Why arresting 'budtenders' won't stop illegal pot shops

Both police and the courts are beginning to question the wisdom of arresting illegal marijuana dispensary workers while the shops' owners continue to thrive.

Courts increasingly unwilling to give dispensary workers criminal records as police raids fail to net owners

Former 'budtender' Shawn MacAleese stands outside one of the dispensaries that remain open in Ottawa despite numerous police raids and more than 45 arrests since the beginning of 2016. (CBC)

Selling weed was Shawn MacAleese's business, and for a while, business was good.

MacAleese, 29, estimates he handled hundreds of thousands of dollars in pot sales in just a few months working as a "budtender" at an illegal cannabis dispensary in Ottawa.

We were basically cannon fodder.- Shawn MacAleese, former pot shop worker

The shop was owned by a B.C.-based company that had opened no fewer than seven storefront dispensaries in the nation's capital by the summer of 2016.

What MacAleese didn't understand was that working there could get him arrested and leave him facing more than a dozen serious drug charges — charges he's still fighting a year and a half later.

MacAleese and nine other employees were swept up in a police raid targeting six Ottawa dispensaries on Nov. 4, 2016.

Easily replaced

Since then, there have been at least two dozen more police operations aimed at shutting down illegal dispensaries in the city. The raids have yielded 170 charges against 43 people — all of them low-level employees like MacAleese. 

Not a single dispensary owner has faced arrest. MacAleese said those charged have been abandoned by their employers, and most were forced to rely on legal aid.

"We were basically cannon fodder," he said.

They were also easily replaced. A couple weeks after the raids the Ottawa stores re-opened with freshly hired workers behind the counter.

Shawn MacAleese was one of several "budtenders" arrested when police raided marijuana dispensaries in Ottawa in 2016. He told CBC the last year has been filled with the stress of court appearances with no support from his former employer. 1:12

Dispensaries flourish

With talk of marijuana legalization in the air, illegal pot dispensaries started popping up in cities across the country following the election of the Liberal government.

Many claim to cater to medical marijuana patients, but Health Canada regulations strictly limit sales of medicinal pot to registered users through licensed producers, delivered exclusively by mail.

On this fact the law is clear: the storefront dispensaries are illegal. 

But in the summer of 2016, the potential consequences of working at one weren't so clear to MacAleese, who answered a job ad on Kijiji and started working at Green Tree Medical Dispensary on St. Laurent Boulevard.

'They made a lot of money'

"It's just something I came across and I thought, 'Wow, this is what I'm looking for,'" he recalled.

The owners of Green Tree operated a chain of pot shops across the country. In Ottawa, their holdings also included WeeMedical and Cannagreen.

MacAleese, who started at minimum wage, estimated each store was taking in between $6,000 and $17,000 a day.

Ottawa police officers exit the WeeMedical dispensary on Rideau Street during a raid on Nov. 4, 2016. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

"They made a lot of money."

MacAleese said he met the shop's owner only once, and had little contact otherwise.

The source of the pot supply remained a mystery. The drugs arrived in boxes reliably delivered by Canada Post, "the biggest drug dealer in the country," MacAleese joked. 

Fears of arrest were always brushed aside by managers at the store, MacAleese said. "They said, 'You didn't have to worry about it.'"

Busted

Police, their faces concealed by black balaclavas, stormed the shop on a Friday morning. They seized all the product on the shelves — pot, hashish, hashish oil and edible pot products — and emptied the tills. 

At one location targeted in the co-ordinated raids, they even hauled away an ATM. 

Nine employees were arrested in the raids and later charged with possession of proceeds of crime and multiple counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking. MacAleese's charge sheet listed 14 separate offences.

After he was released on a promise to appear in court, he realized he and his co-workers had been left high and dry. A manager told him not to contact the company again

"It was incredibly frustrating," MacAleese recalled. "Honestly, I still hate them."

Attempts by CBC News to reach the dispensary's owners were unsuccessful.

Charges don't stick

Now, more than 16 months after the raid, MacAleese is beginning to realize that where his former employer failed him, time — and the justice system — may be on his side.

Courts are showing less and less interest in giving pot dispensary employees criminal records. 

Of those he was charged with seven have been sentenced. Three received suspended sentences and criminal records, but the next four cases resulted in discharges, the most recent with no conditions.

Officers removed all marijuana and hashish products from the shelves during the raids on Nov. 4, 2016. (CBC)

Ontario Court Justice Norman Boxall, the judge presiding over three of the cases, chided the government for going after lowly dispensary workers instead of the owners.

"If the government is intent on using criminal law in an effort to close these dispensaries, the court is of the view that greater and more publicized efforts should be made to prosecute the owners of the businesses or the property owners, rather than trying to do so by imposing criminal records on the backs of the relatively few low-level employees," Boxall wrote.

In the last case, Boxall, granted an absolute discharge, refusing to impose any conditions and leaving the accused without any criminal record citing "the inconsistent enforcement of trafficking in marijuana laws.

"It is inappropriate for the court to fight any battle against dispensaries on the backs of individuals of low moral culpability, significant remorse, and strong rehabilitative potential."

It's a trend being seen across Ontario.

  • In Toronto, the Crown withdrew charges against half of the roughly 600 pot dispensary employees arrested since 2016.
  • In Hamilton, of 60 workers charged since 2016, only one of the nine sentenced to date received a criminal conviction. Five had charges withdrawn after entering into a peace bond, while three had charges withdrawn altogether.

A game of whack-a-mole

Police, meanwhile, compare the crackdown on dispensaries to a game of whack-a-mole, with the shops stubbornly reappearing despite the arrests. Ottawa maintains a steady roster of about 20 illegal dispensaries.

That's despite dire warnings from Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi that the province will no longer tolerate the illegal dispensaries when government-run pot shops open their doors later this summer.

"If you operate one of these facilities, consider yourself on notice," Naqvi threatened during a news conference last September

But even police are beginning to question whether raiding the illegal shops and arresting employees is the right way to go about it.

"I think it's an application of the wrong tool, that being the Criminal Code," said Ottawa police Insp. Murray Knowles.

"It would certainly be better for us — and better for the problem — if we could convict the owners as opposed to the people that are working there, but unfortunately, the way that it's kind of set up right now, that's very difficult for us."

Building cases against the shop owners involves more elaborate police investigations, and resources are finite, Knowles said — especially with a surge of gang violence and the ongoing opioid epidemic.

"Public safety has to be our priority."

A peek inside the Green Tree dispensary on Preston Street, one of the stores raided on Nov. 4, 2016. (Hillary Johnstone, CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated a charge against a dispensary worker had been dismissed, but the accused had in fact been granted an absolute discharge during sentencing.
    Mar 21, 2018 7:40 PM ET