In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban smoking in city parks and other public spaces, citing concerns about the negative health effects of breathing secondhand smoke. It was the right move. Those of us who don’t smoke were elated to know we could enjoy being outside without having to inhale carcinogens from other people’s cigarettes.
This past week, the supervisors softened that prohibition for the first time, voting to allow the Office of Cannabis to grant temporary waivers of no-smoking laws so people can smoke marijuana at a few music and other outdoor events – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Outside Lands, Clusterfest, How Weird Street Faire, Carnaval, and the annual Pride Parade.
The rationale was that people were smoking pot at these events anyway, so we might as well try to control it through a permit process. The permit would allow event organizers to set aside a section, accessible only to people at least 21 years old, where festival goers could buy and consume marijuana, including smoking it.
But smoke doesn’t just stay in one place, especially outside. It drifts. Even if The City expects people to “only” indulge in the approved section – which seems unlikely – their smoke will spread out over a much larger area of the event. Lots of people will be forced to breathe in the secondhand smoke — and smell that distinctive skunk- like odor — whether they want to or not.
By now, everyone knows that cigarette smoke is full of toxins and carcinogens, including formaldehyde, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide. Not everyone realizes that marijuana smoke contains many of these same chemicals, the byproducts of combustion of any plant material. But, because marijuana has been illegal, the federal government has not allowed researchers to study the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke on humans.
However, a study published in 2016 by Matthew Springer, a professor of medicine at UCSF, and his colleagues showed that even one minute of exposure to marijuana smoke diminished blood-vessel function in rats to the same extent as one minute’s exposure to tobacco smoke. The effects from marijuana smoke lasted for 90 minutes, three times longer than those from tobacco smoke.
The truth is that we just don’t know how safe it is for people to be exposed to marijuana smoke. Yet the Board of Supervisors has just essentially said that it doesn’t matter.
The ordinance allows City agencies to “temporarily waive, for a period not to exceed the duration of the proposed event, any City law that would restrict or prohibit smoking (including, but not limited to, Article 19 through Article 19L of the Health Code) in all or part of the proposed event space….”
Maybe I’m being too literal, but that wording says to me that The City is waiving the ban on smoking anything and everything during the event, including cigarettes. The clause makes no mention of only applying to marijuana. Even if it did, cigarette smokers could cry discrimination. I worry that tobacco companies will use this new ordinance to push to allow cigarette smoking during the same events that allow cannabis use.
I support the decriminalization of the recreational use of marijuana. But there’s a big difference between decriminalizing it and encouraging its use.
Last year, I attended Clusterfest, a weekend-long comedy festival, and, while I did occasionally smell marijuana, it wasn’t overwhelming. I suspect many people who might have preferred to smoke during the event didn’t because of the ban on smoking. Those same people might happily indulge this year because the City has said its okay.
If people feel they can’t enjoy an event without being high, let them eat edibles or use other non-combustible ways to get that feeling. That way they can have their fun, without polluting the air for the rest of us. Unfortunately, the supervisors voted down an amendment that would have added that restriction; they preferred to allow secondhand smoke to waft over crowded events.
I went to Clusterfest last year to see Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jim Jeffries, not to inhale other people’s smoke. Because of this new ordinance, it looks like I won’t be renewing my tickets this year.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest columnist.