The Ottawa Police Service is in favour of allowing legal pot shops to open in the capital, but it warns black-market cannabis dealers will likely drop their prices to strong-arm the regulated market.
Still, the police force sees a provincially controlled retail regime as a positive move in an effort to reduce the influence of organized crime in the cannabis racket.
Two city agencies with significant heft, Ottawa Public Health and the police force, are on side with a recommendation from city management to allow legal pot shops to operate in the municipality. City council will decide next Thursday during a special meeting.
If council votes to allow provincially licensed pot shops to set up in Ottawa, the city can’t change its mind after Jan. 22. The province is ready to allow shops to open starting April 1.
Ottawa police’s advice to the city is included in a staff report to council published this week in advance of the special meeting.
The police portion of the report also reveals details of the investigative work that has gone into the illegal pot retail stores that proliferated across Ottawa before cannabis was legalized in October.
Police say they laid 465 criminal charges related to illegal pot storefronts, grow operations and labs between 2016 and 2018.
According to police, the illegal pot shops prompted investigations related to gun offences, assault, kidnapping, forcible confinement, robbery and break and enter in 2017 and 2018.
Police confirm they found links between the illegal storefronts and organized crime. They also discovered stores dealing in more than just weed, citing cocaine and opiates as the other drugs found to be trafficked at some locations.
There have been owners of illegal pot shops who have been charged with provincial offences, police spokeswoman Carole Lavigne said Thursday. She said police aren’t releasing the names of people charged with provincial offences.
Many “budtenders,” the staff working at those illegal shops, were booked on criminal raps but received discharges in court in light of cannabis legalization.
Police have also been following leads to the storefronts’ supplies of cannabis. There have been 21 investigations between 2016 and 2018 focused on outdoor grow operations, indoor hydroponic farms and people with medical grow licences who have been supplying shady retailers, police say.
While police support city staff’s position on allowing legal pot shops in Ottawa, the force anticipates illegal pot traffickers to undercut legal market pricing to maintain a demand for their black-market pot, the report says.
“While staff acknowledge that, if the city adopts the provincial cannabis retail model there is no guarantee that the associated crimes prevalent with illicit storefronts will not continue, law enforcement intelligence experts believe that organized crime profits and their related crimes will be reduced by adopting the provincial cannabis retail model for legal storefronts,” the city report says, summarizing the advice from Ottawa police. “It is for this reason the OPS is recommending that the city adopt the provincial cannabis retail model.”
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said he understands why the police force would endorse the legal pot shop system since there has been a grey area in enforcement of the illegal cannabis dispensaries.
Skof said there has been a “tug of war” between city departments, such as bylaw, and police when it comes to enforcement of the illegal storefronts. If there’s a legalized system of retail, it will avoid cops having to pour resources into cannabis storefronts, he said.
“We are in a staffing crisis. We are not staffed to handle these things. We just do not have the resources now to go into these shops and shut them down from a criminal perspective,” Skof said.
Ottawa police note that regulatory enforcement of legal pot shops will fall to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, while enforcement of illegal pot shops will be handled by the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario and the OPP. Those agencies, however, will require help from Ottawa police.
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