Toronto dispensary licensing meeting leaves some feeling left out

Council expected to revisit the issue in October after a staff report on marijuana dispensary regulations can be prepared.

Days after the latest Project Claudia sweep which targeted four Toronto dispensaries, a discussion around regulating medical cannabis dispensaries was scheduled for an early morning Licensing and Standards Committee meeting. Today’s meeting drew a diverse crowd of people - including activists from out west including both Don Briere (Weeds), and Marc Emery (Cannabis Culture), as well as many Toronto activists and business owners, such as Tracy Curly, Amy Brown, Lisa Campbell, and Abi Roach. Others had also registered to speak to the committee today, a list which also includes a few community members, researchers and physicians.

The Licensing and Standards Committee is responsible for bylaw administration and  enforcement in the City of Toronto. Simply put, any attempt to regulate dispensaries would need to be approved or recommended here first before being brought to the entire council. It is made up of six councilors (almost all men) including Councillor Cesar Palacio (Chair), Councillor Jim Karygiannis (Vice Chair), Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti and Councillor Josh Matlow.

Before the meeting, the Toronto Dispensary Coalition had organized a press conference outside the meeting room in City Hall. Headed with support from Councillor Jim Karygiannis, the speakers included Michael McLellan, Volunteer Representative of the TDC, Kevin Hall from Chronic Pain Toronto, and a patient who spoke to how the ongoing raids were affecting her access, noting "I wouldn't have made it here today if it wasn't for medical cannabis."

The focus was on opening the dialogue with the City of Toronto around dispensary regulation, and encouraged a full stop to the ongoing raids in the City. Karygiannis called the raids a waste of city resources, while McLellan acknowledged “that some dispensaries don’t meet all of the expectations of the patient community or their neighbours." He explained that, "sensible regulations would help to bring all dispensaries up to the standards that Torontonians expect".

Questions from the press revolved around what a future legalization model could look like with dispensaries. One reporter asked what their thoughts were on the LCBO model favoured by Premier Wynne. Perhaps most interesting was when a woman in a white blazer asked her question from behind the camera with some authority.

For Toronto, it sounded like the Police will continue to close and raid dispensaries, despite many of them opening up days after being raided and arrested. The most concerning part is the continued criminalization of many of these front line dispensers. Don’t forget that many of them are staffed by young Torontonians who will face trafficking charges, likely with little to no support.

You could see, almost immediately, people turning around and wondering which media outlet she represented. "I'm here just representing myself and my community in Forest Hill," she said, noting that four dispensaries had opened up in close proximity to one another in her neighbourhood. She asked why the speakers seemed to be relying on discourse around availability, "when I know there are over 30 licensed companies where people can access, why are you saying it's about access?" Kevin Hall responded that 'dignified' access includes affordability, but the cameras immediately turned their focus to this woman as a small commotion rippled through the halls. She also questioned why pharmacies are not the ones dispensing cannabis on site, like other medications. After the press conference, she reaffirmed that she supported medical cannabis access, while quite a few people approached her to figure out who she was exactly. I didn't really hear a concrete answer to her question,  but she (rightfully) noted that everyone seemed to be upset by her questioning.

The last time this was on the agenda, it was deferred. And again, as dispensaries were the first agenda item, a motion was tabled to defer this conversation until October 2016. The motion explained: 

"In anticipation of the changes to the MMPR, it is recommended that Municipal Licensing and Standards (ML&S) report to Licensing and Standards Committee on October 25, 2016 with an updated review of the legislative landscape pending the revised federal regulation concerning medical marihuana, updated research into the outcomes of municipal regulations enacted in other jurisdictions, and an analysis of appropriate regulatory options, if any."

All but one Councillor agreed to move forward with this motion. The crowd was visibly upset, as one local business owner stood up to shout, "While all you people just sit back... I have people calling me every day asking where they are going to get the oils and edibles they need for their conditions. People are dying". I heard one Councillor muffle something about the MMPR regulations and the impending Allard decision, while someone else mentioned legalization and guidance from “the feds”. Tracy Curley approached the centre desk and spoke directly to all six councillors:

"The federal program for access has been proven unconstitutional eleven times, sir: there are barriers to access... which is why dispensaries have been here in the City of Toronto for almost two decades. What has happened here is the fault of the city for failing to regulate dispensaries over a year ago when Vancouver started. We should have started to regulate then...the failures that have happened now... are on the city and municipal officials".

Since technically this part of the meeting was over before it even began, a press conference resumed outside with lots of emotions running through the room. Being denied the chance to speak to the city in an official capacity, again, must certainly be frustrating for many. On the other hand, it would be helpful to have a clearer picture of the end goal.

For example, are we talking about medical cannabis dispensaries and the amendments we are anticipating from the Allard decision, or are we talking about personal use and legalization frameworks? I didn't get the sense the Councillors really knew what they were waiting on either. While their official recommendation talks about Allard in light of legislative changes due in August, the actual conversation focused a lot on legalization - and so did the press. So once again, it sounds like medical was getting buried in a larger conversation about legalization.

I have no problem with retail cannabis shops for personal use: it’s clear that Canadians want access to look like this under a regulated regime. But, the reliance on the medical discourse in this debate, at times, feels disingenuous. Without discounting that most dispensaries are/were also serving people with medical needs as well, this blurred boundary between medical and personal use seems to really fog up the dispensary conversation. Also, the biggest criticisms around dispensaries still have not been addressed: transparency of supply and testing.

In order to move forward, dispensaries need an attainable strategy to address these concerns. It could look like wholesale from Licensed Producers, or mandating the testing of products by some of the newer and more accessible testing labs as part of what sets them apart from the others (some are certainly doing the latter).

One can appreciate the fact that two of Toronto's newest dispensaries, Cannabis Culture franchises from BC, have not relied on this medical discourse, and serve everyone over the age of 19. There's something refreshing about that, because the end goal seems clear: inclusion in a legalized market for personal use. There's no question as to whether they're looking for amendments to the MMPR to include third party dispensing, or if it's more centered on participating in a legalized market.

I believe there's benefit to flushing goals out clearly, moving forward. To be fair, LPs are positioning themselves at the forefront of a legalized market, so this boundary crossing is happening at all corners of the industry. But, at the same time, they’ve also met an overly high threshold of standards and testing, and are using this as a point of departure.

For Toronto, it sounded like the Police will continue to close and raid dispensaries, despite many of them opening up days after being raided and arrested. The most concerning part is the continued criminalization of many of these front line dispensers. Don’t forget that many of them are staffed by young Torontonians who will face trafficking charges, likely with little to no support.

If there’s anything we can extract from this ongoing process that can help to inform future legalization efforts it is that denying people the opportunity to participate in the political process by providing input and sharing experience, as well as the creation of more top-down policy that misses everyday realities, will not lead to sound policy. And at the same time, we can also appreciate that the inclusion of diverse voices will take time.

And if you want more patient Canadians, simply stop arresting people until you figure it out.

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