Toronto is not Vancouver

Torontonians were warned last year, again in January, again a month ago: there is an explosion of dispensaries coming.[a] Dispensaries and activists said there was no need to organize as an industry, this is Toronto, not Vancouver they said.

City councillors said there was no need to develop regulations, because this is Toronto, not Vancouver. The police said they would raid if needed and when warned that wouldn’t work they scoffed; this is Toronto, not Vancouver.

This mantra has been repeated across many jurisdictions, Nanaimo isn’t Victoria, San Diego’s not Los Angeles, and Los Angeles isn’t San Francisco. And no, Toronto is not Vancouver. Yet no matter how unique or special a snowflake you think your municipality is, it will make the same mistakes every other jurisdiction has made, and the only difference is how long it takes them to learn from their failures.

Ignoring all of the moral and ethical reasons dispensaries exist, and setting aside the questions of whether or not this industry should be controlled and how strictly, let’s look at the issue from a purely practical standpoint. Dispensaries have always been under legal threat, threats of raids and arrest, criminal charges and legal action, or eviction and forfeiture. The same pattern plays out in every jurisdiction, the issues are the same, the tactics are the same, and the failures are the same.

Even when authorities have been warned about how the situation will play out, as in Toronto, or Nanaimo,[b] the same tactics are used, and lead to the same failures. [c] Major attempts to manage the dispensary boom are manifested as local law enforcement; federal/special agency law enforcement; threats to service providers such as landlords, insurers or banks; and regulation.

For Canada to have a functioning regulated cannabis market for both medical and recreational uses, it cannot continue to simply ignore dispensaries. We must find a way to bring reputable operators into the system, raise the standards of less reputable ones, and only then can unethical operators be removed from the space.

Local Law Enforcement

This tactic works for awhile, but gets very expensive.[d] Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, all of these cities have raided and charged local clubs as far back as two decades ago. They all still have dispensaries.[c] The expense is more noticeable at the local level, as is the ineffectualness of this tactic. The Vancouver Police have even issued a statement saying very clearly ‘Using the criminal law to close marihuana dispensaries is generally ineffective, raises concerns about proportionality, and is a significant drain on valuable police resources that is difficult to justify in the absence of overt public safety concerns.'[e] All things the Toronto Police were told again after Project Claudia was enacted. While this tactic may succeed at containing the number of dispensaries for awhile, it will not eliminate them, nor will it stop growth, it only slows it. How long this works depends entirely on how long local enforcement and civic leaders are willing to throw money at it.

Communities with their own policing bodies tend to get tired of this quickly, and most have deprioritized cannabis offences a long time ago. [f] Local law enforcement usually learns this lesson quickly, and typically results in a split. In San Francisco, the local Sheriff rejected the DEA’s call to enforce a raid against a dispensary saying it was a ‘waste of time’,[g] and in Vancouver, city council openly defied the federal government.[h] Various BC cities without the same clout had also begun quietly licensing dispensaries under existing license classes.[i]

Federal/Special Agency Enforcement

The split between local and federal enforcement worsens when this tactic is used.[j] The angry letters from San Francisco’s Sheriff escalated into law suits from Berkeley, and Oakland against the DEA.[k] Others were dropped as the federal government announced it will not interfere with states passing cannabis laws that are contrary to the federal laws.[l]

In Canada this situation gets interesting, as many local law enforcement agencies are actually federal. This has allowed cities surrounding Vancouver such as Burnaby, Richmond, and Surrey to continue a hard-line approach, and their proximity to Vancouver has afforded them the luxury of believing it works. BC’s Public Health Officer knows better however, and is on record stating this tactic has been costly and ineffective.[m]

Mostly recently, Nanaimo was warned only a regulatory approach would work to control the proliferation of dispensaries, the raids would result in bad publicity for them as it would be expensive, and hurt patients for no reason, as it wouldn’t close or stop dispensaries.[b] They continued with the raids, the dispensaries were all open the next day, [c] and a week later, council came around to the idea of drafting regulations. [n]

Vernon was the next municipality to raid dispensaries, though this time, the tactic had been adjusted. No warning letter delivered to dispensaries that they could take to the media, and the local RCMP detachment had no involvement.[o]

Even with a specialized force enforcing closures, the results were the same; stores reopened immediately, and court dates waiting. As with Vancouver, Victoria, and San Francisco, the raid approach backfired. Saskatchewan was told this would happen, as was Toronto.

