Jack Knox: Why do the billionaire Koch brothers care about our pot?

We caught another smoker last week. He wasn’t even trying to be discreet, just lit up right there in Centennial Square.

“Hold on, it’s only pot,” he protested, waving a joint as evidence. “In Victoria it’s damn near mandatory.”

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“Doesn’t matter,” came the reply. Marijuana, tobacco, vaping, it’s all the same under the capital region’s expanded Clean Air Bylaw. No smoking of any sort in parks, playgrounds, public squares.…

We threw him up against the wall, slapped on his blindfold and were about to let the firing squad do its thing when somebody remembered tradition dictated we slip one final cigarette between his lips, which left some of the boys feeling confused and conflicted and others slapping their pockets in search of non-existent matches and lighters.

In the end we pulled off the blindfold, unlocked the shackles and let him go with a $100 fine which, as of Oct. 1, is the penalty for breaking the smoking bylaw.

Not that this sits well with a group called the Consumer Choice Center which, from its headquarters if faraway Washington, D.C., fired off a press release headlined “Victoria’s cannabis fines are regressive against the poor.”

I’m not making this up. “These fines are incredibly punitive and are ultimately regressive against low-income consumers,” the release quoted a spokesman as saying. “Heavy-handed public consumption bylaws ultimately impact low-income consumers the most. Those who rent their homes are almost always prohibited from smoking indoors. Heavy-handed restrictions that further regulate public consumption significantly limit where low-income consumers can consume what are otherwise legal products.”

Which begs the question: Who is this Consumer Choice Center, and why is it so concerned about Victoria’s disadvantaged dopers?

It turns out it is an advocacy group opposed to all manner of consumer regulation. It popped up in Halifax last month making the same argument as in Victoria. In Saskatchewan, it lobbied against vaping restrictions in Prince Albert. In Ontario, it lobbied against limits on the number of pot shops.

Its funders include Japan Tobacco International and conservative groups tied to the U.S. billionaire Koch brothers. Got to admit it’s touching to think of the Koch brothers tossing and turning in their solid gold bunk beds, the plight of Victoria’s tapped-out tokers preventing them from slipping off to dreamland.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, Vancouver Island’s chief medical health officer and the driving force behind the regional district’s secondhand-smoke rules, is not as wounded by the Choice Center’s criticism as one might expect. In fact, he’s thrilled.

“I’m absolutely flattered that this organization has singled us out,” Stanwick says.

It has been 20 years since he drew this kind of international condemnation. Back then it was a tobacco industry-backed smokers’ rights association that named him Jackass Of The Month, the same award it bestowed upon the U.S. surgeon general. This time he’s in the company of the World Health Organization, one of the Choice Center’s other targets. “I’m back in the big leagues,” he says.

As for the fine that drew the group’s attention, here’s what happening: In April, the CRD bylaw that bans smoking in a variety of public places was expanded to include marijuana and vaping.

At the same time, it was decided to bump the associated fine to $100 from $50 for individuals and to $500 from $100 for businesses as of Oct. 1.

In practice, these smoking-law penalties exist in theory only, just like black holes, an alternative to the Malahat or the Canucks’ playoff chances. Since April 1, bylaw officers have issued 15 verbal warnings and 16 written ones — but no actual tickets — most of them involving tobacco. Nobody has been fined.

For this is the reality: The law depends less on the Smoking Police than on voluntary compliance combined with peer pressure.

That’s how it has been for a quarter-century, with public opinion being the greatest enforcement tool as smoking has become both socially unacceptable and illegal by increment — banned from airplanes, then from indoor workplaces, then school property, then bars and restaurants, then parks, beaches, playing fields, bus stops and the like. On the Indignation Scale, lighting up in public has drifted all the way from wearing-white-after-Labour-Day territory to the netherworld occupied by axe murderers, Wall Street scoundrels, elephant poachers and Maple Leafs fans.

The 90 per cent who don’t smoke tobacco have been quite happy to herd the 10 per cent who do into one final designated puffing patch on the old leper colony at Bentinck Island off Metchosin. Aside from the fact that legalization isn’t even here yet and the town already smells like a Grateful Dead concert, why would it be any different with marijuana?

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