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Lawyer calls mass marijuana dispensary arrests 'colossal waste' of resources

Last Updated Dec 12, 2016 at 7:00 pm EDT

After making 15 courts appearances with just one client whose charges were ultimately dropped on Monday, Toronto attorney Selwyn Pieters is calling the sweeping raids on illegal marijuana dispensaries last May a “colossal waste of private and public resources.”

Police arrested 90 people and laid 186 drug trafficking charges as part of Project Claudia, which targeted 43 marijuana dispensaries across the city.

Pieters said his client, a university student, was working as a doorman at one of the dispensaries, checking photo ID cards. He was rounded up in the raids and charged with three counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Those charges were dropped on Monday after the Crown found there was no reasonable prospect for conviction.

A total of 33 people from 15 different dispensaries were in court on Monday. Aside from Pieters’ client, another had their charges stayed and the remaining charges were all adjourned to later dates.

Pieters believes most of the charges will be dropped and says police should have focused their enforcement efforts on the dispensary owners.

“The manner in which they enforced Project Claudia was not necessarily strategic,” he said. “It should have targeted the owners, instead of targeting everyone and having so many people before the courts and so many resources wasted. It was a waste of time and waste of resources.”

“The chief  [Toronto police chief Mark Saunders] said already that he was concerned about going after dispensaries because it would turn out to be a waste of his resources because in the end none of the charges would have stuck. And we see that unfolding … that the charges aren’t sticking.”

“In the end the marijuana dispensary owners are going to be treated as though they have violated a bylaw and have to pay a fine. But hundreds of thousands [of dollars] was spent in planning the raids, and executing the raids. Hundreds of thousands were spent in the court process.”

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Ninety people arrested, 186 charges laid in dispensary raids
Video: Protestors take over news conference on ‘Project Claudia’ raids

Despite his objections with the way the raids were handled, Toronto Police told CityNews they won’t be changing their approach.

Const. Caroline De Kloet said police lay charges if they believe it’s warranted. The rest is up to the courts.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently called on police forces across Canada to continue to enforce marijuana laws ahead of looming legislation to legalize and control its sale.

That legislation is expected to be tabled in the spring of 2017. A legalization task force report with recommendations is expected to be released to the public on Tuesday morning.

Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale said there’s no grey area when it comes to the law.

“We’ve announced that our intention is to prepare legislation for next spring,” he said. “That remains the plan, but as you go through this process, it is critically important for everyone to remember that the law is the law and the law must be respected until it is changed.”

NDP Justice Critic Murray Rankin pointed towards Toronto’s burgeoning illegal dispensaries and clogged courts as evidence that the government’s approach is flawed.

“I find the chaos that this government has allowed to exist for over a year to be totally unacceptable and that we have these situations like we are seeing in the Toronto courts is just unacceptable,” he stressed.

In the meantime, Pieters believes police can take a less costly, more practical approach.

“I agree with (Trudeau) that police need to enforce the law, but police need to enforce the law…in a cost-effective way and in a way that leads to public confidence in law enforcement,” he said.

“Police certainly can exercise their discretion (and) deal with the owners directly, by warning them, by fining them, by using bylaw enforcement officers or public health officers to deal with that.”