Rules still hazy around where to smoke legal pot

Even after recreational cannabis is made legal, smoking it in public places in Ontario will be forbidden. But what about land in Ottawa that's regulated by the NCC?

In Ottawa, where jurisdictions collide, things could get complicated once cannabis is legalized

On April 20 each year, hundreds of people smoke pot on Parliament Hill as part of the annual 420 rally. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A cloud of cannabis smoke will envelop Parliament Hill Friday during what will be, by all accounts, the last 420 celebration before recreational cannabis is legalized.

But there's also uncertainty hanging in the air — particularly when it comes to the question of where pot smokers will be able to light up in Ottawa. 

When the Ontario government passed its Cannabis Act, the province made it clear that smoking will not be allowed in any public places. It's even laid out the fines: $1,000 for a first offence and up to $5,000 when scofflaws are caught again. 

But in Ottawa, there's a wrinkle.

In the National Capital Region, where municipal, provincial and federal jurisdictions intersect, the regulations are more obscure.

'You can still smoke [cigarettes] in a federal park'

The municipality has stringent anti-smoking rules, which it would like to extend to cannabis.

But on NCC property, the city's rules don't apply.

"Right now you can still smoke [cigarettes] in a federal park. So you can smoke today at Confederation Park," said Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney. 

"We're introducing an environment where we're allowing the smoking of cannabis, and it just seems to run contrary to what we've been trying to accomplish over the last decade, and that's moving away from smoking in public places and not encouraging people to smoke."

A smoky haze hangs above the crowd gathered on Parliament Hill for last year's 420 celebration of cannabis culture. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Who will hand out fines?

The federal government has shied away from outlining where smoking should be allowed, stating online that municipalities and their provinces or territories will work together to put regulations in place.

Those rules will be enforced by "municipal bylaw, health and safety inspectors, and police."

This idea of enforcement brings added complications. 

As Ottawa Public Health told Radio-Canada, since the city has no authority over federal lands, municipal officers will not be able to issue fines in NCC parks.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury said the situation is frustrating, because it means people could disobey municipal rules by sparking up in Confederation Park, directly across the road from City Hall. 

"Ottawa Public Health will have to work with our federal partners to see how we work together here, because there will be different realities here in Ottawa," he said.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury says its important for rules governing recreational cannabis to be consistent across the city. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Fleury said he'd like to see "harmonization" on the issue, but he suspects there will be "a lot of conflict" in the coming months, especially if officials continue to conflate smoking cannabis with smoking tobacco. 

"You can walk out of a business, a private business, and smoke on the sidewalk if you're nine metres from the entrance, but you can't come out of an LCBO, open your bottle of wine and nine metres from the entrance, drink it," he said.

"It's not surprising to me that this conflict's starting to happen."

Chill, NCC says

The NCC said it doesn't know exactly how the new law will affect the use of its lands, but CEO Mark Kristmanson said he doesn't anticipate major issues. 

"For the moment, we're going to do this incrementally and follow our colleagues who are closer to the issue than we are," he said.

"But, the feedback I get from our staff is that people are actually pretty well-behaved and they kind of socially organize each other around these issues. This has been the case with smoking and drinking and so forth."

CEO Mark Kristmanson says if cannabis becomes a problem, the National Capital Commission could seek an order-in-council to adjust its authority on the issue. (CBC)

If complications crop up once federal laws are changed, he said the NCC will "go back for an order in council to adjust our permits, authorities and ticketing." 

It remains equally unclear how the provincial Cannabis Act outlawing smoking in public places could impact federally-owned land.

Scarce resources

The NCC has a historical reference for enforcement issues in the city's current smoke-free bylaws.

While municipal bylaw officers have no mandate to enforce city regulations outside city property, the NCC has made an effort to comply with the smoke-free rules for major events, including Bluesfest. 

Since Ottawa Bluesfest is held on National Capital Commission property, it falls outside the city's smoke-free regulations. But the NCC puts up signs to discourage people from lighting up cigarettes nevertheless. (CBC)

Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer who teaches drug policy at the University of Ottawa, suggests bylaw enforcement will soon become a non-issue. 

"You can get a parking ticket on NCC property. You can get a ticket for having alcohol in the cabin in Gatineau Park," he said. "There are people around who could follow it up, but are they going to bother chasing somebody who's three kilometres in from Champlain Lookout on a hike if they smoke pot? 

"I don't know. I really don't know. But, I think there's better ways to use scarce government resources."

With files from Radio-Canada