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Troubles in Toronto: Project Claudia

Tracy Lamourie

It’s becoming a little exhausting being a cannabis activist in Ontario. In the time it takes to smoke a pin joint in a crowd, it seems the entire landscape has changed…and before you even
have time to do a dab, it’s changed again.

Originally I had planned to use this space only to update Cannabis Digest readers on months of battle by movement leaders, canna business people, patients, and canna consumers to save our Ontario vapor lounges in advance of Bill 45 …See the previous issue of Cannabis Digest for details on the Wynne government’s inclusion of cannabis in the Smoke Free Ontario act, and the extremely disturbing effects that is having on patient rights to medicate…in some cases even in their own homes (if they live in public housing or if they ever need the services of a PSW or home care worker.) This bill is expected to close the doors of every Ontario vapor lounge, and have a chilling effect on vendors, who would no longer be allowed to display, demonstrate, recommend, or even answer customer questions about vaporizers and how to use them.

Ontario Conservative leader John Tory speaks to media outside his Lindsay Ont., campaign office on the day of a byelection in the Haliburton Kawartha Lakes Brock riding, Thursday, March 5, 2009. Tory is entering the race to become Toronto's next mayor. The former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party confirmed his candidacy Sunday, ending months of speculation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Redman
(Image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Redman)

We’ll get back to where we are in that important battle. But first, let me tell you what happened in the middle of that fight. For the past two decades Toronto has been a city with fewer than a dozen cannabis dispensaries, operating quietly. But after Toronto’s mayor John Tory did several media interviews lamenting the proliferation of new cannabis dispensaries suddenly popping up in every neighborhood, everything changed. It happened just days after cannabusiness owners, patients, and other stakeholders gathered to be heard via legitimate channels. They were silenced via a bureaucratic loophole that had citizen onlookers, there for other business, shocked at how the activists’ voices were unheard.

Toronto area canna businesses were attacked in a mass police raid that targeted masses of shops across the city over the noon hour one day at the end of May. It was dubbed “Project Claudia” by the police. No one can complain that the raids were completely unexpected. The Toronto Police Service and the Municipal Licensing Department had both sent out letters to the businesses in question – and their landlords – in the preceding days. But they were certainly irresponsible, expensive, and heavy handed. The arrests were traumatizing for many of the patients and hourly wage employees caught up in them. Reports are that police came in with guns drawn, and handcuffed even a wheelchair bound patient at one dispensary, and smashed the glass doors leaving broken glass shattered on the sidewalk, putting pets and passersby at risk for hours at another dispensary. This is strange behavior for an action the police chief describes as “low key,” and excuses as ‘in the interest of public health.’ And as mainstream media across the political spectrum, including the ultraconservative Toronto Sun, pointed out, this was a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ money–estimated between 1 and 2 million dollars, without counting the cost to landlords and business owners, lawsuits, and so many related future costs. This was a regressive, reactionary display of modern reefer madness,’’ this time motivated by money and monopoly. And it has not been a popular move. It’s not just patients & potheads who are upset. Even the conservative leaning Toronto Taxpayers’ Coalition put out a strongly worded press release condemning the raids, and at last count an online poll the Sun ran had more than 75% of respondents saying they did not support the “Project Claudia” crackdown.

marijuana_raids_20160527_topixAt a press conference held by Toronto Police the morning after the busts, as activists convened both inside and outside Police Headquarters, Chief Saunders attempted to justify the raids. Saunders replaced ex chief Bill Blair who was Toronto’s top cop until he left to become an MP and member of the new Liberal government’s task force on legalization. It was clear that Saunders was completely unprepared for the challenges of activists. He kept repeating his talking points, but he had no understanding of the Allard decision, issues patients have with accessing good medicine in the strains that they need at the time that they need it via the current licensed producer system. You almost felt sorry for him. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights, and had to admit under questioning that, with over 100 dispensaries and compassion clubs operating in the city for several months, there had in fact been no reports of any health issues at all, around either medibles or any other dispensary product.

On the Monday following the raids, arrestees, activists, and their advocates gathered at City Hall to protest Project Claudia, while Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy called on the federal government to give municipalities some guidelines in dealing with cannabis as we await the promised legalization. Several more demonstrations are planned over the coming weeks, and it is hoped that the cannabis enthusiasts who participate in 420 celebrations every year will come out in force to support our spaces. As Sean Brady said, “you were there for the glory…will you be there for the fight?”

Meanwhile, business at the dispensaries that were not hit in the busts remains brisk. One patient-focused centre, True Compassion Toronto, is open and serving members only. In the days following the crackdown, they reported an extremely busy week, with desperate patients phoning for information and looking for alternatives to access their medicine after so many in the city were put out of business. Many have vowed to reopen. Rick Vrecic, a patient volunteer and co founder of the facility said he understood the risks, but he also said: “We here at TCT feel that providing our members safe dignified access is paramount in these troubling times. Therefore as long as we are able, we will be open to serve you our members.”

