My Thoughts on Toronto’s Pot Dispensaries & Project Claudia
June 6, 2016
Oh boy. This is a big topic. I'd been trying to write this post for three days before I started this post on May 29, took a few days off, and then spent multiple days on it on and off. I've been reading, watching, taking notes. This might not be the most eloquent post, but it contains facts and opinions that I want to communicate.
Recently, in an event called “Project Claudia“, Toronto police arrested 90 people and laid 186 trafficking charges after raiding 43 marijuana dispensaries. The City laid a further 79 charges on property owners for zoning and licensing bylaw infractions. The dispensaries received a letter from Toronto Police the previous week saying they were unlawful and were asked to shut down. Landlords were asked to evict their dispensary tenants.
Among the objects seized during the 43 raids, there was 270 kilograms of dry cannabis, 30 kg of resin, 25 kg of hash, 27 kg of pills, 73 kg of chocolate, 142 kg of cookies, 129 kg of candies, 101 kg of bars, 135 e-cigarettes, 457 drinks, 127 kg of oils and spreads, and 121 kg of other by-products were seized.
I'm pro-legalization and pro-marijuana, but…
I'm pro-medical cannabis. It's an area that I'm fascinated by, and I'm an advocate for. I've been watching Toronto's dispensary community and I've been paying attention to the issues around legalization. I like that dispensaries exist. They're needed. I think that people SHOULD have a place to go for this type of medicine. I also don't think there's anything wrong with adults using cannabis recreationally. I'm even planning a 4-6 week email-based course that teaches the basics of marijuana, mostly in the context of health. (Want in? Subscribe to my newsletter over on the right and up.)
I think that many of the existing dispensaries should be legal. People need access and it needs to be more open than it currently is.
I also don't think that the police are absolutely wrong. I watched the press conference and empathized with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders.
It's bound to happen in a press conference: Protesters and some journalists don't wait to hear the answer before going into attack mode. They have stories in their heads, scripts they feel attached to, and they'd feel uncomfortable if they were disconnected from those stories and distracted from those scripts. Protesters weren't listening to Saunders before jumping in and I'm sorry, but “marijuana is going to be legal soon anyway!” sounds like a juvenile, whiny protest to me. Provide a better argument than that.
Here's a better way of phrasing that argument:
In the last Supreme Court ruling in February of this year, Judge Michael Phelan called dispensaries the heart of the medical marijuana industry and gave the government six months to come up with a new set of rules and regulations.
(See Sarah Hanlon's column in, 24 Hours. Link at the bottom.)
Dispensaries are illegal
Dispensaries are illegal in Canada. There is no gray area. Yes, Justin Trudeau is working through legalizing pot, but this is not legal yet.
Some dispensary owners might jump into the business not knowing it's illegal, as one owner claimed. I've since learned that the one owner in the news that claimed she didn't know is from British Columbia and may have acted unknowingly. I understand that lots of owners didn't believe that getting raided was a possibility. Generally, it doesn't matter what business you're opening, you need to know what your legal responsibilities are.
Chief Saunders explained that the lack of regulations involving how the product is grown, purchased and produced for sale poses a significant concern to public safety. Of course, quality control is important. Regulations do need to be in place. It's a public safety issue (also see “Think of the children” below).
People with a prescription can still get their medicine from government-approved distributors.
Think of the children
Speaking of public safety, I generally hate the “think of the children” argument, except I agree with the statement below. On CBC Radio's Here and Now, Chief Saunders said,
“Let's face it, I'd be sitting here having a completely different interview with you right now if some child had eaten three or four of these jujubes. It would be, ‘Why did you not do anything after these hundreds of complaints came across to us, making us known that these places were, in fact, dealing in marijuana?' So there are no perfect answers. I knew that there'd be people that would be upset.”
(See “It's unlawful”. CBC, May 27, 2016 )
Of course! HOWEVER…. You'd think that it's common sense to keep this stuff away from children, except that common sense isn't always so common, and even with the best intentions, accidents happen. Kids get into things. I think that regulation would ensure that edibles were labeled as dangerous for kids, and should include guidelines for storage and child-resistant packaging (which, on the flip side, would be a disadvantage to people seeking relief from conditions such as arthritis). Treat your cannabis prescription like your prescription for other meds, or like poison. Keep out of reach of children. At the same time, people who bake edibles at home should/would follow the same common sense rules.
I read recently that in legal states, cannabis edibles are sold in child-proof packaging, as it should be, while other prescription meds that affect behaviour are sold in blister packs.
Some dispensaries are being more responsible that others
I heard that CALM (Cannabis As Living Medicine), which operated out of a secret location for 2 decades, was raided. They were one of the “compassionate clubs” that sold pot to people with a valid prescription via Health Canada’s Marijuana for Marihuana for Medical Purpose Regulations (MMPR). Customers weren't allowed to disclose its location. They'd last been raided in 2010 but otherwise stayed open.
