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Cannabis Culture accused of attracting anti-LGBT clients to Toronto’s gay village

A public complaint prompted a series of allegations on whether the shop’s arrival has put the community at risk

After a positive meeting over concerns that Cannabis Culture was attracting homophobic and transphobic customers, owner Marc Emery agreed to increase LGBT signage, improve security and provide his staff with sensitivity training. Credit: Daily Xtra

The smoke is beginning to clear following an online firestorm that appears to have spilled into the street — over a marijuana shop in the Church-Wellesley Village, with allegations it’s been attracting a clientele unfriendly to LGBT people. 

On Jan 3, 2017, the Cannabis Culture shop on Church Street received a one-star public review on its Facebook page, alleging that some of its customers have routinely been making homophobic and transphobic comments, both in the store and outside, causing some LGBT community members to feel unsafe in the village. Three days later, someone splashed blue paint on the shop’s storefront.

Joey Viola, who organizes FML Mondays each week next door at Flash, wrote the review, kicking off the controversy. 

“When I had my patrons coming up to me and confiding in me that when they go outside for cigarettes or whatever they’re being harassed by certain loiterers that are outside next door, that prompted me to take a closer look,” Viola says. “Now I don’t see it to be [Cannabis Culture’s] fault, however, they are bringing in some clientele that are not necessarily down with the LGBT lifestyle.”

Viola emphasized that he himself is a customer of Cannabis Culture and has no desire to see the store relocated or shuttered. He says his post blew up in a way that surprised him.

“It opened a floodgate of people explaining how they felt just walking by there. How they choose to walk on the other side of the street, how they normally would go in there but they’ve spent some time in there [and] they’ve heard some snickering or being called a fag or a tranny and they’ll leave,” he says. 

Cannabis Culture is located in the Church-Wellesley Village.
Daily Xtra

The post, and a subsequent one by Viola the following day, caught the attention of owner Marc Emery, who contacted Viola and arranged a meeting for Jan 6. That morning, Cannabis Culture employees arrived to find someone had splashed paint across the front of the store. 

Viola says his heart sank when he learned of the vandalism. He took to Facebook that day to condemn the act.

“This is not how we’re going to make change,” he tells Xtra. “Anybody who thinks that’s okay is on the wrong side of this.” 

Emery says the allegations of homophobia or transphobia associated with his customers came as a shock.

Emery says Cannabis Culture has upwards of 1,300 customers coming through its doors every day and he estimates that close to half of them are part of the LGBT community. He says it was confusing to suddenly find his business linked to claims of homophobia, given his 30 years of support for queer rights going back to the censorship battles of Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto and Little Sister’s in Vancouver. 

Emery, who is featured prominently in Albert Nerenberg’s 2005 documentary Escape to Canada, which examines the battles to legalize both gay marriage and marijuana, says he was hurt that LGBT opponents to his store’s presence in the neighbourhood don’t stand in solidarity with the cannabis community, given the persecution both have experienced historically.

“We’re still being arrested every day in Canada. We still haven’t had any equal rights for 50 years, the cannabis community.”

While Viola and several online posters cite an alleged spike in gaybashings and assaults in the neighbourhood since Cannabis Culture’s 461 Church St location opened in September 2016, Toronto Police Service could not make a connection between violent acts and the area around the marijuana shop. But LGBTQ liaison officer Danielle Bottineau says there have been at least three attacks in the neighbourhood since Jan 1, 2017.

Bottineau says she would have to meet with the police service’s crime statistics analysts to know whether there has been a spike in recent months, though.

“I don’t know I can make a connection to Cannabis Culture,” she says. “In saying that, we’re putting together a meeting in regards to various stakeholders in and around that area to listen to their concerns.”

Bottineau is not sure when the meeting will take place.  

Mark Harrison is an employee at the Cannabis Culture located on Church Street. Owner Marc Emery (not pictured) estimates that of his 1,300 daily customers, over half are part of the LGBT community.
Daily Xtra

Kelly Kyle, chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area, says that while she has heard the allegations that some of Cannabis Culture’s clientele are not LGBT-friendly, the BIA has not received any complaints from member businesses. 

“We always take the safety of our members and of people who visit the village and community to the utmost degree of seriousness. But there was a bit of a problem with drugs and aggressive panhandling before Cannabis Culture arrived,” Kyle says. “So it’s kind of hard to say if things have escalated because of their arrival. We don’t really think so, to be honest, because we haven’t heard much from the community.”

Kyle says the BIA is actively working to raise awareness about aggressive panhandling and gaybashing, and plans to discuss both at the forthcoming meeting with Toronto Police Service.

Noel Desjardins, a member of the LGBT community, has worked at Cannabis Culture’s  Church Street location since it opened and says people from all walks of life visit the store and embrace queer people.

“Any homophobic [or] transphobic slurs I’ve heard were said by the same people who are often in [the park next to the 519]. Many suffering from mental illness and/or drug addiction,” he says. “Anyone who’s lived in the community long enough knows that there is nothing new happening here. The police do not patrol Church Street enough after hours. Walking to Starbucks at 6am in the village has always been a bit scary.”

Desjardins says he’s been securing the premises himself, patrolling the lounge and area around the store. He says anyone “throwing hate of any kinds towards anyone” is asked to leave and is escorted off the premises and away from neighbouring businesses.

“I’ve also been asking our patrons to not loiter in front of any of the other businesses. I’m happy to say that all our patrons seem to get it and I’ve had no problems,” Desjardins says.

The meeting between Emery and Viola on Jan 6 was a positive one, according to both parties.

“I have nothing negative to say about how they handled it,” Viola says. “I think it was impactful.”

Viola, who says he does not speak for the community as a whole but did consult with a number of people before the meeting at Cannabis Culture, made four proposals: signage indicating the store is an LGBTQ+ safe space; some security checks on busy nights to ensure no one outside is causing trouble; hosting some LGBTQ events; and sensitivity training for staff. 

Emery agreed to all of it. 

“I mean, those kinds of things can only make business better. So I’m not averse to anything that makes people feel more welcome on the block,” Emery says. He invited Viola’s production company Mojo Toronto to host an event in the store. “We have shows, we have entertainment on Wednesday nights, and we have five other nights people are welcome to approach us for a show.”

The shop had already been planning to decorate its interior with images chronicling moments in the gay rights movement, and this experience has spurred them to move ahead with that project, Emery says. “It’s going to be the coolest gay-friendly cannabis shop you’ve ever seen,” he says.