Toronto Vapor Lounge: Is it an open or shut case?

By Al Graham P.A.C.E.

In issue 35 of Treating Yourself Magazine P.A.C.E. reported on the Vapor Lounge situation in Toronto.

Within that article we touched on several things such as where they were located, access to them, what they offered for entertainment to food and rentals. Also men- tioned in the article was that the information that was gathered, would be shared with a member of  Toronto City Council as a way to help educate them on the facts. So what has happened since then? Did the city shut the lounges down or are they still operating?

The good news is all but one of them is still operating today with one having to change their location. The Zion Lounge has had to close due to a building issue and the last I heard they were still looking for a new place. Meanwhile the Hot Box Cafe was forced to move just down the street in the Kensington Market because the building they were in was sold.

This past September the owners or representatives of these lounges had an opportunity to meet with two mod- erators from the City of Toronto. These two listened  to the owners as they talked about the lounges for what they bring to the city and why they should be allowed to oper- ate. The city moderators asked the owners or their repre- sentatives many questions as the city feels that they should be regulated and have concerns about their legal standings. After meeting with the owners, the moderators also had plans to meet the city solicitor, the chief of  police, Toronto Fire Services and other officials before

Vapor Lounges speak out

To find out exactly what has been happening I contacted all the vapour lounge owners to ask them about the September meeting. I was seeking answers on how they felt things went, did they feel like they were listened to, has there been any formal complaints to the city about the lounges to what they felt was their chances of success to remain open.

Chris Goodwin the owner of  Vapor  Central  wasn’t  able to attend but felt that his representatives Dom Cramer and Lawyer Alan Young made a good case to the moder- ators. Abi Roach at the Hot Box Cafe agrees but says that “since there was no police, health or licensing reps there, it was a very one sided case, rather than an open discus- sion” For Camille Salter and Ben Reaburn over at Vapor Social they also felt that things went over very well. Camille wrote to tell me that that they were given lots of time and opportunity to make their feelings known. She went on to say that they were able “to discuss how the lounges came into existence, to discuss why they contin- ue to operate, and to illuminate why they are an essential service for users of marijuana both medical, and recre- ational.” So why did the city go after these locations? Did they receive a formal complaint from a regular citizen in Toronto? While it has been widely reported that City Councillor Mark Grimes was upset about Vape on the Lake opening up near his office, none of the owners  wrote to say that they were aware of any complaints. A

A couple of them even wrote to say that they are members of their local BIA or are supported by the businesses located around them. According to Camille, Alan Young informed the moderators “there has yet to be an official complaint filed against any of the vapor lounges in the city of Toronto since the onset of their operations” with the exception being the Kindred Cafe that is no longer in business.

So what was the city looking for and what were their concerns? Abi mentioned to me that they were concerned for public health and safety as they asked about the “cleanliness of sharing vape mouth pieces, the concern about minors and the people’s safety when they get too high”. Camille added that “The first concern brought to  the forefront of the discussion was the question of vapor- ization versus combustion of cannabis. The pros and cons of offering spaces purely for vaporization and those that allow the smoking or combustion of cannabis as well were discussed” she went on to say that “ we discussed medical marijuana, and the pros and cons of providing these spaces only for medical users.”

So how do you tell the difference between a medical user and a recreational one? For many the answer seems sim- ple, ask the person for their government paperwork but others see that as an invasion of one’s medical privacy. For Marco Renda, owner of Vape on the Lake, he has always maintained that it would be illegal for his work- ers to request medical identification. This concern was also brought up at the meeting as well as all the other problems around the MMAR program. After some dis- cussion with the moderators on this Camille reported  that everyone agreed “to limit the use of vapor lounges to ATP holders [not] only was a violation of human right, beginning from the requirement to disclose medical status to a vapor lounge operator, to the difficulty presented in obtaining licensing in this country.”

