Last week, Toronto Police raided 43 dispensaries, arresting over 90 people, and handing out roughly 200 charges in a mass arrest they’re calling “Project Claudia.” While some defend the actions taken by the city’s police, referencing the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to reform any of the existing laws on cannabis sales, medical cannabis activists have expressed their outrage with the aggressive action. Under the current medical cannabis legislation, Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, storefront marijuana sales are illegal and patients are restricted to ordering their cannabis online from one of 30 licensed producers (LPs). However, many medical cannabis patients prefer to support their local dispensaries which is what has allowed a reported 126 stores to thrive.

Many activists argue that revoking access to storefront dispensaries will not direct more people towards legal cannabis, but rather that it will only drive more traffic to street dealers who sell to anyone in public spaces, regardless of age or prescription, and without any of the educational resources that the dispensaries provide. These dispensaries also offer a variety of other medical cannabis products (such as topicals, extracts, tinctures, edibles, etc.) that provide relief for an array of different conditions and cannot be accessed through LPs.

Following the raids, dispensary supporters rallied together, organizing protests as well as a march from the Toronto Police Headquarters to City Hall during the press conference held by the Toronto Police on the incident. The raids have been compared to operation SOAP, the only police action in Toronto that equates with the wide scope of Project Claudia. This attack on the Canadian LGBTQ+ community targeted bathhouses and led to the arrests of almost 300 gay men and over $35,000 in damages. This sparked outrage within the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, and they organized protests and street demonstrations that eventually became Pride Week as we know it today. In accordance with this comparison, today, June 1st, literally marks the launch of Pride Month in Toronto; happy pride!

Canada is often hailed as a progressive country, but it’s important to remember the challenges and injustices that have led to such progressive change. There was a time before women had the right to vote, before gay people had the right to get married, and there are STILL areas of Canada and aboriginal territories in which indigenous people barely have the same rights and protections as the rest of the country. Morality is not synonymous with legality and unjust laws are an undeniable global reality; Canada is no exception. That isn’t to say we aren’t progressive; for example, in Canada’s official statement at UNGASS last month, our Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, denounced reefer madness and acknowledged the harms caused by prohibition. Yet they’re still allowing these admittedly unjust laws to justify police locking nonviolent offenders and harassing sick people. An approach that is quite clearly increasing the harms of being a user of the cannabis plant.

We wouldn’t have the progressive human rights we have here today if we didn’t protest, rally, and fight for them, further progress won’t be made without more of the same. If it wasn’t for a little bit of civil disobedience here and there, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Looking to our neighbours in the south, some states seem to be going backwards and further stripping people of their rights – transgender people in particular – with these exclusionary bathroom laws. The only real way to avoid repeating these violations of fundamental human rights is to make sure we remember the mistakes of the past and learn from them

As part of an organization that focuses on policy and as someone with an interest in business, I understand the importance of public policy. But there comes a point where laws are not protecting people, but rather serve as  tools for their oppression. This is the fundamental problem with the war on drugs. I’m not defending the fact that these dispensaries are totally unregulated, evading taxes, nor am I denying that some of these dispensaries may be linked to crime; but to be fair there was a shawarma shop in my hometown that got nabbed smuggling guns and cocaine and I don’t villainize hummus because of it. Most of these issues are a direct result of prohibition. A flourishing underground criminal market and the further stigmatization of an industry with huge medical, environmental, nutritional, and economic potential is working against the best interests of the law, government, and society as a whole.

I’m excited to see what the task force tackling cannabis regulation will do, but these arrests bring up a scary reality. Government lobbying is common practice in politics and a lot of people are fighting over access to this industry, primarily the more powerful licensed producers and the dispensary owners (many of whom have been at the forefront of cannabis rights activism.) These raids send a message that our government thinks dispensaries cause more problems than they solve and that they shouldn’t have a role in establishing the new regulatory model for cannabis production and sales. I disagree. The real danger lies in regulating cannabis too strictly, and creating an oligopoly instead of creating jobs. If independent growers can not enter the regulated and legitimized cannabis market, there will be no incentive or platform for them to move away from the black market. There are so many potential jobs at stake and so much money to be put back into the economy, but in order for that to happen we need to make sure the industry is accessible; especially by the people who fought for it. People who have been victims of prohibition deserve access to the benefits legalization will bring.

Heather D'Alessio

Heather D'Alessio

An Algonquin College business student focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, Heather is fascinated by corporate social responsibility within the cannabis industry, with a passion for the relationship between food, health, and sustainability, and is an advocate for drug policy based on human rights and public health. Find out more.