Pro-pot protesters call dispensary raids a 'power play' by police

Toronto police say a series of police raids on Toronto marijuana dispensaries yesterday came in response to "significant complaints" from community members.

Chief Mark Saunders interrupted as he explained what led to execution of search warrants

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders was forced to talk over repeated questions from protesters during Friday's news conference. (CBC)

A group of protesters tried to hijack a Toronto police news conference, where Chief Mark Saunders at times struggled to explain a series of police raids that took place Thursday at storefront marijuana dispensaries.

Saunders, speaking over questions shouted at him by protesters, said the raids on Toronto marijuana dispensaries yesterday came in response to "significant complaints" from community members.

More than 90 people were arrested and 186 charges were laid as a result of the raids. Search warrants were executed at 43 storefront shops, where police said marijuana was being sold illegally. 

Protesters gathered outside Toronto Police headquarters prior to Saunders's news conference to decry the raids, saying that pot dispensaries — which have been proliferating around the city in recent months — pose no harm to the community.

"The only harm being done in association with dispensaries is the harm of patients being made to suffer, and the harm of peaceful citizens being given criminal records," marijuana activist Jodie Emery told reporters after Saunders had left the media briefing room at headquarters Friday morning.

As Saunders tried to take questions from the media, protesters shouted questions at him.

"Show us the victim," one male protester shouted. "Where's the harm?"

Toronto police chief interrupted at pot press conference

7 years ago
Duration 1:27
Mark Saunders has a number of people removed during briefing

Some were removed. Other protesters gathered outside police headquarters during the news conference.

Emery's husband, Marc, known as the "Prince of Pot" for his long-time advocacy work, said the raids would have a chilling effect on the pro-pot community.

​"This is just a power play by police to quickly put all these dispensaries out of business," Emery told reporters outside police headquarters. "And it may have that effect."

Marijuana activist Marc Emery speaks to reporters during a protest outside of Toronto police headquarters Friday. (CBC News)

'Genuine health concern'

During the raids, police also seized 269 kilograms of dried marijuana and a large quantity of marijuana edibles, including cookies and candy. 

The city's licensing and standards department, which worked with police on the raids, laid 79 charges for zoning violations and 31 charges for selling food without a proper licence. 

Saunders said the arrests came in response to concern from community members. He said the stores were selling marijuana products — everything from cookies to drinks — with inaccurate information about how much THC they contained. 

"This is no regulatory process behind this," said Saunders. "You don't know if you go to one store and purchase one brownie, or one muffin or cupcake. You go to the next store, how much THC is in this one versus that one? You don't know … it's a genuine health concern."

Police display products seized during Thursday's raids at Toronto marijuana dispensaries. Police say the raids targeted shops selling the drug in violation of rules for medicinal marijuana sales. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Members of the Toronto police drug squad executed search warrants at numerous marijuana dispensaries just after noon Thursday in a series of raids dubbed Project Claudia.

Of the 90 people arrested Thursday, two remained in custody Friday: one had an outstanding warrant, while the other had firearm charges in another province.

With new federal regulations expected to come next year, storefront marijuana dispensaries continue to operate in a grey area, with store owners saying they are providing an essential service for patients who rely on the drug for pain relief. 

City staff, however, say only sellers licensed by Health Canada, operating from an industrially zoned area and distributing their product through the mail, can operate legally.

Many of the protesters who shouted questions at Saunders claimed medicinal marijuana sellers licensed by Health Canada aren't able to meet the needs of patients. The protesters' complaints include everything from poor product quality to problems getting the products delivered in the mail.

Patients don't want to buy marijuana on the street or underground or even via the mail, Marc Emery said.

"They want to buy it from people they trust who have been in the industry for decades."

Protesters also decried the raids as a waste of police resources that will make it more difficult for people in need to access marijuana. 

Emery also argued that judges will throw out the charges laid Thursday, particularly given that the laws could soon change.

"No judge is going to start sentencing hundreds of people to prison or jail or fines or anything under the circumstances that we have legalization being announced next year by the federal government," he said.

'You can't be doing it'

Saunders said the dispensaries raided Thursday may be in business with the intention of helping patients who use their products for medicinal reasons, but without the proper licence, they're violating current laws.

 "Knowingly selling without a licence issued by Health Canada is unlawful: you can't be doing it," he said

There have also been concerns that many dispensaries are selling their product without a doctor's prescription. A CBC reporter bought pot from a Toronto dispensary earlier this month without a prescription. 

Mayor John Tory had promised a crackdown after dispensaries began popping up across the city. Earlier this month, the licensing and standards department issued notices to landlords, warning them of stiff fines if the dispensaries aren't shut down.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said marijuana will be legalized, but the laws won't change until next year.