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British Columbia Vancouver, Toronto take different approaches to policing pot shops

David Malmo-Levine, owner of Stressed and Depressed cannabis dispensary, sits outside his shop in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

David Malmo-Levine has had numerous run-ins with Vancouver police in more than two decades fighting for the legalization of marijuana, the most intense being the time he says he was dragged by handcuffs while attempting to block a raid of a downtown cannabis seed store in the mid-1990s.

So, he said he was pleasantly surprised in May, 2015, when police returned several thousand dollars worth of bongs and cannabis products that had been stolen by a man who smashed a stolen minivan through the storefront of his illegal East Vancouver dispensary.

"It was the best they had ever treated me in my entire life of pot activism – in fact, they returned the pot and all the edibles, the hashish and everything [that was stolen]," said Mr. Malmo-Levine, who spent time in prison after losing a Supreme Court of Canada case stemming from being charged for running an underground cannabis vapour lounge more than 20 years ago.

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"They returned them no questions asked.

"That's what we want the police to do all the time: to treat us as if we were selling other soft drugs like coffee beans."

Vancouver's approach to regulating – not raiding – its 95 dispensaries stands in stark contrast to Toronto, Canada's other largest market for these illegal stores, where police and politicians say an ongoing crackdown has become more urgent as these pot shops have become a magnet for violent thieves.

Earlier this week, Toronto police announced there had been 13 armed robberies of dispensaries in the past eight months – six of which were not reported by employees or owners of the businesses. Investigators said they believe additional robberies have gone unreported and that employees and operators of some of the targeted dispensaries have refused to answer questions or to hand over surveillance footage.

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On Wednesday, police spokesman Mark Pugash said Toronto police will continue to raid the city's 44 remaining dispensaries and officers will keep seizing products and arresting staff when called to investigate robberies of these pot shops.

He said the owners of the illegal stores are desperate to convince the people there is a grey area when the only way to legally purchase cannabis in Canada is to get a prescription and order it through the regulated mail-order medical system.

"There are people here who want to defy the law, but not pay the price and you can't have it both ways," Mr. Pugash said. "There is what strikes me as just a massively developed sense of entitlement [among dispensary owners].

"Undoubtedly the [federal] government is committed to changing the law, but we don't enforce the law on the basis of what it might be next year or the year after."

Mr. Pugash said you cannot compare the approach of Toronto police with their Vancouver counterparts because citizens in the two cities have very different attitudes toward the popular drug.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said earlier this week that he supports taking a hard line on these shops, which he says "are a magnet for the criminal element," until Ottawa follows through with its promise to pass legislation this spring that will legalize the cannabis and lay out where it can be sold.

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Since that initial robbery, Mr. Malmo-Levine's Stressed and Depressed Association dispensary, which is now licensed under the city's landmark pot-shop bylaw, has been robbed another two times.

Vancouver police have since said that they do not return any cannabis products stolen from these stores. The force also says it typically will not arrest dispensary employees or owners for trafficking if they report a store robbery because it wants to encourage people to come forward and report violent crimes.

The department typically only targets dispensaries caught selling to minors or doing business with organized crime because, it has said, it takes the equivalent of three months' work by one investigator to execute a single warrant on a pot shop. After most of the force's dozen or so raids, the dispensaries reopened the next day.

Instead, the bylaw officers have been issuing more than 1,000 violation tickets to more than 50 stores that refuse to close despite being shut out of the city's licensing regime. City lawyers have also filed injunctions against 27 of these shops.

Another 43 stores have either been issued business licences or are going through the application process for a regulatory system that city staff say can be modified to accommodate any eventual federal laws legalizing the drug.

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