It’s somewhat ironic that shortly after this country legalized cannabis in October 2018, Toronto’s Hotbox Cafe, which for years allowed patrons to consume marijuana in a space at the back of the store, was forced to shut down its consumption lounge.
This was because changes to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act (SFOA), which the provincial government adopted during the lead-up to legalization, banned all forms of vaping and the smoking of cannabis indoors. Previously, there had not been any prohibitions on vaping in public spaces and the law only explicitly banned tobacco smoking, leaving cannabis consumption spaces to operate in a legal grey area.
There’s also a “cannabis-friendly yoga studio” in midtown Toronto that offered participants the opportunity to get high while doing yoga. But when I asked them how things were going shortly after legalization, I was told that the ban on vaping indoors had caused them to stop offering the classes and rethink their business model.
Don’t expect any Amsterdam-style coffeeshops in Ontario any time soon.
I’m not quite sure why there’s a big difference between allowing people to use an illegal product in a legal way and allowing them to use a legal product in an illegal way — either way, some law is being broken. But changes to the provincial law obviously gave these businesses pause.
Now, the Ontario government is taking a (small) step in the right direction by announcing that it is engaging in public consultations over the prospect of allowing cannabis consumption in “specified social settings,” such as in cafés and at outdoor concerts and festivals. The only caveat: “The government is not considering changes to the SFOA regime as part of this consultation,” according to a government form soliciting feedback from the public.
In other words, don’t expect any Amsterdam-style “coffeeshops” in Ontario any time soon.
This is unfortunate because, while allowing some businesses to offer edibles and cannabis-infused beverages would be a step in the right direction, most consumers prefer to consume cannabis the traditional way — by inhaling it.
Indeed, when BDS Analytics looked at the top-selling products in California, Colorado and Oregon in the first half of 2018, the Top 3 were flower, vape cartridges and pre-rolled joints. In fact, out of the Top 10 cannabis products, only two were edibles.
It’s understandable that in an age in which governments have outlawed smoking just about everywhere, they would be reluctant to make an exemption for cannabis. But there are a number of differences when it comes to marijuana.
The classic argument for banning cigarettes in bars and restaurants was that patrons and staff were being unwittingly exposed to harmful second-hand smoke, even if they themselves were non-smokers. Yet if a business was set up with the sole purpose of allowing people to smoke weed, customers and employees would know exactly what they were getting into beforehand and there would be no reason for anyone who was not interested in inhaling cannabis smoke to enter the premises.
In the Netherlands, the country’s smoking ban prevents people from smoking joints mixed with tobacco in the country’s coffeeshops, but makes an exemption for cannabis smoking.
Moreover, unlike second-hand smoke, second-hand vapour does not pose a risk to bystanders, as it does not contain the tar or other carcinogens produced by burning plant material. With Canadian companies now selling e-cigarette style vape pens and cartridges as part of Cannabis 2.0, and a wide variety of products on the market that vaporize dried flower, it would make sense for the government to at least consider allowing this increasingly popular way of consuming cannabis to take place within licensed, adult-only establishments.
Indeed, most of the grey-market cannabis cafés have been operating as vapour lounges for years, often providing vaporizers that customers can pack with their own dried cannabis.
As cannabis use becomes more normalized, it makes sense to allow people to partake in it in social settings, as they do with alcohol. Canadian companies have apparently been producing beverages that have a much faster onset than edibles. Offering these in cannabis bars, or alongside alcohol in regular ones, would offer an experience that’s similar to how people are used to consuming alcohol. But it’s hard to imagine that most Canadians would see the prospect of going to a café, eating a pot brownie and having to sit there for an hour and a half before feeling any effects all that appealing.
It’s a shame that when cannabis was legalized, Canada opted for such a strict regulatory regime, which may take decades to liberalize. It would seem, however, that allowing consumption in more social settings, like in cafés and at events, is the way things are going.
Nunavut’s legislation already allows for marijuana to be sold and consumed in cannabis lounges, though it also doesn’t allow the product to be smoked in such places. South of the border, states that have legalized also opted not to follow the Dutch model, but that is beginning to change.
In September, the Lowell Cafe in West Hollywood, Calif., became the first legal cannabis café in the country. It allows customers to order cannabis like they would a bottle of wine, which they can smoke or vape while enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee.
Nevada has also been considering allowing cannabis consumption lounges. Although the state legislature won’t make the practice legal until next year at the earliest, in October, the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, which is located on sovereign tribal land, opened the country’s first cannabis tasting room.
In a few years, it would not be surprising if more U.S. states start allowing cannabis cafés to operate legally. Canadian provinces should follow their lead and allow business and consumers the freedom to smoke or vape in legal establishments.