Is asking someone for their medical license a violation of their rights? Several months ago I wrote lawyer Paul Lewin, who is involved in the Matt Mernagh case about these privacy concerns. I wanted to know if a  bylaw  could be put into place that would require owners to check for medical cards or paper work. At that time he wrote back to say “Yes, the city could require (in some new bylaw) that the vapour lounges permit only licensed users. Off the top of my head, I don’t think this would breach any medical privacy laws.” He goes on to say that “s. 56 of the CDSA permits the federal government to exempt a person or class of persons from the CDSA.  If  the city makes a big deal out of the fact that some patrons are not legally allowed to consume then the city could get around this by seeking an s. 56 exemption for Toronto vapour lounges. In other words, the city would apply to the federal government to exempt the vapour lounges.” It’s interesting to know that not only can a person could

be protected under section 56 but it could also allow the lounges to be exempt as well. If this becomes an issue then maybe one of the lounge owners could try to get the city to look into this option.

One of my last questions to them was about their chances of success? If successful do they feel that the city will reg- ulate things in such a way that will require them to only allow medical people into their businesses possibly add ventilation if not equipped and pass a food inspection?

Over at Vapor Social Camille says that they are very opti- mistic about the results of the city review and said that “success for us would also consist of simply being permit- ted to continue to operate, with legislation or without it, as essential business entities providing a much needed service to Torontonians and visitors from elsewhere.” Camille also said that the city has concerns about venti- lation and wondered if these places had air filters or some way of reducing the smoke within a room.

For Abi she says it could go either way “I feel as though it’s a 50/50 (chance) it depends on the police & health report. If they do make vapor lounges med only, I don’t know if there are enough legal medical card holders to sustain a business and pay the rent.” Chris at Vapor Central had another prospective on things.  I’ve  seen Chris in action since the days of Up in Smoke, I’ve seen him hold rallies in defiance of the law to prove that the laws are wrong. Because of this I wasn’t surprised when he told me “I will be successful because I will violate any and all unjust regulations openly and honestly. I practice civil disobedience when others attempt to require me to act against what I think is right. Vapor  Central  is meant to provide a safe and comfortable place for recreational cannabis users to consume, and we won’t be delegated to second class citizens.”

Toronto Staff Report

Since the meeting with the lounge owners back in September, the moderators were able to meet with the other interested groups. With the report now completed they released it for everyone to read in the middle of October.

The city wanted to know the impact the lounges had on the neighbourhoods in and around them, the state of the present medical marijuana program to recognizing the difference between medical and recreational users. It says that “consideration be given to undertake a review  of  City regulations, such as the licensing of such businesses and amendments to applicable bylaws to assist in con- trolling the impacts related to the lawful aspects of this activity.” It goes on to say that they believe that it is “imperative to distinguish between and balance the rights and interests of those with permitted medical use of mar- ihuana and the non-medical marihuana use taking place

at some of these establishments”. While they talk about balancing the rights of both medical and non medical use, they seem to forget that non licensed people need to enter these places. Many MMAR card holders require a care- giver to be present with them. Will these caregivers be allowed to continue this care while at one of these places?

Unfortunately they get their propaganda line in when  they say that “Many of these locations operate in close proximity to schools, food establishments, shops and other services, and as such, there are concerns about the potential for associated community  disorder.”  It would be interesting to know if any incidents of concern connect the schools and these locations, or is that just a fear that won’t happened. With these places having a federally licensed or over 18 policy in place there should be no con- cern of school age children getting into them. Do they use this concern when regulating places that serve alcohol such as restaurants that are near schools?

The report also included information about vaporization and how the equipment worked, complete with actual photos of the Volcano Vaporizer. It reported on and had documentation on what the present and the future MMAR program could look like. I was surprised to see that it even came with a chart showing that there are 500 MMAR licensed people living in Toronto as well as the number of designated growers within city.

Community Impact

When it came to the community impact that  these lounges would have on the neighbourhoods and business- es around them, the report says that “the principal con- cerns with these businesses regard the potential risks posed to public safety and the potential for nuisances because of difficulty determining whether those patroniz- ing the establishment are in fact authorized to possess marihuana for medical purposes.” This I find very inter- esting as it sounds like it’s a nuisance in determining whether a patron is licensed or not but yet they want the owners to it. Does this also mean that a person,  who is not medical, cannot otherwise be a law abiding citizen? Is this person automatically a public safety risk? What if a licensed person’s permit expires, are they now a threat to our community? Unfortunately what they fail to recog- nize is that the laws against cannabis are really creating the threat and not the people themselves. Maybe the city should talk to the mayors in British Columbia to learn how they plan on dealing with cannabis.

