Review of Businesses Operating as Vapour Lounges
Review of Businesses Operating as Vapour Lounges Licensing and Standards Committee Executive Director, Municipal Licensing and Standards Staff Report for Action – Vapour Lounges - Medical Marihuana 2012 Report HERE: http://www.torontohemp.com/gallery/torontolicensingvaporloungesreport.pdf
At its meeting of November 29, 2011, City Council directed the Executive Director, Municipal Licensing and Standards to undertake a comprehensive review of the legality and neighbourhood impact of businesses operating as “vapour lounges”: 2011 Report HERE: http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2011/mm/bgrd/backgroundfile-42713.pdf
Vapour Lounges and Vapourization
The term “vapour lounge” refers to establishments at which individuals consume marihuana indoors. Though some vapour lounges operate as cafés or entertainment venues, the primary purpose of these establishments is to provide a social setting, space and the necessary accessories for patrons to consume the marihuana that they bring to the premises. Each of the City’s currently known vapour lounges prohibit the sale or consumption of alcohol or tobacco on the premises.
Operators and patrons use the term “vapour lounge” to refer to a popular method of marihuana consumption carried out at these establishments, which is through vapourization. It is reported that the main benefit of vapourization is that the marihuana releases tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marihuana, without emitting the toxic tars and chemicals that conventional combustion creates. It should be noted, however, that in most vapour lounges patrons are free to consume the drug through any traditional combustion method as well.
Vapour lounges operate within the wider context of the marihuana activist community. From hosting marihuana-friendly celebrities, to selling activist paraphernalia, these establishments provide a sense of community and a platform for those who feel the current legal restrictions related to marihuana should be repealed.
For medical marihuana users, these lounges provide a secure environment to treat themselves outside of the home. And for those wishing to vapourize marihuana, rather than smoke it, these lounges provide inexpensive access to vapourizing machines and accessories, which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for some individuals. The Toronto Police Service identifies six businesses operating as vapour lounges in the City. These businesses do not operate in concentrated areas, though the majority do operate downtown. While three vapour lounges have operated for more than five years, two have opened within the last year.
Currently, the City has no specific licensing category for vapour lounges. These businesses operate either without a business license, or hold a license for the vending of food, as applicable.
All of these vapour lounges are operating in areas zoned as Commercial Residential, are visible from the street and exist in close proximity to many other stores, shops, restaurants, cafés, schools, and other services.
Because it is difficult to distinguish between medical and non-medical marihuana use at businesses operating as vapour lounges, it is important to distinguish between the legal rights of those who have a federal authorization to possess marihuana for medical purposes and those who consume the drug for non-medical purposes.
The Smoke Free Ontario Act (SFOA) regulates the smoking, display and sale of tobacco in the Province of Ontario. Because the SFOA's definition of smoking is limited to substances which contain tobacco, smoking other non-tobacco substances, such as marihuana, is not expressly prohibited.
Municipal Code Chapter 709, Smoking Chapter 709 of the Toronto Municipal Code identifies the parameters in which smoking is permitted in workplaces and public places, where it is prohibited, and signage requirements and offences. As with the SFOA, the definition of smoking in Chapter 709 does not include non-tobacco substances and therefore does not apply to smoking marihuana indoors.
Neighbourhood Impact of Vapour Lounges Businesses operating as vapour lounges are intended to provide benefit to those individuals with a medical need to consume marihuana and who wish to treat themselves outside the home. The principal concerns with these businesses regard the potential risks posed to public safety and the potential for nuisances because of difficulty determining whether those patronizing the establishment are in fact authorized to possess marihuana for medical purposes. Additionally, vapour lounges operating within close proximity to other shops, restaurants, services and schools, have the potential to exacerbate these concerns.
Consultation with Business Improvement Areas Staff sought consultations with four BIAs in neighbourhoods where vapour lounges are located. Of those contacted, the Lakeshore Village BIA, Kensington Market BIA and the Church and Wellesley BIA were consulted.
Representatives of the Lakeshore Village BIA represented strong views in opposition to the vapour lounge operating in the neighbourhood, due to concerns about patrons causing nuisances, such as noise and vandalism, primarily after leaving the vapour lounge. As well, it was reported that the BIA has worked to improve the aesthetic and commercial appeal of the neighbourhood and believes that the operation of a vapour lounge in the neighbourhood runs counter to the BIA's efforts to gentrify the area.
The representative of the Church and Wellesley BIA did not represent any particular concerns with the vapour lounge operating in the neighbourhood. This representative described the BIA as an entertainment zone that has a responsibility to a historically progressive community and that these two factors might in part explain why a vapour lounge operates in the area. He discussed, as well, difficulties facing the neighbourhood with regards to drug addiction and panhandling. He reported that more than one compassion centre already exists in the neighbourhood to provide a treatment space for medical marihuana users.
The representative of the Kensington Market BIA and represented a positive view of the vapour lounge operating in that neighbourhood and spoke positively of the owner's contribution as an active member of the BIA.
