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Abi Roach, owner of Hot Box Cafe, speaks during an emergency meeting put on by the Cannabis Friendly Business Association in Toronto, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
Abi Roach, owner of Hot Box Cafe, speaks during an emergency meeting put on by the Cannabis Friendly Business Association in Toronto, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

TORONTO

Toronto cannabis entrepreneurs vow to fight proposed fines Add to ...

On Tuesday night, the Cannabis Friendly Business Association held an emergency meeeting at Toronto’s Hotbox Cafe. Entrepreneurs, consultants and lobbyists gathered to take on Mayor John Tory, who has vowed to fine unlicensed marijuana dispensaries as much as $50,000 a day. It was standing room only – and no one was taking the threat lying down.

All the tropes and trappings of the high life one might expect in the Kensington Market setting were in effect: berets, goatees, dreads, bongs and vapes, the air inexorably filled with suspicious wafts. But the fog wasn’t so thick that one couldn’t see that this energized group meant business.

There was little talk about the constitutional implications of the proposed clampdown. Instead, it was more about strategy. Amid the various speeches and calls to arms, there was an entreaty to lawyer up to challenge the legality of the fines, even though some of the vendors, such as Rick Vrecic, said they had already done so. “Even $25,000 a day would shut us down,” said Mr. Vrecic, who runs True Compassion Toronto, a west-side clinic that caters to those suffering from chronic pain.

Consultant Marko Ivancicevic called for attendees to inundate the city’s board of health with requests to speak at Thursday’s meeting, which will address a report from the city’s top doctor regarding the implications of legalizing cannabis. “We could filibuster it, so to speak,” he said.

In recent months, dozens of new stores have been popping up across Toronto – there are now more than 100 – and in this twilight zone between legalized medicinal use and total legalization, there is a pervasive sense of lawlessness.

The vendors see a haze of mixed signals coming from all three levels of government, with no coherent strategy to regulate this chaotic transition. The city, on the other hand, is suddenly agitated about dispensaries, questioning everything from zoning infractions to the quality of the marijuana.

One of the concerns was that Toronto was trying to criminalize what are in effect a set of bylaws, potentially shutting down dozens of small businesses with outrageous penalties. “People are going to fight these fines,” said criminal lawyer Paul Lewin. “By and large, many of these people have been left alone for 25 years, and this is a terrible way to start conversation. It’s bone-headed and mean-spirited.”

The fines also raise questions about the new dispensaries ruining business for the old ones, taking the whole industry down with them. “The cannabis industry is massive,” said Hotbox owner Abi Roach, who organized the CFBA event. “Each one employs somewhere between six and 10 people, many of them in their 20s and some disabled. These businesses all pay payroll taxes and HST.”

At this early stage, it’s difficult to verify how many new dispensaries are actually above board. As some attendees explained, there is a fear among the newcomers that if they were to follow the same regulations as their older counterparts, the Canada Revenue Agency would alert the Toronto Police Service of their existence, making them more vulnerable to penalties.

But perhaps that’s the risk they take by jumping into this sweet fog of war. “There are just a lot of entrepreneurs out there looking for opportunity in the new economy,” said Alexzander Samuelsson, one of the principals of The Big Toke, a website that chronicles this booming economy.

Mr. Samuelsson said he was heartened to see everyone finally coming together and finding a common goal.

A vacuum of regulation is one of the industry’s great challenges, he noted, as are ignorance and misconceptions among public officials. “There are a lot of people who are cannabis naive.”

One of those singled out for naivety was Mr. Tory, but never in a mean-spirited way. Instead he was depicted as a kind, grandfatherly guy who happened to be uninformed about marijuana. “But we’ll change that,” vowed The Big Toke’s Harrison Jordan, who recently told The Globe and Mail that Toronto could soon have as many cannabis dispensaries as Pizza Pizza franchises.

Toward the end of the proceedings, one old-school questioner asked if the group would consider a sit-in, but it was quickly pointed out that the time for that sort of thing had come and gone, like, decades ago.

“It’s not time to protest,” insisted Ms. Roach (née Hod). “It’s time to lobby.”

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