Authorities in Toronto have resoundingly lost the latest round in their long-running battle to shutter a notorious chain of illegal pot shops, as a justice of the peace Wednesday afternoon acquitted the landlord of CAFE's flagship store on all six provincial cannabis charges he was facing.
Mohsen Ghelichkhani was on trial under Ontario's Cannabis Control Act, which makes it illegal for a landlord to "knowingly permit a premises" to be used to sell illegal weed.
Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Ghelichkhani didn't act forcefully or quickly enough to evict CAFE from the ground-floor condo unit he owns at 66 Fort York Blvd. once he learned they were operating in violation of the provincial law.
But in her ruling Wednesday, Justice of the Peace Rhonda Roffey said that while "much of his testimony did not ring true or seemed deliberately vague," the evidence was still that the mortgage broker and property investor took the only reasonable steps that were available to him under the circumstances, given CAFE's determination to flout the law.
"CAFE have proven that they would go to any lengths to keep their business open," Roffey said in her decision. "Each and every time that police laid charges and emptied the premises of employees and products, CAFE was able to reopen and continue to operate."
Ghelichkhani's lawyer, Noel Gerry, said his client "is extremely happy with the result."
"He feels that his hands were tied throughout and that he is vindicated," Gerry continued. He added that it seems unfair that the landlords, and not the operators or owners of the illegal pot shops, are bearing the brunt of law enforcement's attempts to shut down CAFE.
"It's my belief that the onus shouldn't be put on landlords, and this section [of the Cannabis Control Act] needs to be revisited," Gerry said.
Ghelichkhani argued at trial that he had few options to deal with his law-defying tenants, because police had placed a closure order on his property the day after cannabis became legal in Canada. Closure orders under the Cannabis Control Act forbid any person from entering or attempting to enter closed premises, except emergency responders in exigent circumstances.
"They can't put a closure order on the property and then expect the landlord to take reasonable measures when they're really pulling the rug out from under his feet," Gerry told CBC News.
The City of Toronto, whose lawyers prosecuted the case, gave a short statement Wednesday evening saying the city is "reviewing the decision on this matter and is not able to provide additional information at this time."
Trial postponed due to COVID-19
The six counts against Ghelichkhani under Section 13 of the Cannabis Control Act dated back to 2018, 2019 and early 2020. His trial on the first three of those counts was supposed to begin back in 2020, but the pandemic forced a postponement.
Three other landlords for CAFE's locations on Harbord Street, Bloor Street and St. Clair Avenue are facing similar provincial charges. One of them, Ali Gillani, is in mid-trial, and the other two — both numbered companies — are scheduled to go on trial in the fall.
Gerry said the ruling in Ghelichkhani's case isn't binding on the other trials, but if the facts are similar, then the same arguments he raised "should hold water in any future case."
The provincial charges against all four landlords are the latest steps in the long-running, costly and so-far failed attempts by law enforcement to shut down CAFE, which stands for Cannabis and Fine Edibles.
Raiding the renegade weed chain's outlets, seizing their supplies of bud, changing the locks, welding the doors shut and, finally, piling huge concrete slabs in front of the entrances to bar access — none of it has worked. Each time, the same stores have reopened, sometimes within hours.
Last year, the City of Toronto's head of licensing and standards, Carleton Grant, told CBC Toronto that "we've gotten to a point where we need to rely on the court process to deal with this."
Now that that strategy has failed its first big test, it's unclear what, if any, further steps the city might take against CAFE. While authorities have laid charges against the pot shops' employees and landlords, a city enforcement officer testifying at Ghelichkhani's trial said he understood that his colleagues are still in the dark about who actually owns and runs CAFE.
A CBC News investigation starting in 2019 found that two men originally from southwestern Ontario — Jon Galvano, who died in Mexico last year, and his lifelong friend Wesley Weber, who has a long criminal record most notably for counterfeiting — were among CAFE's early founders and owners.
Testifying in his own defence last month, Ghelichkhani revealed for the first time that it was Galvano who signed the lease and was the original tenant at CAFE's initial location at 66 Fort York Blvd., which opened in 2016.
On his since deleted but once prolific Instagram account, Galvano appears to refer to Ghelichkhani in a 2018 post as a "good friend" who rented out his penthouse to Galvano not far from the flagship CAFE location.