Article by Cy Williams, High! Canada
In 2016 there were numerous cannabis-based storefronts opening and operating in Ontario selling cannabis to consumers. Law enforcement efforts like Toronto’s Project Claudia and Project Gator temporarily shut down most of these stores in Toronto and other cities but in Hamilton – there has been something very different going on – at least for now…
In Ontario, the grey market scene in Hamilton is booming, where nearly 65 dispensaries operate openly and the entire region is thick with craft growers ancillary shops and services, late stage LP applicants and cannabis based health services like Hello Cannabis that are on the front line in fighting the opiate epidemic that has long plagued South-Western Ontario.
A very vibrant cannabis culture scene has developed over the last few years in Hamilton – evolving through sheer force of will into what Toronto had always wanted to be -and in light of October’s announcement – a tourism dream like no other as Ontario’s own version of Vancouver, the Hammer steps out of the shadows and into the lead as the city in Ontario most like Amsterdam.
With a multitude of Hamilton marijuana-based shops and services setting up shop across an art, music and fashion forward cityscape with a smaller population of only 740,000 – how could this city not become a cannabis-based Mecca of sorts? Ottawa has 17 dispensaries for 1.25 million people and London offers only three stores for 380,000 people, Hamilton’s citizens can choose from at least 65 dispensaries, spanning one end of the city to the other. There are high-end shops on the mountain and a few strips that feel for lack of a better word – very much like a new Canadian version of ‘Amsterdam’.
Hamilton has long been a hotspot for important cannabis-based activity. Activist groups like Hamilton Votes Dispensaries have been pushing hard for the pot shop agenda. From Britney Guerra and the cannabis centre of the Hammer in the Cloud 9 Lounge to the solid patient advocacy groups that arose around the newly minted cannabis space in Hamilton to the opening of MMJ Canada’s Southern Ontario base of operations – the City of Hamilton is evolving quickly.
Well known Hamilton Cannabis activist, Britney Guerra had initially partnered with Vancouver-based Weeds Glass and Gifts to open the city’s first dispensary on March 24, 2016. Now called The Medicine Cabinet, it is the longest operating pot shop in the city. “Part of the reason we chose Hamilton in the first place was because Hamilton police had so much more to worry about,” said Guerra “low rent and very high crime. Hamilton was a struggling city. As soon as people saw what was happening with Cannabis Culture Hamilton and how well it was doing, that was when the dispensary boom really happened.”
Now, months away from legalization, Hamilton dispensaries flourish, which pro-dispensary activists say is demonstrative of a functioning business model and there is talk that the provincial government is ready to shut them down for good. The government has granted municipalities interim closure authority until Bill C45, the Cannabis Act that will legalize pot, makes its way through parliament. They have also promised $40 million of pot tax revenue to city councils to curb nongovernment supply. Ontario recently announced it will sell recreational cannabis online only come October 17, with “tightly regulated” private retail stores by next April. Dispensaries will remain illegal, and the government has not yet set criteria for who can apply to become a legal retailer. Included in the new cannabis legalization bill, which received royal assent at the end of June, are stiff penalties for violators: up to three years in prison and a $5- million fine.
Hamilton police Chief Eric Girt has said “The fact that they’ve included fines up into $5 million … I would call that a fairly stiff penalty, which is what we’ve asked for,” adding that will “hopefully make it not profitable to engage in that conduct.”
Dispensaries have been such a hot topic in Hamilton, with cannabis advocates criticizing police for targeting people they believe are doing no harm, and frustrated neighbours questioning why police and the city simply can’t shut the doors. The truth has been much more complicated.
“It changes on a daily basis, we shut one down and another opens, we lay charges, and three weeks later it reopens,” Girt said.
But the steep fine could change that.
“If (a dispensary owner) gets convicted twice, that’s $10 million; I’m going to hazard a guess that’s going to impact on your bottom line.” Girt said he doesn’t believe it should be the job of police to inspect or regulate the legal market. But where someone breaks the law, police services are dutybound to enforce.
The City of Hamilton bylaw department counts the number of open dispensaries in the city at 53 as of Aug 15th, 2018 according to Nicole O’Reilly at the Hamilton Spectator. She states they’ve investigated over 94 and are aware of 41 that have closed, she credits the information to City of Hamilton licensing director Ken Leendertse by email.
Nicole O’Reilly goes on further to state, that to date,City of Hamilton bylaw officers have issued a total of 81 zoning notices, 52 zoning charges, 38 licensing tickets, 11 sign violation notices and 54 fees for service. The city has no plans to change its approach in light of the provincial announcement, he said. They will continue to investigate for municipal bylaw offences.