Many Question Why Well-Established Cannabis Cafés — Now Part of the Fabric of Their Neighbourhoods — Should Be Shut Down Anyway

More than a dozen illegal cannabis stores still operating in Toronto, but closing them a \'complex process\'More than a dozen illegal cannabis stores in Toronto are still operating, and officials say that shutting them down will be a “complex process.”

“There’s not clarity out there, and we need to provide clarity to the people operating the stores, to the people looking to get the medicinal as well as recreational cannabis,” said Toronto city councillor Jim Karygiannis.

The city said that it is working with police to shut down all remaining illegal shops, but it will require a number of steps.

Part of the problem is that Ontario still does not have any bricks-and-mortar stores. A lottery taking place this January for licences will allow just 25 stores to open province-wide. However, due to the randomness of it all, areas of the province could be left with no stores.

Those already operating shops say it’s not fair that they spent years building a business, and anyone can win the cannabis licence lottery now to open a store.

“The reality is, now every Tom, Dick and Harry can throw $75 and their name in a ring — and there are people ready and preparing for the process for a very long time, and now we’re on the same par,” said Abi Roach, who owns the HotBox Cafe in downtown Toronto. She has been open for two decades, though selling cannabis paraphernalia rather that cannabis itself.

“It’s absolutely a mess and it’s kind of lazy,” she said.

There hasn’t been a crackdown on illegal shops since cannabis was legalized for adult use on October 17, 2018. Some current customers are frustrated with a system that seems to arbitrarily decide who can sell cannabis and who cannot, regardless of expertise, community involvement, and indeed good customer service.

But for users of the last handful of stores, down from dozens before multiple rounds of raids in recent years, the looming possibility of another crackdown is frustrating.

“We’re going to miss having this kind of place,” said Francisco Franv, a regular customer of CAFE, a cannabis café near Harbord Street and Spadina Avenue in Toronto. “There’s no sense in shutting down this place.”

There seems to be a grey area between illegal cannabis markets and community-based cannabis cafés that have already become a fabric of the neighbourhoods. CAFE itself offers a variety of items including coffee, juice, and baked goods as well as cannabis and edibles.

Franv, who was among roughly a dozen customers in the main floor of the shop on Wednesday afternoon — which offers juice and baked goods in glass cases, alongside cannabis goods for sale elsewhere — said he buys both coffee and edibles at the quiet cafe.

CAFE owners, however, said that they will do everything they can to stay open. “[We] will continue to provide reasonable dignified access, urgent on demand products and a right to choice for our patrons,” said James Shaung, who also commented on the lottery, ongoing cannabis shortages, and police raids.

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