Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said he could not wait for expected federal legislation legalizing the sale of pot before conducting raids on marijuana dispensaries across the city, because of the hundreds of public complaints he had received about them and concerns that pot products would get into the hands of children.
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On Thursday, police raided 43 storefront pot shops, arrested more than 90 people and laid 186 charges. Saunders said the raids were a response to hundreds of complaints about the shops from local residents, as well as the public-health concerns of marijuana products varying in quality from shop to shop.
Marijuana dispensaries have been popping up around the city in recent months in anticipation of federal legislation legalizing and regulating the drug's sale. Some sell edible marijuana products, including baked goods and candies.
Asked Friday why he wouldn't wait for the laws to change, Saunders told CBC Radio's Here and Now that "I wish I had the opportunity.
"Let's face it, I'd be sitting here having a completely different interview with you right now if some child had eaten three or four of these jujubes. It would be, 'Why did you not do anything after these hundreds of complaints came across to us, making us known that these places were, in fact, dealing in marijuana?' So there are no perfect answers. I knew that there'd be people that would be upset."
Saunders added that police "in no way shape or form" impeded access to the drug for people who have a prescription to obtain medical marijuana from licensed Health Canada distributors. As it stands now, that is the only legal way to obtain marijuana, he said.
In addition to quality control and a response to public complaints, he called the raids "an education piece" to let residents know that Health Canada does not issue licenses for dispensaries. Rather, licensed dealers send the drug to patients with a prescription through Canada Post.
He added that owners of the dispensaries raided Thursday were given advance warning, a rarity for police.
"Whenever we're doing any type of narcotics search warrant, it's very rare that we tell you weeks in advance, 'By the way, you're breaking the law and we're going to be coming,'" he said.
The force began sending letters to dispensary owners on May 18, warning that their operation was unlawful and giving them the opportunity to shut down before police arrived at their door.
Only one closed its doors, he said.
'They are distributing for monetary gain'
When asked about the claim by dispensaries that they are distributing medical marijuana to patients who need it, Saunders replied:
"They are distributing for monetary gain, let's make no mistake about it. If they're very concerned about the well-being of people, then I would expect that they would look at the regulatory processes, have a standardization of how it's being manufactured and distributed, identify what the quantity of THC is in the product and also be able to validate through quality control that is, in fact, correct."
Asked whether he's suggesting dispensary owners are illegal drug dealers, he said: "I'm saying that now it's unlawful."
Saunders said the Toronto police probe into the dispensaries is ongoing, and police have issued letters to dispensaries that are still operating.
"And if the public appetite changes, if we're driven by the provincial or municipal bodies that say this has to change, then let's sit across the table, have that discussion and figure out what the other alternatives are," he said. "But right now it is unlawful and you will be charged."