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Smoking Out Toronto : Activists fighting for the right to smoke in Canada’s biggest city

This summer, the Toronto cannabis scene has been like no other. Almost every week there is some event, show, or court case held somewhere in and around the city. While these don’t always make the news, this past summer saw two situations that went mainstream. These would be the Superior Court Case of Matt Mernagh, in which the government is appealing a lower court case decision that would ba- sically legalize cannabis; and the growth of the vapour lounge business in Toronto. While at one time there were one or two of these businesses in the city, there has seen a significant increase in their num- ber in the last year or two.

What is happening in these two high- er-profile situations?

Update: Matt Mernagh

Approximately five months ago, spring was coming to an end and summer was about to begin. The Global Marijuana March had just finished up when ev- eryone’s focus turned to the Matt Mer- nagh case. For those who don’t know of Matt, he is a Journalism graduate and a well-known cannabis advocate who won a landmark ruling for the rights of those using cannabis for medical pur- poses without the required government paperwork. On May 6 and 7, Matt and his lawyer, Paul Lewin, were in front of a panel of Ontario Superior Court Judges, arguing why their win in the lower court was justified, while the government ar- gued otherwise.

What has happened since then? Ac- cording to Matt’s latest blog post, he hasn’t heard a thing. He writes, “I imag- ine we should have an R. v. Mernagh ruling issued this month.” I contacted Paul Lewin, and asked him if he had any updates that he could let us in on. Mr. Lewin wrote back to say, “There have been no behind-the-scenes communi- cations of any kind. There is no point, because the court’s judgement will bind everybody. Besides, the government will not admit for one second that there is something wrong with their program.”

When I was present during the May court dates, I recall Justice Doherty men- tion that he wanted a solution to stop the parade of medical cannabis users coming before the courts. I asked Mr. Lewin if they would work with both sides to come to a solution that would stop sick peo- ple from having to appear in court time and time again. He says there probably wouldn’t be any working together, but “If we win, then the government will prob- ably be told to fix it. They have the right tofixitastheyseefit—butithastobe fixed.”

As I read Matt’s blog, I found that the stress of this case has been taking a toll on his health. For the last several months, the stress has caused problems with his scoliosis. Matt a day doesn’t go by when he isn’t asked about the case, and fig- ures up to 25 people a day download the court’s ruling.

What is causing the delay in the rul- ing? Could it be they want a solution to prevent more cases such as this, or is it just that the case is so big and full of evidence that it’s just going to take time? According to Mr. Lewin, the delay’s cause could be that it “simply reflects the fact that there was a lot of evidence and these are big issues.”

So what do we do now? We wait until the Judges at the Ontario Superior Court review everything. Matt is happy with the ruling that bears his name, and why not? In his blog, he says, “I’ve been go- ing to court for five years. For three and a half of those years, I was making month- ly appearances, oftentimes by myself. To do something right takes time and care. When something is rushed, you’re going to make mistakes, and by us going at our pace we’ve been more than able to domi- nate the game.”

While Matt sounds confident, he and the rest of us are waiting on these judges to get this right. What about those who are before the courts now, and those charged afterward? Are they being held up or delayed because of this case? Ac- cording to Mr. Lewin, he is “aware of a few cases that are being held up awaiting the decision in Matt’s case”.

For these people, for Matt and the rest of us, let’s hope the wait isn’t too much longer.

Update: Toronto Vapour Lounges

A year ago, the Toronto vapour lounge scene was exploding as their numbers more than doubled in a year’s time. This came to a halt when the Toronto City Council reviewed a complaint from Councillor Mark Grimes. Councillor Grimes went to the city, asking how these locations were operating, after the Vape on the Lake vapour lounge opened near his constituency office. He found that these places were operating as eater- ies and allowing people to consume can- nabis within their business.

Earlier this year, a stop order on licens- ing these places was put into effect, and the last thing we knew was that the city was going to meet with all the people involved. This would include the police, health officials, bylaw enforcement, and the owners of these establishments.

I contacted a few of these lounges’ owners. I was curious as to whether they knew if the city was getting opin- ions from the businesses located around them. Were they a problem, or an as- set? I got a mix of answers. Joey Baker, from The Underground Comedy Club on Queen St., mentioned that she had had a local business inform her that they had received an email about the lounges. Abi Roach, owner of the Hotbox Cafe, informed me that she wasn’t aware of any questionnaire, and in the ten years that she has been at her location, she has never had problems with her neighbours. For Camille Salter of Vapor Social, she and her business partner Ben Reaburn said they were “unaware of City Coun-cil approaching any of the businesses in the immediate vicinity of our vapour lounge”. She also mentions that that they too were in good standing with the sur- rounding businesses.

This past Sept., two moderators started to meet with businesses, law enforce- ment, and other required groups to look into the good and the bad on the vapour lounge business. They wanted to know such things as how they operate, and the difference between vaporizing and smoking. The moderators will report to council in order to figure out what to do. Presently, there are no bylaws against the lounges and no regulations to control them.

Abi and a friend attended the meeting, and I asked her if she felt they had made a good case for these businesses. She wrote to say, “We made a good case. But since there was no police, health or licensing reps there, it was a very one-sided case, rather than an open discussion”. While a good case can be made, was it listened to? Again, Abi felt that “a real discussion would have been better”.

