Toronto's illegal marijuana dispensaries have become a magnet for armed robberies and many owners are not reporting the crimes, a reality that Mayor John Tory says adds a sense of urgency to the wait for federal legislation to legalize pot.
The proliferation of storefronts selling marijuana in Toronto has created spillover problems for police, including 13 armed robberies in the past eight months – six of which were not reported by employees or owners of the businesses, police announced on Monday. In addition, 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.
"The owners and operators of these illegal storefronts, through their actions, and some through their lack of actions, have given an open invitation to victimization," said Acting Staff Superintendent Bryce Evans.
Mayor Tory said he supports the decision by police to continue busting marijuana retailers until the federal government follows through with its promise to pass legislation – which the Liberals have promised to table in the spring – to legalize the drug and lay out where it can be sold. But he urged the government to draw up the new regime as quickly as possible: "I know it's complex. But I hope they are working as quickly as they can."
Mr. Tory called dispensaries "grossly inconsistent" with safe, stable neighbourhoods and business areas. "And, it turns out, they are a magnet for the criminal element, in terms of people with guns. They must think they've died and gone to heaven: They not only can go and steal money from these places, they can get drugs, too," he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he is promoting the city's film industry.
In a statement, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defended police raids of dispensaries.
"Storefronts are not authorized to sell cannabis for medical reasons or any other purpose," she said. "Until the law changes, the law is the law. I would note that police priorities are determined by the local police of jurisdiction in order to meet the needs of their own communities."
There are an estimated 44 illegal marijuana dispensaries currently operating in Toronto, police said. Since large-scale raids last May, officers have executed 33 search warrants against the storefronts, some of which sell $30,000-worth of marijuana and other products a day.
Police gave reporters a list of the dispensaries that have been robbed since June, highlighting those that did not report the crimes, and later tweeted a photo of the handout.
In most of the robberies, thieves were armed with handguns and, in three cases, they fired shots. In others, they brought knives and pepper spray. Two employees were stabbed and other workers and customers were pistol whipped, pepper sprayed and otherwise roughed up. Investigators have made several arrests but are looking for additional suspects.
"Whether you're a patron, whether you're an employee, the bottom line is you are at risk when there's a takeover-style robbery that comes in and that is reality," said Acting Inspector Steve Watts of the force's drug squad.
Employees of at least one dispensary feel they were unfairly included on the list of those who didn't report. Jodie Emery, co-owner of the Cannabis Culture dispensary chain, said that a customer called police while the store's Queen Street East location was being robbed on Jan. 4, so that staff didn't feel the need to report the crime themselves.
"I object to the idea that we're not co-operating when people are put in harm's way," she said.
In his news conference, Staff Supt. Evans said he stood by the force's list.
Police say officers would seize illegal drugs and lay charges after entering the storefronts to investigate robberies, a likely reason behind some victims' reluctance to call 911. Indeed, in two of the recent robberies, officers laid charges of possession for the purposes of trafficking against the owners of the businesses. In some cases, witnesses reported that employees later stuffed their products in bags and ran away.
Staff Supt. Evans singled out Canna Clinic on Ossington Avenue near Dundas Street West, which he said was robbed by several masked men carrying guns who ordered employees and customers to the ground while they removed cash and drugs. Police only learned of the Dec. 21 crime after a customer who was present at the time visited the dispensary the next day to ask if the robbery had been reported. When it became clear it had not – a worker even denied that it had occurred – he took to social media, Staff Supt. Evans said. When police later visited the business, employees refused to answer questions or share surveillance footage and told officers their board of directors would be in touch with police, which Staff Supt. Evans said has not happened.
An employee of the Canna Clinic location on Ossington Ave. declined to comment on Monday.
Staff Supt. Evans also called attention to recent comments to the Toronto Star by lawyer Paul Lewin, calling "misleading and unprofessional" his assertion that the crackdown last May had created a situation where dispensary owners and operators feel they do not have the protection of the police.
In an interview, Mr. Lewin, whose practice focuses on cannabis issues and represents dispensary owners, stood by the remarks. "Prohibition makes society less safe and essentially these dispensaries are in a position in which they don't get the protection of police and they don't get the protection of the law that everybody else gets" because they are afraid of getting arrested, he said.
Mr. Lewin called on police to exercise discretion on the eve of legalization and linked the robberies to their heavy-handed tactics.
"I'm astonished that they haven't connected the dots and realized that it's the crackdown on dispensaries that's causing this new wave of old-time cannabis prohibition violence," he said.