Toronto’s licensing department is planning a crackdown on medical pot dispensaries operating without federal approval and in neighbourhoods not zoned industrial.
The Queens of Cannabis owners wanted their bright and airy Bloor Street W. shop to have a “healing atmosphere” distinct from dozens of other marijuana dispensaries springing up, almost daily, across Toronto.
“We wanted it to be opening, friendly, welcoming. We wanted to take the stigma away from medical marijuana,” says co-owner Brandy Zuborg, a government tax auditor-turned pot entrepreneur.
Two glass cabinets display tiny jars filled with strains such as Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, and Blueberry, along with an array of chemical- and preservative-free medical pot products.
With aromatherapy massage, reflexology and other natural health services offered in a dimly lit back room, the space feels more juice bar or spa than clandestine drug den.
Zuborg and partner Tania Cyalume say they are operating an establishment as if city regulations were in place, and sell only to approved medical marijuana patients.
Still, they hope the city gets on with regulating the retail pot business and fully expect a crackdown is coming.
“Right now it’s a free-for-all,” says Zuborg, as Cyalume nods in agreement.
Mayor John Tory and city councillors agree about the free-for-all part, expressing concern about the lack of rules and proximity to schools. But rather than rules to accommodate the new businesses, Toronto’s licensing department is planning a crackdown on medical pot dispensaries operating without federal approval and in neighbourhoods not zoned industrial.
“In the last several weeks these dispensaries are really becoming an issue of concern,” Mark Sraga, director of investigation services for city licensing, told the Star. “We are developing an operational plan to address these issues under our regulatory authority.”
Zuborg says current federal rules around medicinal marijuana are inhumane. Patients, including the terminally ill, have to lock in a prescription with one of the limited number of suppliers, choose from an online menu and then hope the pot, which many complain is poor quality, is shipped to them on time.
“Patients have a need to touch it, smell it and grab a little bit of it,” to know if they like the taste and smell, she says. “I know a cancer patient whose shipment was two weeks late. He was very ill . . . (crushing) up his cancer meds to inject into a tube that was hanging out of his body. That’s not acceptable.”
The owners insist they’re eager to follow the rules, and for recreational pot to be legalized across the country as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has promised to do next year.
But in Kensington Market on a recent weeknight, the 20-somethings crowding Canna Clinic aren’t waiting.
A light smell of pot hangs over the funky decor and the burbling crowd. The clinic, in the main floor of a converted Victorian, feels more like a hipster bar.
People approaching the long membership line are told it’s a two-hour wait. The clinic closes in 90 minutes so, if they really need some pot, they should go to the bigger Canna Clinic on Dundas St. W.
They’re also told they need government-issued ID to prove they aren’t a minor. A “medical professional” — a doctor, a nurse, maybe a naturopath — will screen them.
Six staff are busy exchanging payments for white bags of marijuana.
Outside a young man clutching a bag, told that the city is planning a crackdown on such clinics, balks.
“I don’t think they should because pot is going to be legal soon. A lot of people need help,” he said.
He guesses some inside don’t have diagnosed medical conditions and are, like him, recreational users who managed to pass the screening.
“I work construction,” he says, declining to give his name. “After work I like to smoke a joint to relax.
“We’re coming from a half-hour drive. We could have got it from the streets but we’re coming here to get medicinal, legally sort of, whatever it is, marijuana.”
A young woman says she has diagnosed anxiety and paid $30 for a joint and loose pot totalling three grams.
“Everyone’s really nice in there, there’s a doctor on site,” she says. “It’s a grey market — legalization is coming — so I guess they’re trying to corner the market. We shouldn’t try to stop it — you get more fights at a bar than a vapour lounge.”
A woman answering the phone at Canna Clinic’s Vancouver head office said “we don’t really talk to the media.”
Dispensaries argue they are operating in a legal grey zone because a B.C. judge struck down Harper-era rules on patients growing their own plants.
Sraga, from city licensing, calls that bunk. Health Canada has “robust” rules in effect for medical marijuana production and distribution, he says. City council reacted to them by saying federally proved facilities can’t be in residential and commercial neighbourhoods.
“To me it looks like clear cut regulations,” he says. “We are going to be addressing this issue with the full of extent of our authority and enforcement tools to ensure compliance with our bylaws.”
Dispensary operators could be charged in provincial offences court, under the City of Toronto Act and Planning Act, with contravening the zoning bylaw.
“We are working in concert with our other enforcement partners,” Sraga said.
“That could be the police, it could be Health Canada. It’s a combined joint effort.”