Montreal·Analysis

In Quebec, two sets of cannabis rules exist: one conservative, one liberal. Which will prevail?

Close to 100 years of cannabis prohibition in Canada ends today. In Quebec, though, this newfound freedom will be enjoyed unevenly. Whether you're able to fire up a joint depends largely on where you live and whether you own or rent.

Cannabis is just one more front in Quebec's culture wars

Some municipalities, like Quebec City, have opted for more restrictive, more conservative regulations on marijuana use. Others, like Montreal, decided to take a more liberal approach. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Close to 100 years of cannabis prohibition in Canada ends today. In Quebec, though, this newfound freedom will be enjoyed unevenly.

Whether you're able to fire up a joint depends largely on where you happen live and what kind of property you can afford.

Some municipalities, like Quebec City, have opted for more restrictive, more conservative regulations on marijuana use.

Others, like Montreal, are taking a more liberal approach, imposing fewer limits on where cannabis can be consumed.

So as the new law comes into effect, there are basically two parallel but different regimes in the province.

Workers prepare to place a logo on a covered storefront of the government-run Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC). (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Some places will be governed by rules influenced by popular concerns, while in other places, guidelines inspired by public health experts will prevail.

It's not clear how long this duality will exist. The incoming Coalition Avenir Québec government has signalled it wants to tie the whole province to more restrictive rules.

But before it can do so, Quebecers will have the chance to witness the two different models at work and evaluate which they think works best.

Hardliners and hippies

The patchwork of rules and regulations governing cannabis use in Quebec is the result of a serious round of buck-passing.

While the federal government made the initial decision to legalize marijuana, it was left to the provinces to decide how to implement the new law.

Quebec's legislation, in turn, gave municipal governments the freedom to put in place their own rules on where people can and can't consume.

Not surprisingly, different cities are taking different approaches. Quebec City, Saguenay and Sherbrooke, for example, have banned its use in public.

In Montreal and Gatineau, on the other hand, you're now allowed to smoke dope in a park.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante outlined the city's policy on cannabis last week. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But even within cities, there can be different rules — depending on what street you happen to find yourself on.

The Montreal boroughs controlled by the opposition at city hall, Ensemble Montréal, all plan on passing bylaws prohibiting smoking in public spaces, including parks.

And while no public consumption is allowed in Quebec City, that doesn't apply to the campus of Université Laval, where students will be allowed to eat but not smoke cannabis.

Complicating matters further: property owners, too, are free to set their own rules. As a result, landlords are increasingly moving to prohibit consumption in their rental units.

That means if you rent property in, say, the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent, governed by Ensemble Montréal, it'll be tough finding a spot close to home where you can enjoy the benefits of legalized weed.

Reefer madness?

Over the past several weeks, public health officials in Quebec have been encouraging municipalities to adopt a more liberal approach.

They have raised concerns that by banning marijuana use in public or in rented properties, more vulnerable segments of the population will be exposed to punishment, while the more affluent won't be.

That would undo one of the main arguments for legalizing cannabis in the first place, which was to avoid criminalizing a relatively harmless activity.

The CAQ campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum age for cannabis consumption from 18 to 21, as well as to prohibit its use in public. Premier-designate François Legault will be sworn in tomorrow. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec's public health officials have also argued it doesn't make sense to base restrictions on the public use of cannabis on existing regulations surrounding alcohol — often cited as the justification for keeping it out of parks.  

"Unlike alcohol, cannabis doesn't lead to violence or crime (if we exclude trafficking a narcotic)," Dr. Mylène Drouin, the regional director of public health on the island of Montreal, said in an open letter last month to local mayors.

But public health authorities in the province are meeting with stiff resistance from municipal politicians sensitive to their constituents' concerns.

A long list of large Quebec municipalities have ignored the public health warnings and pressed ahead with a conservative approach to cannabis.

"We found that the legalization of cannabis is greatly worrying our citizens," said Alan DeSousa, mayor of Saint-Laurent borough, last week as he announced his intention to ban the public use of marijuana.  

DeSousa said he had received several comments from anxious parents. He even cited the hypothetical example of an elderly person having to share a park bench with stoners.

"It's better to start with a more restrictive framework that we can then change later," he said.

My province, right or left?

Proponents of the conservative approach are likely to get support from the new provincial government.

The CAQ campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum age for cannabis consumption from 18 to 21, as well as to prohibit its use in public.

Cannabis products are seen on the shelves at a new SQDC outlet. The legal sale of cannabis begins Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Shortly after winning the election, the party's transition team indicated the new government would make good on that promise as quickly as possible.

But amending the existing legislation will take several months, at least. That gives advocates of the public-health argument more time to build their case.

Premier-designate François Legault only officially takes charge tomorrow. Already his tenure looks set to be marked by a series of culture wars, as opinions grow polarized over immigration and identity issues.

How cannabis is regulated will be another front in this war.

It is one of a suite of new issues confronting Quebecers that will determine which way the province's values lean.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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