With dispensaries outnumbering ice cream shops in some parts of Toronto, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that marijuana is legal in Canada. But as we were reminded again last week with another round of police raids, that is not the case.
Make no mistake: at least for now, these neighbourhood drug stores are prohibited by law (subject to certain constitutional arguments available to those selling to documented medical patients). Owners, employees, and customers face potential criminal charges; owners can also be prosecuted and fined under municipal zoning and licensing bylaws; and health practitioners issuing prescriptions can be disciplined by their professional regulator.
Our political and law enforcement leaders have emphasized the illegality of dispensaries in recent public statements. In June, after police raided Toronto’s dispensaries for the second time in a month, Chief of Police Mark Sanders said, “It’s illegal to sell marijuana unless you have a licence from Health Canada.” (Canada’s current regulatory regime, the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPRs), only allows marijuana to be sold by licensed producers to patients with a prescription by mail order.) Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said that marijuana laws should be obeyed and enforced while they remain on the books. Toronto Mayor John Tory has described the city’s dispensaries as “bogus” and likened their proliferation to the “Wild West.”
And yet, for all the rhetoric, there they are: dozens of dispensaries beside drycleaners, restaurants and shoe stores — all seeking to preemptively corner the market with the federal government’s announcement that marijuana will soon be legally available, and not just for medicinal purposes. The longer it takes the government to fill in the details, the longer the gap between law and reality will persist.
At the federal level, we have only a general sense of what the new regime might look like. The government has promised to “legalize, regulate, and restrict” marijuana so that possession is removed from the criminal law but the drug is kept “out of the hands of children.” Meanwhile, at the municipal level, Toronto’s Licensing and Standards Committee declined to take any steps towards developing a regime for regulating the dispensation of marijuana such as the one adopted by Vancouver’s City Council in June 2015. Instead, the committee commissioned a staff report due to be considered in October.