A Hard Hit for Cannabis Smokers

A San Francisco indoor smoking ban is under consideration, but has the dubious consequence of leaving renters with no legal place to smoke weed.

At Tuesday’s upcoming San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, the board will consider a new law that would ban indoor smoking in apartment buildings. The well-intended measure hopes to eliminate the threat of secondhand smoke for children and non-smokers. If the new law passes, smoking in your apartment would not get you evicted — but repeat offenders would eventually face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

But the local cannabis community rightfully has its hair on fire, because this indoor smoking ban also applies to smoking marijuana. Since smoking cannabis in public is illegal, and all of the dispensary smoking lounges are shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, SF renters would face a de facto cannabis ban with literally no legal place to smoke pot.

The measure’s author, Sup. Norman Yee, did allow an amendment to the measure that people with a medical marijuana recommendation would be exempt, and could still smoke away. That might make you consider getting a medical marijuana card again, like we used to carry in the before times. 

But there’s a huge catch-22 that makes that exemption worthless for most of us. You can’t currently get a medical marijuana card in San Francisco.

“We cannot process any orders for medical marijuana cards due to shelter-in-place orders. There will be no exceptions,” says the outgoing voicemail at the Department of Public Health (DPH) medical marijuana card program. SF Weekly confirmed with a staff member that the DPH is not taking application or issuing any cards.

If you already have a current card, you’re fine. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in September that all current cards get automatically renewed for free, for the rest of 2020.  

But if you don’t currently have a card, you’re screwed. There is absolutely no way to get a new medical marijua card for the duration of shelter-in-place, however long that ends up being.

“The DPH has been closed since March,” says David Goldman, president of the SF chapter of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club. “I can’t go to DPH to get a new card. They’re not doing it online, and you can’t do it at the office.”

Despite the unintended consequences this ban causes for cannabis smokers, Sup. Yee is not backing off.

“As it stands right now, if I am a parent with a child who suffers from asthma or a person recovering from COVID-19, I can get no relief if my neighbor is smoking everyday right next door,” Yee said in a statement to SF Weekly. “It is currently legal for anyone to smoke inside their own unit, regardless of the harsh consequences on those around them, especially children. This is not acceptable that we would prioritize someone’s desire to smoke over their neighbors’ right to breathe clean air.”

Supervisor Norman Yee speaks at the Richmond Neighborhood Center on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Yee’s office adds in that statement that “While there are great benefits to marijuana, there are still health risks of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke, which is why we are not exempting recreational marijuana use.”

This law would effectively ban legal cannabis smoking for more than half of San Francisco residents. According to a report from the DPH, 53 percent of San Franciscans live in multi-unit housing with three or more units, the kind of housing which this law targets.  

That’s why the entire Board of Supervisors is not on board. Sup. Rafael Mandelman does not oppose banning tobacco smoking, but he wants an exemption for all cannabis users, not just medical patients.

“The supervisor is concerned about the unintended consequences of the ordinance for cannabis users, who would have effectively no legal option to smoke or vape cannabis,” Sup. Mandelman’s legislative aide Jacob Bintliff tells us. “State law still prohibits cannabis use in public areas, as opposed to tobacco where a resident can at least step out to the curb. 

“We are exploring options for a broader exemption for cannabis use,“ he adds.

Cannabis advocates have responded mightily with a letter writing campaign, and by flooding the supervisors with calls and emails. Calling, emailing, or writing letters to your supervisor is all you can do if you oppose the indoor smoking ban too. The supervisors will not be allowing public comment on this matter at the Dec. 1 meeting, because they already had public comment at a previous Nov. 12 committee meeting.

Complaints against the indoor smoking ban have come from all corners of the cannabis industry. They’ve also come from some unexpected people, like the doctor who served for 37 years as the assistant director of the UCSF Zuckerberg General Hospital AIDS Program, Dr. Donald Abrams.

“I feel somewhat qualified to understand the risks and benefits of inhaled cannabis,” Dr. Abrams wrote, noting he’s reviewed 10,000 medical journal articles on the topic. “The proposed ordinance, insofar as it would ban cannabis smoking and cannabis vaporizing in private residences in multi-unit buildings in order to reduce the harms of secondhand smoke, lacks scientific basis and would do more harm than good.”

“It is incorrect that cannabis smoke is equally dangerous as tobacco smoke; it is not,” he continued. “Cannabis smoke has never been linked to increased mortality, even in firsthand users. Nor has first hand cannabis smoke been shown to cause lung cancer, COPD, or other serious health effects. Since no serious harms have been proven, even for the individual inhaling cannabis first-hand, evidence does not support the conclusion that it is a health risk for someone in an entirely different housing unit.”

Cannabis smokers found another unexpected ally in the Arab American Grocers Association.

“San Francisco policies have only pushed the gentrification of our neighborhoods with continued compromises and exemptions for big business, online sales and delivery platforms, whereas small businesses that act as a form of public gathering space and neighborhood center, have been the focus of eviction, loitering fees, and curfews,” the association wrote. “Many of our customers are impacted by the reduction of public gathering space, as they do not have the privilege of backyards and common areas in their place of residence.”

Political groups have also spoken out against indoor marijuana smoking ban, including the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. “San Francisco has allowed cannabis smoking in private residences for over 24 years since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996,” wrote the club’s co-president Kevin Bard. “If this ordinance is enacted, San Franciscan renters will be liable for many thousands of dollars in fines and fees that we simply cannot afford.”

And there is also City Hall opposition from the San Francisco Cannabis Oversight Committee,  who voted to oppose the measure. ”The $1,000 per day penalty adds insult to injury, since only wealthy people can pay such fines, but wealthy people are already exempted by virtue of owning their own free-standing homes.” wrote committee chairperson Nina Parks.

“Racial disparities in San Francisco’s economic inequality are well-documented. People of color are more likely to be renters and more likely to have difficulty affording rent,” Parks continued. “This ban would only affect people who live in multi-unit buildings, explicitly exempting people who can afford their own free-standing house.”

But Yee’s office says that indoor cannabis smoking disproportionately hurts communities of color.

People of color and low-income individuals and families are more likely to reside in multi-unit housing, which means that secondhand smoke exposure in the home amplifies health inequities and disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable community members,” his office said in a statement.

We should note that the measure also received many letters of support, including from the American Heart Association and predictably, the San Francisco Tobacco-Free

Coalition. There are 63 other California cities with similar indoor smoking bans, including our neighbors Berkeley and Daly City. 

So if the supervisors do approve this smoking ban on Dec. 1, when would it go into effect? City Hall parliamentary processes are an extremely boring topic, but if you might lose the right to smoke your weed, these dates and rules suddenly mean a lot.

The board will vote at their “first reading” this Tuesday. But all laws they pass must then go through a “second reading” for final passage, typically the following Tuesday. Pretty much everything that gets passed at first reading usually passes at second reading.

Once the Board passes a second and final reading, the measure goes to Mayor London Breed who then has 10 days to either sign or veto the measure. She could sign or veto it right away, or she could wait the full 10 days to decide.

On that timeline, if both the board and the mayor approve the law as it’s currently written, SF renters could lose their right to legally smoke cannabis sometime between January 9 and January 19, 2021.

If you don’t want to lose that right, calling, emailing, or writing to members of the Board of Supervisors should be your chief priority.

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