Activists are calling Project Claudia, Project Fraudia…it’s a clever turn of phrase…but just who is “Claudia” anyway? And why was the massive bust of pot shops in Canada’s largest city named after her? Well…that’s an interesting question. The police say they took it from the name of a hurricane. But the powers that be might have accidentally sent out a message we should all consider. In mythology, Claudia was the innocent who protected a member of the nobility from the anger of a crowd. In real life, “Claudia” will not be able to protect the power elite from the anger of the people demanding justice, and the right to use this healing plant. Some of the previously hit dispensaries are reopening, and others remain untouched. Even as rumours of a second cycle of raids circulated in the cannabiz community, new dispensaries are opening across Ontario, and a well known Vancouver based brand opened two locations in Toronto the day after the raids, proudly announcing that not only would they be dispensing cannabis…but that they would sell to anyone over the age of 19, no medical need required.

cannabuis-culture-raidCannabis Culture Manager Erin Goodwin, a long time Toronto cannabis activist, previously known for her work with Toronto’s 420 celebrations, Vapor Central, and the firebrand HashMob, told Cannabis Digest : “Our aim is to not discriminate between the healthy and sick, we do not want to invade our clients’ privacy by inquiring their reason for using, as long as they are an adult we feel they should have safe access. While some feel we should wait for proper legislation it is important that our experienced opinions to be taken into account, and the only way to get our voices heard is to openly and peacefully break these unjust laws.”

Supporters and media across the city waited with bated breath to see how police might respond. The answer came nearly a month to the day after the first raids, and just days after a passionate group of canna patients, business owners, and other advocates gathered to show their support for community compassion clubs and dispensaries, and protest the raids and shameful waste of police resources. Police raided the Queen St West Cannabis Culture and three Cannawide locations across the city, arresting more than 20 people including Erin Goodwin, and Peter Melanson. Melanson is well known to the canna community as a previous owner of one of Hamilton’s first dispensaries, and of Melanheadz lounges, first in Hamilton, and later in Toronto. More recently he worked with the Goodwins at Goodweeds before its unexpected closing. He has now joined them as an employee at the Cannabis Culture that Erin was managing. A third female CC employee who was arrested, it is reported, had only been working at the dispensary for two hours. She was shocked to be put in handcuffs on her first day.

It seems the police wanted to make a point. Unlike the previous wave of arrests, this one came with no special accommodations for arrestees to be immediately released. Both Erin and Pete had to spend a night in jail before attending court in the morning. Unbowed, and as determined as ever to force change, Erin (whose court conditions say she can’t be at the Queen St West location) greeted customers with a smile and several strains of bud at the chain’s Queen St East location. She was joined by the corporate owner who flew into town the day after the raid, and spent some time over the next couple of days serving at the counter, and taking the opportunity to speak to the media. One bright moment shone through all the anger about the raid. That was the moment when a photo of Erin in custody circulated. The canna community expressed pride that instead of doing the shamed head down perp walk…Erin looked radiant and confident being led away from the dispensary to face the law, not only smiling widely at the cameras but flashing a peace sign. Most of us first saw the image when Chris Goodwin shared it with the hashtag #proudhusband … She made us all proud with that single image; it said so much.

Activists are calling for all charges against ALL dispensary employees to be dropped–those whose names and faces we know and those less familiar young people; hourly wage workers, many patients themselves who were also arrested. But so far TPS is sticking to their guns, threatening further arrests and saying they expect charges to stick. We’re hoping the courts feel differently.

vc4Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on our vapor lounges. Just as Ontario patients, canna consumers, activists, advocates and business owners tried to catch their breath, the Members of Provincial Parliament gathered to vote on Bill 178,an amendment to Bill 45, that would have exempted cannabis patients, their homes and safe spaces from legislation originally meant to address e-cigarettes and the vaping of nicotine. As ridiculous as it is to equate medicine and medical devices with tobacco and nicotine, cannabis advocates in Ontario are reeling from the results of that vote. In a final count, unbelievable to many–78 for; 1 against–it effectively closed our social spaces and severely encroached on a patient’s right to medicate even in some private homes. This is inexcusable.

In spite of these difficulties, as is the case with dispensaries, new vapor lounges owners are determined to open their doors and provide safe inhalation spaces even in communities where they have been unknown to date. As I mentioned in my previous article on the topic, in the conservative SW Ontario community of Chatham, Ontario (between London and Windsor) business partners Michael Kaer and Jefferey Allen have been working toward the opening of their long awaited lounge, The Other Side, for the local cannabis community, which until now has never had a social space in which to gather. When asked his thoughts about the coming legislations, Kaer said : “We are opening regardless, we are going to open as a coffee house if we have to, until we can force change in the law. We need safe inhalation spaces.”

With all this happening, and with the promise of legalization, we’re at the cusp of a new reality – and we have to be a part of shaping it!

We’re all looking up at the clock on Parliament Hill. The big hand is on the four…and – oh look! The little hand is on the four, too. Because it’s 2016.

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