Up in the air: B.C. puts off decision on cannabis lounges
Consumption spaces operate in haze between promise of legal marijuana and regulatory regime
They call it "The Box".
Inside the front door of the Victoria Cannabis Buyers' Club, just a few steps past the display cases full of marijuana products, there's a room where people smoke and vape marijuana.
"It seemed unfair to provide a source for cannabis but then kick people out onto the street to use it," said Ted Smith, who founded the compassion club, one of the oldest in the country, in 1996.
This smoking room is, and always has been, illegal. Smith hopes that will change with the legalization of marijuana — but that's still very much up in the air.
This story is part of Greenlit, a CBC Vancouver series exploring ways the legalization of marijuana will affect B.C. Other stories in the series include:
In preparation for the federal government's legalization of non-medical cannabis later this year, the province has set some rules on where smoking or vaping cannabis won't be allowed.
Those areas include beaches, parks, playgrounds, bus stops and patios.
Smoking marijuana inside vehicles is out, for obvious reasons.
Landlords and strata councils will also able to restrict cannabis smoking, meaning consumption at home may not be an option for those who don't own their own place or those who live with shared walls.
According to the province, the focus of the restrictions is to ensure non-medical cannabis is consumed in a way that protects young people, keeps the roads safe and keeps the criminal element out.
Question of where
But Smith says it leaves him to wonder where people in B.C. will be able to consume the cannabis they legally buy. In his mind, designated cannabis lounges are the answer.
"If they don't want people smoking in the parks and in the streets and in other public places, then they should allow us to have commercial, or in this case non-profit, venues were we can quietly consume our herb," he said.
That's not an opinion shared by the health authority for Vancouver Island.
It has recommended against consumption spaces over concerns about second-hand smoke and the potential health impacts of vaping.
But the City of Victoria says the idea is worth consideration.
During the province's public consultation period for cannabis regulation, it urged officials to consider a licensing regime for lounges.
City councillor Jeremy Loveday says he would like to see cannabis consumption spaces for medical marijuana in particular, but he's not adverse to spaces for recreational consumption, as long as safety concerns such as ventilation are addressed.
"People who are living in apartment buildings, they will not be allowed to consume in their space, in their home," he said.
"For those people, especially the ones who are using it for medicinal reasons, they should have a place to use their medicine."
For now, the province is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Officials say they are focused on creating a safe and responsible retail cannabis sector. Then, they will consider the issue of consumption lounges.
Other jurisdictions have also taken their time on the issue. Even though marijuana has been legal in Colorado for years, the first cannabis lounge in Denver just recently received a licence to operate.
Meanwhile, Ontario has just wrapped up public consultation on the issue.
But cannabis entrepreneurs in B.C. are charging ahead anyway. A number of consumption lounges have popped up in several different cities and communities.
Just like illegal marijuana dispensaries, many are operating in the haze between the announcement of legal marijuana and the actual changes to the law.
Despite support for a potential licensing regime, Victoria has been trying to crack down on the illegal spaces.
The city has levied more than $45,000 in fines against two commercial lounges in the city. One has since shut down, but the other remains open. None of the fines have been paid.
Amid the surge of upstart marijuana dispensaries in the city, the Victoria Cannabis Buyers' Club has earned the respect of city officials for its long history of quietly helping people access marijuana for their medical conditions.
Enforcement officials have largely left the operation alone, smoking room and all, Smith says.
But he does wonder if legalization will actually hurt the long-running compassion club. If lounge spaces don't become legal, he worries his smoking room will get caught up in renewed enforcement against such spaces.
"We are concerned that they may attempt to shut us down."
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