Ontario tabled its law on cannabis legalization this week that would ban users from consuming the drug outside of “private residences,” a move slammed by critics as favouring “the elite” since homeless people, and many renters and condo residents could effectively be prohibited from consuming legal weed.
The ban doesn’t make sense, drug policy experts say, and would unfairly target homeless people and others who don’t have access to “private residences,” while pushing other recreational cannabis users into risky situations.
Bill Bogart, a law professor at the University of Windsor who specializes in the regulation of illicit drugs, says Ontario’s law favours the province’s “elite,” including people who live in places that aren’t bound by the strict smoking rules of many condo boards and public housing. “Only those more affluent would be able to smoke [at home],” Bogart told VICE News. “The rest—not a small number—would be left to smoke in public and risk a violation.”
If the proposed law is passed by the legislature, those who use recreational cannabis in public spaces, workplaces, or inside a motor vehicle in the province could face a fine of up to $1,000 on the first offence, and up to $5,000 if they’re caught again. The government says the ban will “protect the health and well-being of everyone in Ontario, especially children, youth and other vulnerable populations.”
When it comes to medical cannabis users, the law would prohibit them from smoking or vaping in areas where tobacco smoking is currently banned. There would be “limited exemptions for smoking and vaping medical cannabis,” the government said in a news release about the law on Wednesday. These exemptions would include consumption in “controlled rooms” in residential care and in scientific research facilities.
Toronto harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd, whose outreach involves working with homeless people, said banning recreational cannabis use in public spaces is not a wise move. Cannabis smokers and other drug users have always consumed outdoors, even under prohibition, Dodd said.
“Homeless people are disproportionately arrested in general for drug-related offences,” she said, adding that homeless shelters and boarding houses already ban smoking indoors and cannabis consumption. “So if they’re not allowed to consume cannabis outdoors, they will just continue to be targeted, which is exactly what the war on drugs does. It criminalizes those who are most marginalized.”
Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General spokesperson Andrew Rudyk acknowledged in a statement to VICE News that people living in public housing could be forbidden from consuming cannabis there, but didn’t say what options they would have if they can’t consume in public spaces.
“The owner of a property can choose to prohibit cannabis consumption on their property, on a case-by-case basis and this could also include homeless shelters as well as public housing,” Rudyk said in the email. “This mirrors the framework for the consumption of tobacco.”
The difference, however, is that it’s legal for people in Ontario to consume tobacco outdoors and in many public spaces.
“The reason we’ve decided to approach public consumption in this manner is because we don’t think adults and children should have to be exposed to second-hand cannabis smoke against their wishes,” Rudyk continued.
However Abi Roach, owner of the Hot Box Café, one of Toronto’s oldest cannabis lounges, said the law will actually push many recreational cannabis consumers, including those who have stable housing, to smoke outside. Many can’t or don’t want to smoke at home, where they may also live with their children, she said, urging the province to allow cannabis lounges to exist in the legal recreational framework.
“Where are they going to consume when they can’t consume in their homes? They are going to go into the parks, into the alleyways, and they’re going to go into their cars,” Roach said in an interview. These trends stand in contrast to the Ontario government’s focus on preventing people from using cannabis and getting behind the wheel.
The new law will make cannabis users “vulnerable to tickets, harassment, and to arrests,” she said. Roach understands that the government wants to keep control over the cannabis supply chain, but argues that people need social spaces in which to smoke the product outside of their homes.
“If you don’t have the spaces you’re going to lose control,” she said.