Outside of the Toronto police headquarters on College Street Friday morning, about 100 protesters gathered in protest of the police raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. In tie-dye shirts with marijuana leaf flags raised high, some carry placards with slogans like "#Project Fraudia" - a reference to the code name for the police operation, Project Claudia.
Inside police headquarters, the chief talked about the police raids the day before, and the charges laid. 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, which had worked with police on this operation, laid 79 charges for zoning violations, and 31 charges for selling food without a proper license.
Up until this point, police have maintained that the shops are illegal, but have said they would only conduct a raid if they receive complaints. For the most part, businesses were left alone. Now, police say they received between 50 and 70 complaints from residents.
On May 18, they served 44 property owners with a letter of caution regarding illegal drug-related activity on the premises. Police say only one of the businesses served with a notice shut its doors in advance of the raids, which led to the 43 raids conducted on Thursday.
Fellow owner protests in support of raided dispensaries
Todd Douglas, who owns Rolling Buds dispensary in Scarborough, was one of the protesters on the scene. He says what police are doing is unconstitutional.
"We know we provide a service to the community, and it's wrong to intimidate us and our patients," he says.
Douglas protested because he feels businesses like Rolling Buds - which wasn't one of dispensaries raided Thursday - should be able to operate alongside licensed medical marijuana providers. He feels this crackdown happened because the government wants to monopolize cannabis sales.
Right now, the doors to his dispensary are closed. He says they'll remain that way for the time being while he works with other dispensaries to figure out how best to lobby the government.
Other dispensary staff I checked in with are unsure what to do or say at this point. They're frozen in a state of limbo while they figure out next steps.
Earlier this week, I paid a visit to WeeMedical dispensary near Queen St. W. and Bathurst street downtown. The entire shop, located in the basement of a head shop, is painted bright lime green, and the staff are friendly. At that point, they said, they hadn't received a warning of any kind.
Queens of Cannabis on Bloor Street West was still open Thursday night despite a visit from police earlier in the day. Staff there said they couldn't talk to me until they have a chance to formulate a plan of action.
Activists protest at the press conference too
The press conference turned quite boisterous when activists shouted questions and comments at Toronto Police Chief Mark 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 told them the crackdown was carefully thought out. He says that it was executed because the products sold at dispensaries are not regulated in any way. There is no way to tell how much THC is in the products, and this, he says, poses serious health risks.
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."
The activists and dispensary owners are nonetheless dismayed by the recent raids and arrests. Torontonians who use cannabis have been feeling pretty good about their lives over the past couple of months, as dispensaries have been popping up seemingly on every corner. The number of dispensaries in the city, in fact, has doubled since March. Most of them, though, knew their newfound golden era was too good to be true. And they were proved right on Thursday afternoon.
Sarah Ratchford is a writer based in Toronto.