Police departments across Canada are fully prepared for marijuana legalization on Wednesday, but there won’t be swift crackdowns on illegal pot shops or craft cannabis growers, says the head of the country’s police chiefs.
Vancouver Chief Const. Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he hasn’t heard of any police departments planning raids of unlicensed dispensaries the day pot becomes legal.
“I find it highly unlikely that anybody is going to be doing a big crackdown on Day 1,” he said at a news conference Monday.
“Oct. 17 is going to come and then Oct. 18 and then Oct. 19, and you’re probably not going to see a whole big change with regard to what the police are doing or what anybody else is doing.”
Police have faced questions about their readiness for this week’s historic change in law. Palmer acknowledged Canadians are entering “uncharted waters,” but noted officers have been policing drug-impaired drivers and illicit grow-ops for years.
“I’m here to tell Canadians that the police are ready,” he said.
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Enforcement against unlicensed marijuana stores will primarily fall to provinces, which are using inspectors to levy fines as they do with illegal liquor sellers. However, Palmer says police and city officials will work with provinces on the issue.
Provinces are also responsible for approving retail licences and their speed at doing so varies. Alberta will have 17 licensed stores selling weed on Wednesday, while B.C. will only have one and Ontario will have none.
Dozens of illegal pot stores have operated for years in Vancouver, Victoria and other municipalities in B.C. Many are planning to scale back because they don’t want to jeopardize their chances of getting a provincial licence, Palmer said.
Vancouver marijuana retailer Eggs Canna has slashed prices by 10 to 50 per cent to sell off its illegal stock. Its four stores will close at the end of the day Wednesday and won’t reopen until they hold licences, said Stefana Herman, a member of the chain’s corporate team.
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“We are trying to actually do this legally, cleanly and correctly,” she said.
“I appreciate what the police chiefs are saying and I know that there are a lot of dispensaries in the city that are going to continue to actually stay open … without the appropriate business licences, but nobody else in the city gets to run that way.”
Vancouver police have long chosen to avoid cracking down on illegal dispensaries unless they are suspected of organized crime connections or selling to minors. This is in contrast with Toronto police, which carried out sweeping raids of pot shops in 2016.
Dispensaries found more underground ways to operate in Toronto and many accept that they will have to close until spring when Ontario launches its licence application portal, said Ian Dawkins, president of the Canadian Commerce Association of Canada.
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But in B.C., retail outlets are well-known in their communities and serve loyal customers who come in regularly, he said.
“You’re talking about shutting down a cash-flowing, operating business with maybe a dozen employees. It’s a whole different ball of wax,” he said. “Should people close their doors? If they do, what if that puts them out of business?”
Palmer said he’s not concerned about Canadians losing access to cannabis. Statistics Canada found 16 per cent of Canadians, or 4.6 million people, have consumed marijuana in the last three months, the chief noted.
“So with millions of Canadians using an illicit drug supply for decades and decades in our country, when the law changes on the 17th you’re not going to see a big change overnight.”
Some police agencies, including Vancouver and Ottawa, have decided against using the federally approved Drager DrugTest 5000 roadside device that tests saliva for the presence of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
But Palmer said there are 13,000 officers trained in standard field sobriety testing in Canada and that number is expected to rise to 20,000 in the next several years. In addition, there are 833 certified drug recognition experts and 500 more are expected to be trained in the coming years.
He added police likely won’t focus on shutting down boutique grow-ops that are waiting for federal micro-cultivator licences, and instead will prioritize shutting down growers with alleged gang connections.
Organized crime continues to be heavily involved in the whole drug market, including marijuana, he said.
“We’re hoping that with the new laws and regulations that they will be able to eliminate them significantly.”
The Canadian Press