 1,000 marijuana plants and
arresting then-director Pete Young and employee Robert Newman. Young
pleaded guilty to three drug-related charges in 2007, while the
charges against Newman were withdrawn.


Many question whether the latest charges laid against pot shop owners
and staffers will hold up in court, with the federal government vowing
to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Dispensaries are illegal under a federal law that limits the sale of
marijuana for medicinal use to government-approved commercial producers.

The former Conservative government switched to that system from an
older one that allowed approved users to grow their own pot.

But dispensary operators dispute they're breaking the law, citing a
2014 federal court decision that said forcing patients to buy their
prescription pot from government-approved producers violated their
constitutional rights.

In Toronto, more than 150 people caught up in the recent raids have
had their charges stayed - legally set aside - or withdrawn, according
to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. In the majority of the
cases, the accused were required to sign a peace bond after the Crown
decided it wasn't in the public interest to prosecute them.

In a few cases, the Crown threw out the charges without condition
after deciding there was no reasonable prospect of conviction.

In London, the case against two men charged in the summer raid on
Tasty Budd's is snaking its way through the court system. Tasty Budd's
franchisee Tim Balogh and employee Josh Flannery were charged with two
counts of drug trafficking and two counts of possession for the
purpose of trafficking following the Aug. 18 raid.

In the March blitz, London police charged eight people with a combined
24 counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Arrest warrants have been issued for Mal McMeekin, the founder of
Tasty Budd's, and Perry Middaugh.


Taking a page from the playbook of Toronto dispensaries, two of the
raided London pot shops have reopened.

Tasty Budd's and Healing Health Compassion on Dundas Street were back
in business in the weeks following the police crackdown.

Nobody affiliated with either dispensary would speak to The Free Press
on the record, saying they feared it could trigger police

"We will continue to enforce the laws as they are on the books today,"
said Pare.

Asked whether police will again raid the reopened dispensaries, the
police chief was cryptic: "If need be, then we'll take appropriate

Many have questioned why police forces, their resources under close
scrutiny amid rising budgets, are putting so much time and effort into
targeting pot shops that just reopen and laying marijuana charges
under laws expected to soon change if the federal Liberals deliver on
their vow.

"I don't know anybody who really thinks it's worthwhile pursuing
marijuana (dispensaries) when the resources could be spent somewhere
else," said Rob Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser
University. He cited the opiod drug crisis sweeping the country as a
higher priority.

John Sewell, head of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition,
echoed Gordon's concern.

"I do think that it's a bit of a waste of police resources," said
Sewell, a former Toronto mayor and outspoken policing critics.

Polci said police should focus on getting illegal drugs off the
street, not targeting dispensaries whose operators say they get their
marijuana from the government-approved growers allowed to produce pot
for themselves and other users.

Polci became emotional when asked what message he'd like to send to
the London police chief.

"Please don't make it hard for us medical users that are legit and
want to medicate in a safe manner," he said.

- --- --- ---



Tasty Budd's

Where: 96 Wharncliffe Rd. S.

Status: Open

Landlord: Glass House Holdings Inc.

Raided: Aug. 17, 2016; March 2, 2017

- -- --

The Chronic Hub

Where: 119 Dundas St.

Status: Closed indefinitely

Landlord: Rosanna Stumpo-Bal

Raided: March 2, 2017

- -- --

Herbal Alternatives

Where: 737 Hamilton Rd.

Status: Closed indefinitely

Landlord: Joesph and Leslie Battaglia

Raided: March 2, 2017

- -- --

Healing Health Compassion

Where: 490 Wonderland Rd. S.

Status: Temporarily closed

Landlord: MOR Holdings Corp.

Raided: March 2, 2017

- -- --

Healing Health Compassion

Where: 1472 Dundas St.

Status: Open

Landlord: Numbered Ontario company

Raided: March 2, 2017

- -- --

London Compassion Society

Where: 5 Oxford St. W.

Status: Open

Landlord: Midland Holding and Leasing Ltd.

Raided: 2007

- --- --- ---

Charged in the March 2 raids:

Perry Middaugh, 55, of Markstay, Ont.

Emily Pavlech, 23, of London

Kara Barber, 30, of London

Fallon Altwasser, 26, of Kitchener

Mal McMeekin, 34, Cole Harbour, N.S.

Nathan Hall, 26, of London

Charles Colvin, 28, of London

Paisley Grey, 23, of London
- ---
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