Health Canada has sent out cease-and-desist letters to 13 illegal marijuana dispensaries and compassion clubs across the country, warning the RCMP could raid them if they do not shut down immediately, even those in cities where local police have mostly tolerated them.
The department sent the letters on Wednesday demanding the dispensaries stop "all activities with controlled substances" immediately and submit a written statement confirming this action by Sept. 21. The threat is the first indication the federal government is prepared to intervene directly to shut down Canada's storefront dispensaries, most of which operate in Vancouver and Victoria.
In those two cities, local governments have allowed them to proliferate and either passed bylaws to regulate them or plan to do so. The municipal police forces have largely stood by while pot shops flourished.
A Health Canada spokesman confirmed late on Thursday that the letters are part of a campaign to monitor and prevent such stores from selling or advertising pot. It is overseen by a special department task force that was created at the beginning of August after Health Minister Rona Ambrose pledged a crackdown on dispensaries.
The letters said the dispensaries are advertising the sale of marijuana in contravention of two federal laws. The spokesman would not give further details of the alleged violations, but said the department will attempt to work with the offending parties to "encourage compliance."
Earlier this year, Ms. Ambrose warned Vancouver city councillors not to proceed with their plan to regulate dispensaries, and instead to shut them down, concerns that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson quickly brushed aside. On Thursday, Mr. Robertson called the warning letters "curious."
"Vancouver responded to a real problem with marijuana dispensaries proliferating all over the city … because of a complete lack of federal regulation on this," Mr. Robertson said, adding that he has not received details about Health Canada's plans, but hopes it "actually does something meaningful here."
The letter e-mailed to Vancouver's B.C. Compassion Club Society, Canada's oldest medical pot dispensary, threatened that if it did not comply with the demands the RCMP would be called in "for enforcement action as they deem necessary."
"The sale and advertising of marijuana is illegal," the letter says. "You are encouraging Canadians to engage in conduct that could also expose them to criminal liability."
Jamie Shaw, spokeswoman for the compassion club and president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, said at least two of British Columbia's oldest dispensaries have also received the letter, which she called puzzling, because her non-profit has long sold marijuana to its members and has never advertised beyond those people. Her group's lawyer has asked the government for further details on the references to advertising and criminal liability for its clients, all of whom have a doctor's prescription to use medical marijuana.
"If they think we're just going to close down in two weeks and cut off all our patients, they really don't understand where we're coming from," Ms. Shaw said. "We've always been willing to risk arrest."
These stores and clubs are illegal because they procure and sell their products outside the federal medical marijuana system, which was overhauled last year to allow industrial-scale production of pot products that are mailed directly to licensed patients.
The letter seems to suggest the federal government could be trying to work around local police forces by threatening to bring Mounties into lenient jurisdictions, said Dieter McPherson, a Victoria-based cannabis advocate and adviser to the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.
"They have few avenues of recourse any more because people are on the side of dispensaries and the laxening of medical marijuana laws in general," Mr. McPherson said.
Neither Vancouver police nor the B.C. RCMP would comment on the letter or the prospect of Mounties investigating shops outside their jurisdiction. VPD spokesman Constable Brian Montague said the two forces have a great relationship and "out of courtesy we would speak to one another" if investigations cross boundaries.
Neil Boyd, head of Simon Fraser University's criminology school and an expert on illegal drugs, said, in theory, the Mounties could investigate a Health Canada complaint and raid a Vancouver pot shop, but in practice such a move "would really create an awful lot of unnecessary conflict."
"I don't think the Conservative government is on the [right] side of history. When it comes to cannabis, they're very much out of step in their own approach in terms of medical marijuana," Prof. Boyd said. "It is really quite bizarre that they're using a mail-order system for marijuana as medicine; that's not the way medicine is usually dispensed. Medicine is usually dispensed through a visit to a physician and through a pharmacy."
Jerry Martin, who runs a dispensary in Whitewood, Sask., said he was very worried when he received the Health Canada's letter on Wednesday. He said he does not know if he will be able to continue his three-year-old business, despite having no problems with the local RCMP detachment.
The Health Canada letter also says operators that refuse to close could face fines of up to $5-million or two years in prison, or both, under Bill C-17, which passed into law last November.
The law introduced increased fines and penalties for regulatory offences under the Food and Drugs Act.
With a report from Andrea Woo