MONTREAL — Doctor Melissa Genereux, head of public health in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, thought she had persuaded local officials not to introduce a strict cannabis bylaw in the area’s largest city, Sherbrooke.
She sat on the city council’s cannabis committee — which included the mayor and chief of police — where she said they discussed approaches to legalization rooted in science, including allowing adults to smoke pot in designated public areas.
But last month, Sherbrooke council ignored the committee’s recommendations and unanimously voted to ban all public consumption of cannabis — joining a wave of Quebec cities that have adopted a hard line on marijuana.
With a legal drinking age of 18 and extended bar hours, Quebec has long been known for its permissiveness toward the other legal intoxicant, alcohol. But when cannabis becomes legal across Canada next Wednesday, pot smokers in the province will wake up to a legal framework that is one of the strictest in the country — and is set to get even tougher.
A few cities, including Montreal and Gatineau, have chosen a more lenient route. But many others have rejected the advice of public health experts, who say fear and myths about cannabis are driving public policy. By restricting people to smoking indoors, municipalities are just increasing the risks associated with second-hand smoke, Genereux said.
She said in an interview she was surprised by Sherbrooke’s decision. “What is fundamental, is that we make decisions based on data and scientific evidence, as opposed to perceptions, or the positions of citizens who express themselves the loudest.”
When the federal government adopted legislation to legalize cannabis last June, it left it to provinces to create their own regimes controlling how marijuana would be produced and distributed on their territory.
Provinces such as Alberta and Ontario decided to allow private sales of cannabis — although under strict provincial supervision. Quebec opted for state-run stores.
The federal law permits Canadians to grow up to four marijuana plants per residence; Quebec’s law bans all private cultivation.
The provincial law does allow citizens to smoke marijuana in most places that smoking tobacco is legal. But individual cities were free to draft bylaws if they wanted to add further restrictions, and many jumped at the opportunity.
Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Levis, Saguenay, Magog, St-Jerome, Victoriaville and dozens of others have either prohibited all consumption of cannabis in public or signalled their intention to pass bylaws to that effect.
Montreal, however, announced Wednesday it would not add additional barriers to consuming cannabis.
Mayor Valerie Plante said most Montrealers are renters, and if their landlords ban cannabis in their units, there won’t be anywhere that citizens can consume what will be a legal product.
Montreal, however, may be forced to further restrict cannabis consumption if premier-designate Francois Legault follows through on his election promises.
Aside from raising the legal age for consuming cannabis to 21 from 18, Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec has promised to prohibit all public pot smoking in Quebec.
Doctor Isabelle Samson, president of the association of medical specialists for preventive medicine, has come out strongly against Quebec’s strict cannabis bylaws.
“I don’t think it’s based on science,” she said of the public smoking bans.
“I think there are a lot of people who are scared that cannabis will create public disorder, but behind that claim I see a misunderstanding of what cannabis is.”
Politicians feel their conservative approach is what citizens wants.
Sherbrooke Mayor Steve Lussier said his council’s decision to ban all cannabis consumption in public was unanimous.
“I think we have everything to win by doing it this way and then readjusting,” he said in an interview. “I think Ms. Genereux does an excellent job here in Sherbrooke, but we decided to be more rigid.”
With cannabis legalization on the horizon last March, the town of Hampstead on the island of Montreal decided to ban smoking of any kind, anywhere on its territory, except for private property.
“I must tell you there has been nothing I’ve done in 13 years as mayor that has been more popular than this particular bylaw,” Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg said in an interview.
He said councillors “didn’t even consult residents” before passing the bylaw.
“The whole council felt they didn’t want people walking around smoking cannabis, anywhere in public,” he said, noting the smoke smells like skunk. “Who wants to smell that?”
Universite du Quebec a Montreal professor Jacob Amnon Suissa, an addiction expert, said Quebecers seem to have more fears about cannabis than other Canadians.
He suggested the concern may stem from the province’s general approach to drug use, which focuses on prevention and rehabilitation.
Legalizing marijuana risks “trivializing” the use of the substance, he said, undermining authorities’ messages to avoid consumption. Suissa said this trivialization would be seen as particularly troubling as it applies to young Quebecers.
Legalizing cannabis fundamentally changes the way police and health care authorities interact with what is essentially a drug, he said.
“The problem isn’t the substance itself,” Suissa said. “But the relationship we have with it.”
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press