To find out more about the impact that this would have  on the communities the moderators reached out to the area’s BIA groups. The report mentions that the Lakeshore BIA, where Vape on the Lake is located, didn’t support the lounges. Why, because they felt it did not fit  in with their community plans and not because of some terrible or dangerous incident at the lounge. Meanwhile a

representative from the Church and Wellesley BIA didn’t have any particular concerns with a vapour lounge in their neighbourhood. For Abi at the Hot Box there is  good news because according to the report the represen- tative from the BIA in the Kensington Market “represent- ed a positive view of the vapour lounge operating in that neighbourhood and spoke positively of the owner’s con- tribution as an active member of the BIA.” It’s  interest- ing to see that two out of the three BIA’s that made an appearance had no concern and actually work with the lounges, this proves that these locations can and do work with the other businesses and that the fear raised is only fear and isn’t based on evidence.

The information in the report about their meeting with owners mentions many of the things that they wrote to me about. It said that “Owners and operators believe that these businesses have a positive impact on the neighbour- hoods in which they are located. They believe that vapour lounges attract people to the area, thereby improving the business of neighbouring food establishments while, additionally, reducing some of the public nuisance associ- ated with those who consume marihuana outdoors.” It goes on to say that the “Owners and operators reported that they are taking steps to address concerns about air quality, overconsumption and associated nuisances” and that “that staff monitor individuals to ensure that mari- huana is being consumed safely, and that counselling is available, when necessary and that their business opera- tions do not constitute any egregious challenges to public safety or health.” It’s good to read that their input was included positively in this report.

The Fire and Police Reports

The Toronto Fire Services report for this study said that they “were consulted to determine whether the activities undertaken at vapour lounges constitute any fire hazard. Site inspections were conducted and the TFS concluded that, in general, no obvious fire hazards exist at vapour lounges.” Thus another fear eliminated.

The police services report said that they investigate “busi- nesses operating as vapour lounges on a complaint basis and has several concerns with regard to businesses oper- ating as vapour lounges” According to what was said at the owners meeting there has been no formal complaints lodged with the city but Toronto police services report that there has been several “number of calls for service” incidents. A look at the chart in the report, which was provided by the police, shows that there have been a total of 76 of these service calls in 3 years, which would prob- ably equal to less than a weekend’s work in the entertain- ment districts of the city. Unfortunately just stopping in for a routine visit could be classified as a service call, especially if they arrested some peaceful person. The police mentioned that they do enter these places to check on compliance and to make sure that there are no prob-

lems because as they say public and community disorder is there concern. It doesn’t mean that there has been an official complaint filed with the city or a dangerous crim- inal incident has occurred.

Lounge locations

The report discusses the lounge locations within their community and their proximity to elementary and high schools. This came complete with a map of each location showing where the schools are located to the lounge. It states in bold writing that they found “each  vapour lounge in the City operates within one square kilometre of at least two elementary or high schools.” It concludes with a concern of “the potential for exposure to adoles- cents below the age of consent raises concerns about the negative impact these businesses have on impressionable youth.” What about this age of consent and the impres- sion on young people? Presently there is no age of con- sent for the use of cannabis and if they are worried about impressionable youth then people need to look all around them. Everything from cartoons to video games contains violence and let’s not forget about those sexy alcohol commercials on TV. Is this not creating more of a nega- tive impression on our youth than walking past a busi- ness that people on the outside can see what the people on the inside are doing? Presently no lounge seating area is visible from the street so no young impressionable youth can see someone medicating inside any of these places.

Next steps

So what’s next? Where do things go from here? According to the report “It is recommended that the City institute plans in advance to ensure that this legal con- sumption is regulated in a manner which both recognizes the rights of medical marihuana users and addresses pub-

lic safety and community disorder concerns.”

