Who’s really behind Toronto’s chain of illegal pot shops that won’t quit?

Amid scuffles and some shouting, a familiar scene played out in downtown Toronto last week. Law enforcement descended on an unlicensed cannabis café, seized a few pounds of dried bud and edibles, posted closure orders and tried to seal the place up.

Then this past Wednesday and Thursday, officers had giant concrete slabs placed in front of the shop and its three sister outlets, in an attempt to physically block access to the storefronts. Within a couple hours, the company announced “new locations opening now in anticipation of this inconvenience.”

These are no ordinary renegade weed stores. They are branches of Cannabis and Fine Edibles, or CAFE, a chain of sleek coffee shops that double as marijuana dispensaries. Collectively, they have been raided and shut down at least a dozen times since Canada legalized cannabis last October — only to bounce back each time, usually reopening within hours.

Other unlicensed pot shops are vanishing in Toronto; the city’s licensing department counted 90-plus dispensaries pre-legalization, compared to just a dozen now.

But CAFE, with its chic interiors, wellness branding and involvement in community events, is booming, doubling from two storefronts to four and boasting out-the-door lineups of customers on many weekends.

The company defends its persistence, saying in a statement Wednesday that its customers have a right to “reasonable, dignified access” to marijuana — access they say the government-regulated market, with its shortages and wait times and lack of edibles, has failed to consistently provide for what many see as a tonic. In an email earlier this week, a company spokesperson called the current enforcement environment out of whack, saying that unlicensed retailers of a now-legal plant are being treated worse than “thugs or murderers … organized criminals and gangs.”

But is CAFE “pursuing the greatest good,” as is professed on its website? Or is it following the siren song of the $30,000 to $50,000 a day that the city estimates each of CAFE’s shops bring in?

In trying to peel back the curtain of who is behind this chain of pot cafés, the answers don’t come easily.

Lifelong buds

In many ways, Jon Galvano and Wesley Weber, both 44, are polar opposites. Galvano was a provincial wrestling champ in high school and sports a bodybuilder’s physique. Bespectacled Weber was a self-admitted high school computer nerd. They’ve known each other since their teen years, both growing up in the Windsor, Ont., area.

Galvano flaunts his wealth on social media, posting pics of his latest Gucci or Christian Louboutin shoes, his Lamborghini Huracan, a $432 Wagyu steak dinner and his business-class jet-setting to Europe and South America. He owns two racehorses (Sativa and Indica, named after the cannabis plant species), throws regular parties in the $1.5-million penthouse he rents 40 storeys above CAFE’s flagship store, and his Instagram account — made private since CBC News started asking questions about CAFE last week — shows him firing automatic weapons in Ukraine, as well as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Cambodia at an apparent $510 US a pop.

Weber, on the other hand, is a social media cipher, at least in recent months, while he’s been under prosecution by Ontario stock market regulators. He enjoys McDonald’s and Tim Hortons and does plenty of spending at Home Depot, judging from bank records filed in an unrelated court case. He lives with his spouse and daughter in a smaller unit many storeys below Galvano’s in the same condo development.

One thing both men have in common, though — besides the his-and-his Rolex Yacht Master watches they sport in an Instagram photo: Pinning them down on their exact roles — if they even have one anymore — in the thriving CAFE chain is not easy.

Galvano announced the beginnings of CAFE on Facebook in July 2016: “It is official I am now a business co-owner in the ‘6’… Lease is signed and construction begins for Cityplace’s very own upscale Amsterdam style coffee shop!,” he wrote in a post that mentions Wes Weber:

He has posted repeatedly about CAFE in the years since, including photos of him at its shops, and was in Negril, Jamaica, this spring, where CAFE staff were attending a music and culture festival and visiting a ganja farm.

When CBC News called Galvano last week, the man who answered said “Jon’s not here right now,” but offered to help to try to reach him. He called back minutes later from a 519 number — the area code for southwestern Ontario, including Windsor — and said: “I don’t know a Jon, sorry.”

