City brandishes court order to threaten remaining dispensaries
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City brandishes court order to threaten remaining dispensaries

Recent spate of closures drives customers to other pot stores

At a spartan Queen West storefront on a sunny afternoon, more than 20 people sit shoulder to shoulder, waiting to be served by one of several busy employees. Eden, the Bellwoods-adjacent marijuana dispensary, is already seeing some of the overflow effects of last week’s court ruling that shut down a group of Toronto dispensaries for violating zoning bylaws.

The Ontario Superior Court granted the City’s request last week to close operations at Toronto’s remaining Canna Clinics—a chain of marijuana dispensaries—while the matter remains before the courts. For the City, the court order means another way to fight illegal marijuana dispensaries in what has become a costly game of whack-a-mole. For other Toronto dispensaries, it means more business, at least in the immediate future.

Director of investigation services for municipal licensing, Mark Sraga, says the City’s recent success in court provides “another legal tool” for them to combat “clear wilful noncompliance with our bylaw,” which he says was the case with Canna Clinic when the City filed their application.

“If other illegal storefronts continue to operate contrary to the City’s zoning bylaw,” says Sraga, “[the injunction] is another option we can entertain pursuing with them.”

Sraga estimates “very conservatively” that the City has spent $1 million to fight marijuana dispensaries in Toronto in the past year, roughly $600,000 of which he says has gone to six full-time employees dedicated to enforcing zoning laws against weed dispensaries. (That figure does not include police expenditures.) The rest, says Sraga, is mostly associated with court costs.

According to Sraga, the City will try to recoup their legal fees in any future proceedings.

Although lawyers are still reviewing the decision, Sraga says his department plans to send out written notices in the coming weeks to alert dispensaries and their landlords of the latest boon to bylaw enforcement.

But that doesn’t worry industry professionals like Tyler James, the community outreach director for Eden Medicinal Society. “For [the City] to get the injunction, they have to go through the whole rigmarole of setting up court dates and proceedings,” says James, which takes an inordinate amount of time. “Unless the City and the court system are looking to expedite these injunctions,” he says, “I don’t foresee it having a serious impact.”

Flyers in Eden’s storefront promote the company’s opiate recovery program, which bills THC as a possible substitute for opioids.

“The benefit of the Canna Clinic injunction was only financial because we get the overflow of their clientele, but unfortunately that’s not why we’re doing this,” says James. “The real benefit would have been if the court saw what Canna Clinic was offering to patients and the community, which is access and collaboration in trying to work within the neighbouring communities that they were in.”

In granting the interim order, the court ruled that allowing the businesses to continue to operate outside current marijuana regulations outweighed any harm caused to medical marijuana patients who opt for storefronts over ordering online—at least while the matter is being decided, and that allowing these storefronts to continue to violate municipal bylaws would cause “irreparable harm” to the city.

Outside Canna Clinic’s recently closed location on Ossington, a smiling individual identifies herself as a Canna Clinic employee and says she was asked by the company to let would-be clients know about the court-ordered closure. She laments the fact that she no longer has full-time hours at a “great place to work” along with dozens of other Canna Clinic employees throughout the city.

Both James and Sraga say that there’s no way for storefront dispensaries to operate legally in their current form under current laws, nor could they under proposed provincial legislation, which would create a publicly owned system similar to the LCBO.

“But we feel that the province and the municipalities should have a contingency plan in the event that Kathleen Wynne either changes her model or is not re-elected,” says James, who has been working on said plan in the hopes that even if the Liberals forge ahead with a public model perhaps other parties will consider a private option.

“They all understand they’re operating illegally,” says Abi Roach of the dispensaries, but she doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. Roach is the owner of Kensington’s Hotbox Cafe and director of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association.

Like James, Roach is critical of the proposed provincial legislation and thinks that Toronto should provide incentives for dispensary owners to operate above board. “In reality, what we’re hoping for is that the province understands that these businesses will not just go away,” says Roach.

Now that “the doors are shuttered” at Canna Clinic’s Kensington location, says Roach, “there’s just people selling weed out of a bag as though they were sitting in the park.”

According to Roach, the “cannabis consumer” wants to buy their weed from dispensaries, and until the government realizes that, it’s Toronto taxpayers who suffer.