Canada: Illegal Ottawa Pot Shop Takes Landlord To Court To Fight Eviction

Photo Credit: Jean Levac

The fight by a popular Bank Street marijuana dispensary to stay in business has taken an intriguing twist.

Cannabis Culture closed in December after the frustrated landlord evicted his tenants, who were selling marijuana obtained from the black market.

Now the operators of Cannabis Culture have filed a court application demanding their lease be honored so they can get back to operating their illegal business.

The lawsuit might be an indication that some dispensaries are digging in for a fight with authorities as the country gets closer to the legalization of recreational marijuana, expected this summer. The province has vowed to shut down the dispensaries as it prepares to open legal pot shops run by a subsidiary of the LCBO.

It’s also a sign of the continuing confusion around dispensaries as the pot wars heat up across the country.

The legal application filed by Cannabis Culture in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Feb. 2 says the landlord appears to believe the dispensary was operating illegally. “Which it is not.”

That statement will be news to the Ottawa police, Ontario’s Attorney General and the federal ministers of justice, health and public safety, who have said the dispensaries are illegal operations selling weed that is not regulated and might be unsafe.

As far as Ottawa police are concerned, the only difference between Cannabis Culture and a drug dealer on a street corner is that one operates out of a store.

Police have raided Cannabis Culture twice, charging the clerks working inside with drug trafficking. The store restocked its shelves and reopened. It only finally closed after a bailiff arrived with police, tacked an eviction notice from the landlord on the door and changed the locks.

It’s not clear what arguments Cannabis Culture will mount in defense of its assertion that the business is, in fact, legal. The documents filed in court don’t provide an explanation, and the lawyer who filed them did not immediately return a phone call.

However, some clues emerge from other legal battles looming as lawyers prepare constitutional arguments to defend “budtenders” (clerks) and owners charged during dispensary raids by police in Ottawa, Toronto and other Ontario cities.

Courts have ruled that under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, medical marijuana patients have the right to “reasonable access” to their medicine. Dispensaries provide that access, because the legal system for obtaining medical marijuana is inadequate, says Jack Lloyd, a Toronto lawyer who represents numerous dispensary workers. Whether that argument is accepted in court remains to be seen.

In the meantime, landlord Gerry Shapiro says he’s caught in the middle of all the politics and legal wrangling.

Cannabis Culture signed a lease to rent space in his company’s Bank Street building starting Jan. 1, 2017. The lease says the tenant will operate a marijuana dispensary but it also has a clause forbidding illegal activities.

Shapiro said they didn’t realize there was a problem until Ottawa police informed his company that dispensaries are illegal.

Cannabis Culture was asked to leave, but the tenant refused and threatened a court battle, said Shapiro. Then the province announced a tough new law that allows for fines of as much as $1 million or jail time for landlords who rent to dispensaries. That law will go into effect when marijuana becomes legal across the country.

Shapiro said he felt he had little choice but to evict Cannabis Culture. The windows at the store are now papered over, the sign removed from the front of the building.

Cannabis Culture, in its court application, said the “unilateral termination of the lease” has “severely prejudiced” the company because it cannot conduct business.

The landlord did not specify adequate reasons for terminating the lease, according to the application. The rent was paid on time.

Cannabis Culture spent more than $50,000 to improve the property with the expectation it would remain in the store for a long time, said the documents.

The lease was for five years, with an option to renew for another five years.

The dispensary had a front lobby with chairs where customers waited to be buzzed into a locked room that contained the marijuana. There was a video security system.

The waiting room was often jammed with customers. One staffer estimated the store served between 1,000 and 1,200 people a day.

This newspaper has interviewed customers at the store numerous times. Some said they use marijuana for medical reasons. Others just wanted to get high. Anyone over 19 was eligible to make a purchase.