When you’ve been a cannabis activist for well over a decade, the only time you expect to hear your name dropped at a police press conference it will be followed by the words “has been charged with.”
On a morning in late January, I was drinking coffee and watching a Toronto Police Services press conference. I was getting agitated by the misinformation as they spoke in regards to a rash of recent violent dispensary robberies in the city. And then, I was surprised to hear my name mentioned.
Praised by Police
Bryce Evans, Superintendent of Toronto Police Services, made reference to a December interview I had done on the CBC show Metro Morning. Apparently he liked what I had said in my brief six minutes on air. Enough to recognize me during his media statement, anyway. His final remark that “she gets it” is currently top runner for what my epitaph will read when the time comes.
To say that kudos from a police officer were a surprise would be an understatement. I’ve spent almost a decade and a half not only vocally critical of government policy but very critical of Toronto Police Services as well.
I spent a few hours talking to colleagues and contemplating the surreal turn my Monday had taken. Then I picked up my cell phone, searched the police headquarters phone directory, and left a voicemail message for Superintendent Evans. Within minutes he returned my call. We made arrangements to meet at Toronto Police Headquarters a few days later.
I spoke to a few more people before I walked into the lion’s den. Activist friends did nothing to quell the paranoia that I might be setting up myself or others for failure simply by keeping the meeting. Social justice warriors and business people that I knew had regular dealings with the city and police had no more advice. In the end the only choice I had was to show up and see what would happen.
The morning of our meeting, I reported to the visitors desk at Toronto Police Headquarters. I gave over my identification in exchange for a visitor’s pass. Then I waited for someone to come and take me into the inner sanctum of enemy territory.
Entering Enemy Territory
Superintendent Evans met me in the lobby and escorted me to his office and not, as I feared might happen, to an interrogation room. His office was nice, we even share some of that IKEA motivational artwork that encourages the virtues of hard work and the importance of dreams.
The conversation opened with some basic small talk about the weather. And the surprise I felt when he had mentioned me during his press conference. Then we got down to the nitty-gritty of why I was there: the violent robberies of Toronto marijuana dispensaries.
We talked openly and honestly about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the dispensary explosion experienced by our city over the last year. I explained to him how the language TPS uses during press conferences often infuriates us, even if we agree with the general statement. E.g. what is a “grow-op” to police is simply a garden to a patient.
We talked about the medical marijuana program and the flaws within it. He seemed to understand that my priority is and has always been patients that rely on the services of dispensaries.
And I expressed understanding the challenge it must be, to be required to enforce a law that is about to be changed. Particularly when the man in change of legalization is your former employer, commander, and chief.
Discussing Dispensary Robberies
Evans gave me the information I needed to see. At that point, TPS had reports of fifteen armed dispensary robberies within the last six months. Thirteen involved firearms, two in which they were discharged. And there has been a pistol whipping and two stabbings. This has to stop before someone gets seriously hurt or worse.
We agreed that I would contact dispensaries and try to convince them to report the violent crimes they had been victim of. And TPS services would not raid a dispensary when it called in an emergency. However, illegal marijuana products found on site would still be confiscated. Not perfect, but a compromise.
I did manage to get one dig in — I’m not perfect, I still have some resentment. I learned that Superintendent Evans had been with Toronto Police Services since the 80’s. “Which means you were here when Toronto police raided the Toronto Compassion Center almost two decades ago?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Well it’s taken a while, but thanks for that,” I said. “That raid gave us the Hitzig decision, which started the medical marijuana program. And it’s what has led us to legalization now.”
Working with Police
We parted with plans to talk in the next couple of weeks. I held a press conference with other activists in the community, asking for regulations from the city and encouraging dispensary owners and staff to reach out to police when they needed them. I spoke with Superintendent Evans again after the press conference and the media that followed.
Then we made arrangements for dispensary owners to meet with Toronto Police Services on the morning of March 6, 2017, to learn about the robberies and the crime prevention tools available to them.
We met over coffee on a cold blistery morning: three officers from 55 Division, the Superintendent of Toronto Police Services, two Toronto lawyers that are also with NORML Canada — Paul Lewin and Jack Lloyd — dispensary owners, and patient advocates.
There were heated moments, but the discussion went well and it will continue in the coming months as we get closer to regulation. There are certain points we agreed to disagree on: The police want us to know that the raids are not stopping and we should expect them. We let them know we won’t be going away and we’ll be ready for them.
I will touch base with more dispensary owners in the next few weeks to see if they want to join the conversation. I will continue to lobby the city for regulation. And in the meantime both sides will try to keep staff and patrons safe. Watch for more updates in the coming months.
Crime Prevention Tips for Dispensaries
(adapted from email communication with Constable Jonathan Morrice of 55 Division Toronto Police Services)
- Install quality cameras at entrances/exits and throughout the premise. Ideally, every portion of the premise is under surveillance — inside and outside.
- Placement: Ensure cameras capture entire images of people entering/exiting (it’s not useful if camera are recording just the ankles of people entering). Also ensure a camera is not at risk of being blocked intermittently. Periodic delivery trucks from adjacent businesses might interfere with the camera. And camera installed in the winter might have a clear view, but by summer when plants or trees have returned they may block the camera.
- Maintenance: Ensure cameras are well maintained. Clean the lens, ensure batteries etc. are replaced, check for damages … from weather or suspects prior to their robberies.
- Staff Know-how: Ensure staff know how to operate the equipment and are able to identify if cameras are malfunctioning.
- Turned on & Recording: Make sure cameras are actually recording. Do frequent tests to ensure.
- Footage Accessible: Ensure that footage is not encrypted by a password that no one knows, in case the footage is required by police regarding a crime.
- Install/use buzzers to grant access rather than have unlocked, open doors.
- Grant/deny entry by staff members viewing each person requesting entry via surveillance camera (audio capability as well is recommended).
- Deny entry to anyone wearing (and/or refusing to remove) helmets, masks, etc.
- Make hourly deposits into drop safes of both cash and product.
- Store cash and product in a secure area that regular staff don’t have keys/access to.
[Editor’s Note: We interpret these points to mean use a drop safe for excess cash and do not keep all product accessible. Obviously, dropping product into inaccessible safes hourly is not practical for sales.]
Require Multiple Stages of Access
- Allow a) entry via buzzer access (provided no helmets etc.)
- Request b) customer provides ID/membership card/prescription card to staff.
- Provide c) access to a divided section where product is.
[Ed note: Adapt these practices to the location as possible, recognizing not every dispensary will have an antechamber or divisible section.]
Promote Using Preventative Measures
- Post your policies on your websites and social media.
- Post them in/around the business.
Train Vigilant Employees
- Ensure all employees understand all security policies.
- Ensure staff are extra vigilant during closing/opening times.
- Devise a policy for delivery of product from suppliers: e.g. unpredictable times/days, multiple staff at delivery times.
- Ensure all employees are made aware of the details if other dispensaries have been victimized, i.e. how and when each incident occurs.
Don’t Be a Hero
- Inform staff to not intervene in robbery/theft.
Report to Police & Each Other
- Report robberies to police. Like any other crime, without reporting, it gives offenders the confidence and comfort to continue offending, knowing they will not be investigated/pursued/arrested/charged/convicted/incarcerated.
- Share experiences regarding safety concerns or victimization to one another within the local dispensary network.