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BizX: The Buzz on Medical Marijuana Lounges: To Smoke or Not to Smoke in Public

[BizX – Dave Hall] More than 100 small businesses across Ontario, including two here in Windsor, face an uncertain future if amendments to the Smoke Free Ontario Act and the E-Cigarettes Act come into effect this summer.

The amendments would prohibit the smoking of legally-prescribed marijuana or inhaling the vapours from ground-up marijuana, from a vapourizer, in public spaces such as businesses established for that very purpose.

At least two Windsor businesses — Higher Limits Cannabis Lounge and Vapelated Vapour Lounge — are currently open and allowing clients to smoke medical marijuana or inhale vapours from medical marijuana on their premises.

But, all that could change if amendments to existing legislation are approved later this summer.

Jon Liedtke, Co-owner of Higher Limits, has taken a political approach to the issue by helping establish the Canadian Cannabis Confederation whose mandate is to redouble lobbying efforts, while also meeting with as many Ontario MPPs as possible.

“We met with Ministry of Health officials and they indicated this issue is not as black and white as it has been portrayed,” declares Liedtke. “I was very encouraged by the meeting and the fact that ministry officials were willing to meet and listen to what we had to say. They could have simply declined the meeting, but they didn’t, which I view as a positive development.”

Meanwhile, Leo Lucier, Owner of Vapelated Vapour Lounge at 26 Chatham Street East, says his objective — beyond continuing to operate his lounge — is to become a licensed dispensary for medical marijuana. His plan is to install a vending machine in his lounge, which would require those with medical marijuana prescriptions to punch in their prescription number and then use a debit card or credit card to pay for their marijuana.

“It needs to be tightly controlled — if that is what it takes,” states Lucier. “Although, there are lounges across this country where it’s not controlled and they are handing out pot over the counter like it’s gum.”

In fact, medical marijuana dispensaries have popped up in cities across Canada including Vancouver and Toronto where law enforcement officials seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach given the pending legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Liedtke believes passionately in his business model and its approach to providing medical marijuana users with a safe haven where they can take their medication alongside likeminded individuals.

“We provide a judgement-free zone where people can take their medication in the presence of like-minded people who suffer from debilitating conditions for which they have been prescribed medical marijuana,” says Liedtke. “This has become, in a very short time, a real community place for the vulnerable and a quiet oasis away from the prying eyes of the public.”

He expresses that they “are not trying to push this in anyone’s face,” as the business is located on the upper floor of 255 Ouellette Avenue. “In fact, you can barely even find us,” he notes.

But, all of that could soon come to an end.

Both businesses are facing an uncertain future after the provincial government’s recent announcement that vaping, using e-cigarettes and smoking marijuana, should be treated the same as smoking cigarettes and therefore illegal in public spaces.

“We have made a determination that smoking — whatever it is, whether it’s vaping, whether it’s medical marijuana, whether it’s cigarettes — there should be restrictions on that,” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters in March. The Premier said “I think it’s pretty commonsensical that, if you’re not allowed to smoke a cigarette, you shouldn’t be allowed to smoke anything else in the places where we have already deemed that smoking cigarettes is not acceptable.”

In November, provincial Associate Minister of Health Dipika Damerla said patients would be allowed to vape in public, but just one day later he said the government was reconsidering its policy.

And it’s that abrupt about turn, without any public consultation at the time, that has some critics of the amendments frustrated.

“Quite clearly, the government didn’t take any time to think it through before proposing the amendments,” says Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky (NDP). “It’s disappointing and frustrating for business owners to be facing this uncertainty after spending thousands of dollars to set up their businesses.”

Gretzky says “Jon’s point is valid in that people prescribed medical marijuana should be able to take it in a ‘compassion lounge’ where they will be accepted and not judged.”

Amendments to the bills have already gone through First and Second Reading at Queen’s Park and the government conducted a public comment and consultation process, which expired on April 24.

David Jensen, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, says there were no timelines in place for the amendments to take effect.

