The law and the law

Ontario's pot plan calls for limited dispensaries and vigorous enforcement

Legal marijuana in Canada is barely three months away. Businesses big and small, legal, not-so-legal, and totally illegal are looking for their niches in post-prohibition Canada.

The provincial government’s launch for legalization combines sparsely placed dispensaries with vigorous law enforcement.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne plans to roll out 40 legal marijuana stores by July 1. Many observers, from dispensary staff to RCMP Assistant Commissioner Joanne Crampton, have deemed that number inadequate to meet demand across the province. Former Toronto police chief and aspiring marijuana producer Bill Blair cited “accessibility” as a requirement for legal pot to compete effectively with illicit supplies.

Initially, much of the appeal of legalization was the expected savings on law enforcement and legal costs. Now the government wants to spend an extra $274 million on cannabis-related law enforcement.

Penalties related to illegal marijuana will be raised; fines up to $250,000 and jail sentences up to two years less a day have been announced. Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has promised, “If you operate one of these facilities, consider yourself on notice.”

Today, there are doctors who legally prescribe marijuana, there are dispensaries selling marijuana illegally, and there are businesses selling myriad marijuana-related products, except for marijuana itself.

Sierra Bisgould works at Tokyo Smoke, which runs coffee shops with pot-related products, but no pot, for sale. “Tokyo Smoke is about normalizing cannabis,” Bisgould says. It has teamed with marijuana producer Cannabis Company Limited, which also uses the name DOJA. As a legal grower, DOJA plans to sell weed alongside Tokyo Smoke’s products.

Bisgould expects dispensaries to disappear following legalization and believes Tokyo Smoke will “profit from that, because a lot of people will buy our marijuana because they can’t just go next door.”

The array of hangouts in which people can buy and ingest pot seems disjointed. Several in the Danforth area have been busted periodically and don’t generate as much attention as Kensington Market outlets or other west-end establishments do.

The Relief Center, a dispensary on King Street West, has a steady stream of customers. The door attendant hears rumours and wonders if his workplace will last beyond July 1.

While staff is friendly at several dispensaries, no one wants to divulge their name or identify the proprietors. In the front room of a nondescript Kensington Avenue storefront, customers show identification to staff who buzz clients into the back where the action is.

The attendant, who says he’s been busted before, compares Ontario to British Columbia. In Vancouver, dispensaries pay licensing fees to the city. A for-profit dispensary licence costs some $30,000, while non-profit compassion clubs pay less. Why can’t that be implemented here? he wonders.

“It’s all the cash, and that they don’t know who the owners are,” which has the province and the feds concerned. He thinks if dispensaries were licensed and prohibited from accepting cash, sales could be tracked and taxed accordingly.

He also speculates that multinational corporations could end up supplying Ontario’s legal pot. The government hasn’t promised to deal Canadian product exclusively. He hopes the government will be overwhelmed by demand and that dispensaries will stay open.

Some places sell edibles that will not initially be included on the list of legal cannabis Ontarians can enjoy.

Emma Baron, who moved from hospitality to working with pot edibles at a rheumatology clinic, believes The Cannabis Act is a work in progress.

“What’s interesting about the proposed legislation is that it’s not very long; it’s short. I think they’re just trying to allow themselves room to grow,” Baron says. “I think they’re saving the edibles for a re-election bid.”