OPINION: Ontario needs to do more to stop illegal cannabis stores

It is unfair to legitimate shopkeepers to allow illegal pharmacies to operate with impunity

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It’s 8 p.m. and the police show up outside an illegal cannabis dispensary in the Cooksville neighborhood of Mississauga.

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With a search warrant in hand, they press charges and seize cash and unregulated cannabis. They then lock the building with a padlock and put a note on the front door prohibiting entry until the charges are heard in court. A good evening done.

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Lo and behold, later in the evening the pharmacy is back in operation. To prosecute such flouting of the law, officers must catch the perpetrators in the act of re-entering and simply do not have the resources for 24-hour surveillance. So much for enforcement.

To make matters worse, once the pharmacy reopens, police will have to repeat the process of obtaining a search warrant, which can take several days or weeks. Only when they have the new arrest warrant in their hands can they return. In the case of this particular pharmacy, this process was repeated eight times over a period of five years.

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Illegal cannabis dispensaries and delivery services continue to exist throughout Ontario. These criminal activities pose a public health hazard because they sell unregulated and untested cannabis, which a recent study commissioned by the Ontario Provincial Police found is often contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Additionally, many of these illegal businesses have been shown to sell products in packaging that mimics popular candy and snack brands, in a clear attempt to appeal to children. Finally, it has been proven that many of these illegal products are sold in far higher concentrations than licensed cannabis stores are allowed to sell.

The Mississauga City Council recently voted to allow the sale of legal and regulated cannabis to drive out these illegal operators. But legal and responsible cannabis companies will not be able to achieve this quickly without effective enforcement through our criminal justice system. Allowing illegal dispensaries to operate with impunity is unfair to the legal cannabis shopkeepers who must abide by the rules and compete with criminal elements who pay no taxes and report to no regulatory agency.

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So what needs to change?

First we must strengthen our courts. The maximum fine for such offenses is $200,000 — a drop in the bucket considering some of these operations bring in tens of thousands of dollars a day. At the very least, fines must be significantly increased and repeat offenders should be punished with jail.

In 2019, the provincial government committed $40 million over two years to help municipalities address the implementation costs of recreational cannabis legalization, including funding specialized law enforcement agencies to target illegal dispensaries and delivery services. This funding should be reintroduced and made available to communities like Mississauga that have recently made the decision to legal cannabis sales.

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The province should also consider increasing funding for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Joint Forces Cannabis Enforcement Team. This team has been successful in seizing illegal cannabis, but their efforts to date have only achieved a small disruption to a very large problem.

Ontario should also consider what additional measures can be taken to enable licensed cannabis retailers to compete with illegal dispensaries. While the state-owned Ontario Cannabis Store recently announced a modest reduction in the wholesale markup it charges licensed cannabis producers, further action is needed to ensure the legal market can compete on price while maintaining reasonable margins.

Finally, as part of the ongoing legal review of the Cannabis Act, the federal government must consider how to empower legal cannabis producers and dealers, provide additional resources to the criminal justice system to effectively combat illegal dispensaries and growers, and reduce the judicial burden of bureaucracy that leads to a dispensary being closed remains open despite eight police raids in five years.

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Only through such a concerted and multi-pronged approach can we protect our children and communities from the dangers of illegal, untested and unregulated cannabis.

— Dipika Damerla is a city councilwoman representing Mississauga’s District 7. She previously served as Ontario Deputy Minister of Health and Long-Term Care and Minister of Senior Citizens’ Affairs.

– Omar Khan is Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer for High Tide Inc., owner of Canada’s largest non-franchise cannabis retail chain, Canna Cabana. He was previously Chief of Staff to the Ontario Minister of Health and Long-Term Care and Senior Advisor to the Ontario Attorney General.


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https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-ontario-needs-to-do-more-to-stop-illegal-pot-shops OPINION: Ontario needs to do more to stop illegal cannabis stores


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