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This article was published 26/4/2019 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The federal minister who administers Canada's cannabis legalization law says Ottawa is well-aware of the proliferation of illegal online stores, but black market enforcement falls to individual police forces across the country.
Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair, who was made responsible for the Cannabis Act in November, made the comments Friday at the Manitoba legislature.
"I am aware of the challenge of the illicit online (cannabis) sales, and frankly that is the responsibility of our policing authorities, both federal, provincial and municipal, to do that work," said Blair, who was in Winnipeg to announce federal funding to address gun and gang violence in Manitoba.
"I have great confidence in that work. And one of the things that we have been doing is making significant new investments to increase their capacity and their effectiveness in addressing that concern."
Asked specifically whether Ottawa knows how many illegal online cannabis dispensaries are operating in Canada, Blair said the government is "aware of the existence of several."
"There are a number of those organizations which are already the subject of attention, but I don't have the precise number of what those are," he said. "But again, I have every confidence in the capacity of law enforcement to address that, based on their priorities and their allocation of resources."
Law enforcement priorities are the catch, according to Travis Lane, a Victoria-based organic cannabis grower who used to operate an illicit online cannabis dispensary. (It's now closed, and Lane is applying for a cannabis cultivation licence under the legal regime.)Advertisement
"The will to prosecute cannabis distributors in British Columbia is not very high," he said.
Lane estimates there are more than 100 unlicensed online marijuana dispensaries operating in Canada, with the vast majority of them sourcing and shipping product from B.C.
In Canada, illicit online cannabis stores are sometimes called "MOMs," short for mail-order marijuana. Every province and territory now has at least one legal source for online cannabis purchases, but those licensed stores only ship to customers inside their region. Illegal online dispensaries, however, will ship products anywhere in the country — and it's not always easy to distinguish illegal websites from their legal counterparts.
Lane believes fewer than 20 such businesses are responsible for about half of illicit online cannabis dispensary sales, with many smaller players also competing. Although unlicensed online dispensaries are selling cannabis illegally, Lane said, some of them are offering top-notch product from growers who care about the safety and quality of their product.
"At the same time, of course, there's problems in the black market with illegal pesticide use and bad practices," he said. "When you have an unregulated, illicit marketplace, it draws people that don't have business scruples."
Enforcing Canada's new cannabis laws against such online dispensaries will never stop them entirely, said Lane, who pointed out even illegal cannabis sellers with visible, physical storefronts are still in business six months after legalization. Instead, Lane said, the best way to curb illegal online sales is to make the legal market for cannabis more accessible to the growers who currently supply such dispensaries.
Reducing Canada's illicit marijuana market is an explicit goal of the federal Liberals' cannabis legalization initiative.
On Friday, Blair said it will take time to achieve that goal, and cited recent Statistics Canada GDP figures that showed spending on legal cannabis comprised about one-fifth of all cannabis spending in the fourth quarter of 2018.
Ottawa is spending $274 million to help police enforce the new cannabis laws, according to a spokesperson for Blair's office. That includes $133.5 million "to ensure that organized crime does not infiltrate the legal system and prevent the cross-border transport of cannabis," with the remainder spent on enforcing drug-impaired driving laws.
"We are also looking to strengthen engagement with financial institutions, online pay processors, and internet service providers, among others, in order to address some of the gaps that may exist," the spokesperson wrote.
Updated on Friday, April 26, 2019 at 3:43 PM CDT: Clarifies proportion of estimated online dispensary sales by large online dispensaries