Toronto police Superintendent Bryce Evans in screen cap from news conference January 24, 2017.
There’s a reason why dumb crime stories are so entertaining: there’s something morally satisfying about the bad guys being the architect of their own demise.
On January 30, two masked men entered Green Buddha Medicinals marijuana dispensary on College. One was armed with a revolver; the other carried a hockey bag. According to police, they demanded cash and marijuana. As they were loading the bag, the store clerk managed to escape through the front door and locked it, leaving the two men inside.
Police say the thieves, attempting to get out, discharged their firearm several times into the front door. The alleged culprits, aged 17 and 19, were arrested a short time later.
But lately it’s the owners of pot dispensaries in Toronto who feel as if the police are asking them to become the actors in another kind of dumb crime story.
After a string of pot shop robberies – four since the new year and 13 since last June, half of which have gone unreported by dispensary owners – it’s clear that theft is a growing problem in the Toronto storefront industry. And it’s now a public safety concern for police for more than the obvious reasons.
Many dispensary owners feel they have nowhere to turn.
If they don’t report robberies, they’re forced to eat their losses; if they do, they risk charges and their product being seized by police. In two recent cases where dispensary robberies were reported, police laid possession for the purposes of trafficking charges against the owners who had reported the crimes in the first place.
In the wake of the robberies, Toronto police have given notice that until full legalization is in place, marijuana dispensaries are not legal, leaving dispensary operators without the police protection they deserve, says defence lawyer Paul Lewin.
Toronto police Superintendent Bryce Evans described the robberies as a “wake-up call” at a recent news conference.
“It’s like gambling,” Evans argues. “When you roll the dice, you take the chance. If you don’t win, in their case, we take their marijuana.”
Critics point out that such a situation is inevitable when you run a business that is technically illegal. Fair enough.
But if we can agree that dispensaries a) do not hurt people, and b) provide a service that improves the quality of life of many (Bryce rejects the latter, saying dispensaries are “in it for the money”), can’t we then agree that some basic provisions to allow for their safety are prudent?
The Toronto Dispensary Coalition has ideas about building a safer relationship between police and pot merchants. It wants the city to implement a regulatory scheme, something owners have long been asking for. The coalition also wants the city to require a police check of anyone who plans to operate a dispensary.
Regulations like these, they say, would help keep both owners and customers safer.
“The better approach for the city and for the Toronto Police Service is to work collaboratively with dispensaries, dispensary staff and patients to regulate dispensaries, modify the way they operate and situate where they operate in the city in ways that are acceptable to the communities where they operate,” says Michael McLellan, a spokesperson for the Toronto Dispensary Coalition.
Some of these recommendations are included in the federal task force report on legalization released last year. But city staff say that under current drug laws, “there is no authority for the city to implement a licensing regime."
The police, meanwhile, are content to continue raiding dispensaries even though legal experts say these charges may not hold up once full legalization comes into effect.
Almost a year after the Project Claudia raids, ostensibly undertaken in large part over concerns about the lack of regulation around edibles, Toronto police don’t even make a spectacle of it any more. There’s no deterrent, no larger crime reduction policy at work here, just good old-fashioned punishment.
The police seem to see only two solutions: either they stop raiding dispensaries, or all dispensaries simply close up shop. The latter isn’t likely to happen, and the force clearly isn’t interested in the former.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The fuel for this fire is a lack of leadership on the part of both city council – Mayor John Tory in particular – and the federal government. They could find a workable solution, acknowledging the reality of the dispensary market in advance of legalization while allowing police to keep the market in check. But instead, they are sticking to prohibition.
What we have now – seemingly arbitrary raids, continued arrests and a dispensary market that functionally has no limits – is not a solution, but an artifact of inaction that will do nothing to stop violent robberies.