Legalize it, but please don't let the air our kids breathe go to pot

When the smoke and odour wafted through our house, I stopped dead in my tracks. It was my kids' bedtime, but the hallway suddenly smelled like a reggae concert.

I don't want my 6-year-olds inhaling second-hand smoke from marijuana, Joanne Seiff says

Joanne Seiff says we're not ready for the legalization of marijuana until we know how people will be protected from second-hand pot smoke like the haze that drifted into her home as she put her six-year-olds to sleep. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When the smoke and odour wafted through our bedrooms, I stopped dead in my tracks.

It was kid bedtime, but the hallway suddenly smelled like a reggae concert. Someone was smoking pot in my neighbourhood, and now its effects were in my home.

We don't have air conditioning, so our windows are open during the summer. We live in an old house with several stories, as many Winnipeggers do. The house acts as a chimney flue, sucking in smoky air from the outdoors.

We've battled the nights when neighbours used their fire pits — it's a choice between being hot and breathing well with the windows closed, or having our home smell like a campfire, too.

However, the smell of marijuana was different. While exposing my children to wood smoke may be bad for their allergies, they won't get high. I don't want my six-year-olds inhaling second-hand smoke from marijuana.

When Brian Pallister suggested in July that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government was legalizing cannabis prematurely, some called him a buzz kill.

However, the health and safety issues are real.

The laws need to be in place beforehand, but we need something more than laws. We need an education campaign.

Yes, there is a drug-impaired driving policy in place, and that seems to be mentioned frequently. That's good, but there's more to consider: Where is it OK to smoke cannabis? What about others who will be negatively affected by your choices?

What about smoking on patios? Will cannabis be allowed? In Winnipeg, the council still hasn't decided that second-hand smoke exposure from tobacco is unnecessary.

We all pay for health care, and the cancers associated with smoking are avoidable. We don't have to sanction this in public spaces. Getting rid of smoking (all substances) on restaurant patios seems like a no-brainer.

What about smoking on one's deck or balcony? Some may argue they have a right to light up a cigar, smoke a joint or enjoy a cigarette in the outdoor spaces of their homes. 

Whether or not it's legal, it poses a challenge in areas with increased housing density. While developers and city planners encourage urban infill with apartments and condos, it makes the issue of air quality for others a problem.

The details need to be ironed out.

When I moved to my house in 2009, it was part of a mixed residential/commercial area, with a barber shop, nail salon, and a combination of single-family homes and apartments nearby. Now, there are 3 restaurant patios within a block, as well as many more condos, and increased car and foot traffic.

So if a person smokes on his condo balcony or on the patio while he has cocktails, what happens to those around him?

Most adults would sneer and say "nothing" — if they are not affected by second-hand smoke. However, tobacco smoke can be a huge problem for kids, pregnant women and adults who have asthma, allergies or addiction issues. 

Pot is an even bigger deal. Some studies show some people can have evidence of drug use in their urine after exposure to second-hand cannabis smoke, and if one doesn't weigh a lot, it is easier to become impaired — or get high — just from breathing it in. Drug use is bad for kids' developing bodies and brains.

Despite the heat that day, we rushed around, closing windows. Our twins complained, but it was the right thing to do. 

I was so upset that I left the kids with their dad, hearing bedtime stories, as I rushed outside. I tried to figure out where the smell came from so I could ask my neighbour to please not expose my small kids to their drug use.

I found only one teenager and a grandfatherly figure nearby on a third floor apartment deck. When they asked what was wrong, I told them. The grandfather gave me a big smile, saying they did not smoke.

I heard a bus roar past, and wondered if instead, the smoke had been coming from the open-air bus stop near my home.

The truth was that within a few blocks, there were hundreds of people who might have inhaled whatever that person was smoking.

There was no way to track it down or ask politely for the person to please take it indoors. If I called the police, it would be considered low priority — and the police also don't have magic powers to find a person smoking nearby.

Police also have said they are just not ready for the July 1, 2018, legalization deadline. They need to train and prepare for this change. 

So what are the solutions?

I could install air conditioning, wasting electricity and spending money unnecessarily, and keep all my windows closed. I could move, which would cost even more — and is no insurance, since soon pot will be legal everywhere. Or I could just accept that my growing children will be negatively affected by second-hand cannabis and tobacco smoke. 

Whether or not we agree with the legalization of marijuana, we should all still have a choice about whether we use it. This past summer, my family didn't get that choice.

Is there still time to enact laws in Manitoba and educate the public about them before the federal deadline in 2018? I hope so.

While legalizing drugs may be a great relief to some, those of us who choose not to expose our kids to drugs would also like a fair choice.

At my house, I'd like the kids' bedtime to be cannabis-free.

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Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.