Police ramp up efforts to shut down illegal pot dispensaries in Toronto

Toronto police staged another raid on the California Cannabis dispensary on Weston Road last week as part of their campaign against illegal weed storefronts. But police and criminal lawyers say it's tough to keep them closed permanently.

Officers ripped apart a west-end dispensary last week, but say shutting down pot shops is difficult

Toronto Police Sgt. Todd Storey holds several bags filled with marijuana that were seized as part of a raid at the California Cannabis dispensary on Weston Road. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

Police used a hammer and a crowbar to smash the locks and pry open the front door.

Once inside, they didn't find any employees, but they did find a few hundred grams of marijuana.

Last week, police raided the California Cannabis dispensary at 1608 Weston Road for the fifth time in less than three months. Each time they seized a number of items inside, including computers, cash and, of course, all of the pot.

But as police step up their campaign to shut down illegal storefront cannabis operations, last week's raid underscores a frustrating reality for law enforcement. They've been able to close the dispensaries and charge hundreds of employees. But the businesses seldom stay closed and the majority of charges are dropped.

"We've actually watched them go out and get new monitors the next day, new Bell lines for their Wi-Fi," said Sergeant Todd Storey of 12 Division. "So they're up and running on the internet, so they can tell their customers what they have, where they are, and that they are open."

An officer from 12 Division pries open the front door at the California Cannabis dispensary on Weston Road. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

But Storey, who says officers seized financial ledgers from the shop that indicated they were taking in upwards of $7,000 dollars a day, told CBC Toronto police are stepping up their efforts to shut California Cannabis,, and storefronts like it, down for good.

"We're taking all the signage, we're taking all the cameras, we're taking all of the display cabinets, the containers that have held the marijuana," Storey said.

Sgt. Todd Storey says police have conducted five raids in the last three months at California Cannabis. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

Usman Ahmad, who lives just a few doors down from California Cannabis, watched as police loaded everything onto a moving truck, to be taken away and used as evidence.

Ahmad says he first noticed the dispensary about six months ago, and residents in the area have been complaining to police ever since. 

"You don't feel safe in your own neighborhood," Ahmad said.

An officer prepares to remove a giant sign in front of California Cannabis. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

Police have also arrested a number of employees at this location since December, but Storey admits, there is a very good chance none of those arrests will lead to a conviction.

"It is frustrating, I'll give you that."

It's an issue police have run into at dispensaries across the city. The owners are rarely, if ever, on site. Instead, they find low level employees that have very little to do with the overall operation.

"The vast majority if not all of the employees ultimately have their charges withdrawn," said Kendra Stanyon, a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto. 

Kendra Stanyon is a criminal defence lawyer who has represented dozens of former employees at Toronto marijuana dispensaries. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

Stanyon, who has represented dozens of former dispensary employees, says in almost all of her cases the charges were dropped by the Crown Attorney.

"It would be hard to put an exact percentage on it, but 90-some odd per cent, almost everybody," Stanyon said.

According to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, approximately 600 dispensary employees were charged in Toronto between May 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2017. More than 350 of them have already had all of their charges withdrawn, and that number could grow with many more cases still before the courts.

Stanyon says it can take several months, in some cases years, before charges are dropped.

"It's been a massive burden, I think, on the court system," she said.

For officers making these arrests, like Storey, It's hard not to wonder why they're putting in all the hard work.

It basically drains on our police resources," Storey said, "It's a lot of man hours that we could be doing other things."

Yasir Naqvi, Ontario's attorney general, says the province has given police the tools they need to shut down illegal dispensaries 'and keep them closed.' (CBC)

Back in November the province passed new legislation geared toward helping police crack down on illegal dispensaries.

"We have given police more powers to be able to close these stores and keep them closed," said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.

The new laws allow police to impose interim closure orders on any establishment they suspect is being used for the sale of illegal marijuana.

They also include provisions that allow police to go after landlords who knowingly lease their property to illegal dispensaries. The problem is, none of these laws go into effect until the federal government follows through on plans to legalize marijuana.

In the meantime, Stanyon says police might be better served by putting more effort into trying to track down the owners and charging them. She does admit, though, in many of the cases she worked on, the owners often lived out of province, and sometimes even out of the country.

"I imagine it's somewhat more difficult than simply arresting the people who are on site."