Toronto's oldest medical pot dispensary wants to lead industry out of legal grey area

Toronto's oldest medical marijuana dispensary is trying to get other dispensaries to join forces to lobby the government on regulations.

More dispensaries, but still no clarity on regulations

CALM founder and owner Neev Tapiero in 2010, after his store was raided by undercover police. (CBC)

One of the longstanding rules at CALM, Toronto's oldest medical marijuana dispensary, was that you could not talk about CALM.

For 20 years, CALM, which stands for Cannabis As Living Medicine, operated out of an undisclosed location and made the customers who found it agree not to tell anyone where it was.

Now the store is easy to find — the unintended benefit of more competition in the dispensary market.

"We used to be public enemy number one, and now there are hundreds of public enemies," said Neev Tapiero, the founder and owner of the dispensary.

Tapiero is a pioneer in the city's now flourishing medical marijuana industry. Since he first opened in 1996, his business has survived police raids, neighbourhood complaints and changing public opinion on marijuana use.

Right now, storefront dispensaries number around 60 in Toronto, but that number could change quickly. There is still no clarity on regulations, and dispensaries are taking advantage of that ambiguity, opening at such a torrid pace that Mayor John Tory has called it "the wild west."

Tapiero is trying to organize. He's helped create a lobby group of the country's medical marijuana businesses  — the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) — to try to shape the upcoming rules for dispensaries. He's now its director.

'Self-regulating' dispensaries

Since Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals came into power last October amid promises to legalize and regulate pot use, medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating under hazy conditions.

The storefront dispensaries are currently illegal. By law, Canadians with a prescription for medical marijuana must buy from one of the federal government's licensed producers, who deliver product through the mail.

But since the federal government is introducing marijuana legislation, which it has promised to do by next spring, there has not been strict enforcement of the current laws.

"Regulations are coming down, for sure. But self-regulating is the best interim solution," said Tapiero.

CAMCD is compiling a list of regulations that will informally govern dispensaries in an attempt to shape the rules for the medical marijuana businesses. 

Currently, many dispensaries in Toronto are simply following Vancouver's regulations around selling medical marijuana.

Tapiero said he will submit CAMCD's ideas for regulations to Mayor Tory for consideration as the city attempts to navigate the laws.

His group has already approached two councillors, Mike Layton and Joe Cressy, with the idea that dispensary owners would have input into city regulations. But Cressy, whose ward includes Kensington Market, a hotbed for dispensaries, decided he wanted a crackdown on the medical marijuana storefronts.

"To come out against all dispensaries is a little bit heavy-handed," Tapiero said. "There are way more people opposed to dispensaries than there are dispensaries. So it just makes sense to band together."

The worry among dispensaries is that regulation — be it federal, provincial or municipal — will limit the appeal of marijuana, and send customers back to the black market. So input from stakeholders — dispensary owners — would be of benefit, he said.

Less risk, more marijuana

Regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries has historically been inconsistent.

In the spring of 2010, undercover police officers raided CALM's store and arrested Tapiero and eight others for drug trafficking. The raid made national news, and the store was shut down.

In an act of defiance, CALM opened the very next day. In the months after the raid, all the charges were dropped.

That sort of raid is unlikely to happen today.

"Twenty years ago, [getting arrested] was part of the risk package of opening a dispensary. Now threat of criminality is removed and reduces the risk threshhold," said Tapiero.

So that means dispensaries have become more bold — offering to deliver marijuana to door-to-door, selling marijuana to people who don't always have a prescription

That will continue, Tapiero said, until regulations are made clear.

Mark Sraga, the city's director of investigation services for Municipal Licensing and Standards, said the city plans to start enforcing legislation related to marijuana shops in the coming months. Only facilities recognized by Health Canada are legally allowed to distribute medical marijuana and must do so via courier.

But in the face of booming industry, that threat is not as potent as it was in the past. Tapiero said it's close to "meaningless" because as the city shuts down one dispensary, another one is opening the same day.


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