Meet “P.” He uses cannabis to help control a chronic pain condition. P started out as a recreational user, going from “picking up dime bags in front of the Eaton Centre” in the 1990s to being a “dabbing dad with a full-time job as a TDSB teacher.”
When dispensaries began opening across Toronto, he checked them out. “The ability to see the bud was really good, in terms of being able to see a wide variety of flower,” he says.
Increased police attention to Toronto’s dispensaries since last May’s city-wide raids has left P feeling less confident about purchasing his cannabis at storefront locations.
“I don’t want to go to the dispensaries right now because of all the [uncertainty],” he says. He fears that buying marijuana from a storefront comes with a high degree of exposure. “When you’re possessing cannabis outside your home, you could conceivably have someone rob you or a police officer accost you.”
Arrests of dispensary owners have continued, with search warrants executed at more than half a dozen marijuana dispensaries in the last month alone. Many are wondering where to get their supply, and P has switched to online purchasing.
In fact, a number of Toronto dispensaries closed by the raids continue to operate online, a mode ignored by law enforcement so far.
BC Cannamed moved its entire operation online following its decision to close two Toronto locations just before the police raids; its online delivery system was operational by June 20.
WeLeaf and Escarpment Wellness have also begun offering online delivery in recent months, mailing cannabis across the GTA and the country.
NOW spoke with one dispensary owner who moved online after initial warnings from Toronto police and has since seen an increase in business.
The police raids “definitely helped online sales for everyone,” he says.
Even though he’d already closed his dispensary, police smashed his storefront window and broke down a door, only to find a vacant office. Given his online success, though, he’s happy he invested in the storefront, albeit briefly: “It was great for advertising.”
Going online affords him a sense of security, he says. “I don’t know if [Toronto police are] too interested in it, to be honest,” he says, “maybe because it’s not exactly in the public eye. The storefronts don’t require much investigation [to bust], whereas the online ones do.”
Online dispensaries do feel they’re safe from law enforcement. “Although these establishments are not yet considered legal,” say the owners of PotCargo.com, “the Canadian government has decided to let them operate in peace.”
BudBuddy.biz, one of Canada’s first online dispensaries, assures its customers that while there is an inherent risk, “so far, Canadian police have had higher priorities than going after us.”
Online dispensaries also seem to have the implicit blessing of the postal service. Many offer express shipping, and their entire business relies on Canada Post.
Mail-order pot isn’t new in Canada. For years websites have offered marijuana by mail, but today’s online dispensaries are miles ahead of predecessors that would only accept cash sent by snail mail.
Websites like Treemo.ca and PotCargo.com have a sleek design complete with direct online purchasing, customer service departments and membership options. They hold themselves to a higher standard than that of the common dealer. Many require age verification (including an uploaded copy of your government-issued ID) and varying levels of medical documentation, ranging from a full Marihuana For Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) prescription to simple prescription as proof of an ailment.
For police, enforcing the law in the case of online providers can be difficult. While it’s easy to identify bricks-and-mortar dispensaries, those operating online often take measures to avoid detection and protect their customers.
“There is nothing written on the outside of the envelope that would advertise that you are taking medical marijuana,” reads the website for Weeds Glass and Gifts, a Vancouver-based dispensary chain that was one of the first to expand into Toronto last fall. “So no nosey neighbours would think it’s anything other than a regular package from the post office.”
Even if a package is seized, it’s sometimes hard for police to trace it to a source. Maryjane Mail, one of the first online marijuana providers in Canada, explains on its website: “We use various fake return addresses, and our packages blend in with all the other mail,” a tactic that’s proven successful. “We have been operating for a few years,” it says, “and have never once had a client get arrested or any police problems.”
In August 2015, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, in response to growing awareness of the use of the postal service to ship contraband (including marijuana), passed a resolution calling for increased power to seize and search in-transit mail.
“Contraband being moved through the mail system may not be acted upon by police until it is successfully delivered,” they wrote. “This forces law enforcement to find alternative ways to work within or around the Canada Post system and legislative framework in order to apprehend criminals who use the postal system as a way to move various forms of contraband.” No legislative changes have been made, though, so online dispensaries are still able to use the post relatively freely.
The shift online has been popular with customers, too.
P says online sources offer a number of advantages over their storefront counterparts, including the ease of ordering from the safety of home.
Another plus is anonymity. Even unlicensed dispensaries collect and store a lot of personal and medical information about their customers in databases.
“It’s hard going into these dispensaries and having this invasion over and over again,” says P. “Especially when you have this feeling that the dispensary itself might get raided.”
P is cynical about the crackdown and suggests that the country’s licensed producers are the intended beneficiaries. But despite efforts to funnel control of the market to government-authorized producers, the unregulated marijuana market continues to expand.
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