Twelve High Chicks thanks regular guest contributor Tracy Curley for this timely, firsthand account. We hope she, and all of our friends in Toronto, remain safe while continuing to fight for patients’ rights and access. 

Trouble in Toronto

Many were shocked when on Thursday, May 26th, Toronto Police Service (TPS) raided more than 40 marijuana dispensaries, using battering rams and entering with guns drawn. 90 people were arrested when Project Claudia happened; police filed 186 trafficking charges (possession for the purpose of) and 71 charges for proceeds of crime (cash seized on premises).

With the Canadian Federal Government promising legislation to legalize recreational marijuana within the year, and other Canadian cities regulating and licensing marijuana shops, what was with the crackdown in Toronto? And why was it named Project Claudia? Apparently, the TPS thinks marijuana dispensaries in Toronto are on par with a natural disaster. According to The Globe and Mail,

Chief Saunders said the name was chosen to reflect the way the problem was growing so rapidly, but did not elaborate. Constable Wendy Drummond said the name was chosen to resemble the way weather services name hurricanes, likening the growth of pot dispensaries across the city to a fast-developing storm. 

This fearmongering comparison is complete with a name that starts with the same letter as “cannabis” and with Chief Saunders repeatedly suggesting during his press conference that dispensaries are a public health concern.

Project Claudia happened

Photo courtesy of Sean Brady @Shivnibble

Recent Warnings

I wish I could say we didn’t see it coming but the warnings were clear. Over the last few months, media reports on the proliferation of pot shops in the city had become more frequent. Bill Blair — the former Police Chief of the Toronto Police Service and the top cop in charge of legalization for the Liberal party — a few months earlier had gone on record before the Senate in Ottawa, stating that criminal laws would be enforced and non-medical cannabis was still illegal.

Were we prepared? No.

On May 12th I was sent a message by a concerned patient letting me know a motion had been passed at Toronto City Hall in which enforcement had been requested, by address, against two listed marijuana dispensaries in the city’s Ward 17. I contacted the one dispensary available through social media, and warned them to batten down the hatches and find a lawyer quickly. Still no one expected it when Project Claudia happened. 

Fear of Fines

On May 18th dispensaries across the city began to receive letters from Municipal Licensing and Standards (ML&S) bylaw enforcement, giving landlords 72 hours to evict their dispensary tenants or face $50,000/day fines and possible property forfeiture. Dispensary owners, staff, and patients immediately rallied and headed to City Hall the following day to beg the ML&S to put a halt to the fines and letters until August 24th, when amendments to the Medical Marijuana Production Regulations (MMPR) might offer more guidance.

We were dismissed quickly, without a voice on the matter, and told to return in June.

Project Claudia happened

Photo courtesy of Sean Brady @Shivnibble

Toronto lost 22 dispensaries between May 18th and May 21st due to evictions and fear of fines and enforcement. To most people the thought of battering rams and handcuffs was not even on the radar.

Conferences and Chaos

The following week began with defiant dispensaries reopening while Bill Blair attended a meeting on Tuesday, May 24th, in which he angered citizens and patients alike with disparaging, broad-stroke statements against medical cannabis dispensaries.

The morning of May 26th I began my day quite early by registering for the Canadian Cannabis Business Conference, hosted at the Toronto Hilton Conference Center and sponsored by LIFT. I attended the morning session, where lawyers and stakeholders discussed the monetary value of the emerging medical cannabis market, all the while wondering if any of them had ever actually studied the plant itself.

Project Claudia happened

Photo courtesy of Sean Brady @Shivnibble

At lunchtime I hurried over again to Toronto City Hall where City Councillor Jim Karygiannis had called a press conference on behalf of dispensaries. Admittedly, I was surprised when Councillor Karygiannis took up the dispensary cause since, just over a decade ago, he was “working hard in Ottawa and locally to bring as many resources and legal boosts as he can to police in their battle against illegal grow operations” while never really making the distinction between a legal MMAR licensed garden and a “grow op.”

Mere minutes before the hastily scheduled press conference began, as activists and dispensary owners gathered in the square in front of City Hall, our phones and social media exploded with news of coordinated raids taking place all over the city. Project Claudia happened.

While trying to keep track of which areas of the city and what dispensaries were being affected, we rushed into the press conference hoping for answers. Inside, we found that we in fact were receiving the most up-to-date information as it was coming in, and it was chaos.

The Aftermath

Project Claudia happened

Photo courtesy of Sean Brady @Shivnibble

Few details were known that first day; patients went to their dispensaries to find broken glass and closed signs on the door. That night, with a heavy heart I had to send some of my patients to street corners and parks to buy black market marijuana; the police had made accessing a dispensary unsafe despite Chief Saunders claims that their actions wouldn’t affect patients.  

The next morning activists, patients, and the media gathered outside police headquarters as we awaited the press conference regarding the raids — the largest targeted police effort since the Operation Soap bathhouse raids targeted the gay village in 1981.

TPS reported that the massive amount of cannabis seized included

270 kg of dried marijuana, 30 kg of resin, 25 kg of hash, 27 kg of pills, 73 kg of chocolate, 142 kg of cookies, 129 kg of candies, 101 kg of bars, 135 e-cigarettes, 457 drinks, 127 kg of oils and spreads, and 121 kg of other by-products. 

During the press conference, Police Chief Saunders also mentioned 23 g of cocaine being seized during Project Claudia. Although widely reported by news outlets there is no mention of cocaine in the TPS news release.

Final Tally

Roughly $160,000 in cash was also seized. 79 other by-law charges were also laid, including 48 for zoning violations and 31 for violating the city’s licensing bylaws for selling food without a proper business licence. The charges come with maximum $25,000 fines for individuals and $50,000 for businesses. Police say the other dispensaries, at least 40-odd across the city, that were not raided Thursday could still face similar action and that their investigation is ongoing. City officials also warn there could be more fines imposed for zoning violations and other bylaw infractions, including action against landlords, if stores remain open. 

Project Claudia happened

Photo courtesy of Sean Brady @Shivnibble

So why a crackdown now, when legalization is coming? Public complaints may have given bylaw enforcement a reason to send those letters but certainly didn’t act as an excuse for concerted, aggressive raids. But when Project Claudia happened, hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines and seized funds went from pot dispensaries to government organizations.

Currently, Toronto is fighting back with dispensaries reopening, planning coordinated class action lawsuits against the city, and as of this writing Cannabis Culture in Vancouver has opened its doors to recreational sales to anyone over the age of 19. A rally in support of dispensaries is planned for June 20th.

Look for more on this ridiculous situation, including coverage of the LIFT Expo, as we learn more.