After CBC News indicated that it wanted to speak to Galvano about CAFE, the man said: “I think Jon sold it like two years ago.” But he then later added: “Honestly, I don’t even know who they are, or what company you’re talking about.”

In a second call to the same number made this week, asking for Jon, the man who answered said: “You got the wrong number, man.”

Galvano acknowledged in an email Thursday that he had in fact received the phone calls. He claimed CBC journalists threatened him when they sent questions to CAFE earlier this week that mentioned his modest criminal record, but he did not address queries about the chain of pot shops.

Weber’s precise role in the growth of CAFE is similarly unclear. Undergoing cross-examination in an unrelated 2017 lawsuit, he said under oath that while he loaned $10,000 to Galvano in the lead-up to CAFE’s opening and helped him secure a lease, he was not part of the business, nor was he making any money from it.

But a former employee of a digital currency company founded by Weber told CBC News that it was well known around the office, back in CAFE’s early days, that Weber was involved, and that he boasted of it.

Weber features in many photos on Galvano’s Instagram feed, including posts where the pair are shown “flying to a meeting” together or on that trip to Jamaica where CAFE staff attended a festival.

And Weber’s spouse, real estate agent Michelle Kam, filed the incorporation papers and signed property records for the federally registered company that owns CAFE’s premises on Bloor Street West. She’s also named as the guarantor of the $1.7-million mortgage on the property. Until last February, she served as the director of that registered company.

Ace counterfeiter

Weber has a history with deceit. He has a long criminal record, including convictions for forgery, fraud, cultivating marijuana and, notably, counterfeiting.

In the early 2000s, he and three friends became so good at forging $100 bills that he is sometimes cited as a reason many businesses stopped accepting them around that time. He was caught by the RCMP, convicted and sentenced in 2001 to five years in jail.

More recently, Weber has run afoul of the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC). In 2011, the OSC found he broke the law by engaging in unregistered stock trading and unregistered investment advising. He is currently facing allegations of illegally soliciting and accepting investments for the digital currency company he founded, where he went by “Wesley Kam.”

Weber has also used the alias “Jeff Murray” while giving a deputation to Toronto city councillors about how they should regulate cannabis establishments.

His spouse, Michelle Kam, was in 2017 asked under oath in a lawsuit related to the digital currency company: “[Do] you agree with me that Mr. Weber has a history of fraud?” and “Do you agree with me that Mr. Weber has a history of lying?” Both times, she answered yes.

Galvano’s past doesn’t appear to be as murky. His modest criminal record consists of guilty pleas for producing marijuana in 2010 and for a probation violation and possession for the purposes of trafficking in 2011. The most he was ever penalized was a $5,000 fine.

The 2010 conviction stemmed from a police raid on a marijuana grow-op in the basement of his home in Windsor. Officers were tipped off by two confidential informants, according to court filings. The search warrant application alleged a woman living with Galvano in the home was listed in Windsor police computers as “an associate of a street gang known as ‘North Preston’s Finest.'”

‘Focused on helping our community’

CAFE did not reply to questions about Galvano’s or Weber’s pasts.

In an email to CBC News, however, the company pleaded its case that the current cannabis legal regime “is flawed.”

“Every Ontarian should be extremely fearful as the law is written right now, because all premises must be closed upon the witness and execution of a [non-licensed] cannabis transaction,” CAFE wrote. “This now includes hospitals, schools, the Rogers Centre or a Tim Hortons. It is almost comical and certainly not the intent of legislators when they created the framework for legalization.”

In a later email, the company said: “Canadians support CAFE and how we’ve filled a necessary void.… We are focused on helping our community.”

That tenacity hasn’t come without cost. More than 70 provincial charges have been laid against CAFE’s staff and landlords since November, the City of Toronto says. CAFE would not say whether it’s paying for their lawyers or fines.

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