Toronto Police are knowingly enforcing laws that are racist, classist, and directly target marginalized communities.
Five Cannabis Clinic dispensaries were raided on Thursday, which means a few things will happen: the police will proudly proclaim that they have busted more criminals. A number of employees, most of them young people simply trying to work a job, will find themselves in legal hot water; some of them will have to appear in court. Depending on the speed of the courts and the charges in question, some of them may end up with permanent criminal records.
Despite homeless people dying in the streets, despite fentanyl killing an increasing number of people every year, despite federal promises that legalization is imminent, police are continuing to pursue a needless, arbitrary, and futile war on the pot market in Toronto.
It simply doesn’t have to be like this.
Since the initial theatrics of police raids last May, when Project Claudia began, Toronto Police have been quietly, but relentlessly, continuing to raid dispensaries and lay charges against their employees, despite Trudeau’s Liberal government having promised to bring legalization legislation forward nearly a year ago. Legislation is scheduled to be tabled this spring—but that hasn’t stopped police from continuing to make criminals out of citizens in the meantime.
One wonders what the motivation is: there are simply too many dispensaries in the city to raid them all, and despite police raiding the low-hanging fruit, the industry continues to grow and bring in large revenues. Despite being capable of regulating the industry, as has been done in Vancouver, the City has so far refused to entertain the notion. Instead, they prefer to allow the industry to operate while ensuring that it remains unregulated—and dangerous.
On balance, Toronto’s dispensaries have helped far more people than they have hurt. Critics will point to ongoing robberies as proof that the dispensary industry is inherently violent, but it must be said that they labour under untenable conditions. They often feel unable to report robberies due to the fear—not unfounded—that police will charge them when they respond to a complaint. “You get a situation where violence begets more violence,” says Michael McLellen, spokesperson for the Toronto Dispensaries Coalition, an advocacy group. “The better approach for the City and for Toronto Police to deal with [dispensaries], is just to work collaboratively with dispensaries, dispensary staff, and patients to regulate dispensaries.”
Maybe worst of all, it is an enforcement system that replicates and reinforces the systemic injustices of race and class that permeate. The enforcement of marijuana laws has never been a politically-neutral act: people of colour are arrested and charged with possession more frequently than white people; those with illnesses (such as HIV) are deprived of medication that drastically increases their quality of life; young people are often saddled with criminal records which concretize their place in the working class.
None of this is justice. None of this is the equitable application of the law. None of this is even good. What this is, rather, is the last potshots at an industry that is on the cusp of going legit, and is powerless to fight back. It is senseless, expensive, discriminatory policing that has done next to nothing to help the people of Toronto. There is no internal logic that justifies the way police are carrying out the raids, and owners bemoan the arbitrary nature of the raids. Moreover, there’s little tangible effects: few dispensaries close down after being raided, few are deterred from opening new shops, and (if they don’t find another dispensary) people just go back to buying from drug dealers in dark back alleys and dangerous street corners.
Cannabis has the potential to help a great number of people who are in need of help. Policing like this hurts those people the most.
In a few years (assuming that legalization comes into effect) someone will look back and tally up the cost—both in taxpayer dollars and the arguably more devastating human cost—and the number won’t look pretty. Toronto Police Services will eventually need to answer to that cost, and simply saying that they were enforcing the law of the land won’t be enough. To save face, and to limit the damage done to already-marginalized communities in Toronto, the answer for Toronto police is simple: stop the raids.