In the wake of the recent raids of the Canna Clinic chain in Project Lincoln, Lift had a chance to interview Mark Pugash, Toronto Police Director of Corporate Communications, to discuss Toronto Police Services (TPS) approach to prioritization of enforcement against dispensaries.
The Project Lincoln raids took place starting on Thursday, June 22, with 80 employees arrested. On Wednesday, June 28th, TPS raided a Canna Clinic location for a second time after it reopened. Canna Clinic lists seven Toronto locations and six British Columbia locations on their website, including four in Vancouver.
TPS has been aggressively targeting Toronto dispensaries since they unleashed Project Claudia in May, 2016, with the execution of over 40 warrants following warnings from Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards Division and visits from city inspectors earlier that month.
At least six employees and owners have plead guilty so far in charges related to the Project Claudia raids. Pugash says TPS has only targeted dispensary owners and employees, not customers.
Our conversation is below.
Is Project Lincoln ongoing? There was a second raid of Canna Clinic again this week.
"I wouldn’t be confused by the project names. This all comes under the enforcement activities we’ve undertaken since May of last year and some of them have had project names, but it’s all enforcement of the law which started towards the end of May of last year with what we called Project Claudia, when we executed in excess of 40 warrants. So i wouldn’t be mislead by project names. This is all under the general heading of enforcement of the laws against illegal dispensaries."
Where does a project name come from? Why do some have project names and some don’t?
"For example, if you are targeting a group of people, the bigger ones tend to be called projects, but divisions will execute warrants against one or two dispensaries and those are smaller operations so they don’t have project names. Project names tend to be reserved for larger scale, but the thing they all share in common is enforcing the law against illegal dispensaries."
Can you talk about what goes into a project like this, how much time there was investigating prior to the actual raids?
"Well, any time you’re coordinating with the Vancouver area, then it does take some time to plan these. I’m sure you understand why the warrants have to be executed, to the extent that it’s possible, at the same time. So that requires staff and it also requires coordination, evidence gathering, warrants and other things. So that is a significant undertaking that would have taken considerable planning and preparation."
"We haven't gone after any customers. In all the warrants we’ve executed, we haven’t arrested a single customer. We are targeting the people who we believe are behind these businesses, people who are making large amounts of money selling products that apparently have no quality control." - Mark Pugash, Toronto Police Director of Corporate Communications,
"Whenever we have a project that involves jurisdictions outside Toronto, it might be in the areas just outside Toronto, it might be further afield, but it’s the same. We’re working with other agencies in a common project, we have a lot of experience doing that, in fact most of the projects that we do, almost by definition, go beyond the Toronto boundaries, so we are very experienced in working with a wide variety of agencies. We had a project a couple weeks ago which involved 19 different law enforcement agencies. This is something that goes and and has gone on in Canada for some considerable time."
Why target some dispensaries, but not all? What takes priority?
"There are a number of things. First of all, complaints and public safety concerns can certainly be factors. Also, it’s entirely possible, and again I won’t go into specifics, but it’s entirely possible that as you’re investigating one potential target, you become aware of information which could broaden out the search. It could be a number of things.
"The point I always make is, we have to allocate resources. When we have the resources, when we have the evidence, when we have the complaints, these things can come together for someone to be a target. But we also have all sorts of other priorities, so we have make decisions based on the resources we have and the potential targets.
"We have said many times that we simply don’t have the resources to, as some have suggested, to shut them all down. So we work on a prioritization basis…. but one of the things that’s always a possibility is that as officers are investigating a target that they will come across evidence that provides new direction and new avenues for further investigation."
One of the locations raided on Vancouver Island in connection to the Canna Clinic, Project Lincoln raids was in a rural, residential area that doesn’t appear to have been a retail location. Would this have been a production area?
"Well, again, I’m not going to go into specifics, but…. one of the outstanding features of the debate that has been going on several years, is no one will talk about where they get their product form. So people are left to their own imaginations to see where it comes from."
[Note: many dispensaries, Toronto or otherwise, have told the press they get their products from growers and manufacturers in British Columbia, often citing licenses under the old MMAR personal and designated grower program.]
Is this dynamic going to shift? Is Toronto going to come up with regulations for dispensaries?
"As long as the law makes dispensaries illegal, and that’s absolutely the case, in spite of those who claim that there’s a grey area. As long as the law remains in its current state, we will continue to enforce the law. I can’t speculate because I don’t think anybody can say with any certainty what the final legislative and retail framework will be. But obviously we will adapt as the law changes."
What would you say to the dispensary community in Toronto and those behind these business?
"I believe our position is quite clear: dispensaries are against the law, and as long as people are defying the law—in some cases quite unrepentantly—we will continue to enforce the law. It’s as simple as that. And when the law changes, then our approach will change.
"I don’t believe this is about getting messages out. It is as simple as the fact that the law is clear, unless you have the authority of the Canadian government, you are breaking the law if you sell cannabis. We will continue to enforce the law.
"We haven't gone after any customers. In all the warrants we’ve executed, we haven’t arrested a single customer. We are targeting the people who we believe are behind these businesses, people who are making large amounts of money selling products that apparently have no quality control and where independent labs have found rat feces, mould and insecticides. We believe there are significant dangers to public safety in a variety of ways and we will continue to enforce the law."
[Note: a Globe and Mail report from last year that released testing results from some Toronto dispensaries listed various moulds and bacterias, including Escherichia hermannii, a human pathogen which is also a fecal coliform found in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. However, 'rat feces' was not specified in this report. In addition, none of the nine samples of cannabis tested by The Globe and Mail showed any problems with pesticide levels. It's possible there are other reports TPS is referring to.]
Featured image via Toronto Police Services.