“We will analyze all the feedback and public comments collected during this process and move ahead in a timely fashion,” says Jensen.

If the amendments pass as proposed, they would ban the smoking of marijuana in public spaces under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act and also ban the use of e-cigarettes and medical marijuana vapourizers in public spaces under the Electronic Cigarettes Act.

But, there are those who believe a distinction should be made between smoking marijuana and inhaling its vapours from a vapourizer or atomizer.

Jeff Yurek, Conservative MPP for Elgin Middlesex-London, stated during a recent 2nd Reading debate on the issue, that he believes “it is not in the public’s interest to have medical marijuana smoked wherever you please.”

“I think there’s a time and place to take your medication and that’s what medical marijuana is,” says Yurek. “As such, as with any medication, there are side effects and second-hand smoke from medical marijuana may not be beneficial for others around you in public.”

But, Yurek believes vaping should be treated differently.

“I seriously hope the government is listening to the owners of vape businesses and trying to work with them to ensure they don’t legislate them out of business,” Yurek comments. “I’d hate to see people having to purchase vape products online from a vendor — who knows where the product is coming from.”

Liedtke says that even that compromise would greatly impact his business model and believes a blanket exemption should be made for people taking their medication either by smoking it or vaping it.

“The Premier has said she is in favour of safe injection sites where people can take otherwise illegal drugs and to place the needs of illegal drug users ahead of the rights of medical marijuana users is reprehensible,” says Liedtke. “We also offer a safe environment.”

Lucier says he just wants his business to be treated the same as similar businesses across Canada.

“We want to be considered a compassion club where people are able to take their medication in any way they see fit,” adds Lucier. “We also want to be licensed as a distributor so that we can supply medical marijuana to those who have legal prescriptions.”

Lucier continues, “We would be no different than any of the other businesses, which have already been licensed to distribute legally.”

Compassion lounges and medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia for more than 20 years because of a longstanding difference of opinion between the judicial system and the government over patient rights and their access to medical marijuana.

“Not long ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’,” says Lucier. “If that is truly the case, then I want my business to be treated the same as similar businesses across this country.”

Both Lucier and Liedtke have invested thousands of dollars on equipment and accessories, in their new ventures, and both are hoping rules and regulations will be put in place to enable them to continue operating.

At Higher Limits, patrons pay a $5 daily cover charge and must provide their own medical marijuana. There are snacks, pop and juices available for purchase as well as a small counter where patrons can purchase marijuana accessories.

No alcohol is allowed on the premises and, in fact, Liedtke surrendered the liquor license of the previous business before opening.

Meanwhile at Vapelated, members also pay a $5 daily cover and can buy a $35 monthly membership. So far, Lucier said he has roughly 150 members.

Lucier says there are also bongs and vapourizers for sale or rent and patrons can purchase snacks, pop or juice. There is no alcohol allowed on the premises.

Liedtke says that once his patrons have acquired a medical marijuana prescription from their physician, they have to purchase their marijuana on line from one of more than two dozen licensed producers across Canada.

Jonah, a regular at Higher Limits who declined to give his last name, says the lounge is a safe, social environment where fellow users can discuss events and topics surrounding the use of medical marijuana.

“I take it because of congenital spinal issues, which won’t allow me to sit or stand for any length of time without having shooting spinal pains,” says Jonah. “I believe we should have access to our medicine in a venue of our choice so that we can live our daily lives relatively pain-free.”

Liedtke adds “We have also become a resource place for people with these medical issues. People need information and support and that’s what we provide.”

Liedtke claims there are as many as 65 marijuana dispensaries in the Toronto area and that 64 of them opened in the last three months.

Most recently, Shoppers Drug Mart announced it would be willing to dispense medical marijuana, but no final decisions have been made on that issue.

Shoppers and other companies interested in selling medical marijuana would have to acquire a distribution license from Health Canada, which would allow for marijuana to be purchased from a licensed producer. The product could then be repackaged by the distributor or sold under the producer’s brand name.

