A long history of Toronto dispensaries

With the recent explosion of dispensaries in Toronto, the author takes a look at the long history of those who helped pave the way.

With the increase media attention in the City of Toronto surrounding medical cannabis dispensaries, many Torontonians unfamiliar with the (medical) cannabis landscape are wondering when this ‘wild west’ started and how things got so out of control. In my area of the city— a quiet, Portuguese and Italian community— I’ve seen as many as three new dispensaries open within a 1.5 km distance on the streets of St. Clair West.

As with any social movement, the mass media has been a major player in the public debate more generally, where “various social groups, institutions and ideology struggle over the definition and construction of social reality” (Guruvitch and Levy 1985: 19). This increased spotlight is important to how dispensaries are framed for public consumption. As Spector and Kituse (1997) explain, this attention offers many “claims-makers” the opportunity to engage in a conversation about social conditions surrounding the rapid expansion of these storefront locations.

Toronto dispensaries

Most people are shocked that these storefronts have existed as early as 1996 in Toronto, albeit more underground. The selling of cannabis for medical purposes in the late nineties, at a time where medical claims were a bit hazy to the broader public and the rights of patients were still undeveloped, was no easy task. In attempting to document some of this history, coupled with the renewed interest in dispensaries, the media has always provided a space where these ‘symbolic contests’ are carried out among competing sponsors of meaning (Cox, 2006). But often times, these stories present themselves in a linear, straightforward fashion, and our city’s history is anything but.

For example, I recently read an article that spoke to the “first” dispensary in Toronto. Trying to map out a straight history in a very complex space regarding medical cannabis access and the role of dispensaries requires multiple acknowledgements to the broader landscape.

While Cannabis As a Living Medicine (CALM) did open briefly in 1996, it closed 4.5 months later before reopening sometime later in the following year. One article in the Toronto Star quoted Jim Wakeford (from the challenge Wakeford v. Canada 1998) explaining this was, in part, a result of “people’s fear of entrapment” (Freed 1998, The Toronto Star). But also around this time, the Medical Marijuana Resource Centre (MMRC), led by Warren Hitzig, Zach Naftolin and Dominic Cramer (Nance 2009, Skunk Magazine; Mernagh 2002, Now Magazine) began operating in Toronto around 1997.

(While some claim the initial business (the MMRC) included both Dominic Cramer and Neev Tapiero who eventually split ways (for example, see The London Free Press, 1998), others have said this never transpired into any real formal business relationship at this time between the two growing cannabis entrepreneurs.  Both Tapiero and Cramer are still running two of the longest standing dispensaries in the city: CALM and TCC respectively. )

To the handful of people who I spoke to who accessed here early on, this was the first place like this they had ever heard of, coming years before the historical R. v. Parker decision in 2000. At the MMRC, members could apply by completing an application through the Toronto Hemp Company (THC), and similar to how some dispensaries operate today, their application had to be filled out by a physician. Perhaps fittingly, the THC is a long-standing ‘head shop’ that has existed in Toronto for over 20 years, opened by Cramer in 1994.

Before they had an actual location, Hitzig would ride his skateboard all around the streets of Toronto, arranging meetings to deliver medication when patients would “page” him. Similar to other stories of how cannabis access unfolded in Canada, it started with delivery through more informal routes, reaching about 50 patients in 6 months.

Later, they found a small, quiet location on College Street, unknown to most around them (Mernagh 2002, Now Magazine). MMRC faced numerous challenges in its early days, including a violent robbery and an eventual police raid, leading to a Supreme Court challenge. This paved the way to what is now known as the Toronto Compassion Club (TCC), which is the longest running dispensary in Toronto, and depending on who you ask, maybe even the oldest.

The business of staking claim as the “oldest” is perhaps not the bottom line - for example, the work of Lynn (and Mike) Harichy’s Cannabis Compassion Club (CCC) is credited to have opened by 1995 in London, Ontario in some accounts (Larsen 2015), and 1998 in others (The London Free Press 1998).

Truthfully, however, the history of cities outside of Toronto is not often talked about, although the CCC served about 600 patients in these early years (The London Free Press 2003). This may have to do with the fact that it was raided and closed by police and Harichy herself passed away in 2003 after a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Although she is still credited as helping to legalize medical marijuana in Canada (she did light up on the steps of the London Police station as an act of civil disobedience in 1997), I’ve always found it odd that this is rarely acknowledged in both the literature and media.

While the activists I interviewed in Ontario often highlighted Harichy’s work, it wasn’t until Larsen’s release of his new book, Cannabis in Canada: An Illustrated History, that I’ve seen a recent head nod to this early work, particularly with all the heightened attention surrounding medical cannabis dispensaries in Ontario.

Even less frequently discussed is the group of early advocates in Southern Ontario who formed the “Medical Marijuana Buyer’s Clubs of Ontario” in the late nineties with the help of lawyer Alan Young, including roughly ten people from Mississauga, Oakville, Etobicoke, London, Toronto, Peterborough, Kitchener and Guelph. Further, lots of related disobedience was happening at the same time in Southern Ontario through other cannabis-related businesses, setting up some of the groundwork for these innovations.

The fact is that there is no linear story here to unfold. History is not easily mapped when many developments were happening around a similar time as ideas were spreading across Canada and the US. Rather, we should consume the information with more flexibility, highlighting the socially negotiated and constructed nature of knowledge in any social movement more generally.

Featured image via torontohemp.com


Cox, R. (2006). Environmental communication and the public sphere. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Freed, D.A. (1998, February 14). “Medical Pot Users to Form Buyer Network”. The Toronto Star. A26.

Gurevitch, M., and Levy, M. R. (1985). Mass Communication Review Yearbook, Vol. 5. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Larson, D. (2015). Cannabis in Canada: An Illustrated History. Vancouver, B.C: Hairy Pothead Books.

Mernagh, M. (2002). “Reefer Sadness”. Now Magazine. Retrieved online at https://nowtoronto.com/news/features/reefer-sadness/.

Nance, C. (2009). “Dom Cramer: The Business of Compassion”. Skunk Magazine. Retrieved online at http://skunkmagazine.com/dom-kramer-the-business-of-compassion/

Spector, M., and Kitsuse, J. (1977). Constructing Social Problems. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

The London Free Press. (1998, February 14). “Pot “Club” to Open Here”. The London Free Press. Retrieved online from http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v98/n103/a07.html

The London Free Press. (2003, December 29). “Crusader for Pot Dies After MS Fight” The London Free Press. Retrieved online from http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v03/n2000/a03.html?2399.

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