Toronto Mayor John Tory says that the spread of illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in the megacity is "verging on being out of control," so he plans to crack down on the illicit industry through fines for bylaw infractions. But cannabis advocates argue that dispensaries are cleaning up the streets, serving patients' needs and rejuvenating communities.
On May 17, dispensary owners gathered at The Hot Box - a vape lounge in Kensington Market - to discuss ways to combat the proposed crackdown. But they aren't plotting to stage sit-ins at city hall or chain themselves to their shops. The message was to lawyer up and begin pressuring lawmakers like other industries do. "It's not time to protest," said Abi Roach - owner of The Hot Box. "It's time to lobby."
Roach is also the founder of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association (CFBA) - an advocacy group representing dispensaries as well as other stakeholders in the marijuana industry. We reached out to Roach and asked why she thinks Toronto and other communities should embrace dispensaries. Here's what she had to say.
1. Dispensaries fill a need
Right now, Canadian patients can only legally purchase select cannabis products through a mail-order system with licensed producers (LP's) approved by Health Canada. Abi Roach argues that these restrictions have created numerous gaps in patient care that dispensaries fill.
"People do not want their cannabis through the mail. They want human interaction. They want to talk to someone about the actual product. They want to know how it works. People need edibles, or pills or creams and whatever else. And the LP's just can't provide those services legally [due to government regulations]."
2. They make communities safe and prosperous
The only ones suffering from the dispensaries are street dealers, Roach told Civilized.
"I've lived for 20 years in Kensington Market. And [the local] park has always been just a dealer hangout....Last summer, you could barely walk through that park without every other person asking you if you want to buy kush. Now you can actually take your children and go and play in the park with hardly anybody there....Cannabis shops have literally put them out of business because people [who want to buy cannabis] don't want to go to the park. It's unsafe. They would rather pay taxes at a nice, clean shop."
Meanwhile, the rest of the community is benefitting from an economic upswing created by the dispensaries.
"The whole neighborhood has really benefitted. Dispensaries bring a whole lot of new faces in - new clientele. And it's not like they just leave the cannabis shop and go home. They're walking around the neighborhood and go shopping. Dispensaries are bringing a revival for Kensington Market."
3. Police don't want a crackdown
Despite Tory's calls for a crackdown, police have said they will only intervene if someone complains about a specific dispensary. Roach sees their position as evidence that they don't want to interfere.
"To me, the police aren't interested in this. They have bigger problems to deal with. That's why it's on a complaint basis....So if law enforcement doesn't want to deal with this, then why is the city pushing so hard?"
She also told Civilized that she's spoken to police who were sympathetic to dispensaries.
"The police were completely in agreement with me that they would much rather see people walk into a store where they're carded, the place is clean, they know who's in there, rather than having to chase guys down in the park all day long on their bicycles."
4. Patients and dispensers don't want to feel like criminals
Roach wants Toronto to license and regulate dispensaries so that their clientele - patients - don't have to feel like criminals.
"People don't want to be criminals. They don't want to feel like a criminal. And they don't want to be sold their cannabis as though they were criminals. They want to walk into a clean shop and buy taxed, quality cannabis."
And dispensary owners that Roach works with don't want to act like criminals either.
"They want regulations, and they want to pay taxes, and they want to be a business. They don't want to be in the black market anymore. And this is what the government is failing to understand on all levels, from federal to municipal. Cannabis is no longer a fringe thing. We're not a bunch of weirdos. We're just normal people. We're everyday people. We're me and you. And we don't want to be criminals. So when they think of making laws and regulations, they have to stop thinking with this prohibitionist mind and prohibitionist rhetoric. They have to think of us as people."
5. Regulating through the market
Like Mayor Tory, Roach was surprised by the recent spike in the number of Toronto dispensaries, which she estimates number around 120 right now. But she thinks that the best way to reduce that number is to let the market correct itself.
"A better business is going to be the one that wins out in the end. And in reality, if there's enough demand for all these places to remain busy, then the market called for it. It's just the nature of business. So as opposed to trying to control it - like it's some evil thing - [municipalities] just have to look at it as the nature of retail business. That's how it works. And eventually, some of these shops will go out of business. The market will correct itself."
6. Why advocates can't be patient
The federal government plans to introduce marijuana legislation by spring 2017. So you might wonder why dispensary owners insist on pushing the issue by opening up stores now.
"Because if we didn't push the laws, we would never be where we are today....The cannabis community has always had to be two steps ahead of anything that the government does. Otherwise they would never do anything. So in order for the craft industry not to get pushed out by the LP's and the government, we have to put our feet in the ground with some concrete and just stick it out."