Article by Jenna Valleriani, Lift
Just last week, Toronto Police Services held a press conference on the “growing public safety issue” of cannabis dispensaries in the city of Toronto – where over 13 of these storefronts (that we know of) have been robbed since June 2016. Adding another layer to the complicated existence of cannabis dispensaries in Toronto, we have to continue to re-evaluate the risk dispensaries pose to the communities they exist in.
Understanding the ongoing climate around dispensaries in the city has been tense at best, and volatile at worst, 10 of these robberies, according to the TPS, have included handguns. Some have included violence against staff and patrons, and reporting to the police has become a catch-22 for these entrepreneurs: report it and also risk product confiscation or arrest for yourself or staff.
That’s because cannabis dispensaries are illegal in Canada, and always have been. At one time, cannabis dispensaries were niche-filling, compassionate cannabis distributors, mostly operating with strict intake procedures for those who needed access for medical reasons. Their existence was meant to address various gaps in the federal medical cannabis access program. In Toronto, you’d never even know these places have existed since 1997 – they often chose to remain “hidden”, except to patrons who had been verified and approved. Though these days seem long gone, police mostly tolerated them because dispensaries kept a relatively low profile in neighbourhoods, and membership was more restrictive. Today, however, with their rapid proliferation, alongside the push to legalize cannabis for personal use, the landscape has evolved to an almost unrecognizable state.
In the past, I have always been quick to defend the role of dispensaries in how Canadians access because of the historical issues with accessing through legal channels. Although the program has evolved over the years, some of these issues continue to persist today. As just one example, through the federal medical cannabis program, patients can still only access dried bud or a diluted oil, whereas many want access to a wider range of products such as food products, infused topicals, concentrated oils, and tinctures. Without access to these products through producers licensed by Health Canada, many are left to make them on their own, or more commonly, they visit their local dispensary for access.
However, under this heightened threat of robbery, I sincerely question the risk that many of these locations bring to their surrounding communities, patrons, and staff. While I can’t help but feel a bit of irony when the TPS uses morality as the basis of their plea to report, without acknowledging the realities of the situation, I do agree that there is a responsibility to report robberies when they include weapons and put people at serious risk. Further, it’s even more troubling that these locations are not being transparent with their membership about these robberies.