Is Toronto ready to handle cannabis legalization? Why it's a 'murky situation'

With cannabis set to become legal on Wednesday, it's still hazy how different city departments will regulate smoking on the streets of Toronto.

It's unclear how different city departments will regulate pot smoking starting Wednesday

With cannabis set to become legal on Wednesday, it's still hazy how the city will regulate smoking on the streets of Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With cannabis set to become legal on Wednesday, it's still hazy how the city will regulate smoking on the streets of Toronto.

According to city officials, staff are waiting for new provincial smoking legislation to come into force, which is leading to big differences in how several departments intend to handle pot regulations — circumstances one municipal law expert believes could lead to a "chaotic situation" in the days ahead.

Right now, the province's Bill 36 — which proposes allowing cannabis smoking and vaping in public spaces — is "currently in the legislative process," according to the attorney general's office.

"It is up to municipalities to determine locally how they will apply their general legislative authority, such as making local decisions about further restricting cannabis smoking or vaping," spokesperson Jessica Trepanier told CBC Toronto in an email.

But in Toronto, city staff are acknowledging it's a mixed bag when it comes to how different departments are equipped to handle those decisions.

Different city departments, different powers

On one hand, Municipal Licensing and Standard's officers will continue enforcing the smoking bylaw for parks, said city spokesperson Jennifer Wing.

That bylaw doesn't differentiate between tobacco and cannabis, instead acting as a blanket ban on smoking around certain city park facilities, including sports fields, skateboard parks, playgrounds and public washrooms.

It's a different story for Toronto Public Health (TPH).

City staff are acknowledging it's a mixed bag when it comes to how different departments are equipped to handle pot's legalization on Wednesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That city branch adheres to provincial legislation surrounding tobacco smoking specifically. Because of that, TPH needs to wait for the updated smoking act to come into force, CBC Toronto has learned.

Only then will TPH staff "have the authority" to enforce cannabis use provisions, noted TPH spokesperson Loren Vanderlinden, manager of healthy public policy. 

TPH is still reviewing options with the city's legal team to ensure local bylaws can "address cannabis smoking in public places beyond what is expected from amendments to the Smoke Free Ontario Act," she added.

City in a 'murky situation'

That's a "murky situation," according to municipal law expert John Mascarin. "And I think starting tomorrow, it's going to be a chaotic situation."

Mascarin, a partner at Toronto law firm Aird and Berlis, said there's no question Toronto and other municipalities have an "array of tools" to regulate cannabis smoking, but the bylaws need to be set in stone to do so.

"They have to consider a number of things. Are you going to allow smoking anywhere, or only in certain places? Are you going to zone for that? Are you going to license cannabis and the establishments that sell it?" he said.

John Mascarin, a partner with Aird & Berlis and a municipal law specialist, says the city is currently in a 'murky situation' when it comes to handling pot legalization. (Aird & Berlis)

Right now, there are still many "missing pieces" in the city's strategy, noted health board chair Coun. Joe Mihevc.

"We've been caught off guard because the provincial strategy around the roll-out of cannabis differed when there was a change of government, when Doug Ford became premier," he added, noting it went from a tightly-controlled sales mechanism to a more liberal approach.

While the city can add more restrictions, "that conversation hasn't even taken place," Mihevc said.

That lack of preparedness stemmed from the timing of the province's cannabis strategy announcement, while Toronto was already in "campaign mode" for the Oct. 22 election.

Council sorting out details after Oct. 22 election

The city needs to figure out public health education strategies, sales strategies, and how to potentially regulate cannabis smoking in multi-residential buildings like low-rises and rooming houses — areas with common duct systems — where Mihevc said residents are already raising concerns about pot's "distinctive smell."

"I don't know where this is going to go," said Mihevc. "But we'll need time after the election to sort that stuff out."

Right now, there are still many 'missing pieces' in the city's strategy, noted health board chair Coun. Joe Mihevc, seen here at a September council meeting. (John Rieti/CBC)

The first council meeting of the new term is not until December, more than a month after legalization.

Mascarin said this confusing situation isn't unique to Toronto, but one likely faced by municipalities across the province.

"No one really knows what you can enforce, and what you can't enforce," he said.

"I think it's going to take some time for the federal government, the province, and municipalities to figure out who will regulate what — and how they're going to do it."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

With files from Mike Smee