New Brunswick

Saint John police have 'bigger fish to fry' than pot shops, says chief

Saint John has “bigger fish to fry” than enforcing murky marijuana laws, according to police Chief John Bates

Police Chief John Bates 'doesn't like' what dispensaries stand for, but says hazy laws can't be enforced

Medical cannabisarijuana dispensaries weren't a top priority for police vis-à-vis other crime and social issues in Saint John, police Chief John Bates said in Sept 2016 interview. Twelve people were arrested in raids five months later. (CBC)

Medical marijuana dispensaries aren't a top priority for police vis-à-vis other crime and social issues in Saint John, according to police Chief John Bates.

"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," said Bates.

"I get far more calls about that than I have about a marijuana dispensary."

Two new dispensaries

Medicinal Grounds Cannabis Centre, a medical marijuana dispensary, opened in uptown Saint John on Aug. 16. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)
Two medical marijuana storefronts, Medicinal Grounds Cannabis Centre, and HBB Medical Inc., opened last month on Prince William Street and Chesley Drive. While both shops lack licences from Health Canada, the owners of both establishments say they serve only patients with medical prescriptions.

But despite concerns about where such "unlicensed entities" get their product, said Bates, the laws remain insufficiently defined for the Saint John Police Department to act.

"There's a great deal of uncertainty across the country regarding marijuana laws," said Bates. "We wanted to make sure that whatever the Saint John Police Force does, or doesn't do, was not going to be viewed as discriminatory, arbitrary or inconsistent with other jurisdictions, at least within the province."

Although the federal Liberal party has announced plans to legalize marijuana in spring 2017, 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.

"Quantum leap" in public acceptance

Despite the federal Liberal campaign promise to legalize marijuana, it's still an illegal substance under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Chief Bates is considering, with other jurisdictions, what the next move is. 8:05
Bates said in his 32 years as a police officer, society has undergone a "quantum leap" in the way it views marijuana.

"I come from an era where we used to arrest kids for having a single joint," he said.

He's far from untroubled by the recent proliferation of storefronts openly advertising marijuana.

"As I walk by that dispensary, as a 32-year policing veteran, I don't like it there because of what it stands for. I think it's working outside the law.

"But in Saint John, as a whole, we have bigger fish to fry."

Bigger issues at play

Brock Merchant operates HBB Medical Inc., the second of two dispensaries to open in Saint John last month. (CBC)
Bates said the Saint John Police Force has lacked clear guidance from the federal government on enforcing marijuana laws.

"I think on the marijuana question in this country, our footing is a little gelatinous right now and anytime there is no clear direction, it hampers enforcement."

Still, the current legal limbo doesn't mean dispensary owners have carte blanche.

"Once we get clear and consistent direction [from the federal government]," said Bates. "We'll either take action, or not, depending on what the outcomes are."

In the interim, "In the big scheme of things, it's a pebble in my shoe compared to the other things we're trying to deal with as a police force in this city," he said.

with files from Information Morning Saint John