With the federal government keen to make marijuana legal in Canada before next summer, a host of questions are still up in the air. Who is going to sell it, how much is the government-sanctioned pot going to cost and, strangely an issue that has gained little attention so far, where will Canadians be allowed to smoke it?
The available options are quick to list: in decreasing order of likelihood, we have public spaces like parks and sidewalks, privately-run businesses and, lastly, private residences. The first one is a definite non-starter, as the stated aim of the Liberal’s push to legalize is to reduce the criminal element involved in the marijuana trade and to keep children safe from exposure to drugs. Obviously, pot smoking near the playground won’t fit the plan.
Pot in restaurants and bars? Not going to happen, either, thanks to smoking bans in those places. We’re all happily reaping the benefits of that cultural shift, both in terms of health and laundry bills (remember when your clothes just reeked after a night on the town?), so there’s little chance of putting pot smoking there.
Private smoking lounges, on the other hand, are a possibility. They’ve popped up in other places where recreational marijuana has been legalized, and the Canadian federal task force on legalization and regulation has offered cannabis lounges and tasting rooms as a viable option, so long as safeguards are put in place to protect health and safety and to prevent underage usage.
But how likely are the various municipalities to support smoking lounges? At least at first, even with weed federally legalized, it’s hard to imagine city councils across the country champing at the bit to brand themselves as Canada’s Amsterdam, replete with the seedy vibe of its pot coffee house culture.
Health officials don’t seem to be keen on the idea, either. Ottawa Public Health is reportedly in talks with other municipal agencies and has come out against the city allowing for pot cafés and lounges. “We do not want to create an environment that normalizes it,” says Gillian Connelly, manager of health promotion and disease prevention at Ottawa Public Health, to the Ottawa Citizen. “There’s a risk that people will think this is a benign substance. It’s not. There are health risks associated with consuming.”
Which would leave us with private residences, a likely choice but one which would disadvantage those without homes and, with more and more buildings adopting no-smoking policies, potentially renters, too.
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So far, regions like Colorado and Oregon don’t seem to be handling the issue well. Four years after the commercial marijuana market started up, Denver is still grappling with the question of where pot consumption should take place. Reportedly, less than ten legal consumption lounges exist in the state of Colorado, and a Denver ordinance to allow businesses and events to apply for consumption permits was effectively blocked by the state’s liquor enforcement division through a rule which banned businesses with liquor licenses from applying for pot permits.
“Finding a responsible way to consume somewhere is still kind of an open policy debate in Colorado,” says Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s former director of marijuana coordination, to the Canadian Press. Freedman is concerned that social smoking in lounges could normalize marijuana consumption, something that could then affect its use among youth and children. “We worry about an eight-year-old walking past floor-to-ceiling windows and seeing somebody in a hookah lounge smoking marijuana,” says Freedman.
In Oregon, too, a bill is currently before the senate which would allow for the sale and consumption of cannabis at indoor events and lounges, but the bill has been met with public resistance. “It weakens the Clean Air Act,” said Benjamin Hoffman, an Oregon paediatrician, to KTVZ news. “Which is a really essential component in reducing exposure to secondhand smoke.”
Governments are caught. It took centuries, really, to reach our current detente on alcohol, with jurisdictions controlling aspects of its consumption at the same time that other government agencies actively promote stronger restrictions on alcohol in the name of health and safety. But that’s a substance with a vast cultural history to back it up. Deciding where legalized marijuana is going fit into Canadian society will be much trickier.