Head shop owners in Winnipeg believe they are being specifically targeted for harassment by local police in the wake of yet another raid last week.
Jeremy Loewen is only the latest entrepreneur to have his store — Hemp Haven, which today stands shuttered in Winnipeg’s Elmwood neighbourhood — raided by Winnipeg police, in what many in the industry believe to be a concerted agenda on behalf of local law enforcement. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Loewen has been “charged with selling an instrument for drug use and possession of property obtained by crime,” despite legally operating Hemp Haven and paying taxes for over 12 years without a problem.
Loewen believes that this is “a tactic” used by police to straight-up “put [him] out of business.” Neil Kravetsky, Loewen’s lawyer, goes so far as to call the police out for ”bullying and interfering with a legitimate business in my view.” It’s a tactic that has become all too familiar for Winnipeg head shop owners over the past few years.
Last year, The Joint’s three locations were also targeted by police and the RCMP in raids. The reason? “Copyright violations” pertaining to “merchandise based on characters from Scooby-Doo to Spider-Man and Looney Tunes to Angry Birds.” According to Loewen, The Joint was raided again last month by Winnipeg Police, and today one of The Joint’s three locations is shuttered, like Hemp Haven.
Head shop owners and other medical marijuana advocates feel they are increasingly targeted by city police. This has been especially true, they say, since city councillor Brian Mayes raised a stink in city hall in February 2013 about the “blight” of head shops in and near residential neighbourhoods. The Joint, whose St. Mary’s location is nestled between two high schools, was singled out by Mayes and raided shortly thereafter.
When contacted by the Albatross, Mayes was quick to dismiss any insinuation that he could have anything to do with the raids directly.
“I’m not ordering these raids,” he said. “I don’t have authority over the police. The police board oversees the police.”
Mayes went on to explain that all he does is respond to complaints from St. Vital school principals, and attempting to address possible zoning changes that could be made.
“I’m not trying to drive people out of business,” he said. “But when I get a lot of calls from school principals, this seems to be something I can do.”
The rise in raids also began shortly after Winnipeg’s current chief of police, Devon Clunis, was inducted in October 2012.
“Police came to me six or seven months ago to close my doors or they will ‘do to me what they did to The Joint,’” Loewen told the Albatross Wednesday. ”They came in demanding I close the store. When I asked them what was illegal, they wouldn’t tell me. They couldn’t tell me. They just said I have to close my store.”
Other head shops throughout the city, and others who work in various capacities within the industry — glassware makers, wholesalers, sales associates — are also feeling the stress and pressure. A number of shops, who would not agree to speak on record for fear of increased police activity around their businesses, have also reported recent visits where officers have flexed their muscle.
“Now they’re going to other places and giving them 30 days,” Loewen told the media.
Ryan Lacovetsky, owner of Shine Glass Works, has been in business of “manufacturing smokeware” and other glassware in Manitoba since 2001. He told the Albatross his trade in glass smokeware provides the economic ability to pursue other artistic glassware interests. He also says he’s never seen such aggressive police activity against head shops until the past year.
“I see this as a direct attack on all of us,” he said. “Our taxes are collected happily every year, but we’re not being represented in the places that it matters.”
“For twenty years it’s been OK,” Roman Panchyshyn, owner of Wild Planet in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village, which has operated as a rock clothing shop that also sells smokewares for over 20 years, told the Albatross. “Now, overnight, it’s not.”
Panchyshyn went on to explain that last Tuesday, following the raid, Winnipeg Police paid a visit to a number of head shops across the city and delivered the same 30 day ultimatum that Loewen spoke of.
“They came in and told me I have to take all these things off my walls,” Panchyshyn told the Albatross. “It’s just some arbitrary thing! There’s no official statement [as to what we're doing wrong].”
“I really don’t get it,” Loewen said. “No one will tell me what I’m doing wrong. They’re just telling me I’m a criminal.”
“These businesses have been going on, some for over 20 years,” Kravetsky told Kevin Rollason at the Free Press. “There are now over 100,000 people in Canada with legal medical marijuana licences who get the instruments they need to smoke through businesses like this [...] It’s like charging a pharmacist for selling syringes to somebody who later uses it for heroin.”
The current situation in Winnipeg for medical marijuana users is disturbingly similar to that being imposed from above by Health Canada on patients across the country. Medical marijuana activists maintain that recent changes to the way Health Canada delivers medical marijuana to patients has the potential for doing more harm than good.
According to a recent editorial in Cannabis Culture, “Instead of supporting patients, Health Canada blocks access to their medicine, violates their privacy, exposes them to legal and criminal sanctions, and treats them as enemies.”
And while Loewen’s shop is still closed, and he awaits the next step in fighting his legal battle, he tells the Albatross he has “no choice” but to reopen.
“I’m going to open and probably get arrested again,” he said Wednesday. “I have to open. I don’t know what else to do. I got six employees, I got bills, [the stock is all] paid for. This is my life savings. I can’t just throw it in the garbage.”
As for Panchyshyn, he now fears he will be forced to close Wild Planet.
“My lawyer encouraged me to fight,” he told the Albatross. “But at my age, do I want to fight? I’ve listed my building, as of today, for sale.”
If Wild Planet, Hemp Haven, or the Joint are forced to close their doors, they will follow on the heels of other Winnipeg well respected establishments. Kustom Kulture closed their longstanding River Avenue shop in June 2013 to focus on wholesale and online distribution, and City Haul are reportedly closing their Corydon and Regent Avenue shops at the end of February. Not only does this drive medical marijuana users, and others who may have an interest in fine glassware and other related products, further into dark corners of the city, it stomps right on the balls of business owners who have ground out their livelihoods for years at the forefront of the industry.
“It hurts the city,” says Panchyshyn. “The only recourse is people calling their councillors and saying ‘What the fuck?’ And where does it go from there?”
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, “Winnipeg police said they could not comment until after they had spoken with the investigating officer today.” As of publication there was no word as to what, exactly, prompted the raid at Hemp Haven or the alleged “30-day ultimatums” to other city head shops.
[image via WBUR Boston's NPR News Station/Flickr]