Within the rational of this recommendation it states “The bylaw would recognize Medical Marihuana  Consumption Facilities as businesses in which individuals can possess and consume marihuana for medical purpos- es. This term would refer to businesses currently operat- ing as vapour lounges.” It’s interesting to see that these locations are no longer called vapor lounges by the city, maybe it sounds too comfy. Instead they prefer them to what some might think is a cold sounding name but one that some won’t mind.

The rational goes on to say “ Considerations of the bylaw could include that owners and operators be required to ensure that individuals who possess and consume mari- huana on the premises have a legal authorization from Health Canada, and that patrons would be required to have documentation confirming their legal authorization in their possession.” It’s interesting to note that  they called this exercise a “nuisance”.  They  also  mention about how the program will work in the future including how a patient will get a prescription from their doctor and then give this to a commercial growing facility. Basically just like we do now when we go to the pharma- cy to get a prescription filled and then you leave without any paperwork. If this program is run the same way then the patient would leave and have no other way to identi- fy themselves as a person using therapeutic cannabis. When you think about it should they? Presently we have  a problem with narcotic opiate drugs being available on the streets; do the people with opiate prescriptions carry identification saying that they are an opiate user?

It finishes off with “Ensuring that only federally author- ized users are consuming marihuana on the premises will address the current nuisances and circumstances which can lead to crime.” It would be interesting to know how

a former licensed person, who’s doctor retired and they can’t find a new doctor to agree, would all of a sudden become a “nuisance. and lead to crime”?

The report concludes saying that “Though vapour lounges are not an entirely new business in the City, the number of new establishments in the past three years – including two in the past year – and the upcoming changes to the MMAR, have the potential to exacerbate existing concerns.” They clearly recognize that in the future more people will be using cannabis as a medicine, which is also something the police mentioned in their report. They both wrote that the existing concerns could become worse, but if there have been no formal complaints, it tells there real- ly haven’t been any many major concerns other than they exist.

While this report touches on the concerns about some dan- gerous or criminal behaviour happening, it’s interesting to note the report doesn’t list one dangerous criminal activity to have happened, since the first location opened over ten years ago. When it came to the letter from the police department they raised the situation about a person using a water bong at Dundas Square during an outdoor family movie night. The movie that night was Dazed and Confused, a movie that highlights the final days of high school for a group of students which included more than one scene of the kids out partying, drinking and smoking marijuana. No folks, this was no Disney love story that the officer was trying to portray in his letter to the committee.

It’s interesting to note the report from the police didn’t mention anything about the annual showing of 50,000 people at the Toronto Global Marijuana March which is also held in a public location. Maybe they didn’t bring it up because there has never been an arrest at the GMM. This also proves that events this large do not create the violence and disorder the police like to use when talking about cannabis issues. Maybe they thought by including the words “family movie” in its report that it would help

with the campaign of fear.

Some would say that the city really has no choice as cannabis is against the law. While this may seem true to some it’s unfortunate that they did not join the city coun- cil in Vancouver who has asked the federal government to decriminalize cannabis, which is pointed out in this report. It’s also worth noting that the Matt Mernagh case was not mentioned at anytime. Matt’s case may throw the whole MMAR program out and force the government to change the regulations more than what his case already has.

The report also touches on the need of regulations for when the government starts to issue the large commercial grower licenses. When these discussions start and become known we will try to keep you informed on them. If you want to see the Vapor Lounge report you can view it at groundfile-50975.pdf

With the city moving to regulate the lounges and forcing them into making these businesses only available to med- ical people, what about those who cannot find a compas- sionate doctor to sign and what about everyone else? According to a U.N. report 17% of Canadians consume cannabis. Of that, a Health Canada report in 2004 stated that 7% or over 2 million people in Canada use cannabis for medical purposes. It’s  terrible and cruel that only 20,000 people have been able to find a compassionate doctor. What about those who cannot get a doctor to sign or give them a prescription because the doctor just does- n’t want to? What about the other 10%  of our  popula- tion who are the 3 million people who use it for recre- ational purposes? One would think they to would  prefer to be treated like regular people and not as a criminal. Instead of having access to a safe location, where will all these otherwise law abiding people go? For now, time will only tell, but one has to ask, is it right to force law abid- ing people into the back alley with the murderers and rapists?

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