Consultation with Owners/Operators Vapour lounge owners/operators were invited to a consultation meeting, where of the six known vapour lounge operators invited, five were represented and a total of 17 owners, operators and employees were present.
Owners and operators detailed a number of important benefits of vapour lounges, specifically that vapour lounges provide a safe and social haven for medical marihuana users, where they may be otherwise stigmatized when forced to treat themselves in other contexts and venues, or in isolation. Second, by making vapourizers available, these lounges provide individuals with an avenue to consume marihuana for its narcotic benefits, without the toxic effects associated with combustion.
Owners and operators believe that these businesses have a positive impact on the neighbourhoods 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 associated with those who consume marihuana outdoors.
Owners and operators reported that they are taking steps to address concerns about air quality, overconsumption and associated nuisances. Many sell some sort of food or beverage, and require that staff monitor individuals to ensure that marihuana is being consumed safely, and that counselling is available, when necessary. As well, staff heard that steps are taken to ensure proper air quality is circulated throughout the facility and that owners/operators prohibit entry by minors under the age of 18 or 19, unless, in the case of one lounge, if the patron is at least 16 and has a medical authorization to consume.
The owners and operators reported that, because their businesses are ‘skating on thin ice’, there is a strong inclination to self-regulate. In general, they believe their business operations do not constitute any egregious challenges to public safety or health. Consultation with Toronto Fire Services
Toronto Fire Services 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. Consultation with the Toronto Police Service
The Toronto Police Service currently investigates businesses operating as vapour lounges on a complaint basis and has several concerns with regard to businesses operating as vapour lounges and further related to the consumption of marihuana (medicinal and otherwise) in outdoor public spaces.
The TPS has indicated there is difficulty in distinguishing between legal consumption of medical marihuana and non-medical marihuana use on the premises. Because there is currently no requirement for owners and operators to check for the federal authorizations to possess, it is challenging to determine whether those inside the establishment are legally permitted to possess and consume marihuana. Regulations to ensure that, upon inspection, individuals within the establishment have a federal authorization to consume marihuana, would increase the effectiveness of TPS inspections.
Table 4 displays the TPS reported calls for service at these vapour lounges over the past three years. As previously stated, due to their nature, these businesses have a strong incentive to self-regulate. Therefore, there are concerns that these reported instances may not fully represent what is occurring at these establishments.
Vapour Lounge Locations In every case, vapour lounges operate within close contact to other food establishments, shops, and other services and on busy streets with high pedestrian traffic. These businesses make little effort to conceal the activities undertaken within the premises and individuals walking or driving past the establishments can clearly view the advertisements posted.
This visibility is particularly concerning given their proximity to primary and secondary schools, where youth could be more susceptible to drug use after coming into contact with these establishments. Staff found that each vapour lounge in the City operates within one square kilometre of at least two elementary or high schools. Three of the City's vapour lounges operate within the same proximity of five schools. Because several of these vapour lounges operate on major thoroughfares and close to schools, the potential for exposure to adolescents below the age of consent raises concerns about the negative impact these businesses have on impressionable youth.
Businesses operating as vapour lounges in other jurisdictions Staff identified vapour lounges in other jurisdictions, though little information is available on their operations. For the most part, municipalities have not taken direct legislative action to address vapour lounges and local police investigations appear to be conducted on a complaints basis, with the emphasis on trafficking of marihuana, rather than possession.
Hamilton had reportedly the first vapour lounge in Ontario, established as the Up in Smoke Café in 2003. Research indicated that it was closed in 2006 in relation to several Police investigations.
Aside from Toronto, staff have determined that Vancouver has the largest number of vapour lounges in Canada. It is worth noting that Vancouver City Council has recently recognized the drug's popularity, and has passed a motion to recommend the decriminalization of marihuana in totality.
Further considerations and next steps Some vapour lounges operate within the wider context of federally regulated medical marihuana consumption and serve as a benefit to those individuals who are permitted to treat themselves with marihuana, and who wish to treat themselves outside the home. The City's response to public safety concerns about these businesses must be considered in this context, while also considering the anticipated changes to the MMAR, and their potential impacts. These changes are expected to increase the amount of legally authorized marihuana possession, thereby potentially exacerbating existing concerns. It is recommended that the City institute plans in advance to ensure that this legal consumption is regulated in a manner which both recognizes the rights of medical marihuana users and addresses public safety and community disorder concerns.
The recommendation of staff in this report, is to undertake work to address these public safety and community standards concerns through the development of a regulatory regime and to include considerations in respect to zoning implications.
CONCLUSION 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. Planning for these changes in advance will provide the greatest likelihood that the City respects the rights of individuals who are legally permitted to consume marihuana for medical purposes, while ensuring that public safety and community order concerns are addressed.
SAYCANNABIS is a Cannabis-Friendly and Positive Campaign designed to inform our City Council of OUR (as Cannabis Consumers and Friendly Persons) UNITED opinion that Toronto’s Vapor Lounges, Cannabis-Friendly Businesses and Institutions are an important thread to the fabric of our Toronto landscape. These institutions provide a safe space for medicinal patients to medicate and for Cannabis Consumers of 18 and older to relax peacefully.