Breakenridge: Edmonton is doing a better job of creating sensible rules for pot smoking

It seems odd that with cannabis being legalized across the country, and within a province that has largely introduced sensible regulations, that Alberta’s two largest cities would end up with starkly different regulatory approaches.

It’s also unfortunate that it’s the city to the north that appears to be taking the more sensible approach.

As Calgary agonizes over some minor tweaks to its restrictive ban on public cannabis consumption, Edmonton city council is poised to approve a much more liberal approach — one that respects individual freedom, helps to prevent stigmatization and frees up police resources.

Two months ago, Calgary city council voted to impose a sweeping ban on public cannabis consumption, including not just smoking, but vaping or any other form of consumption. Medicinal users would be exempt.

Last week, a council committee voted 6-2 in favour of amending that ban to allow for designated consumption zones at festivals and other public events.

Of course, this could mean significant costs for these events, since they can’t sell cannabis themselves and would have to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to get approval in the first place.

In fact, the two councillors who voted against the amendment — Evan Woolley and Jyoti Gondek — did so because they felt this was needlessly complicated and an already flawed and overly restrictive bylaw.

As Woolley pointed out, “there has been cannabis consumed at folk fest for many, many, many years, and that’s been happening without incident. This is a solution in search of a problem.”

He’s right. What’s the point in forcing event organizers to ask the city permission for a designated cannabis zone that they’ll have to pay to set up and staff? What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

This all speaks to a prevalent attitude on city council that public cannabis consumption represents something ominous and sinister that we must guard against. And the resulting policies that attitude is spawning are going to require a considerable amount of resources from police.

Meanwhile, Edmonton appears to be taking the approach that cannabis consumption should be regulated when and where it makes sense to do so. The regulation approved last week by a council committee would ban the smoking of cannabis within 30 metres of places such as playgrounds, sports fields, skating rinks or skate parks.

The ban would also apply to within 10 metres of a bus stop, LRT station or any doorway or air intake.

Most of that seems fairly reasonable. More importantly, it provides some clear and limited parameters for law enforcement to operate under.

Conversely, Calgary’s approach means police are going to have to be on guard for any cannabis smoking or vaping at all times, in all places.

The chairman of the Calgary police commission even tried to warn against this last week, apparently to no avail.

Brian Thiessen noted that legalization was supposed to free up police resources. But these kinds of restrictive and complex bylaws mean “that work all falls on the police service,” therefore eroding that advantage.

Of course, certain city leaders have bemoaned the supposed costs of legalization, but those arguments ring hollow when it’s the city that’s responsible for such outcomes. It’s even worse when these bylaws don’t seem to have a clear or pressing objective.

If we’re concerned about the health impacts of cannabis smoke, or even just the odour, then we need to ensure that the option of vaping cannabis is available to users. As it stands now, Calgary’s bylaw does not distinguish between the two, and federal rules around how cannabis can be sold pose an additional challenge.

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart suggested last week that we needed to start with a more restrictive approach since it would be easier to loosen rules than to tighten them. That’s nonsense. If a bylaw needs to change, then council can change it.

It’s not something Calgarians ever like to admit, but on this issue, we can learn a lesson from our neighbours to the north.

Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge airs weekdays on 770 CHQR. rob.breakenridge@corusent.com

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