(ABOVE: John O’Dacre lives in Granite Ridge, near the Magna Terra marijuana dispensary on Iber Road. He says he doesn’t oppose marijuana itself but wants a legal framework in place before dispensaries are allowed to open. Photo by Devyn Barrie.)
When Vèronique Pourbaix-Kent, principal of Ecole Paul-Desmarais, learned a marijuana dispensary had opened down the road from her school, she fired off an email to Councillor Shad Qadri to voice her displeasure.
“A shop of this nature should obviously not be near a high school,” she wrote. “I am sure that when the dust settles, the laws and bylaws surrounding the sale of pot will make it illegal for a [dispensary] to open near a school and they will have to close.”
The email was part of a small batch of feedback that community members sent to Qadri, obtained by StittsvilleCentral.ca through a freedom of information request.
More than four months after it opened on Iber Road, community perception of the Magna Terra marijuana dispensary remains mixed.
The dispensary, which has another location downtown and one coming soon to Montreal Road, first opened in August. Owner Franco Vigile called it a convenient way for people with medical pot prescriptions to access the drug, instead of the official way of ordering it through the mail from a licensed producer.
They also have nurses on site to consult with clients, a service which Vigile said no other dispensary in the country offers.
Like all brick and mortar dispensaries, Magna Terra is illegal and there is no law to regulate it. The Trudeau government promised in the 2015 federal election to legalize marijuana and is expected to table legislation this spring. Even so, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Toronto Star that he would like to see police shut down storefront dispensaries. (A federal task force released a report last week that recommended storefront sales as one option for legal distribution.)
Qadri has actively voiced his opposition to Magna Terra since day one. In July, he wrote in his weekly newsletter to residents that he was not comfortable with an unlicensed dispensary in the community.
“Just because it’s a brick and mortar building does not make it legal,” he told StittsvilleCentral.ca in an interview on Nov. 23. “I have no problem with a brick and mortar Tim Horton’s.”
He would not confirm whether he knew of any by-law or police investigations into Magna Terra but said he asked the city’s planning department to look into whether it breaks zoning regulations. In October, Magna Terra was cited for zoning violations, although Vigile was adamant he was in compliance.
In both the interview and in emails obtained through freedom of information, Qadri said there are some dispensaries sell to anyone.
“Currently there are dispensaries where prescriptions are not always being asked for. This is trafficking,” he wrote to a constituent who was in favour of the dispensary.
Qadri would not confirm if he believed this was happening at Magna Terra. “I don’t know that for a fact, but I assume that it’s possible.”
Vigile told StittsvilleCentral.ca that nobody has ever obtained pot from his dispensary without a valid prescription.
“We have adequate measures in place to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Vigile said. He had previously written an open letter to explain the measures, which require someone to present government ID before being buzzed into the building.
“We take our security seriously and our prescription review process seriously,” Vigile said.
Qadri said he knows from phone calls, emails and people he talks to that most people in the community are uneasy about the dispensary and that he is simply representing them. He did admit that his public view is not too far from his personal one.
The handful of emails obtained by StittsvilleCentral.ca are only a fraction of the roughly 70 that Qadri estimated he received from residents, but the rest could not be released because they are deemed to be “constituency records” and do not fall under freedom of information law.
So we made some phone calls to people nearby.
“I find that the dispensary’s a bit close,” said Pourbaix-Kent, in a phone interview from her office at Ecole Paul-Desmarais.
Although concerned, she said she didn’t believe any of her students had gone near there, noting her school currently only goes up to grade ten.
Magna Terra held a community open house in August, but Pourbaix-Kent said it was on too short a notice for her to attend. If there were more time, she thinks the school community would have joined in expressing their disapproval.
“I would have asked these people why they were coming so close to a school,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do [now].”
“I just speak as a school principal. I’m concerned about the health of my students.”
For his part, Vigile said the dispensary is still over a kilometer in walking distance from the school and that Iber Road isn’t exactly a pedestrian-friendly location.
Certainly, not everybody is concerned – even if they’re on the same street.
Naz Kidwai is a supervisor at the Dolphin Tale Child Care Centre on Iber Road. Despite being just two lots down from Magna Terra, she had only heard there was a dispensary nearby a few weeks ago.
“I think some of [the staff] are not too impressed,” she said of the proximity. “[But] we at the centre keep our children safe, so we don’t have any concern.”
Other neighbours had similar opinions. A few phone calls to nearby houses found a handful of residents who didn’t even know about Magna Terra. There were also a few against, and a few who didn’t mind.
“There’s no bylaw setup… no difference if I wanted to sell cocaine on Iber Road,” said John O’Dacre, who lives nearby on Cinnabar Way in Granite Ridge. He said he doesn’t oppose marijuana itself but wants there to be a legal framework before dispensaries open.
One of O’Dacre’s neighbours on the same street had a different view.
“We don’t really have a problem,” said Jaime Bongarde. “If it’s helping people that need it, we don’t have any concerns.” She also said it doesn’t matter, as people will find marijuana some other way.
Meanwhile, Qadri received a number of emails from residents supportive of Magna Terra.
“To be blunt (no pun intended), I much rather a respectable business owner in a suit than a potentially armed drug dealer out of his home or on the street corner,” wrote one resident, their name redacted.
Another resident, who implied they use medical pot themselves, praised the security measures of the dispensary.
“It’s immaculately clean, unassuming from the front of the building. It’s a secure location where no one who is not registered could even think of entering,” the sender wrote.
Perhaps not, as Magna Terra was robbed at gunpoint in early November. Three to four suspects escaped with garbage bags full of cash and marijuana. There were no injuries and the store reopened shortly after. Vigile said it wasn’t indicative that his business is a target for crime.
“I would be willing to bet that there have been significantly more bank robberies and/or pharmacy robberies this past year than that of dispensaries,” he wrote in a statement a day after the robbery on Nov. 5.
Regardless of what people may think, Vigile has no intention of going anywhere. With Ottawa Police conducting surprise raids on seven other dispensaries in early November, some of which have reopened, it remains to be seen what sort of action might be taken in the future.
Until then, Magna Terra is open for business.