|Hot Box Cafe in Toronto|
By Matt Mernagh
Toronto’s bring-your-own marijuana scene has developed with little political resistance — until recently.
A city council item to conduct a comprehensive review of vapour lounges was sneakily passed during budget debate. Now cannabis-friendly establishments that allow people to come in and consume their own pot on-premise are wondering what’s going to happen next. Toronto Police Service have all the tools necessary to shut these places down right now, but haven’t.
Will city council meddling prompt cops to take a closer examination of their hands off policy?
Bring-your-wn cannabis venues — marketed as vapor lounges — began appearing when Canada’s marijuana law for possession wasn’t enforceable. During 2003 Summer of Legalization Abi Roach opened Hot Box Cafe, a place enthusiasts could bring their own from home too.
|Vapor Central in Tornto|
Instead of toking legally in parks around Kensington Market where her head shop Roach-o-Rama was located, residents began puffing down hard at her newly opened cafe, Hot Box, paying for the privilege to light it up in comfort and be served food.
Self-control rules were developed to protect the cannabis heaven. No boozing or drunken behavior. No selling or asking to buy marijuana because Canada’s trafficking laws remain a crime. You could possess pot, but not purchase, produce, or sell it.
When the law for possession became enforceable again, Toronto cops just let things continue. Now the city has five legit places at which potheads can inhale: Vapor Central (est. 2006), Village Vapor Lounge (est. 2010), Vapor Social (est. 2011) and Vape-on-the-Lake (est. 2011).
You don’t have to be in the know to find them. These respectable joints are not hiding in the vapor fog. Their doors are open to the public seven days a week. They have city-issued business permits and pay federal, provincial and payroll taxes. Media exposure has always been high, but suddenly city council or at least a councilor has taken an interest.
|City of Toronto|
|Toronto Councillor Mark Grimes appears to be a NIMBY, not a prohibitionist|
That councillor is Mark Grimes. A two term city councilor first elected in 2006, who’s riding includes the recently opened Vape-on-the-Lake. Grimes successfully passed an emergency resolution requesting city staff create a report on how vapor lounges exist and present their findings in February.
Typical of prohibition, the request wasn’t even debated. If this was such an emergency why did Mark Grimes wait five years before tabling a resolution seeking a report on vapor lounges? Dropping his request smack dab in the middle of extensively long budget talks and the holiday season.
Grimes appears to be a NIMBY (not in my back yard) not a prohibitionist. Until the arrival of a vapor lounge in his riding he didn’t have an interest in the stoner scene. Or he would have tabled his request much sooner to target other places not in his riding. The city issues a permit to Toronto Freedom Festival that attracts 40,000 pothead protest festival goers. He hasn’t complained about it. Only now he is worried about weed.
Grimes requests city staff to compile a report on vapour lounges (note Canada uses British spelling of vapour, but vapor business uses American because we get more tourist south of the border than across the pond) and their impact on neighborhoods by speaking with Toronto Police Service, Toronto Public Health and Toronto Municipal Licensing. There’s no public comment period!
One question being asked is, did city staff accidentally license an illegal activity?
|Vape on the Lake|
Vape-on-the-Lake owner Marco Renda (publisher of Treating Yourself magazine and host of Treating Yourself Expo) says, “I have had the city health department here. We passed the food inspection. We are 100 percent handicap accessible.”
Renda has a federal license allowing him to possess and grow his own. Some 12,000 Canadians currently have a federal exemption from marijuana laws license issued by Health Canada. Like Renda, they are 100 percent legal. Then there are ill people who should be legal, but are not.
An Ontario judge struck down personal possession and production laws for all when he determined the legal federal program wasn’t licensing enough sick people because doctors were boycotting it. Since ill people who should be exempt from the law were at risk of going to prison, the judge’s solution was to eliminate the law as unconstitutional — effectively making marijuana legal for everyone.
|Darren Calabrese/Toronto Star|
|Marco Renda, second from right, demonstrates the use of the Volcano vaporizer|
The federal government won an injunction on the ruling until they could organize and present their appeal on March 5 and 6. In the meantime people charged with possession or personal production can effectively wait it out until a ruling is made on whether there is or isn’t a law.
Confused? You’re not the only one.
Toronto Police Drug Squad spoke with Renda at Vape-on-the-Lake. No one was charged, questioned or harassed. The place was packed with patrons at the time. The odds are not all of them had a legal federal license, making it a challenge for the cops to determine who is and isn
‘t allowed to toke.
‘t allowed to toke.
The only question a lounge employee ask patrons is their age. Laws prevent establishments from asking people their medical status.
Regardless if they’re using for medical or social, Renda says by providing people a safe place to toke, it takes marijuana use off the streets, out of the parks and other public places and puts it behind closed doors. He agrees this is more an issue of NIMBY than prohibition, making for a potential positive outcome. Activists and vapor lounges are pushing for a permitting system and demanding the city take a proactive position, not a prohibitionist one.
|Matt Mernagh, Cannabis Champion of the World and author of this article|
Vapor Central’s Chris Goodwin is promising a strong protesting fight should prohibitionists come knocking with warrants and not permits.
Vapor lounges have put down impressive community roots; it’ll take a great deal of resources for them to be uprooted.
If you’re from outside the City of Toronto and came to visit our vapor lounge scene on a vacation, I want to hear from you. Please leave a comment.
Matt Mernagh is a grassroots lobbyist and freelancer. He blogs frequently about marijuana and contributes to Toronto alt-weekly NOW.