Halifax · Politics · Poverty · Virtual Activism

Literally Fuming…

Greetings friends and readers, it has been a while since you heard from me, I know.  I have been busy with work and life and trying to make the world a better place for the folks who are struggling the most in my community… and all of these things are the reason you are hearing from me today.  This is a long read, but I hope you have the attention span for it, and it compels you to take action to become a bit of a political nuisance for some of our local leaders.

I want to talk to you about the decision by HRM City Council to amend the current nuisance by-law to deal with the legalization of weed this October… and why it is important that you make your voice heard on the issue.  Admittedly, I am little behind on this issue and I regret to say that I fell asleep at the wheel while our elected municipal leaders voted in favour of a paternalistic, anti-poor by-law which, essentially, criminalizes the behaviour of smoking in dangerous ways.  We are not just talking about pot now friends, we are also talking about cigarettes and vaping.

From my scan of media articles on the topic from The Halifax Examiner, The Star, The Coast, The Herald, CBC Nova Scotia, Global and CTV Atlantic, there are a couple of by-laws that will deal with weed sometime close to mid-October. One related to the zoning of commercial grow-ops, and one related to indoor household growing.   You could be fined up to $10,000 for growing a perfectly legal plant in your backyard because it might be pungent enough for the neighbours to smell, or little Johnny might steal some buds and get high.  Which is kind of like telling the victim of theft that it is actually you that has to be punished for growing the plant, rather than Johnny be held responsible for stealing your buds.

While this seems topic enough to rant on and on about, I would like to focus on the third by-law decision that was made by council that pertains to the banning of all smoking on public property.  An amendment of the current “nuisance” bylaw. 

I understand the perceived importance of regulating the public smoking of weed from a public health and safety point of view.  In fact, if the by-law only pertained to the public consumption of weed, you wouldn’t be hearing from me today.  But upon learning that council has decided to extend such regulations to tobacco and vape juice Saturday morning, I got irrationally angry.  I tweeted my councillor, Sam Austin, who was quoted in more than one article about it, and expressed my anger directly.

So full disclosure here, I have been a consumer of all three smokeables in different periods of my life.  I have struggled with my addiction to nicotine.  I have felt ashamed of my inability to “have enough discipline” or “will-power” to quit.  I have suffered through Alan Carr’s “Easy Way to Quit Smoking” and numerous other self-help books designed to get me off the nicotine.  I have used patches and vapes and e-cigarettes and cigars and weed and even powerful prescribed psychotropic drugs to try and help me stop smoking.  In fact, I am currently taking those drugs once again to try and kick the habit.

One of the things I came to realise about my smoking the last time I stopped, was that I displace a lot of my general existential anxiety into smoking.  I smoke because I am addicted to nicotine, but even with the nicotine addiction addressed, I am still addicted to the process of smoking.  Cigarettes are like ignitable pacifiers to me, they help me cope, and provide me with a crutch when I am finding things a little to over-whelming or uncomfortable.  My life is pretty intense sometimes: I am a survivor of poverty and systemic trauma; my domestic existence has been demanding; and I suffer from, what Freud calls, oral fixation due to events that happened to me in infancy. Addiction is not a nuisance, it is a very real bio-psycho-social ordeal.   Sometimes, I feel like a social degenerate because I smoke.  There are very few people who smoke and don’t feel shame about the fact that they are smokers.

That’s why, it doesn’t really surprise me when I look at statistics that correlate smoking with other addictions, mental health issues and poverty, because I could be part of the sample.  In Nova Scotia, smoking rates are among the highest in the country, but also trending downwards overall, with 2017 estimates having almost 18% of Nova Scotians as smokers.  One StatCan report indicates that reduced rates of smoking are correlated with the increases in regulations around smoking… so restrictive measures do seem to be working, particularly in the realm of prevention.  Not considered, however, is the influx of e-cigarettes and vaping options on the consumer market on reduced smoking rates

According to a 2015 report, while smoking rates are decreasing overall in Canada, income disparities exist in those who continue to smoke: rates of smoking didn’t decrease at all in the lowest income categories, while decreases in middle and upper income brackets are driving the reductions.  In Nova Scotia in 2013, 65% of all smokers made less than $29, 000 annually (thank you CHI for making your data publicly available).  To drive the relationship between income and smoking home, in 2012, a survey of the health status of homeless people in Halifax revealed that 88% of those surveyed were smokers.

So now that we have established that poverty and smoking are fairly interlinked.  Let’s address those who would say we shouldn’t allow the bad habits of a few poor people interfere with the public enjoyment, health and safety of the community.  First of all, until HRM is ready to really deal with the problem of affordable housing in the city, there will be people who continue to live in public places in this city.  The homeless population does not have the luxury of escaping to private places for a puff… unless the plan is to get them all gathered in the smoking areas that the city thinks Scotia Square and the business community will create for its smoking clientele and employees.  Even those who are housed in the majority of low-income buildings across the city don’t even have access to private spaces in which to smoke; most buildings are designated smoke-free.  If you are not privileged enough to be able to live in a space of your own where you can make free decisions about your behaviour, you are literally going to be faced with a serious dilemma about where to go take the edge off the day with a puff.  Will designated smoking areas be well-lit and safe for women?  What about when they’re intoxicated?

The last I checked, smoking was a legal activity, vaping is an effective tool for smoking cessation, and weed is about to become legal in Canada.  But, if the people who are the most likely to engage in any of those behaviours, anywhere, they run the risk of getting a fine they can’t afford, or even being thrown in jail for it.  Which brings me to the likely impacts this by-law will have on those who, for lack of choice in where to smoke, just light up on a sidewalk anyway.

A fine of up to $2000 is completely excessive for the actual negative societal effects smoking in public costs.  Even the lower $25 end of that fine range is difficult for those who will be getting the $101 per month shelter allowance.  Fines are unanticipated expenses for low household budgets and can provide hardship to those who are just barely scraping by.  Unpaid city fines often end up in collections, and can impact credit ratings and affect the receipt of government benefits, such as GST cheques… unless you happen to be one of the unlucky ones who ends up in jail because you can’t afford to pay the fine.

But city councillors are trying to downplay the potential impacts of the amended by-law by stating that they won’t actually be able to enforce it equally.  But don’t worry, they tell us, it will only be complaint-driven and at the discretion of the eight new by-law enforcement officers who will be hired to deal with it… only the “nuisances” who smoke will be targeted… This does not make me feel better, this actually makes my stomach a little queasy.  It means that the social reproduction of who deserves to be targeted, checked, and even punished for their basic existence, continues.

Creating an unenforceable by-law means it is a regulation that will be unequally applied.  And do you know who those by-laws impact the most?  The “nuisances”; the homeless, the poor, youth, people of colour… the people who give the status quo the most discomfort and desire to regulate.  Even non-smokers are sticking up for smokers in this one… everyone knows how this is going to turn out.  Why would council agree to institute a lever for systemic oppression?!  I thought we were all in this thing together?

This by-law amendment must be reconsidered, with, at the most basic level, consultation with the private sector, and the agencies who work with caseloads of the smokers that these by-laws are going to affect the most.  We can come up with regulations that are reasonable together.

Please ask your councillor to reconsider their vote, and revisit the legislation.