Ottawa·Analysis

Ottawa police only want to hear 'legitimate' complaints about illegal pot shops

If you don't approve of marijuana, please, don't call the police to share your views. But if you have "legitimate" concerns about an illegal marijuana dispensary in your neighbourhood, by all means, give them a call.

'We're really not seeing the volume of specific concerns of residents and neighbours that we anticipated'

Cannabis cookies on display at Green Tree Medical Dispensary. The retailing of these marijuana-based products is illegal in Canada. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Don't approve of marijuana? Please, don't call the police to share your views.

But if you have "legitimate" concerns about an illegal marijuana dispensary that's opened in your neighbourhood, by all means, Ottawa's finest want to hear from you.

That's the message from a report to be presented by Chief Charles Bordeleau at the Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on Monday.

At the last board meeting the chief was asked for the force's position on marijuana dispensaries currently operating illegally in Ottawa, in response to several councillors' concerns about having these illegal shops in their wards.

Bordeleau's response came in the form of a report that asked "councillors to encourage people to contact the OPS to file legitimate complaints regarding a dispensary. By legitimate we are referencing something that goes beyond personal beliefs about marijuana or beliefs that marijuana should not be available to anyone at any time."

We're not the moral barometer of the city of Ottawa.- Insp. Chris Renwick

So what is a "legitimate" complaint?

Bordeleau wasn't available for comment, but Insp. Chris Renwick of the criminal investigations department addressed the issue instead. Sort of.

He didn't explicitly lay out what sort of complaint was worthy of making to police, but indicated that "the hot-button issues for the community are location, proximity to schools, other businesses that may cater to younger people. A lot of these dispensaries are opening up in buildings where there's other services geared toward youth, and that certainly raises concern."

So the police will investigate — and have investigated, Renwick insisted — specific complaints about the harm and concern residents have about a particular marijuana dispensary. They will not entertain complaints based solely on the belief that pot is harmful or even illegal (which, other than for prescribed medical purposes, it is).

"We're not the moral barometer of the city of Ottawa," said Renwick.

Ottawa police Insp. Chris Renwick says police will investigate any "specific complaints" about marijuana dispensaries. (CBC News)

Complaints lower than expected

Although there are about 12 pot shops in Ottawa, police have received relatively few official complaints. Renwick couldn't give a specific number but said it's "in the teens, not the hundreds."

That hasn't been the case in Toronto, where significant community complaints, including petitions, were filed with police, leading to 43 raids of pot shops in that city last May. A number of those reopened, although a Toronto police spokesman couldn't say how many. Instead, the spokesman said the raids "had an impact."

Several politicians here would like Ottawa police to do the same. Mayor Jim Watson has expressed a personal preference for police to at least confiscate the illegal pot in these shops, while Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury feels the "police are playing a game."

We're really not seeing the volume of specific concerns of residents and neighbours that we anticipated.- Insp. Chris Renwick

There is no way to legally sell marijuana from a store, a fact that is not in dispute. 

"So don't police have to enforce the law?" asked Fleury. "They're illegal. Why do they need complaints before acting?"

But until new federal laws decriminalizing marijuana are passed, which is not expected until next spring, it's up to police to figure out how to handle the pot shops popping up over town — or the city, if Ottawa wanted to go the bylaw regulations route like Vancouver. (More on that in a moment, but spoiler alert: it doesn't.)

So the police strategy, which will be explained further by Bordeleau on Monday, is to investigate complaints and, if warranted, discuss with the Crown Attorney's office whether laying criminal charges would be in the public interest and whether there was a reasonable chance of conviction. So far, no criminal charges have been laid related to marijuana dispensaries.

"We're asking the public, if you have specific complaints, please, call us because there's a lot of third-hand complaints, there's a lot of anecdotes coming to us, but we're really not seeing the volume of specific concerns of residents and neighbours that we anticipated," said Renwick.

Vancouver's gold-standard regulatory system unlikely in Ottawa

Last month, Fleury asked city staff to look into what the bylaw department is doing to shut down illegal marijuana dispensaries.

But here's what we know already: Ottawa's bylaw officers don't have the power to shut down pot shops.

Sure, selling marijuana is illegal. But that's a criminal offence, not something usually handled by Ottawa's bylaw officers. They deal with businesses that need municipal licences, like restaurants and strip clubs. Most retail shops don't, in fact, require city licences to operate. So the only way for bylaw to have the authority over dispensaries is for council to change the bylaw to include them.

That will not happen under this mayor, unless it's mandated by higher levels of government.

Vancouver expended a massive effort that included setting strict standards — including exact locations where shops can set up — to develop a multi-tiered application system, and the city has awarded four licences to the 176 groups that have so far applied. Sure, there are 30 shops still operating illegally, but the government has filed injunctions against 27 of them and expects the court to shut them down in due course.

But Vancouver was spurred to action by an explosion of illegal pot shops that ballooned from a few several years ago to more than 100 by 2015.

Ottawa is dealing with a dozen dispensaries — illegal as they are — that, according to police, haven't bothered residents enough for them to file formal complaints. 

There's also no point in heading down the regulatory path at this point. The federally appointed marijuana task force will report its findings to the Liberal government next month. The recommendations should lay out how marijuana, both medical and recreational, is to be distributed and who should oversee it. It's certainly possible that the distribution rules will end up being different from province to province.

We've done nothing this long, what's another few weeks?

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.