Police officers in several Canadian cities raided illegal marijuana dispensaries linked to activists Marc and Jodie Emery on Thursday, charging them and several others with drug offences as part of an investigation led by Toronto police.
The raids were the latest attempt by local police forces to shut down pot shops that have been opening in cities across the country, even as the federal government prepares to fully legalize the drug with legislation this spring. It was also notable for the involvement of Vancouver's police force, which has largely left dispensaries in the city alone, including those run by the Emerys.
The two were arrested at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Wednesday as part of a Toronto police operation called Project Gator.
Mr. Emery was charged with 15 counts, including trafficking, possession and possession of the proceeds of crime, while his wife was charged with five similar counts.
Chris and Erin Goodwin, of Toronto, and Britney Guerra, of Stoney Creek, Ont., also face drug-related charges.
The five are scheduled to appear in court on Friday.
On Thursday, police in Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver searched a total of seven Cannabis Culture locations linked to the Emerys, acting on warrants from the Toronto Police Service. Search warrants were also executed at private residences in Toronto, Stoney Creek and Vancouver, for a total of 11 warrants.
Ms. Emery has told The Globe and Mail in the past that she and her husband do not own the Cannabis Culture franchises, but rather license out the brand for a marginal percentage of sales. They do not supply each location with product, she added.
The Emerys' flagship location in Vancouver adjoins a vapour lounge and office, where Pot TV and the Cannabis Culture magazine are produced. On Thursday morning, the front windows were covered with brown paper as some police officers stood guard and others removed evidence through a back entrance.
Magazine editor Danny Kresnyak said officers seized cellphones, computers and cash, that art had been removed from the walls and that a safe had been pried open. He was among a few dozen employees and supporters who stood outside the location protesting the raid, criticizing the use of police resources.
"We're supposed to be seeing [marijuana] legalization this year," Mr. Kresnyak said. "[Justin] Trudeau ran on the idea that by the spring of 2017 [it would be legal], yet they're still raiding a shop that sells mostly glass and T-shirts that have funny slogans on them."
Kevin Bruneau, an acquaintance of the Emerys and a long-time regular at the vapour lounge, called the raid "ridiculous" and said he would rather see resources focused on the overdose epidemic. There were 22 suspected overdose deaths across Vancouver in the last two weeks, according to police.
"It's a complete waste of money," Mr. Bruneau said. "What harm does this do? This hotel right over here averages three ambulances a day. Maybe address that problem."
At an initial court appearance on Thursday, Mr. Emery strolled into the prisoner's box, hands in his jean pockets, wearing a grey sweater, and took a seat. His wife remained standing, speaking with her lawyer and, at one point, flashing a peace sign to the back of the courtroom before being scolded by Justice of the Peace Marilyn Churley.
Earlier, Chris and Erin Goodwin, the owners of one of the Emery-branded marijuana shop locations in Toronto, were arrested in the hallway at the courthouse, where supporters of the Emerys had gathered. The Goodwins were also charged with a number of drug-related offences in January, 2016, in their roles as part owners of GoodWeeds, a franchise of the Vancouver-based Weeds chain.
Toronto Police have taken an aggressive approach to the city's growing number of marijuana dispensaries, while Vancouver police have largely turned a blind eye so long as dispensaries aren't tied to gangsters, or selling to minors. Toronto's first wave of busts came last May, after Mayor John Tory expressed concerns about the rapid proliferation of marijuana shops in the city.
Thursday's events mirror those of July, 2005, when Mr. Emery was arrested at a rally in Halifax while Vancouver police, acting on American charges, raided the Vancouver storefront. Mr. Emery ultimately served five years in U.S. federal prison for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet and was transferred back to Canada in 2014.
City of Toronto officials said that they also attended Thursday's raids in the city, laying zoning and licensing bylaw charges as they have against scores of other dispensaries over the past year.
In a separate case, city officials revealed that they are seeking a court injunction that would shut down a separate chain of seven marijuana dispensaries known as Canna Clinic – which has previously faced raids and charges.
"The operation of retail stores selling marijuana is illegal under federal law and is a contravention of the City's zoning bylaws," said Tracey Cook, head of the city's licensing and standards department, in an e-mailed statement. "The City of Toronto, in partnership with the Toronto Police Service has consistently pursued enforcement actions against these illegal marijuana stores in the city."
The federal Liberal government, which has pledged to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana this spring, has taken criticism for not decriminalizing petty cannabis-related offences in the meantime.
"Until we have brought in legislation," Prime Minister Trudeau said earlier this month, "the current law remains the law."
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said Thursday the legislation will still have to go through the parliamentary process and then there are regulatory processes that would likely take place.
"People need to recognize that things take time," she said. "This is something that has to be done correctly. It's something that we feel very strongly about as a government. It's a firm commitment of our government to legalize access to cannabis, to regulate that access and to restrict it appropriately."
With a report from Gloria Galloway