While illegal storefront dispensaries, once abundant in the city, finally seem to be going up in smoke, black market cannabis sales have grown like weeds online.
And untangling the web of illegal cannabis sales on the internet may prove to be a herculean task — too big for any one police agency to tackle.
“Toronto Police Service investigators are reviewing internally, and the Service continues to consult with our partners in MLS (Municipal Licensing & Standards) and the Ministry of Community Safety to determine the best approaches to the various channels through which cannabis is being illegally distributed,” spokesman Allison Sparkes told the Sun recently.
“The question of illegal online sales would have to involve multiple law enforcement agencies, at a minimum, as it would be beyond the capacity of any one police organization to control the internet sales environment,” she said. “We obviously encourage the public to buy legally and to use the government’s website for cannabis.”
Since Project Claudia in May 2016, Toronto cops have spent more than three years playing whack-a-mole with illegal pot shops — repeatedly raiding dispensaries, seizing product and cash, laying charges and issuing fines — shutting the storefronts down only to see them, more often than not, reopen a day later.
But the uphill battle has seen the number illegal dispensaries dwindle dramatically. Of the more than 90 shops in the city prior to cannabis legalization last fall, only an estimated 10 or so remain.
However, many involved in the black market have simply gone virtual, ditching their storefronts and moving their operations online, with some boasting delivery in under two hours.
A former dispensary owner, who was forced out of business by repeated police raids and asked not to be named, is convinced most cannabis users are still buying their supply via the black market — even if that means shopping online, where illegal pot sales have become so rampant he doubts it can be policed.
“Are cops going to start going after people selling pot online instead of tracking down pedophiles and fraudsters?” he said.
He believes people have remained loyal to “their guy” in the wake of legalization because of the ability to buy edibles — still illegal in Ontario — the variety of strains offered, price and quality.
You can go to one of the province’s OCS (Ontario Cannabis Store) locations, or to one of the five private shops in Toronto lucky enough to have won the lottery for the handful of licences the government has issued, and pay $20 for a gram of its best pot, he said, explaining the licensed private pot shops sell the exact same product as OCS.
“Or you can buy a gram of weed through the black market for $15 that will blow that stuff away.”
Although currently out of the business, he’d set up shop again if the government ever loosens licensing restrictions.
“There just comes a time when you have to throw in the towel,” he said, explaining he walked away from the pot game after spending upwards of $200,000 on fines and legal fees, defending himself and those who worked for him to ensure they did not end up with criminal records.
The irony, he said, is that his former employees now all work in the legal industry thanks to the training and experience he provided.
He believes countless millions in tax revenue are being lost because of the province’s mishandling of pot shop licensing.
And shutting down illegal dispensaries has also been costly.
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‘DEFIANT’ ILLEGAL POT SHOP STILL ROLLING
One of the federal government’s biggest selling points for legalization has been the elimination of the black market but efforts so far have only emboldened many people involved in illegal cannabis sales — whether online or through unlicensed storefronts.
Recently, cops have been trying in vain to shut down four illegal CAFE locations by sealing off the shops with stacks of 4,000 pound concrete blocks.
One CAFE shop on Harbord St., just west of Spadina Ave., used a forklift to remove some of the massive blocks and managed to reopen briefly before cops returned and re-stacked the barricade.
But over the last week, staff armed with debit machines have set up chairs and large umbrellas out front of the shop and continued to sell cannabis from the street.
A former pot shop operator, who spoke to the Sun on the condition he remain anonymous, said he’s not surprised CAFE is doing everything it can to stay open.
“A busy shop can bring in $50,000 a day,” he said. “That’s like $1.5 million a month.”
“The only way to shut down that operation is to keep arresting everybody who is there, the staff and customers,” he added.
Speaking on CBC Radio on Friday, Chief Mark Saunders was adamant it’s only a matter of time until the few remaining illegal storefront dispensaries are shut down.
“We’re at an 87% success rate with the illegal dispensaries so far,” he said. “So figuring out how to alter the playbook for those who are extremely defiant obviously will be the next progressive step.”
“Toronto Police has a very strong track record of enforcement, in getting it right, and this is just one of those cases where we obviously will get it right at some point in time,” Saunders added.
Cops have laid charges and issued fines against CAFE staff but have so far not been charging those buying pot illegally — purchases they have repeatedly said supports organized crime.
But Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack wonders if it’s time to reconsider that stance.
“Maybe we need to start enforcing the law against those buying cannabis illegally as well,” he said, pointing out police “wouldn’t only deal with people selling bootleg liquor and ignore those who are drinking illegal liquor out on the street.”
McCormack said efforts to shut down storefront dispensaries have been a drain on the service’s resources.
“These people are totally disregarding the law, calculating the profit against committing a criminal act,” he said. “The profit margins are just so high that they are choosing to flout the law.”
“It’s ridiculous,” McCormack added.
He believes the feds rolled out legalization too hastily and “it really hasn’t been all that well thought out.”
“Our people are frustrated,” McCormack said. “And I think it’s up to the province now to tighten up the legislation.”
— Chris Doucette