Like many civic leaders across Canada, councillors in the town of Hampstead, Que., were worried about the idea of people smoking marijuana on the street once the drug became legal. So they drew up a tough bylaw – and it's set to become the most restrictive anti-smoking measure in the country.
In a move that experts predict will motivate other Canadian municipalities, the town of 7,100 has adopted a draft bylaw that would ban smoking everywhere in public, including streets and sidewalks.
The catalyst for the law was Ottawa's plan to legalize marijuana, which is expected to come into force this year. But because the restrictions extend to all forms of smoking, they would have the collateral effect of ushering in the most far-reaching smoking ban in Canada.
"This is a Canadian first. It's the first municipality to ban smoking on roads and sidewalks," says Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society. "I expect other municipalities to follow suit. The legalization of marijuana is going to be a prompt for municipalities to consider this issue, because now, not only will they have cigarettes on the sidewalk but marijuana cigarettes, which have second-hand smoke as well."
Hampstead, a well-to-do bedroom community that borders on the city of Montreal, unanimously adopted the draft bylaw this month. Council will probably vote on the final version in April and Mayor William Steinberg expects it to pass.
Some critics predict the law will face a court challenge and be difficult to enforce. However, Mr. Steinberg said the town felt compelled to act and didn't want to wait for the federal cannabis law to come into force.
"People can do whatever they want in their homes, they can do it in their front yards or backyards if they wish to. It's their private property," Mr. Steinberg, a four-term mayor, said on Wednesday. "But in the public domain, no. We believe in individual freedoms, but individual freedoms have limits."
The city is acting on its legal powers to control the environment and public nuisances, Mr. Steinberg said.
"Once pot is legalized, if older teenagers and young adults are going around and smoking pot all over the place, it's a very bad example. And for that matter, smoking cigarettes is a bad example, too, except that you see a lot less of it," Mr. Steinberg said. "I think you'll have a lot more people smoking joints than you'll see people smoking cigarettes once marijuana is legalized. And I don't want to see that in public in our town."
Ontario, for example, restricts the use of recreational cannabis to private residences.
"For a majority of provinces, marijuana is banned where smoking is banned, and that leaves a lot of outdoor areas," Mr. Cunningham said. "Municipalities are well-placed to respond to community concerns, and there are many people who don't want to be exposed to second-hand smoke of any kind."
The Hampstead initiative is meeting with pushback from surprising quarters. A non-smokers' rights group says it goes too far.
Anti-tobacco organizations spent years fighting to get people not to smoke indoors. With an estimated 5.2 million daily or occasional smokers in Canada, it's not fair to simply ban them from smoking outdoors, too, says François Damphousse, Quebec director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association.
"It's very difficult, especially since people are addicted to nicotine and need a fix," he said. "We fought to protect people indoors and asked them to go outdoors, and now we're saying we're banning smoking outdoors?"
Blair Longley, leader of the Marijuana Party, said the multiplication of provincial and municipal laws targeting cannabis will end up increasing fines and penalties for users and, paradoxically, subject them to more legal problems than they currently have.
Penalties under Hampstead's bylaw would be between $100 and $300 for a first infraction and up to $600 for subsequent violations.