Marijuana leaf with a "Closed for Business" sign on it

Illustration: Joy Wang

On 26 May 2016, the Toronto Police raided 43 marijuana dispensaries in the City of Toronto, arresting 90 people and laying 186 charges in a sting operation dubbed “Operation Claudia.”  It was the climax of a month of media and public scrutiny of Toronto’s marijuana scene that saw the number of dispensaries more than double from 32 to 69 from the end of April to the end of May.[1] Toronto Zoning Bylaw 438-86 and its amendments, which allow licensed marijuana dispensaries to operate only in the city’s industrial areas, justified the police action. The targeted dispensaries violated this bylaw.

These raids have spurred debate within the city, with pot activists proclaiming that the police should have left these dispensaries alone. The activists contend that the dispensaries  should be allowed to continue operating, even if this would technically be against the law. After all, the federal government has announced that marijuana legislation will be coming in 2017. These activists also believe that moving these dispensaries would adversely impact those who require marijuana for medical treatment.

For these activists to demand that this bylaw be ignored is ridiculous in itself. To say that the police should not have taken action as they saw fit is even more preposterous. The role of the police is to follow and uphold the entire law, as it stands—they cannot arbitrarily yield to people’s wishes. To follow some parts of the law, while ignoring others, would set a dangerous precedent. Additionally, marijuana legislation, although planned to be introduced in 2017, may take months, or even years, to become law. Even when that occurs, there is no guarantee that these dispensaries will be allowed to operate as they do now. Currently, there is no regulation for these dispensaries, nor any quality control checks in place, making it extremely difficult to protect marijuana users that purchase the product from these facilities.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the police were not working alongside the community. The police tried to work with dispensary owners, having issued warnings to illicit dispensaries to give them time to shut down or relocate. And yet, the majority of the stores ignored the warnings, and the police had to carry out Operation Claudia. They had no other choice.

The assertion by pro-marijuana Torontonians that closing or relocating these dispensaries would make it more difficult for those with a prescription to procure medical marijuana is ill-conceived. Moving marijuana dispensaries to industrial zones will not inconvenience those with a prescription—it is legal to mail marijuana from licensed sellers to patients, actually making it more convenient for patients if they do not want to make the trip to the industrial side of town. What this move will do is make it harder for those who do not have a prescription to obtain marijuana. It will make marijuana less appealing to youth.  It will make marijuana harder to market to vulnerable people. All of these effects are the intended purpose of the current law. People who do not need marijuana for a medical reason should not be able to get it, because marijuana is still illegal in Canada.  

It is time that Torontonians remember that laws are in place to be followed. Until these laws are changed, individuals have no right to willingly rebuff them.