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A woman lights up at Sunset Beach in Vancouver, B.C., last year on April 20. A new Calgary bylaw, meantime, bans the public consumption of cannabis and restricts people to smoking weed only at home, unfairly affecting those who rent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Calgary’s ban on public weed-smoking has a racial impact

Thousands of Canadians across the country are attending 4-20 events this year, even though cannabis consumption in Canada will soon be legal. But in Calgary, the privilege of smoking up in public will not be extended to everyone of legal age — not on 4-20, and not following legalization.

Calgary City Council recently voted to ban the public consumption of cannabis.

This bylaw was motivated, councillors have suggested, by concerns related to public intoxication, public welfare and safety.

City officials say a survey of Calgarians indicated that the majority prefers public consumption of cannabis to be treated the same as alcohol.

The bylaw allows Calgarians to smoke weed only on their private property. This privilege will not be extended to renters since most landlords forbid smoking on their property and can extend this ban to cannabis in their lease agreements.

Gerry Baxter from the Calgary Residential Rental Association told 660 News that: “Many landlords have smoke-free buildings and consequently if you’re a cannabis-user and you smoke it, you’re prohibited now from smoking and you’ll continue to be prohibited from smoking inside the building.”

Renters can’t spark up anywhere

While renters who smoke tobacco can still light up in public, those who plan to smoke cannabis will not be able to do so. With no permits for cannabis lounges being offered in Alberta yet, this practically means the bylaw outright bans renters from sparking up anywhere in the city.

City councillor Evan Woolley has raised concerns that the bylaw disproportionately affects renters.

“It’s not an insignificant group of people — 36 per cent of Calgarians are renters,” Woolley pointed out.

He added: “We are saying there is no space for you to consume cannabis, and that’s a problem for me.” City council eventually dismissed Woolley’s concerns as a non-issue and voted 10-4 in favour of the ban.

It’s surprising that elected city officials had no problem adopting a bylaw that discriminates against renters while extending the cannabis consumption privilege to those who own their property. Then again, the likelihood that any of these councillors live in a rented property is very low.

The adoption of the bylaw is outrageous and discriminatory against renters. Still, whether one is a renter or a home-owner is not a ground of protection under the Alberta Human Rights Act. However, race is. Then is this bylaw racially biased?

Percentage of renters per ethnicity. Analysis based on Census metropolitan areas. 2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada

A quick analysis of Statistics Canada data from the 2006 long-form Census shows that 47.4 per cent of Black Calgarians and 35 per cent of Latino Calgarians rent their homes, while only 21.2 per cent of Calgarians who don’t identify as a visible minority are renters.

Another analysis of data from the 2011 National Household Survey, also by Statistics Canada, reveals that 49.2 per cent of Black Calgarians and 37.1 per cent of Latino Calgarians rent their homes, while only 18.9 per cent of white Calgarians rent.

According to the same survey results, this racial disparity in home ownership is not unique to Calgary, but applies to most Canadians cities.

What this means is that not only does the bylaw disproportionately affect renters, it disproportionately affects visible minorities in Calgary.

While this may be an unintended consequence of the bylaw, it is still highly reminiscent of drug laws in the United States that discriminate against ethnic minorities often because of where they live.

At a time when we are painfully aware of laws and policing practices that target minorities, cities ought to consider how their bylaws may disproportionately disadvantage these minorities.

Right before the vote, councillors who supported the bylaw suggested that it will need to be revisited, but for now it’s a bylaw that they can live with. Knowing about this racial bias, I wonder if the councillors still can and want to live with this bylaw.

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