The province is also considering making marijuana available from LCBO outlets, largely because of the potential profits, especially if recreational use of the drug is legalized.

In June 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a decision that would allow producers to sell marijuana in oil form, which would allow it to be ingested rather than smoked thus side-stepping the second-hand smoke issue.

Dr. Christopher Blue, a member of the Essex County Medical Society, says that inhaling vapours or taking cannabis in droplet form on the tongue is the most efficient way of accessing the medication and that smoking it is the least efficient.

“I do not, in any way, condone smoking cannabis as a way of taking your medication,” says Blue. “I take this issue very seriously and accessing it in oil form or from a vapourizer is the best way to get the medication into your system.”

Blue also said that accessing cannabis from regulated distributors is the safest way to acquire it because “you know what you are getting, but that is not the case if you acquire it illicitly.”

“You have a general idea of what your buddy is selling you, but you cannot be 100 percent certain,” says Blue. “There are still a lot of negative connotations attached to medical cannabis, even within the medical community, but acquiring it through a prescription and a regulated distributor is the safest way.”

Pain from ailments alleviated by marijuana can include serious digestive issues, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, spinal problems and cancer, among many others.

Blue says that his patients are referred to him by a general practitioner and following a consultation, he registers them with a licensed producer who then provides medical marijuana based on his prescription.

“I generally provide a prescription for 60 days and then require my patients to come back and see me so I can assess how they are doing,” says Blue.

Generally, patients are limited to no more than 10 grams a day and often far less, according to Liedtke, who says he uses about 30 grams a month to help him deal with chronic digestive issues.

Purchased from a licensed producer, it can cost between $5 and $10 per gram. It is generally not covered by insurance plans, but veterans can be covered by Veterans Affairs Canada.

Larry Horwitz, Chair of the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association (DowntownWindsor.ca), says he wishes both new businesses good luck and that they are part of the diversification of downtown which needs many different kinds of businesses in order to be attractive to Windsorites.

“It’s a new frontier and the fact that you can also no longer smoke on patios is also having a negative effect on businesses in the core,” says Horwitz. “The problem with most legislation is that it uses broad strokes, which can have unintended consequences.”

Horwitz stresses that our “Ultimate goal is to diversify the downtown core and we hope that regulations can be put into effect which will allow many different kinds of businesses to sustain themselves.”

Craft Heads Brewing Company, another downtown Windsor business situated at 89 University Avenue West, teamed up with Higher Limits in April to produce and sell a one-of-a-kind hemp beer — THC: Tasty Hemp Concoction. A 4% alcohol product and hemp based, the beer contains no THC, which is the active agent in cannabis, despite the name.

But marijuana-related businesses such as Vapelated and Higher Limits, and others which may follow, are also facing opposition on other fronts.

According to the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, which is responsible for conducting inspections of premises such as vape lounges, “it is important to note that as of January 1, 2016 it is illegal to sell or supply e-cigarettes and component parts to anyone under the age of 19.”

“Additionally, you cannot smoke, hold lighted tobacco or have an ashtray or any device which serves as an ashtray in any enclosed workplace, any enclosed public places and specifically designated outdoor places in Ontario under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act,” says Kristy McBeth, Director of Knowledge Management for the health unit.

McBeth also says that local municipal bylaws are also in place in some Essex County municipalities, which further prohibit the use of tobacco and smoking related products, including e-cigarettes in outdoor municipal spaces.

All in all, the use of medical marijuana seems to have become mired in a confusing tangle of municipal, provincial and federal rules and regulations, many of which have gone unchallenged for years.

This comes at a time when it appears likely that the federal government may soon legalize marijuana for recreational use.

In late April, 2016 the federal government announced in a speech at the United Nations that it would be taking steps to legalize marijuana by spring of next year.

The government says that it will introduce legislation to begin the process toward legalized and regulated cannabis in order to protect youth and enhance public safety.

By Jon Liedtke

Jon Liedtke is a writer and musician in Windsor Ontario. He tells stories using words, pictures, audio and video.

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