Jack Knox: Hodgepodge of cannabis rules going up in smoke

Jack Knox mugshot genericParksville will permit public pot after all. Or, to be precise: Previous Parksville politicians proposed prohibiting puffing pot in public places, but the present pack punted their predecessors’ plan.

Or, in plain English, the newly elected municipal council voted this week to back away from the last council’s decision to impose what would have been the toughest cannabis-consumption rules in the province.

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Instead of a total ban on smoking marijuana in public, the mid-Island community will stick with the same restrictions that apply elsewhere in B.C.

In choosing to do so, it highlighted the hodgepodge of marijuana rules that apply across Canada. It also highlighted a reality faced by all governments: You can pass all the laws you want, but they don’t mean a thing if you can’t enforce them. In fact, that just ticks people off.

The argument in favour of banning dope-smoking from all public places goes like this: If it’s wrong to drink alcohol on the street (think of the children!) it should also be wrong to smoke a joint there (think of the grandparents!) At least drinkers don’t blow smoke in the faces of passersby.

The counter-argument is that while drinkers may go to a bar for a beer, there’s no equivalent for marijuana. B.C. doesn’t allow smoking lounges. Rules meant to protect bar staff and other workers from secondhand smoke prevent customers from lighting up. And if you live in one of those places where the landlord or strata bans smoking, a total public-places ban would pretty much leave you with nowhere to use what is now a legal substance.

Canada’s new marijuana law lets each province decide. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Yukon all chose to ban smoking in all public places. Quebec appears poised to follow suit, since that was one of the election promises of the new Coalition Avenir Québec government.

That puts them in line with many of our American neighbours. State law allows recreational marijuana in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and California, but bans all consumption in public.

Other provinces, including B.C., opted for a different route. Our government imposed restrictions that apply provincewide (broadly, people may smoke marijuana where they may smoke tobacco, with some additional restrictions: no toking around pools, arenas or sports fields, in cars and boats, in most areas of parks or near schools) but left individual municipalities free to add their own limitations, too. It’s the same approach that allowed the Capital Regional District to pass tobacco rules that were tighter than those of the province, and that now apply to marijuana, too.

Up in the Cariboo, Quesnel city council went even further, banning all smoking in public places. That’s the path the previous Parksville council had planned to take, too.

On first glance, the mid-Island community isn’t the most obvious candidate for a cannabis controversy. With a median age of 62.7 (compared with 43 in B.C. as a whole), you might think it might be more worried about rampant Geritol abuse.

Sure enough, a quick tour of the town this week revealed neither Seth Rogen nor Woody Harrelson sparking one up by the big boot at the mini-golf. No reefer roaches on the road to Rathtrevor. No toking on the track to Tigh-Na-Mara.

Ah, but don’t be deceived by stereotypes. When asked about the proposed ban, Parksville restaurant worker Chris Holigroski rolled his eyes. “I’m from Alberta,” he said. “When I got here six years ago, I kept smelling skunks. My sister said: ‘There’s not a single skunk on Vancouver Island. That’s pot.’ ”

His point was that if the law wasn’t much of a deterrent in the past, how did council expect people not to light up in public now that marijuana is legal?

That’s the same question the councillors were forced to confront this week.

“The reality is we’re a small community,” says the municipality’s chief administrative officer, Debbie Comis. “We don’t have the kind of staff resources to enforce something like that.”

All politicians need to remember that before diving into water that’s over their heads. People lose confidence in governments that pass laws that they then allow to be ignored.

Marijuana bans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if that paper is then used to roll a joint.

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