Twelve people are facing drug charges after six medical marijuana dispensaries in Saint John were simultaneously raided by police on Tuesday morning as part of a joint-forces operation.
The 10 a.m. raids stemmed from an investigation by the Saint John Police Force integrated street crime unit over the past "couple of months," said Sgt. Charles Breen.
'As the chief law enforcement officer for a community, you have to make a decision whether you're just going to turn a blind eye to scofflaws that are operating openly or brazenly, or if you're going to make a stand and enforce the laws of the land.' - John Bates, police chief
All 12 individuals are either owners or employees of the pot shops and are being charged with possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking, Breen said.
They were all arrested without incident and were expected to be released on a promise to appear in court May 2, he said.
Breen could not comment on what items were seized.
Officers remained at the dispensaries into the afternoon, collecting evidence, he said. More details are expected by Wednesday morning.
No other raids are planned, said Breen. But if the six locations reopen, they "will be revisited again by our department," he said.
The execution of the search warrants "should not come as a surprise to anybody," said Chief John Bates.
"They're operating outside the law and at some point in time, as the chief law enforcement officer for a community, you have to make a decision whether you're just going to turn a blind eye to scofflaws that are operating openly or brazenly, or if you're going to make a stand and enforce the laws of the land," he said.
"And that was a decision that I made — that we would not stand by. If we had good solid grounds to investigate and prosecute, then we were going to go ahead and do it and I think we got that footing under ourselves."
The search warrants were executed at the following locations:
- Medicinal Grounds, 104 Prince William St.
- Medicinal Grounds, 505 Rothesay Ave.
- BCW, 8 Simpson Dr.
- King Canna, 76 Germain St.
- HBB Medical Inc., 1714 Rothesay Rd.
- HBB Medical Inc., 199 Chesley Dr.
Uncertainty surrounding enforcement
Although the federal Liberal Party has announced plans to legalize marijuana this spring, the plant remains illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In the meantime, decisions on how or whether to enforce the pot laws currently on the books have largely fallen to municipal policing agencies.
"It has been our contention from the establishment of the first [dispensary] in the city [around August] that they were working outside of the law," said Bates.
"To dispense medical marijuana, you have to be licensed by the federal government. These were unlicensed establishments and … it's our contention that they were trafficking in marijuana," he said.
But the force was uncertain how to proceed in terms of enforcement and subsequent prosecution, said Bates.
'Popping up like mushrooms'
In September, Bates told CBC News medical marijuana dispensaries weren't a top priority for the police force; that they had "bigger fish to fry."
"We have crime issues that we're endeavouring to tackle, societal issues like homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling in the uptown we're trying to cure," Bates had said.
"I get far more calls about that than I have about a marijuana dispensary."
"So we just thought we would bide our time and make sure we were dotting all our i's and crossing all our t's before we did anything with them," Bates explained on Tuesday.
Then the dispensaries "started popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm."
Concerns about future 'challenges'
Bates said Saint John police took a "very methodical approach," by consulting with their law enforcement partners and public prosecutions folks, and conducting "a thorough investigation."
"And based on all of that, combined with comments from our prime minister as recently as December of last year that these places were operating outside the law and it was his expectation that the police would deal with them," he said, the Saint John force decided to take action.
Different municipalities have taken different approaches, said Bates, noting police in Ottawa also recently conducted some simultaneous raids.
Bates said he's "not in a position to hypothesize" about the future framework for lawful marijuana possession and distribution, or when those changes will take effect.
He did, however, express concerns about other "challenges" that might come with legalization, such as drivers who are impaired by marijuana, and potential health costs.
"But that's down the road. Right here today, we had these shops that in our view were operating illegally and we decided to do something about it."
A total of 21 police officers were involved in Tuesday's raids, said Breen.
The Saint John street crime unit consists of officers from the Saint John Police Force, Kennebecasis Regional Police Service and the RCMP.
They were assisted during the raids by members of the RCMP southern district street crime unit and uniform patrol officers of the Saint John Police Force.
The Saint John operation was not part of a larger, provincewide push, said Breen.
"Our investigation stands on its own. We're not working in co-operation with other police departments in the province."