Pubdate: Mon, 03 Apr 2017
Source: Windsor Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Windsor Star
Author: Dale Carruthers
Page: A7


Police are cracking down on dispensaries even as Ottawa promises to
make pot legal

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 painkillers he's
also prescribed.

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.

There 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 trade
association that represents dispensaries and other marijuana-related

Medicinal users displeased with the problem-plagued licensed 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.

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

Authorities in Toronto, where there are 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.

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 the police-led operation,
London's bylaw enforcement boss says there are no plans to go after
dispensary landlords.

"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."

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 nondescript former dentist's office, 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.

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 raids.
Attempts to reach the Compassion Society weren't successful. Sources
say the crackdown has left its operators and members on edge.

Police previously raided the Compassion Society in 2007 at a previous
location, 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 were back in business in the weeks following the crackdown.

Nobody affiliated with either dispensary would speak on the record,
saying they feared it could trigger police retaliation.

"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 opioid drug crisis sweeping the country as a
higher priority.
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