Although she felt the two moderators were listening and understanding, she seemed disappointed that “there was no- body there from city council.” She went on to say, “the two councillors I spoke with outside of the meeting were sup- portive but that’s two out of many, and they are both downtown councillors. The suburban councillors have a very differ- ent perspective.”

Camille and Ben felt they had “an ex- cellent opportunity to make a very good case for the continued operation of va- pour lounges in the City of Toronto.” Camille also says she felt that they had lots of time to bring points forward. She says, “We were given ample opportuni- ty to make our case, to discuss how the lounges came into existence, to discuss why they continue to operate, and to il- luminate why they are an essential ser- vice for users of marijuana, both medical, and recreational.” Camille agrees with Abi that the moderators were listening but Camille goes onto say that “many of their questions were pertinent and while not the best informed, seemed very well- intentioned.”

Usually, things like this get started because the city gets lots of complaints. While we know of the Mark Grimes situation I mentioned earlier, it made me wonder if these places have ever received complaints. Joey at the Comedy Club mentioned that if there were any, she hasn’t been made aware of them, and has only had the authorities at her door twice, both times seeking information on unre- lated matters and not for problems at her business. She went on to tell me that she has “the support of the local BIA, and I also support them through activities,” and felt that the Hot Box was the same way with the businesses in the Kensing- ton Market. Abi echoed the same senti- ments: that she isn’t aware of any issues or complaints brought forward before or during this process. Camille backed up Abi’s statement, as she informed me that Toronto lawyer Alan Young told the stakeholders’ meeting that “there has yet to be an official complaint filed against any of the vapour lounges in the city of Toronto since the onset of their opera- tions, and only a single instance of po- lice intervention,” which was at the now closed Kindred Cafe.

When it comes to eating in restaurants or the purchasing of alcohol, there are regulations to deal with. One of the first things the moderators wanted to know was the difference between the smoking and the vaporizing of cannabis. What are the pros and cons of allowing just vapor- ization versus allowing smoking? They asked about the cleanliness of sharing a vaporizer mouth piece, and the safety of people getting too high. They wanted to know about minors and ventilation, and they had a concern that lounges would attract prostitutes.

From my experience, most of these lounges either alcohol-swipe clean the reusable parts, replace them complete- ly, or place them in a dishwasher to be cleaned. It was also mentioned that en- couraging people not to share their rolled cannabis with others would help prevent the spread of infections and diseases. As far as the minors go, these places police themselves, and people are asked for proof of age before entering.

Then there were the concerns of the medical users and their privacy. This brought the conversation to what to do with medical users who are having trouble replacing doctors who retire or refuse to sign the paperwork. Do you al- low authorized medical users into these places? Do you turn away an obvious patient who cannot find a signing doc- tor? Camille from Vapor Social says that after discussion about problems with the MMAR program, an agreement was reached “to limit the use of vapour lounges to ATP holders only was a vio- lation of human rights, beginning from the requirement to disclose medical sta- tus to a vapour lounge operator, to the difficulty presented in obtaining licens- ing in this country.”

The ventilation issue will only be a problem if the city doesn’t clamp down on the smoking of the product. Present- ly, all but the Hot Box, which only allows vaporizing, allows for the smoking of cannabis. While we have smoking laws in Ontario, they all pertain to tobacco products, not cannabis. As the vaporiz- ing of cannabis does not create smoke, would ventilation be required if cannabis smokingwasputintotheregulations? Presently, by my knowledge, only Vapor Central and Vape on the Lake offer air filtering, while some of the others offer smoke eaters or window fans.

Will these businesses, which are be- coming part of society, be allowed to remain? Will they be regulated to only allow those with medical needs into them? Abi feels that “it’s a 50/50—it de- pends on the police and health report. If they do make vapour lounges med only, I don’t know if there are enough legal medical card holders to sustain a busi- ness and pay the rent. But we will wait and see.”

Camille and Ben at Vapor Social seem optimistic about the results of the

city review. “Success for us would also consist of simply being permitted to continue to operate, with legislation or without it, as essential business entities providing a much-needed service to To- rontonians and visitors from elsewhere.” She went on to say that “standards will be set and the expectation will be that they are upheld, regarding everything from ventilation options, [to] food han- dling inspections, licensing inspections, and so on.” Like Abi they to hope that being regulated for medical users only don’t happen.

Abi, Camille, and Joey all agree that they would like the city to see the value that these businesses add to Toronto, and how important they have become. Camille took it further by stating that “the ever-increasing need for vapour lounges in a city with a massive me- dicinal population has arisen not out of design, but by necessity”. While people may think these places attract undesir- ables, Camille points out they are places wheremedicinalandrecMreaAtioLnaAluHseArsT can consume cannabis safely.

While wrapping up this article, I sent a request to a Toronto city councillor about this issue. Unfortunately, there was no reply. I hoped that if they weren’t in a position to answer a few questions, they would redirect me to someone who could.

As with Matt’s case, the vapour lounge owners are awaiting those in authority positions to make decisions on some- thingthatisimportanttomany.Wheth- er you are a medical or a recreational user of cannabis, both of these decisions will have a big impact on all of the cannabis community.

By Al Graham


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