Landlords of renegade CAFE pot shops move to have charges dismissed
'It's basically the city trying to make their problem, my problem,' frustrated property owner says
They're the illegal cannabis shops that just won't quit. And now the City of Toronto's latest tactic in its battle with the CAFE chain might be doomed, with a businessman complaining it's become a pot mess and he's caught in the crossfire.
Since the first branch of CAFE — short for Cannabis and Fine Edibles — opened downtown in 2016, police and city officials have been trying to shut down the business, which doesn't have a provincial dispensary licence or adhere to federal law.
Raiding the renegade weed store's now four locations, seizing their supplies of bud, changing the locks, welding the doors shut and, finally, piling huge concrete slabs in front of the entrances to bar access — none of it has worked. Each time, the same stores have reopened.
In its latest attempts to force closed the sleek coffee shops that double as illicit pot dispensaries, the city is resorting to the courts, where it's heaped charges on the landlords who own the buildings where CAFE operates. The provincial Cannabis Control Act makes it illegal for a landlord to "knowingly permit a premises" to be used to sell illegal weed.
"We've gotten to a point where we need to rely on the court process to deal with this," Carleton Grant, executive director of the city's licensing and standards division, told CBC Toronto last month.
For individual landlords, the charges carry a potential maximum penalty of a $250,000 fine and two years in jail for a first conviction, and then $100,000 per day in fines plus two years in jail for subsequent convictions.
But the provincial cannabis law also provides a defence to any landlord who takes "reasonable measures to prevent the activity," and one of CAFE's landlords, who's facing seven charges, told CBC this week that he's tried everything he can to get rid of his scofflaw tenants, and the city refuses to help.
"It's basically the city trying to make their problem, my problem," Mohsen Ghelichkhani said. "This is such a clusterf--k."
'Nobody gets back to us, except giving us more tickets'
Ghelichkhani owns the premises of CAFE's flagship store at 66 Fort York Blvd., a live-work condo unit in CityPlace. He claims he tried evicting his tenants via Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board, but the LTB balked when it saw that the dispute was about a commercial operation.
Then he tried to hire a bailiff to force out CAFE, he maintains, but the bailiff wouldn't take up the case because the lease they signed five years ago is a residential one, and residential disputes have to go to the LTB.
"Then I go back to the city and I'm like, 'Well, what am I supposed to do now?'... I flat out said, 'Tell me what to do? And I will do it. It's as simple as that.' And you know, nobody gets back to us, except giving us more tickets," Ghelichkhani said.
"They've come up with zero solutions. I mean, they've tried themselves as well. They've put concrete blocks, security, police officers, raids, change the locks, change the door. And now they throw their hands up in the air and then just go 'OK, well, we're going to put pressure on you.'"
He said his understanding is that while he still owns the property, because of a closure order imposed by law enforcement when they raided CAFE back in 2018, "the city has had possession of the property. So they're really giving themselves tickets."
"That plays a big part in any alleged inaction of the landlords," Ghelichkhani's lawyer Noel Gerry told CBC News.
Gerry noted the charges alleging his client allowed the property to be used as a rebel weed store date from after the city and police technically took control of it.
"It's actually an offence [for landlords] to enter the premises. They're barred from entry."
Landlords cite Charter of Rights
And if that isn't enough of a hill for prosecutors to climb, in court this week, Gerry said Ghelichkhani and another CAFE landlord he's representing, Ali Gillani, will be seeking to have their cases dismissed on Charter of Rights grounds, because it's taken so long to get to trial.
Trials in provincial court are supposed to wind up within 18 months of charges being laid, otherwise the delay is deemed presumptively unreasonable.
Of Ghelichkhani's seven Cannabis Control Act charges, three date back to 2018 and three to 2019. Gillani, the landlord at CAFE's 104 Harbord St. location near the University of Toronto, is facing five counts, two of which date back to 2018, while two are from 2019 and one is from January 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicates the math somewhat, because the CAFE landlords had trials scheduled for last year that had to be cancelled when the courts closed.
Gillani, through Gerry, declined a request to comment on his charges. He has had a years-long association with one of the main people behind CAFE, Wesley Weber, and was the COO, CFO and a director of a now-defunct cryptocurrency company Weber co-founded called Incryptex. Before starting the company, Weber racked up an extensive criminal record including convictions for forgery, fraud, counterfeiting and cultivating marijuana.
Besides Gillani and Ghelichkhani, there are also four counts pending against 2694605 Ontario Inc., which owns the premises CAFE operates from at 1321 St Clair Ave. W., and another four counts against 10956392 Canada Inc., landlord for the CAFE store at 932 Bloor St. W.
The charges against the former company are set for a court hearing next week. A lawyer for the latter company didn't reply to an email asking whether he would try to get his client's charges dismissed on Charter grounds.
For corporate landlords, the maximum penalty is $1 million for a first offence and $500,000 a day for subsequent ones.
City won't comment on cases
The City of Toronto wouldn't comment specifically on the CAFE charges because of the ongoing court cases, but in a general statement said that it "continues to take enforcement action against illegal cannabis storefronts" in the city.
"This includes conducting investigations, issuing closure orders, barring entry into premises, conducting seizures and search warrants, and laying charges."
As the court cases drag on, CAFE has continued to operate. At its peak, the city has estimated, it was bringing in $50,000 a day per location.
If you have a tip on this or any other story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 416-205-7553
With files from Michael Smee and Tyler Cheese