These types of enforcement action don’t last much longer than local enforcement efforts, as many of the charges get dropped or discharged, even in Canadian municipalities with federal enforcement. Halifax has been raiding dispensaries for decades, and yet, there was always another one to replace it.[c] Now the first blush of a bloom has started, and there is more than one.[p]

Early court losses have encouraged enforcement agencies to make sure dispensary cases don’t get to trial. Even in the the recent Saskatchewan Compassion Club raid[q], edible charges were thrown out, and a patient was given court permission to buy from illegal dispensaries. [r]

Raids on dispensaries since in BC had avoided taking edibles,[s] so it was a surprise to see Toronto Police seize these products, and more surprising to hear their chief say he is confident all these charges will stick. They will not.

Threats to Services

While prone to less public backlash than enforcement, threats to services have not proven effective. Threatening landlords was done in the US [t], as it was under Harper in Canada. While some landlords get afraid, many[u] of them figure out ways to avoid being on the hook. This has resulted in deals between the landlord and tenant, or even passing off the property from the landlord to the tenant.

Others are already angry from dealing with authorities and are more than happy to thumb their nose at it. While it discourages some new landlords from renting to dispensaries, it lets others know there is a market, and the number of spaces openly available to dispensaries eventually increases[v]. So does knowledge of the issue, and these threats fail to work a second time.

In the US, this tactic also ultimately resulted in a court case the DEA would drop,[w] and law suits filed by Bay Area cities against the DEA that they are still contesting.[x] It would also see counties such as Santa Cruz join individual suits against the DEA on behalf of cannabis providers.[y] Withholding of bank accounts has been a major issue, and has definitely resulted in some hardships for dispensaries. It is also something that has proven ineffective, as where there is a will, there is a way.

Under Harper, we saw increasing threats to credit unions who were dealing with dispensaries, and as with various municipalities, it resulted in a pushback. Credit Unions are still happy to deal with dispensaries.

Tax cases have also failed to diminish dispensary growth through closures.[z] Some had actually been trying to get rulings on the tax status of cannabis, and while they disagree that medicinal cannabis should be subject to tax, they are happy to pay it until the issue gets sorted out.[aa] Now there is another government body who has a stake in businesses that are defying federal law.

Injunctions and civil suits, as we’ve recently seen in Abbotsford, can work, but again, only on an individual basis. Time and money spent by the city and the courts did eventually result in the closure of one store, that was part of a chain of three. [bb]


This is the only tactic that has proven effective at allowing any kind of manageable oversight of the dispensary industry. In the Bay Area, early adopters such as San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland have a mature and regulated dispensary industry, in spite of State and Federal law.

Other cities like Vancouver, Victoria, Los Angeles,[cc] and Nanaimo are attempting to put the genie back in the bottle. They waited too long to adapt this tactic, and are now playing catch-up. This leads to many of the same challenges and court cases as other tactics, but with the addition of a clear legislative plan to allow dispensaries, these go a little smoother, and eventually result in a regulated industry.

In some jurisdictions, like Washington and Canada, this approach was slightly amended.[g] Attempts to introduce a new regulated industry to simply replace the existing one have also proven ineffective. While they have both succeeded in creating a new cannabis industry, it did not incorporate the existing one, and have ended up with parallel systems.

Again, ignoring for a moment the legal and ethical arguments for the inclusion of dispensaries, from a purely practical point of view, they aren’t going anywhere. While these efforts succeed in slowing the industry’s growth for a time, that is all they accomplish, and the costs far outweigh any possible benefit. [d]

For Canada to have a functioning regulated cannabis market for both medical and recreational uses, it cannot continue to simply ignore dispensaries. We must find a way to bring reputable operators into the system, raise the standards of less reputable ones, and only then can unethical operators be removed from the space.

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