Note: I use the following example because I know them, but there are likely others in the city that operate under the same principles.
My local, Queens of Cannabis, has become somewhat of the poster child for the movement. They've been in the news for many months as advocates for legalization and regulation. When I did a Google News search I found some articles about them in Quebec publications. I've seen news vehicles camped out outside my home a lot lately. On one morning the week of the raids they had a press conference that included a Practicing Registered Nurse/advocate (CP 24 – see link below).
They are NOT federally approved, as no dispensaries are. However, not just anyone can buy marijuana there either. Their mission: “to provide education, tools and resources to approved medical marijuana patients regarding the medical benefits of marijuana, how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and ways to reduce dependency.” (emphasis mine.)
They help you through the process. They'll advise you how to get through the process, which begins with getting an official diagnosis and then takes you to “marijuana doctors” who require a referral from a doctor with documentation. Queens of Cannabis recommends White Cedar Medical Cannabis Doctors. White Cedar too, is stringent. On their Referral for Assessment form, they request, “Please send all relevant medical records including recent consultations with specialists and diagnostic imaging reports. Patients will not be booked until all supporting documents have been received.”
You can't get a job at Queens of Cannabis unless you're at least 25 years old and possess a medical marijuana license. This sounds LEGIT – except that it's not. And so, while they're operating “illegally”, it seems to be that they're operating responsibly, in parallel to the laws. It seems that when legalization happens, they'll have less work to do to make their store operable.
In April, Queens of Cannabis owner Tania told the CBC (April 20),
“Everything should be lab-tested and have potency and direction so that people know how to use the product..” and “We make sure everyone has a prescription…” Sounds like a pharmacy to me.
Lack of regulation
Chief Saunders expressed that the lack of regulations involving how the product is grown, purchased and produced for sale poses a significant concern to public safety. I agree, and so do people in the industry. There IS a genuine health concern because of lack of regulatory process. Lack of consistency is an issue, but licensed producers have issues with consistency too. The cannabis that Health Canada approves isn't always what it says, as evidenced by third-party lab testing.
An article published on CBC's website a few weeks before the raid noted, “There is still no clarity on regulations, and dispensaries are taking advantage of that ambiguity, opening at such a torrid pace that Mayor John Tory has called it ‘the wild west.'” (CBC News, May 11) I wouldn't use the word “torrid”, but I have pointed out that dispensaries have been popping up like weeds (pun intended every time).
Regulation also applies to pot shops as businesses. These are retail business. Does the City need a whole other classification for such businesses? Does this fall under Public Health's jurisdiction?
An example of this Wild West
There are currently over 100 dispensaries in Toronto.
Several weeks ago I read an article in Post City Magazine that surprised me (link below). It was the first time I'd heard that dispensaries weren't following any sort of code.
About one dispensary they say, “New clients must fill out a form outlining the reason they require marijuana for medicinal purposes. Employees then fax it out to a “cannabis-friendly” doctor. In the meantime, customers can circumvent the process and pay $200 to purchase pot before they receive a prescription.” (Again, emphasis mine.) I've since heard about dispensaries where you can go, get a quick diagnosis in the back, and then buy pot. These are the types of places that concern me, and I think they're concerning in general. I understand giving access immediately but I think that they're pushing the envelope too far, too fast.
Prescription vs. quick fix, medical vs. recreational
I'm of two minds here: On one hand, I think that dispensaries should operate like pharmacies. Prescription-based, behind the counter. On the other, sometimes the need is immediate, such as with migraines or injuries. With so few doctors on board, where is a person supposed to get a prescription in an emergency? The walk-in clinic doctor or Emergency Room doctor is unlikely to provide a prescription. Few doctors want to prescribe cannabis. Doctors aren't educated about it.
That said, you can't walk into a pharmacy and get morphine or antibiotics over the counter, so why should you be able to get pot OTC?
People are using “quick fix” dispensaries as a way to get pot for recreational use. While I believe that there's nothing wrong with responsible adults consuming pot for enjoyment, they are two different issues.
My inner debate & questioning goes like this:
What's wrong with using dispensaries to get pot for recreational use? There's nothing wrong with using pot recreationally, to unwind instead of a glass of wine or a bubble bath. Why shouldn't dispensaries of the future sell pot for recreational use? (Note “of the future”.)
…But does this ruin for the people who use it for pain relief and other ailments?
Dispensaries that sell pot to pretty much anyone who asks are one step up from street dealers. Prohibition has risks related to criminal violence, and yet these street dealers have served valid purposes in all this. Dispensaries with a process, or who ask for a license, are above. Over street dealers, dispensaries – quick fix or stringent – and “compassionate clubs” have better variety and provide knowledgeable customer service. I'd much rather see a proper system for store-front sales rather than an underground market of dealers.
Selling medical marijuana alongside marijuana for recreational use?
