TORONTO - A growing number of convenience stores in Ontario sell crackpipes, bongs and other illegal drug paraphernalia right beside candy, milk and magazines, a public safety advocacy group said Monday.
The Ontario Safety League said its mystery shoppers easily purchased dozens of drug-related items at convenience stores in big and small cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor, St. Catharines and Guelph.
Safety League president Brian Patterson said "it's irresponsible and illegal" for corner stores to openly display and sell items that enable illegal drug use, calling it "a blatant disregard" for the safety of the communities.
"Kids are confronted with displays of drug paraphernalia that is sold in colourful packaging and for discounted prices," Patterson said.
"What's even more despicable is some of these items are designed specifically to attract kids, like a pretty gemstone box which is actually a grinder for drugs."
It is illegal to sell or promote instruments for illegal drug use, and the penalties are significant, ranging from up to incarceration for up to one year and fines up to $100,000 for a first offence.
"It's time for the nudge, nudge, wink, wink ... to stop," Patterson said.
The group launched a campaign Monday calling on people to report any convenience stores selling inappropriate drug paraphernalia in their neighbourhood through Twitter with the hashtag: #reportyourstore, and said offenders would be reported to police.
"We will send the (stores) a letter in relation to education, but ultimately we think this is a community-based issue that the police want to take an active role in," Patterson said.
"I think a visit from police, whether it's just educational or to lay charges is going to be effective in communities."
A group representing corner stores said it supported the Safety League's campaign.
"We do not condone selling drug paraphernalia," said Dave Bryans, CEO of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association.
"I suggest shoppers vote with their wallets, and avoid retailers who engage in selling these products and support stores that adhere to the highest standards we expect of our members."
Veteran Liberal backbencher Monte Kwinter, a former public safety minister, threw his support behind the Safety League's campaign, and said he didn't know why police weren't taking the issue more seriously.
"I think there's a perception that it wasn't illegal to have this (paraphernalia), but it was illegal to use the drugs," said Kwinter.
"The question is who's to say that this is used for drugs? Well there's no other use for it. This is absolutely what this is all about."
Stores that put up a sign saying the bongs and pipes are for smoking tobacco are fooling no one, added Patterson.
"Some of the store owners are completely unaware of the fact they're in breach of the Criminal Code, although ignorance is not a defence," he said.
"It would be unfortunate if small business owners got caught up in this process and find the real consequences of being involved with drug paraphernalia."
The Safety League also has an online petition (www.notatmystore.ca) to help persuade the stores to stop selling the drug-related items.