Tracy Lamourie

It’s a confusing time for cannabis advocates in Ontario.

On one hand, the canna community and the businesses that serve it appear to be flourishing. The vapor lounges have existed in the Toronto area for a decade; recently they have multiplied, and are popping up in smaller communities across Ontario. Dispensaries and compassion clubs are opening in almost every area of the city…places like Kensington Market almost seem to have a new one every week on every block.

In spite of the fact that, as I write this, snow still on the ground, spring has sprung, and Ontario’s canna culture is preparing for 420 events across the province. There will be the massive Toronto event at Yonge Dundas Square. It regularly welcomes 10-20,000 pot aficionados for a giant smokeout and celebration. And there will be smaller, newer, events in communities where sparking up a joint or waving a bong around still invites harsh punishment from local police (we’re looking at you, London, Ontario; a participant was actually arrested during 420 last year…Shame!)

In cannabis vapor lounges across the province, people of all ages, races, gender, health issues, musical tastes…a veritable cross section of the population, gather together, as they always have, in peaceful environments to share a toke, a dab, a smile, a social moment to relieve isolation.  Most of them aren’t aware that this could all be over soon.  They can’t imagine a scenario where these places could be closed.  After all, these are the business owners who a decade ago braved law enforcement to provide these safe spaces for patients, their advocates, and others who prefer cannabis to alcohol, and friendly vapor lounges to bars. What could possibly shut their doors now; after a decade of successful business, paying taxes, operating with the support of their communities, grateful customers and happy regulars?

It’s called Ontario Bill 45, and it very possibly might slam those vapor lounge doors shut, locking them – permanently – behind the last customers to exit, on the last day of June 2016.

Abi Roach, the founder of the Hot Box, Toronto’s original vapor lounge space, has taken a leading role in the fight to kill the bill.  She sprang to action, revamping the “Cannabis Friendly Business Association,” originally formed to fight the municipal battle when a Toronto City Councillor tried to shut the city’s vapor lounges down a few years ago – and creating a formidable organization to lead the canna-business community.

CFBAlogo2In an exclusive interview with Cannabis Digest, Abi stresses that the CFBA isn’t just for Ontario, and it doesn’t exist just to fight this battle. “We need numbers,” she says.  “We need members from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. It’s not only this. If we win this battle, we have longevity, we’ll be able to fight for dispensaries and compassion clubs, and other kinds of cannabis related business as they try to regulate, control – or even shut them down. The CFBA is working with other cannabis lobbying groups like the Cannabis Growers Association of Canada and Sustainable Cannabis.  As we move towards legalization it’s important that the interests of small and medium sized cannabis businesses – and by extension, the customers we serve – are recognized.”

But today, the focus is on this impending legislation – Ontario Bill 45.  Abi and the CFBA have been working hard to educate consumers, business owners, patients, and other affected stakeholders about just what this bill will mean. She finds it frustrating that so many customers, when they first heard about the Bill, didn’t seem to understand the import of what Ontario cannabis consumers and the businesses that serve them – are facing here. People expressed surprise that those who never seemed to worry about police enforcement of cannabis laws are telling us that it could be Bylaw officers who ultimately shut these spaces down.  As Abi points out, “They’ll come in every day and fine you thousands of dollars, and then when you can’t pay, there goes your Master Business License.”

The Bill has a 40 day consultation period leading up to July 1st implementation, unless it can be stopped with lobbying efforts or a court injunction.  Essentially, Ontario patients who medicate with cannabis, other cannabis consumers, and the businesses that serve them have been caught in a web of legislation meant to equate vaping with smoking.  It goes even further, says Rick Vrecic, a partner in True Compassion Toronto, a stand alone compassion club in the cities west end.  “Medical marijuana users are being treated like tobacco smokers. The comparison should be medical marijuana users and those with asthma inhalers!”   True Compassion Toronto says they exist “to bring a true sense of hope, health and healing to those who need it most through access to effective and safe forms of medical cannabis products.”  In keeping with their mandate, they joined the CFBA mostly to be a voice for their patients, “standing up for those who can’t.”  Rick is particularly concerned, from the patient perspective, because Bill 45 will not only close down vapor lounges – but will stop medical marijuana patients from being able to vaporize anywhere that smoking cigarettes is not currently allowed – basically anywhere except a patient’s private home — and if they live in public housing, or need the care of a PSW, even private homes will not be exempt.

vapor loungeSam Mellace, the Canadian cannabis pioneer who now heads New Age Medical Solutions, (among many other projects that he’s working on!), says: “Vaping pens are another tool to administer cannabis.  It should be subsidized and should be declared a medical instrument.  Cleaner and more efficient for people, like seniors, to administer cannabis, due to arthritic pain, chronic ailments due to old age, and other chronic pain.”  Sam says it is ridiculous that cannabis should be covered under the same law as tobacco.  “There is no comparison,” he says, “You just can’t compare cannabis, a medicine, to tobacco, with 150 carcinogens and over 1000 chemicals in tobacco!”

Jeffrey Allen, an Ontario resident and medical marijuana patient who with his business partner Michael Kaer, recently announced plans to open a vapor lounge called “The Other Side,” in the small, conservative city of Chatham Ontario, says: “Ontario Bill 45 would effectively make vapour lounge establishments, illegal to operate. Patients would effectively be made prisoners in their own homes. We operate on the concept of harm reduction in a community that needs strong action of the sort. This bill negates any intention to move forward in helping patients. It further stigmatizes them. Just a few months ago, they announced that medical cannabis is just that, medicine, and that smoking/vaping in any public establishment was permitted, with the clause that employers/business owners could overide that, and ask them to step outside, or to a designated area. Now, all of a sudden they completely switch gears, and demonize cannabis patients, yet again.”

Those patients are expressing outrage. Loretta Ann Clark says: “Lounges are protected by section 7 of the Charter as safe inhalation sites. They each are unique in community programming, addressing needs, and proving the power of comedy, community, music and art. Toronto, as one of the greatest human rights towns on earth, should lead the way. To take away such places will bring heaps of negativity, resulting in human rights violations and a rebellion that is sure to shame the province. We have reached a breaking point with the persecution and fraudulent claims of prohibition.”  Maurice Fazio agrees, adding: ” I just don’t get it… Heroin addicts get clean injection sites, but to vape our cannabis we have to risk our lives hiding in scary back allies or brave freezing conditions? … Cannabis patients deserve a safe place to medicate also!”

So what is being done? 

In mid March, Ontario canna- business leaders met for an emergency meeting at the Hot Box to discuss, educate, and strategize. They determined to raise funds to hire a professional lobby group, a legal team, and to build the organization. With over 100 attendees representing more than 60 related canna-businesses, Abi Roach commented on how much the industry has grown in the decade since she opened….”At one time there were barely any of us, now we can’t even fit 5% of the industry in the same room.

On April 1st, the CFBA released the results of a recently commissioned poll, done by prominent polling firm Mainstreet Research, which determined that  “a majority of Ontarians would support safe spaces for medicinal cannabis patients across Ontario; 56% approve of safe spaces for medical cannabis patients to learn about and consume cannabis”.  Building on this, a mainstream media release is expected this week; the CFBA is meeting with politicians in all parties, and they are hopeful that they will prevail.  However, the urgent support of the national cannabis community is necessary.

The CFBA needs donations, the co-operation of Canadian cannabusinesses from coast to coast, and they are also asking for impact letters from patients, business owners, cannabis lounge users, and other stakeholders.

Visit : http://www.cannabizassociation.ca/ to see what you can do.