It's worth noting that processing time to obtain a medical marijuana card is several months – after you see a doctor for a diagnosis, obtain proper documentation, apply, etc. (Source: MedicalMarijuana.ca)
Here's something else regarding what licensed producers provide vs. what pot shops provide: Although ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, licensed producers only produce pot for smoking. Cannabis oil, edibles, tinctures and creams are outlawed. In an article linked at the bottom of this post, a mother speaks out about that because cannabis helped her young son, too young to smoke. Cannabis creams offer topical pain relief, and not everyone with chronic pain wants to smoke.
I think that by sticking close to what regulation would look like, dispensaries that do so demonstrate that they're responsible but impatient. It's a better form of civil disobedience. They know the rules and know how to break them properly. They want change.
Official word is that Project Claudia was a result of numerous community complaints about the dispensaries. None of the dispensaries near me were raided, although one appeared closed for a few days. My guess is that management thought it best to lay low for a few days. It's possible that the “public complaints” came from the licensed producers and not community members. “Public complaint” is a vague enough statement that it makes me wonder who it was that complained, and how many complaints were received. “Public complaint” seems like a default vague excuse that hides the truth. See “Bay Street Conspiracy” below.
Of course, there will always be people who cry “Not in my backyard” or who are against particular businesses, especially a business type that comes with such controversy, and the number of dispensaries in Toronto has gotten out of hand. These aren't spread out through the city, they're densely situated. There are at least 10 in the Kensington Market area, which consists of a number of square blocks, and 3 within 1 kilometer (.6 miles) from where I live.
PR Spin & Perpetuating Stereotypes
The official news that was then communicated through the media was that 23 grams of cocaine were found. For a week, I thought, “What an asshat! Who keeps coke at their dispensary? That ruins it for dispensaries!” The connection between the two drugs didn't seem right to me (in history, cocaine was used as medicine too, but that's beside the point). I've since learned that the police thought they'd find coke at the dispensary but didn't, so they searched the owner's house and found it there. Who, upon being told that cocaine was found in the raid, would think to question whether the coke was found at a dispensary or not? Saying, “During the raids we found…” strongly implies the location of the raids. It's PR spin meant to show a relationship between pot and cocaine. Typical.
As it happens, during next week's Anxiety summit, Hyla Cass M.D., will be presenting the topic, “Marijuana and anxiety: Panacea or Pandora’s Box?”
Hyla is board-certified in psychiatry and integrative medicine, and is the author of several books including The Addicted Brain and How to Break Free. She's also my aunt. In one of my recent conversations with Hyla, when I told her that this is currently my primary area of interest, she told me that Trudy – organizer/host of The Anxiety Summit and author of The Antianxiety Food Solution – asked her specifically to do a talk about marijuana. Her basic stance: It's complicated. CBD (cannabidiol- the second most prominent cannabinoid compound in the cannabis plant) is good but pot is addictive. I'm glad she agreed to the topic. I have no idea what's in the interview but I can't wait to hear it. I always learn something new from her.
Bay Street Conspiracy?
There's talk that the cannabis version of “big pharma”, government-approved pot corporations, may have been involved. Several sources tell me that representatives from several publicly traded, federal government-approved pot companies met on Bay Street around the day of the raid. While it may seem unlikely, and maybe the meetings didn't happen, or were unrelated, I know from experience that people in power – people with political influence and/or lots of money – do have control over public authorities and public servants and sometimes those public servants don't know that they're a pawn. Even though I've witnessed it, I still don't believe that it happens in real life, but it does, and so it might have. It might not have. If you're into the stock market, strike the pot companies now because when legalization happens, a lot of the neighbourhood dispensaries will take business from the current corporations. As I've pointed out, there are over 100 dispensaries in Toronto.
Here's something I read in Sarah Hanlon's column in 24 Hours:
Many believe the government attack on dispensaries comes from pressure to do so from some of those Health Canada licensed producers who haven’t satisfied patient need but are frustrated to see their investments take on the challenge of competition. These beliefs take on more weight when you put together the fact that many of these LPs [licensed producers] have ties directly to the Liberal government.
…and then she gives examples of where the corruption might lie.
Dispensaries are back in business for now.
Advocates will keep pushing for quicker action. The City needs proper guidance on what to do. As City Councillor Joe Cressy said, the city needs “interim guidance,”. According to Cressy, the raids were the result of confusion about weed sales. He also said,
“The federal government has told us criminalization doesn’t work, therefore they’re going to legalize it tomorrow but it should continue to be enforced today…“That doesn’t work for anybody.”
Wait and see how the Supreme Court rulings affect Federal law, and what the Federal law looks like.
The cops have already moved back to guns and gangs, which are more dangerous.
The most popular drug in the world?
If I were to ask you what the most popular drug in the world is, what would you answer?
If your answer is “marijuana”, you're partly right. The other answer(s) might surprise you. I'll address this in the next post.