Inside Halifax’s muddled roll out of its designated smoking areas

Halifax’s scramble to get ready for the introduction of legal cannabis was plagued by uncertainty and confusion within the municipality’s own departments, documents reveal.

The details are provided in cache of internal emails, memos and internal documents released under a freedom of information request, with the documents encapsulating the month before Oct. 16, the day after the municipality’s newly created designated smoking areas (DSA) came into effect.

There are now 80 DSAs dotting the municipality. These are the only public areas where individuals are legally allowed to smoke or vape cannabis or tobacco in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

But in the first days of the municipality’s amended Nuisance and Smoking Bylaw, there were only nine and even those came under a cloud of confusion over who was in charge of vetting the planned locations.

The limited number of designated smoking areas forced at least one councillor, Matt Whitman, the representative for Hammonds Plains, to say the bylaw execution was poorly done.

“I’m sorry to folks, especially cigarette smokers, who are smoking something that’s always been legal,” Whitman told Global News on Oct. 15.

Shifting rollout and multiple delays

But even before DSA locations began to be selected, staff were forced to revisit their expectations of when they’d be able to roll them out.

“Without being specific, can we say the by-law will be effective before October 17 but not by Oct 1?” wrote Bruce DeBaie, the managing director of the municipality’s communication staff on Sept. 18.

“The sooner we correct Oct 1. the better.”

The bylaw’s effective date was eventually pushed to Oct. 15, three days before cannabis legalization on Oct. 17.

It’s one of a few shifting plans revealed in the internal documents — and the municipality says there is a reason for the scramble.

“Halifax became the first community of its size in Canada to prohibit all forms of smoking and vaping on public property,” said Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the municipality.

“There was no template to follow, no best-practice to emulate, and no rule book as a guide.”

Municipal staff say they faced difficulties in preparing for the bylaw roll out as council considered whether to walk back prohibiting both tobacco and cannabis.

“If Council had decided to just move forward with cannabis, there would have been no need for designated smoking areas,” Elliott wrote.

The delay meant that it was only in early October that staff ordered their first 600 smoking receptacles.

“The FULL order of canisters should arrive between Wednesday and Friday next week [Oct. 11 and Oct 13]. Bottom line: we can’t develop an efficient delivery plan until we have orders to fulfill,” wrote Brad Anguish, director of the municipality’s parks and recreation department, in an email to John Traves, the municipality’s director of legal services, Oct. 5.

Traves was the man tasked with the HRM’s preparation for cannabis legalization.

He notes in a separate email that different departments in the municipality were responsible for designating where they wanted DSAs to be located and what type of receptacles they wanted.

Even then, an internal catalogue distributed to the various units notes that certain receptacles would not be available until after Oct. 15.

Elliott says that delays were unavoidable and a necessary part of the municipality’s preparation.

“Considerable background work had been done up to that point, but purchase orders for smoking receptacles weren’t placed until staff had certainty and knew precisely how to move forward,” he wrote.

“This was the most fiscally responsible approach we could take with taxpayer dollars.”

Managing expectations

But as the date of the rollout approached, upper management in the municipality continued to express concern over the disjointed nature of what was happening.

“Permanent installations are are unclear at this time,” wrote Anguish in another email on Oct. 5.

“Sorry for all of the questions, just getting worried with four business days to go that my current team will not be in position to meet expectations.”

Elliott says that it’s not unusual for business units to clarify what their roles and responsibilities are, especially given “the unprecedented nature of the initiative” but that the communication helped ensure the “municipality was ready” when they were needed to be.

But part of that goal was only met by “further [managing] expectations regarding the number of DSAs.”

The municipality’s communications department began equipping its most prominent messenger, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, with new messaging on Oct. 10.

“Equip the Mayor with a message reminding folks that these are early days of a major change and we ask residents to be mindful of one another,” wrote Breton Murphy, manager of public affairs, in an email on Oct. 10, with the subject line: “smoking messaging for Mayor”

Elliott says that municipal officials were open about the difficulties ahead of them as they approached cannabis legalization.

“From the outset, the municipality acknowledged there would be growing pains and adjustments as these amendments came into effect,” he said.

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