Is Toronto the world's next marijuana capital?
The popular drug is easier to get with a slew of dispensaries opening up
Coming soon, likely, to a neighbourhood near you: medical marijuana.
Dispensaries that sell it have been popping up around the city — there are now six in Kensington Market alone — and there are more on the way.
The shops around town with the little green plant often on their signs are not technically legal. But that's not stopping them.
Metro Morning producer Brendan Ross wanted to find out how easy it was go get a prescription, and why business appears to be booming.
Ross does have lower back pain which has been diagnosed as joint disfunction, but he never sought out marijuana as a treatment, until this story.
"I went to see a doctor affiliated with a dispensary. And with very little fuss, I got a prescription, and I got the medicine," he said.
Supply and demand
There are two ways people can get medical marijuana: you can sign up with a company that has a license to grow it, order it from them directly and they mail it to you. That's how Health Canada recommends you do it (not that Health Canada actually recommends you use medical marijuana at all. But if you are going to do it, this is the way to go, they say).
The other way to do it is to go to a dispensary.
They're physical stores, but they operate as private clubs.
"You fill out some papers, get a membership, and then you can buy dried marijuana, edibles, oils and other products," reported Ross.
Dispensaries are not authorized by Health Canada, but that hasn't stopped over a hundred of them from opening in Vancouver. There are so many in that city that Vancouver's city council is taking steps to regulate them.
We don't have anywhere near that many in Toronto, but in the last few months, there's been an influx of these stores opening up.
Steve Churchill and Chris Cardozo own a dispensary called Toronto Holistic Cannabinoids, or THC for short. He said that was a matter of supply and demand.
"There's a need for it," said Churchill. "There was only a select few dispensaries that were here, and they were closed to the general public. You needed to jump through flaming hoops, whereas in B.C., they have an open door policy where you can come in and find out how to get a prescription."
Luis Suarez, who owns another dispensary called Kind Supply, said there are politics involved. Now that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party are no longer in power, Toronto will see more marijuana.
Unlike the Conservatives, who staunchly opposed marijuana, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals promised to legalize it.
"Something I heard from multiple store owners is that it helps to have a government that's sort of on your side," said Ross.
"The west coast is more Liberal," said Cardozo. "I took a trip there and saw how Vancouver was, and I came back here and decided I wanted to do this here. It's a business opportunity and I'm helping people who need that medicine."
Vancouver council mulling regulation is also a factor, said Ross. If the government comes down on dispensaries in Vancouver, that means many of them will have to close down. And if they want to stay in business, they'll have to find another city in Canada with millions of people and an under-served market.
"That's already started," said Ross, pointing to several B.C. dispensary chains that have opened up locations in this city.
Ross spoke with one British Columbia-based dispensary owner who recently opened a second Toronto shop, with plans to open a third one soon.
'Much easier to get'
With the dispensaries, marijuana has become "much easier to get" than it was several years ago, according to Ross.
"I should say, that may be very welcome news for people who use medical marijuana to deal with chronic pain, or to help reduce the side-effects of chemotherapy, like nausea," he said. "But prescriptions are now easier to get for anyone, genuine medical condition or not."
Some dispensaries in this city will tell potential clients to go to your family doctor, some will recommend a doctor, some actually have a relationship with a doctor, and that can range from doctors who require paperwork showing your diagnosed condition, to those who do it on a more ad hoc basis, said Ross.
Some dispensaries will give you contact info for an e-clinic where, for a fee, you can do an assessment over Skype.
And some will sell to you if you show them a pill bottle of medications for a condition that could be treated with medical marijuana, that is enough.
"The lack of oversight is something the owners of THC and Kind Supply told me they're worried about, because it allows the less scrupulous dispensary owners to make some easy cash," said Ross.
It's also worrying for Jurgen Rehm. He's director of social and epidemiological research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
He supports legalization, and he wrote CAMH's Cannabis Policy Framework, which outlines how they believe marijuana should be legalized.
"What we believe should be happening is a very clear: overarching focus on public health, on reducing harms from marijuana, and we believe this can only be done in a government controlled market," he said.
"The dispensaries that have been opening — and they're different so we can't generalize — but it seems relatively easy to get marijuana from them, even within the legal medical marijuana bit."
Rehm said he has also visited the dispensaries for research purposes. He said there was no way of knowing how many "prescriptions of convenience" compare to patients with medical conditions.
And though dispensary owners have said they've been hassled a bit by officers, the police appear to be allowing this.
Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash called it a "grey area" in the city.
"Technically, it's still illegal," he said.
So it is unclear whether a person smoking a medical marijuana cigarette may get questioned by police.
"Unless the federal government legalizes all marijuana, it will stay grey for some time in this city," said Pugash.
According to the City's licensing and standards division, there are no plans to regulate dispensaries in Toronto at this time.
Rehm is worried. Not so much for right now, but for the precedent it could be setting in the future, if the government does legalize marijuana.
"You do not need huge signs, you do not need blinking green leaves, you do not need to flood the environment with leaflets showing that your dispensary is better than any other dispensary," he said of the possibility of a marijuana market in Toronto.
"We should really be aware that any step toward that makes it way more difficult to pull in the regulations that are necessary to minimize the harm of marijuana."
Perhaps surprisingly, dispensary owners agree some regulation is needed.
"There's people that sell to anybody and they should be weeded out," said Cardozo of the THC dispensary. "Obviously you need rules and regulations, so what Vancouver's doing is right. You weed out the bad ones, and you let the people who are running it properly, run it properly."
The dispensary owners claimed medical marijuana is not a way to get rich quick. They are in the business to provide marijuana to people who need it. It's worth noting, though, they also said that if marijuana is legalized for recreational purposes, they'd be looking to sell it.
Recreational marijuana may worry authorities and health officials, but in some parts of Toronto, it's obviously less of a concern.
"I have to say, I felt a little silly walking around Kensington Market going from dispensary to dispensary, right by spots where people have been selling marijuana pretty openly for years," said Ross. "It's a reminder that, while medical marijuana might now be easier to get, there's still plenty of people buying weed the old fashioned way."