Toronto city officials hosted what became a rather boisterous press conference Friday morning to explain the charges they had laid in connection to "Project Claudia" - the code name for the operation to raid 43 medical marijuana dispensaries on Thursday.
All of the megacity's dispensaries are illegal because the only sanctioned way for patients to buy cannabis is through Health Canada's mail-order system. Toronto police have been aware of the growing number of dispensaries, but had said they would only act on complaints from the public. This explains why they only raided about half of the city's dispensaries.
"Significant community complaints generated this action," said Police Chief Mark Saunders. "These complaints were substantive in nature - petitions in excess of 60-70 people."
In total, 43 search warrants were executed at various locations. More than 90 people were arrested, and 186 charges laid.
The city's licensing and standards department laid 79 charges for zoning violations, and 31 charges for selling food without a proper license.
No customers were arrested
Saunders said that patients won't be charged, even if there are records of who the dispensaries' clients are. "This is not about the consumer but the trafficking."
In the raids, police seized upwards of 269 kilograms of dried cannabis, 30 kilograms of cannabis resin, 24 kilograms of hash, and over 300 kilograms of edibles, chocolate, cookies, candies and spreads.
The raid still leaves approximately 47 of the megacity's estimated 90 dispensaries operating. But Saunders said they could still face police action.
"The ones that are still active didn't have complaints lodged against them. But if they are dispensing marijuana, charges will be brought as well," said Saunders. "We want to be very loud and clear...if you don't have a license from Health Canada and you're dispensing marijuana, you will be shut down."
Protesters disrupt press conference
The press conference turned into a fiasco when activists shouted questions and comments at Saunders that were beyond his expertise and jurisdiction. They would then interrupt when he tried to respond.
"Where are the victims? Show us the victims!"
"You have 54 complaints and tens of thousands of people feeling better. Where's the balance?"
"You're sending people to the black market."
"Are you working with the licensed producers? Was Health Canada notified?"
Saunders insisted that the police action was about public safety, not politics.
"I was not pressured politically to make any decisions," he said. "And I knew it would be a difficult position...I feel very strongly that the charges will stick. But this is not about the charges. This is about public safety."
Chief said dispensaries threatened public safety
He explained that the lack of regulations involving how the product is grown, purchased and produced for sale poses a significant concern to public safety.
"It is a genuine health concern because there is no regulatory process behind this," he said. "The problem is that every dispensary has its own regulations. Their intentions may be well served, but at the end of the day, knowingly selling and not having a license from Health Canada is unlawful. You can't be doing that."
And he insisted that the city has taken a measured approach to the situation, which began earlier this month when 44 dispensaries received letters informing them that, "their locations were engaged in unlawful activities, and that if they didn't cease they would face criminal charges." But only one closed down, leading to the raids of the other 43 dispensaries Thursday.
"We wanted to give an opportunity for the dispensaries to shut down rather than have us shut them down," said Saunders. "The measured approach first started with the letters - cease and desist or we will come in under the criminal code....People had ample opportunity to decide if they wanted to continue to break the law. And those who decided to continue to break the law are being charged."
Banner image: Sarah Ratchford