The Ontario government fired the first shot in a province-wide war on illegal medical marijuana dispensaries last week. "If you operate one of these dispensaries, consider yourself on notice," Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said while pledging to close every dispensary in the province over the next 12 months.
The news was depressingly predictable for people who have fought to make the "gray market" dispensaries part of the legalization framework in Ontario.
"I was scared but not surprised," Lisa Campbell, a spokesperson for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association (CFBA) told Civilized. "In every meeting that we've had with government in the last two years, it's been hinted that this is coming. But the message was scary because they said that over the next 12 months, they're going to be closing down every single dispensary in Ontario. So all the dispensaries have been put on watch. And we're all frantically organizing to save what we think is our constitutional right to have these storefront dispensaries."
Right now, the only legal way for patients to buy medical marijuana is through a mail-order system run by cannabis producers licensed by Health Canada. But dispensaries have been around for decades and their numbers have grown dramatically since 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to legalize recreational cannabis use. Many stores sprung up hoping to become recreational retailers when the country repeals prohibition in 2018, but those hopes appear to have gone up in smoke as far as Ontario is concerned.
Campbell explained that the province is taking a hardline stance against dispensaries because they believe dispensaries are stocking shelves with product obtained through organized crime. But many storefronts are willing to start selling government-regulated cannabis if it means they can keep their doors open.
"We're willing to work with licensed-producer supply if that's what it takes to be compliant. These businesses are willing to do whatever it takes to continue to provide access to their patients."
For dispensary owners, staying in business isn't just about making money. It's also about providing essential services to patients an helping the country combat the opioid crisis that is raging in Canada as well as the United States.
"Many do feel that they are providing an essential service to patients, especially in the middle of the opiate epidemic...Studies have shown that where there's access to cannabis, there's a reduction in the overall addiction rates to opiates in the general population," Campbell noted. "I'm currently working with dispensaries in a joint initiative to combat the opiate crisis in Ontario. Just today we donated fentanyl testing strips to overdose prevention sites in Moss Park and Toronto Public Health's The Works. And Green Market will actually be creating a popup to where we'll be giving away edibles for the first time to help fight the epidemic."
Others see the crackdown as unjust because the government is trying to take businesses away from people who are underrepresented in the legal cannabis market.
"The Ontario government wants to open up these locations where existing dispensaries are," Campbell explained. "So for dispensaries that have been providing access all this time, to see their businesses stolen from them isn't social justice. A lot of these dispensaries are owned by people of color and women, and they're not being included in legalization. So instead of trying to eliminate the black market, they need to integrate the gray market to truly achieve their goals of legalization."
And CFBA plans to help dispensaries fight for their survival over the coming months. "Dispensaries are coming together to say we're not going anywhere and we believe that we're part of the solution, not the problem. The government doesn't need to waste resources or criminalize young people. They can find ways to work with us."
That said, Campbell recognizes that it's a fight they might not win. "We're fighting back, but the writing is on the wall."