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Are magic mushroom stores sprouting around Toronto operating in a legal grey area?

Walking through downtown Toronto and seeing the clusters of colourful stores advertising magic mushrooms for sale, you’d be forgiven for thinking Canada had legalized psilocybin alongside cannabis.

Dispensaries offering the hallucinogenic drug have sprouted throughout the country’s biggest city, adorned with bold signage that does not attempt to hide what is being sold.

Inside, products range from magic mushrooms to chocolate infused with the drug. Helpful cashiers stand ready to advise people looking for guidance.

Psilocybin has a psychedelic effect on those who use it, which some claim has therapeutic effects.

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Vancouver city council rejects magic mushroom motion

In spite of the apparent official nature of these shops, Toronto police are clear that the entire enterprise is illegal. They’re not operating through any loophole that the brazen presentation might suggest.

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“Police enforce the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and psilocybin is an illegal substance under the Act,” a spokesperson for the force told Global News.

“Anyone selling or producing psilocybin would require an exemption from Health Canada, and without that, would be committing an offence and could be subject to charges under the CDSA.”

Police, however, admit the issue is relatively low on their agenda.

Raids and priorities

Police in Toronto have occasionally raided the stores selling psilocybin, sometimes laying charges.

In late 2022, for example, police went to a store at Queen Street West and Denison Avenue and arrested two men. They also seized a large quantity of psilocybin from the store.

Psilocybin and Psilocybin-derived edibles police say they found at a commercial property in 2022. TPS

One owner of psilocybin stores in the Greater Toronto Area said raids are a regular occurrence, with charges often laid and products seized. Stores, they said, are usually restocked and reopened within hours of a police visit.

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Global News agreed not to identify the owner because of potential legal repercussions. The owner said the regularity of raids depends on the local police force. They said Toronto police come “once a month” to the stores to raid them but the stores stay open to “give people access the government can’t give” them.

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The colourful stores are “to let everyone know that we’re there… including police,” the owner said. He said staff were “all aware what they’re getting themselves into” with the risk of raids.

“The police should stop wasting their time and stop wasting taxpayer money to try and come in and shutdown these shops,” the owner said. “All they can do is come in, take the product and leave and we reopen (in a) couple of hours.”

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A spokesperson for the City of Toronto told Global News the city has no way to track the number of illegal dispensaries since they do not operate within any business licensing structure.

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The city said it had no information on bylaw enforcement or any other issues relating to the stores, directing all inquiries to Toronto police

“I would like to clarify that the City of Toronto does not have the authority to issue business licences for substances controlled under the Federal Controlled Drug and Substance Act or investigate and enforce the Act,” the city said.

Toronto police told Global News that, while they conduct investigations into illegal dispensaries when necessary, the issue is ultimately a relatively low priority.

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Winnipeg police lay charges in connection to magic mushroom shop raid, investigation

Officers instead are focused on the route supply of drugs that are linked to overdose deaths commonly reported in the city.

“In terms of priorities, enforcement by TPS is largely focused on the trafficking of illegal drugs that are resulting in overdose deaths, and having a traumatic and devastating impact on our communities,” the spokesperson said. “As you know, the unregulated opioid supply is dominated by fentanyl, and Toronto, like many cities, continues to be in the midst of an opioid crisis.”

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Data from Toronto Public Health shows 592 people died of suspected opioid overdoses in the city in 2021, 552 in 2020 and 301 in 2021.

Charges and defences

The store owner told Global News police regularly lay charges and staff have faced a range of charges over the past year and a half.

Harrison Jordan, the founder and managing lawyer at Substance Law, said charges can be difficult but not impossible to defend.

“To law enforcement and Crown prosecutors, this is breaking the law, it’s a violation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to sell psilocybin but, as a background to that, there is emerging evidence that psilocybin can help individuals with conditions and disabilities in a dramatic way,” he told Global News.

“Are they immune from getting charged and taken to court? No. But there are now some potential defences and justifications that may be able to be argued, although that is a newfound area of caselaw in a sense. We haven’t had the rich case law that we had with medical cannabis that eventually pushed the government to allow broad-scale access to medical cannabis.”

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Some in the psilocybin space are pushing to see it legalized along the same lines as cannabis, with an Ontario court challenge by FunGuyz to have it made legal under the argument of freedom of expression.

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The legal challenge, lodged at the end of 2023, focuses on the idea of the psychedelic effects of psilocybin and tries to define them as freedom of thought.

“Psilocybin enhances thought in many ways,” a media release announcing the challenge said. “Psilocybin is to freedom of thought what the printing press was to freedom of expression, what a passport is to freedom of mobility or what a church is to freedom of religion. It is a tool that allows one to experience that freedom in a more fulsome manner.”

Jordan said the case was a “very novel, very interesting argument” but would need to be “fleshed out within the courts” to see if it can hold water.

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A spokesperson for Ontario’s solicitor general told Global News existing legislation — including laws prohibiting psilocybin — should be enforced in the province.

“We work with our enforcement partners to ensure they have the resources and tools to enforce existing legislation, including the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and have confidence in the police to keep their communities safe,” they said.

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