Police shut down Newmarket's first retail Cannabis store
York Regional Police have shut down Newmarket’s first retail cannabis store operating in defiance of a municipal ban.
Police attended Newmarket Smokes Loud on Leslie Street Nov. 16 and 17. Newmarket district Det.-Sgt. Sherwin Bachoo confirmed police executed a search warrant, cleared the store and arrested two people found operating it over the past two days.
“We have to gather evidence,” he said. “We have to confirm that they don’t have a licence … Every process, every step is something we’re going to have to prove in court later. This is not a lengthy investigation; it was just a matter of process.”
The store has remained open since Oct. 20, advertising about selling cannabis. This was despite the Town of Newmarket previously opting out of retail cannabis, meaning the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) would automatically reject any retail licence in Newmarket.
Bachoo said police went into the store Nov. 16 to search the place, confirm cannabis and make an arrest. After the store remained open the next day, police went in again to address the site and clear it.
“We had to do it all over again,” he said.
Debbie Wise owns a business near the store.
“I was shocked by two days of police being here,” she said. “But very glad for their persistence in getting his hopefully resolved.”
Wise said she would not have an issue if the store was operating legally.
“But I knew they weren’t operating legally, so it kind of worried me about the people I was seeing around in the parking lot.”
Dalton Tracy, who also worked nearby, said it was an unusual sight witnessing police ripping open the door. The door was secure, requiring customers to be buzzed in before gaining entry.
“I’ve never really seen people break into a building before. You see it in cop shows and cop movies,” he said. “I’ve never seen it in person. I’m, like, ‘Wow, this is pretty scary.’”
Illegal cannabis a problem, legalized industry reps say
Markham resident Elisa Keay said she knows what it is like to do battle against an illegal cannabis store popping up nearby.
The Retail Cannabis Council of Ontario director said there are about three unlicensed stores near her own legal one in Toronto.
Despite the existence of a legal option, she said the illegal market is “thriving,” with licensed producers only able to take up between 50 and 60 per cent of the market.
“It’s a law in the books that legitimately any level of police probably could address it,” she said. “Whether they have the resources, again, that’s another question.”
Keay said her organization has heard from OPP that resources to fight the illicit market are an issue.
“It does take a lot of resources to challenge these,” she said. “There are some that currently are in the courts, and there have been some situations where they have been successful.”
But, she added, “a lot of unlicensed businesses feel that there aren’t any checks in place and that they’re not going to have a problem, and if they do, it’s simply close down and reopen. We’ve seen that happen with a couple of stores.”
Bachoo said a store like this has not appeared in Newmarket before in his experience. But he said resources can be a challenge in investigating cases.
“It’s not a one-person show, it’s an entire team being involved,” he said, adding resources “have to be stretched to conduct the investigations.”
Workers at Newmarket Smokes Loud have previously redirected NewmarketToday inquires to an owner not present on site, who has not returned calls for a request for comment.
The property the store is on is listed as being owned by 1000527062 Ontario Ltd., and was sold to it in May. The company has an address in Vaughan, another community where retail cannabis is prohibited.
Newmarket is one of several communities that opted out of allowing retail cannabis in 2019, a position it has not wavered from. That restriction means the AGCO would automatically deny any retail licence application for the community.
Cannabis Council of Canada president and CEO George Smitherman said the illegal market has maintained a fierce competition with legal sellers. He said it has some advantages around price and the ability to have edibles at higher dosages, something the association wants to change for licensed stores.
But in many places, he said police do not highly pursue illict stores. The AGCO is also not responsive to such complaints, he added.
“Police aren’t interested because they say the Crown prosecutors aren’t interested,” he said.
He added the illicit market is increasingly motivated.
“They’ve seen, after five years, lackadaisical interest on the part of government, in a variety of forms, to protect the very sector they regulated and created,” Smitherman said.
Access is also important, he said, noting York Region has many “cannabis deserts.” Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Markham have all opted out of retail cannabis stores. That puts pressure on Aurora, which has allowed retail cannabis, with the town now seeking a cap on stores.
Keay said the unlicensed market lacks the regulated quality checks that licensed stores have.
“Some people are consuming the unknown,” she said. “That hinders responsible consumption.”
Smitherman said improving the offerings of licensed stores is an important step. He also said the federal government could be more proactive in shutting down illegal cannabis websites.
Promotion of what licensed stores are could also help. He said many Canadians do not know the differences between licensed and unlicensed stores.
“We think the governments could do a better job to actually help Canadians to know the difference,” he said.
Despite the circumstances, Keay said she does not like the idea of criminalization as a solution.
“There needs to be a better way of administrating it at this point. We’ve done enough to criminalize before it was legalized. That’s not a solution,” she said. “There just needs to be a way to move forward so that the industry can become more focused.”
With Newmarket Smokes Loud shut down, Wise said she would just like safety.
“I just hope that everyone is safe around here,” she said. “That’s all I can hope for.”