When asked to explain the fuss over Ontario laws that make it illegal to vape medical marijuana in public, Hot Box vapour lounge owner Abi Roach told VICE about her friend who is dying of cancer.
She'd been bringing him a concentrated THC oil, which he used a vape pen to consume in his hospital room.
"He couldn't even get out of bed," she said.
But under bills 45 and 178, which essentially equate medical weed to tobacco, he'd have to be placed in a wheelchair and taken outside to medicate.
"How can we do that to a human being in his last days?" Roach asked. "It's torture."
The Ontario Liberals massively flip-flopped when they granted medical cannabis users an exemption to Bill 45, the Electronic Cigarettes Act—allowing them to vape in public—and then quickly reversed that decision. Vaping weed is now banned in all enclosed public places, workplaces, and other specified outdoor areas; even testing vaporizers at stores that sell them is illegal. A secondary set of rules known as Bill 178 would amend the Smoke Free Ontario Act to place medical marijuana under the same restrictions as cigarettes when it comes to consumption, display and sales. Bill 178 has successfully passed through two readings at the Ontario legislature and the government has been collecting feedback on it for the last few weeks.
"The rules will apply to marijuana, to medical marijuana, to vaping as they do to cigarettes," said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne when the legislation was announced.
To the casual observer, the laws seem like more a nuisance than anything else, but those inside the pot industry say they could actually wreak havoc on the medical marijuana scene in Ontario. Here are some of their main concerns:
No more vapour lounges
The bills will effectively close all of the province's vapour lounges, like Hot Box, because they're considered public spaces.
"There's no way a lounge can operate without people being able to vape and smoke," said Jon Liedtke, owner of Higher Limits, a 6,000-square-foot vapour lounge in Windsor, at a recent cannabis town hall in Toronto.
Liedtke said the idea of having vapour lounges switch over to being edibles-only lounges is impractical and unsafe.
Many people at the event pointed out that vapour lounges provide a safe space for people to medicate. For medical patients who live in social housing or on university campuses which again, are public spaces, the new laws leave virtually nowhere to vape marijuana.
"What this province is doing is attempting to limit the medical rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society," said Liedtke.
Dispensaries won't be able to display weed or vaporizers
Subjecting medical marijuana to the same rules as tobacco means dispensaries won't be able to display their weed selection—just like corner stores have to hide their cigarettes on a concealed shelf. Ditto for vaporizers. Critics argue that's unsafe because, while vaporizing is one of the healthiest ways to smoke weed, it can be toxic if not done correctly. The laws are gagging a vendor's ability to give proper instructions.
"Patients need to be able to see their medicine they need to be able to learn about vaporizing devices and how to use them if they're actually going to be using them safely," said Lisa Campbell, chair of Women Grow Toronto.
Even licensed producers could be impacted by the rules because they may not be able to display their cannabis strains on their websites, which means patients who are placing online orders won't know what they're buying.
"What this legislation will do guaranteed is shut down every licensed producer in this province," said Liedtke.
Medical marijuana proponents point out that weed helps people curb other addictions, including opioid use, so from a harm reduction standpoint, banning it in public doesn't make sense. That seems doubly true when the Liberals have been open about considering things like setting up safe injection sites for intravenous drug users in the province, Quito Magi, spokesman for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association, told VICE.
"It almost feels counterintuitive that the Ontario government would come out as supporting… safe injection sites… and then on the other hand to be doing the complete opposite with medicinal cannabis."
"Let's create safe spaces with the understanding that nobody's going to be sparking up on a bus, and at church."
Medical marijuana patients have won a number of major court battles in fighting against prohibition, including the right to consume cannabis in any form and more recently, the right to grow their own pot. In both cases, courts ruled the restrictions in place were a Charter violation.
Activists are now saying Bill 45 crosses those same lines.
"Anybody who is taking medicinal marijuana to alleviate their pain, their suffering, cannot be ostracized and pushed out from society," said Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier at the town hall.
"Legislation that takes away our humanity must be opposed."
Magi said he thinks medical patients would probably win if they took the Ontario government to court, but that doing so would be a waste of time and resources.
"We're confident they will grant some form of partial exemption in recognizing nobody wants to go the legal route."
VICE repeatedly reached out to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care for comment but has not yet heard back.
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Correction: Randy Hillier is only a medicinal cannabis advocate, not a user, as stated in a previous version of this story. VICE Canada regrets the error.