In a sweeping crackdown, Toronto officials say that, by month's end, every single one of the city's growing number of marijuana dispensaries – estimated at up to 100 storefronts across town – will be facing charges for violating zoning rules and up to $50,000 in fines.
Word of the blitz came as Mayor John Tory labelled the growth of pot shops "alarming," and called for city staff to study the licensing regimes now in place in Vancouver and Victoria to see if Toronto could bring in similar rules that would control, for example, how close dispensaries can set up to schools. In the meantime, Mr. Tory also asked city staff to work with Toronto police "to address the health and safety concerns of neighbours and businesses" as the pot shops proliferate.
The rapid increase in the number of pot dispensaries in Toronto and other cities across Canada has come in advance of legislation expected next year from the federal Liberal government that will legalize the drug. New regulations are also expected to be imposed on pot's sale and use. But for now, storefront dispensaries remain illegal and operate outside of Health Canada's legal, mail-order medical marijuana program.
Mark Sraga, director of investigation services in Toronto's municipal licensing and standards division, told The Globe and Mail that even before Mr. Tory's call for action on Thursday, his staff were hard at work preparing to simultaneously lay charges against all of the city's spreading illegal pot dispensaries later this month.
Toronto's zoning bylaw, he said, does not allow for marijuana dispensaries, and a conviction for operating a business without zoning carries a $50,000 fine for a corporation and $25,000 for individuals. Mr. Sraga also warned that landlords could face similar charges for allowing tenants to operate illegal businesses.
"We are starting an enforcement action," Mr. Sraga said. "We are not doing one-off charges. We want to deal with them in a holistic manner."
He said Toronto's legal department would review Mr. Tory's idea for a licensing regime, but he did not believe the city had the legal authority to license a business currently banned under federal law.
Mr. Tory made his call for action on Thursday in the form of an open letter to the head of Toronto's licensing department. He asked that a report on the feasibility of new rules be produced by June. He has raised the issue several times in recent days, and last weekend, he even visited a Kensington Market pot dispensary.
"We just can't have allegedly medical marijuana dispensaries popping up on every street corner in a completely unregulated manner, pending a change in the law," Mr. Tory told reporters, adding that he supports decriminalization. "The law has not changed yet."
Despite the fact these dispensaries are currently illegal, Toronto police now only dedicate the resources needed to investigate, file charges and shut them down if they pose a threat to public safety, such as by selling marijuana to minors. On Thursday, Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said police would work closely with city bylaw officers to address any safety concerns related to pot dispensaries.
Toronto is looking to Vancouver, where a crackdown on illegal pot dispensaries in well under way and as many 60 shops are facing an order to close by the weekend – although it is a deadline many are expected to flout. Before issuing his letter, Mr. Tory's office contacted Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, who took a lead role in developing that city's strategy.
"They face exactly the problems Vancouver faced and they really wanted to get a handle on this because the federal legislation is probably going to take two years before anything is on the ground," Mr. Jang said.
Toronto pot dispensary operators greeted news of a crackdown with dismay, saying responsible dispensaries should not be lumped together with the more fly-by-night operators setting up shop in recent weeks.
Luke Churchill of Toronto Holistic Cannabinoids in Kensington Market, where several pot dispensaries have opened recently, laments that his store is being unfairly targeted. "It's a little upsetting because we're being grouped with people who are almost gangsters."
Brandy Zurborg, co-owner of Queens of Cannabis on Bloor Street West near Christie Pits Park, said she and a group of other "above-board" operators hope to meet with the mayor to share their concerns. She blamed the rapid spread of pot dispensaries on new arrivals pushed out of Vancouver by that city's crackdown.
Ms. Zurborg said her operation provided a much-needed service for people who have been prescribed marijuana for medicinal use but find that Health Canada's legal program is rife with delays and lost packages, or provides marijuana that is unsuitable.
She couldn't say if a $50,000 fine would shut down her business, but she predicted a crackdown would drive the trade back underground: "Patients will suffer. That's who will lose out in this."
With reports from Laurent Bastien Corbeil in Toronto and Ian Bailey in Vancouver