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Toronto leads Canada marijuana
The canopy of a marijuana crop is seen at Alternative Solutions, a DC area medical marijuana producer, April 20, 2016 in Washington, DC.
(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Toronto has unseated Vancouver as Canada’s de facto cannabis capital due to an ongoing explosion in illegal dispensaries, while officials begin shutting down dozens of shops in the West Coast city to enforce a landmark new bylaw.

The owner of a cannabis consulting firm who has been tracking the meteoric growth of the illicit sector following last fall’s election win by the federal Liberals, who have promised to legalize the drug, says Toronto’s wide-open market is now supporting more than 100 pot shops.

This expansion comes as Vancouver has shut down 22 dispensaries out of its roughly 100 locations in the past week, and city staff say they will continue their crackdown over the coming weeks. About two dozen are expected to remain open while they clear regulatory hurdles to obtain a coveted new class of business licence.

Harrison Jordan, a second-year student at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School and owner of The Big Toke, said he has mapped 114 dispensaries now operating – or opening very soon – across a region where only a handful of tucked-away businesses were operating a year ago.

Newer, more brazen, storefronts are increasingly branching out into quiet residential neighbourhoods, but most, he said, are clustered into four main areas: The Danforth, The Junction, Queen Street West and their original hub of Kensington Market. (He has included eight locations in the suburban areas of Etobicoke, Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Scarborough and Vaughan.)

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“In the next month or two, we might have as many dispensaries as Pizza Pizzas in Toronto,” said Mr. Jordan, who built his database by cross-referencing the dispensaries’ own websites with various social media platforms and several online listing services. This is the most comprehensive tally to date of Toronto’s shops, which, like all dispensaries, procure and sell their products outside of the federal government’s mail-order medical marijuana system.

Adam Blender, director at the Vancouver-based SWED Society chain of dispensaries, said his first Toronto franchise opened in February after neighbours reacted positively to the prospect of a dispensary moving in.

“We were excited for the potential market in Toronto ever since we opened our Vancouver location last year,” he said in an e-mail.

SWED, which stands for Smoke Weed Every Day, now has six other Toronto-area stores open or coming soon.

When Vancouver’s boom hit 100 dispensaries early last year, an alarmed city council passed a bylaw designed to both regulate them and reduce their overall numbers. Staff announced that 22 had shut down before bylaw officers canvassed the city last weekend and 46 shops had been ordered to close while they appeal their licence rejections.

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Such regulation is unlikely to happen any time soon further east.

Toronto Mayor John Tory expressed exasperation last month at the ongoing boom, but said he is awaiting direction from Ottawa on how to proceed before federal legislation is introduced next spring legalizing marijuana. (Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has advocated for government-owned liquor stores to handle the eventual face-to-face sale of legal pot.)

“The one thing you can’t afford to have happen is a broad-scale mockery of the laws,” Mr. Tory said at a news conference on April 20 – the day marijuana enthusiasts around the world celebrate the drug.

The city’s top medical officer is due to report back to the Toronto Board of Health at the end of this month with details on how other jurisdictions regulate dispensaries.

Despite the large expansion in shops, the Prosecution Service of Canada, which handles all federal drug cases, recently told The Globe and Mail that only three dispensaries have been busted in Toronto in the past two years.

In Vancouver, police have said it takes the equivalent of three months’ work by one investigator to execute a warrant on a pot shop. After most of the force’s 11 recent raids, the dispensaries reopened the next day.

Like their counterparts in Vancouver, officers in Toronto are especially concerned with reports of selling to minors, Toronto Police service spokesman Mark Pugash said. He added that an experienced drug squad investigator recently returned from studying Vancouver’s approach to policing the use and sale of marijuana and other illicit street drugs.

About a third of Toronto’s dispensaries are chains from British Columbia, according to Mr. Jordan’s research.

“If your livelihood depends on selling marijuana and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to sell marijuana, then you’ll do so in a space that’s less hostile and more stable,” Mr. Jordan said of the shift east.

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