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opinion

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee.The Globe and Mail

Since Toronto police cracked down on pot shops last week, marijuana activists have been claiming the raids were unnecessary, unfair, arbitrary and even cruel to sick people. It's all a bit rich.

Police are there to enforce the law. The law still says that selling marijuana from a storefront is illegal. It's not much more complicated than that.

The Liberal government in Ottawa has said that it will introduce legislation legalizing marijuana next spring. In anticipation, dozens of pot shops have popped up around the city. They sell everything from cookies and candies to spreads and oils.

Some are marijuana cultists who think that weed is God's gift to the world. One protester who spoke up after last week's raids called it the "most benign substance that humanity can ingest," ignoring the considerable evidence of the health harms it can cause.

Others are just modern-day snake-oil salesmen trying to make a fast buck. They don't really care whether customers are sick or not. Pot shops, many of them run by chains, hope to get in on the ground floor of weed retailing, exploiting the current grey zone before legalization. Police seized about $160,000 in cash in the raids. With that kind of money flying around, no wonder there is a gold rush. The "dispensary" label is just camouflage for the latest form of that unpleasant breed, the hippie capitalist.

Whatever the motivation of the pot-shop owners, what they are doing is clearly outside the law. With legalization coming, police held off on taking action at first, but the shops have become so numerous and the medical cover so thin – some places will sell to anyone with an old pill bottle that has a prescription written on it, and a few demand even less – that police could not realistically ignore what was going on any longer.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says that the number of shops has doubled since March. About half of those that police searched, he says, were within 300 metres of a school. They operate in a world without rules. There are no inspections, no proper standards, no reliable labels. Who knows what kind of kick you might get from that Blueberry Haze or whether those indica-infused Frog Gummies will cure your headache?

City hall has been telling the shops for some time that they were violating city zoning rules. Warning letters went out in mid-May. Most shops stayed open regardless. They can hardly be surprised that police moved in.

Their outrage has a manufactured quality. So does their concern for the ill. "Stop busting the sick," said one placard a protester took to the chief's press conference on last week's raids.

Police, of course, did no such thing. Their raids had nothing to do with the producers of approved, regulated medical marijuana. Sick people with a prescription for marijuana can obtain it the legal way by mail or courier. Some producers offer same-day service.

The dispensaries say they go one better, offering clients personal attention, a wider variety of strains and products and a chance to see and touch the stuff before they buy. Maybe so.

Perhaps, after Ottawa drafts its new law, dispensaries will be allowed to sell marijuana legally over the counter, subject to all the proper city limits on how far they need to be from schools, how many can operate on a single street and so on. Perhaps pharmacies and the liquor board will sell it, too. It's a whole new world a-coming.

In the meantime, pot shops can't expect just to colonize the streets, unregulated and unchecked. When the old-time snake-oil salesman came to town, he risked being run out of town on a rail. The pot shops fared much better. The authorities gave them ample warning that they were offside, then acted in an orderly fashion to enforce the law. In a law-abiding city, that's just how it should be.