TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government defended allowing medical marijuana users to vaporize anywhere by saying they had consulted "very broadly" — but emails show those consultations involved the input of just two people, The Canadian Press has learned.
Ultimately, the associate health minister had to defend the policy for just one day after the government backtracked on the policy within 24 hours. The emails, obtained through freedom-of-information legislation, show the premier's top staff members were both unaware of the new rule and confused by it.
Geoff Braithwaite, owner of Tasty Vapor, exhales vapor after using an electronic cigarette on Jan. 28, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. (Photo: Ben Margot/AP)
The new e-cigarette regulations banned the use of the devices anywhere regular cigarettes were prohibited. But the government provided an exemption for medical marijuana users, meaning they could have vaped in restaurants, at work or on playgrounds.
The exemption became public Nov. 25 and by the next day, Dipika Damerla, then the associate health minister, said that based on the feedback the government had received, they were going back to the drawing board. The government ultimately decided there would be no exemption.
But during those fleeting hours when Damerla defended the policy, she said there had been widespread consultations before the change was introduced.
"You know, we consulted very broadly with the medical community, with the, you know, advocates of all types, health advocates," she said.
Move caught everyone by surprise
The Making Healthier Choices Act, which dealt with displaying calorie counts and banning flavoured tobacco products — as well as e-cigarette restrictions — went to regular committee hearings. Speakers included the Canadian Vaping Association, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Restaurants Canada, vape shop owners and the Canadian Cancer Society.
But out of the 35 presenters, only one person — medical marijuana advocate Matt Mernagh — spoke of the need for an exemption. No other presenters were asked for their thoughts on it.
The e-cigarette regulations were also posted for a standard comment period, but only one medical marijuana-related reply was received, from Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana.
In addition to the two people consulted, the ministry also conducted a legal review and discussed it with other areas of government, the Health Ministry said in a statement.
'Are we walking it back today?'
The Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana group ultimately tipped off the public to the exemption. Its founder sent out a news release the morning of Nov. 25, heralding the exemption as "another important milestone in the recognition of the legitimacy of the use of cannabis as a medicine."
The exemption came as a surprise to the media — and also, apparently, to the premier's office.
"I am confused by what happened yesterday and what we're reading in the media this morning," the premier's deputy principal secretary, Karim Bardeesy, wrote in an email early the next morning. "Can anyone explain?"
"Do you guys know why we've done this marijuana thing?" wrote Andrew Bevan, who was Wynne's principal secretary at the time, to issues management and senior communications staff. "Are we walking it back today?"
Emails show confusion
Tom Teahen, then the premier's chief of staff, responded that he was wondering that too.
Soon after, staff started wondering who was actually consulted and asked the ministry for a list.
"You guys said yesterday that it was OK that we said public consultations, and that it included medical experts, so I need you to confirm this for me," wrote Jenna Mannone, then in the premier's issues management office.
An eventual response from ministry staff mentioned the two people consulted, but said it was important to note the decision wasn't based solely on that. The ministry had determined "from a policy perspective, it would be unfair to restrict the vaping of medical marijuana in certain places when the government does not prohibit the smoking of marijuana in those places."
Complaints flooded into MPP offices
Though it is still illegal federally for recreational use, no Ontario law restricts where marijuana — medical or otherwise — can be smoked other than Liquor Licence Act, which prohibits consumption of controlled substances on licensed premises. There was also a need to consider the needs of medical marijuana users to treat their illnesses or disabilities, staff wrote.
The emails also show constituency offices around the province were flooded with emails from people angry about the exemption. Consultations the government conducted after the initial mess netted input from 100 people and organizations on the issue of medical marijuana vaping.
The government ultimately decided to ban medical marijuana users from smoking or vaporizing anywhere regular cigarettes are prohibited.