Toronto City Hall’s first foray into a public discussion on regulations of cannabis dispensaries was short-lived and lively today.
At 9:45, the City of Toronto Licensing and Standards Committee was called to order. After passing the minutes, the Chair, Councillor Cesar Palacio, moved to add the letter submitted by Mayor John Tory to the agenda as item 11.7. The motion passed, but it was short lived.
Tory’s letter had proposed the Committee look into regulations to address the proliferation of dispensaries in Toronto.
Following its public release last week, members of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association (CFBA) had been calling on their members to show their support and sign up to speak to the issue at the Committee meeting. Three speakers, including a patient advocate and a dispensary owner, were able to have their names added to the agenda. However, as Letter itself was read into the agenda on the day of, speakers were not able to sign up in advance to speak to this specific point - their names could instead be found on item 11.6 relating Enforcement Tools.
A point of order was called, asking the committee to consider moving three speakers, officially on the agenda to speak to item 11.6, to item 11.7 (Mayor Tory’s Letter) - they were clearly there to speak to issue of Cannabis Dispensaries and were listed under the wrong point.
The point of order was dismissed however, as Councillor Palacio moved to defer the item in its entirety to the next meeting of the Committee to be held on June 27th. This would give the Committee adequate time to prepare the report that Mayor Tory had called on them to create. Councillor Palacio argued that any discussion held before then would do a disservice to the issue, as the Committee had not had proper time to gather information and consult with other orders of government and relevant actors in the industry.
Councillor Karygiannis objected to the order, arguing that there were speakers on the agenda who had a right to be heard by the Committee. By-law enforcement has already begun against dispensaries in the City, and their owners and advocates deserved a chance to speak. His objection was overruled and the motion to defer passed. The only thing that could have prevented the Chair from deferring the item date was if a member of the public had officially spoken on the record to the item. As no one was listed to speak specifically to item 11.7, the Chair was able to move to defer the discussion. A member of the Committee brought up the official section of the meeting bylaws outlining a member’s right to defer an item, demonstrating that it was within Councillor Palacio’s right to do so.
Members of the public who were present to support the issue were not pleased. Shouts of “Shame!” could be heard as advocates filed out of the committee room. The speakers, still hoping to be heard on item 11.6 were disappointed again when that item was also deferred to a later date.
While they would not be heard in the committee room, advocates from all sides had their chance to speak to the press as they filed out.
First to speak was Amy Brown, a dispensary owner in the city. She argued that hundreds of her clients, legitimate medicinal cannabis patients, would now be unable to access their medicine. Cancer patients, veterans suffering from PTSD, those living with chronic pain - they would be forced to return to the current MMPR regulated Licensed Producers, or worse, the black market. Brown, along with many others, argue that this system is inadequate, inefficient and unconstitutional. For her clients who do not have a fixed address or do not have a credit card, accessing their medicine through the mail can prove to be next to impossible.
Councillor Karygiannis spoke to the scrum next, clearly frustrated that people were denied their right to speak today. He argued that there is a need for real regulation to protect consumers and the public, but that closing down the debate while enforcement was taking place was unfair. The Councillor, a former federal Member of Parliament himself, called for more clarity and support from the Federal government.
Adam Saperia, Vice President of GrowWise Health, addressed the scrum next, speaking in support of the current crackdown on unlicensed dispensaries. He argued that while Licenced Producers have to meet strict health and safety standards for their product, there is currently no mechanisms in place to ensure the quality and source of the cannabis being distributed through dispensaries. As they exist in a grey-zone now, dispensaries are not currently subject to the same enforcement of health code standards, labour laws and zoning regulations, making them hazardous to public health. As he spoke, he drew the ire of many in the crowd, dispensary owners and cannabis patients alike.
Tracy Curley is a patient advocate who was slated to speak at today’s meeting. She delivered her defence of dispensaries, clearly frustrated that she was denied the opportunity to speak before the Committee. “If they are going to defer discussion on the issue, they should defer enforcement as well” she argued, saying that thousands of patients will now be without access to the medicine legally prescribed by their doctors.
It is difficult not to sympathize with many of the small business owners there today. For months, the unofficial line from the City and Toronto Police Services has been that with federal legislation imminent, they were not going to waste their time shutting down every dispensary in town, but that they would respond to complaints brought forward by members of the public.
While many of the dispensaries in town are not shining examples - opening up close to schools, not enforcing patient screening, selling products with suspect sourcing - many more are legitimate businesses. They have signed long term leases, hired staff, invested in capital and gone above and beyond to ensure that they are meeting the health and safety thresholds established in other Canadian cities. Then on less than a week's notice, warnings of potential fines up to $50,000 were being distributed to their businesses and their landlords.
The next opportunity the public will have to speak to the issue at City Hall will be on May 30th when the Toronto Board of Health considers a report submitted by Toronto Public Health on the need for an evidenced-based, public health approach to regulation. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the next meeting of the Licensing and Standards Committee on June 27th. It is sure to be another lively one.
-Reporting and images from Breanna Roycroft