By: Phil Collins
Image: Vapor Central/Instagram
Melanheadz, a three-story house-turned-vapor lounge across the street from Broadview station, was raided by Toronto Police on Sunday, Sept. 13. For Toronto’s many marijuana users east of the Don Valley, this establishment gained notoriety very quickly throughout 2015 as a place where weed, hash, edibles and concentrates were openly sold to the public without requiring a medical marijuana I.D.
Vapor lounges are nothing new to Toronto, and although they occupy somewhat of a legal grey area, many have established rigid rules about how they operate in order to avoid unwanted attention from the police. For example, Vapor Central, near Charles and Yonge, is an upstairs lounge that asks for a five-dollar cover at the door, checks for I.D. to ensure all patrons are above 18 and strictly bans the practice of dealing drugs in the establishment. Most established Toronto lounges follow these same rules, and the general idea of a vapor lounge is to create a space where smokers can socialize, be entertained and to bring their own pot and smoke it without fear of being apprehended or socially vilified.
Melanheadz, originally based in Hamilton, took the concept of the vapor lounge a step further. In many ways, it was run as a legitimate business. The owners had medicinal licenses for the Hamilton location, although the validity of those licenses for the Toronto location has been contested. Their business cards referred to Melanheadz as a ‘dispensary,’ and even advertised a five-dollar dab special (dabs refer to butane hash oil, a medicinal marijuana product extracted from the plant and concentrated into a smokable oil). Cannabis was sold at the standard $10 a gram, and cookies were sold at five dollars apiece. Melanheadz sported an official website and was openly recruiting “budtenders” based on criteria such as “knowledge to identify strains.”
In many ways, Melanheadz attempted to take the concept of a vapor lounge to heights that have only been replicated in the Vancouver area, where the enforcement of Canada’s drug prohibition laws is particularly lax.
A recent report in the Globe and Mail found that more than 98 unique cafés and dispensaries like Melanheadz were operating in Vancouver, a sharp increase from 14 since 2012. The commonality of dispensaries is leading the city to create “a special licence category for ‘marijuana-related’ businesses, including dispensaries.” The system would see an end to expensive raid operations but introduce community consultation for new dispensaries, distance restrictions regarding their proximity to schools and community centres and an annual licensing fee of $30,000. In Toronto, however, while police have grown increasingly tolerant of public cannabis consumption during 4/20 and other outdoor events, dispensaries don’t have nearly as much staying power as those on the west coast. Toronto police often focus their drug enforcement efforts to major grow operations and the people who deal cannabis, especially to minors.
This is ultimately where East Toronto’s underground, public dispensary met its downfall. While some patrons were occasionally required to prove their age, many (such as myself, regularly asked at LCBO’s or corner stores) were never asked to present valid I.D. Even Vancouver police, while historically quite tolerant of questionably-licensed operations, will still intervene physically when sales to minors are known to be occurring.
The community buzz surrounding a place that sold weed to anyone obviously spread like wildfire. Melanheadz was packed daily with people interested in picking up in a shop-like environment. Walking into such a store was undoubtedly a unique experience many Toronto users have never felt. It brought choice and convenience to a black market notorious for varying weight/quality issues that consumers are most often powerless to remedy.
However, this lack of discretion also put a target on the dispensary. The business seemingly did less and less to hide their activities from locals as well as the police. When I first caught a whiff of Melanheadz in the spring of 2015, you’d have to walk up three stories if you wanted to see their available strains and make a purchase. By September, another distributor had renovated the first floor and begun a similar operation to the one that was occurring on the upper floors. At this point, people were dealing literally feet away from the front door. It was easily visible from both the street and the police car that could usually be spotted nearby.
The fact we have places such as Melanheadz, emboldened to open their doors to the public and participate in the open sale of cannabis products, means law enforcement can expect similar challenges, especially if our legal status quo is maintained. Businesses such as these will continue to be profitable, but they still operate in a legal grey area that can put both employees and consumers at unnecessary risk.
Some Americans and Vancouverites are already used to a more regulated system being in place, and if one follows federal politics, places similar to Melanheadz may soon become the new norm. In Toronto, however, it is safe to say that while the concept has begun to take shape, it remains in its infancy for now.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/news/east/.