San Francisco is poised to ban smoking in apartments and condos — but cannabis is exempt

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FILE - In this June 17, 2019, file photo, Jacky Chan takes a vaping break from his job at a smoke shop in San Francisco. City officials in San Francisco have voted to ban all tobacco smoking inside apartments, citing concerns about secondhand smoke. The Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, to approve the ordinance making San Francisco the largest city in the country to ban tobacco smoking inside apartments, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Supervisors voted to exclude marijuana after cannabis activists said the law would take away their only legal place to smoke. (AP Photo/Samantha Maldonado, File)
Jacky Chan takes a vaping break from his job at a smoke shop in San Francisco. (Associated Press)

San Francisco is poised to become the largest U.S. city to ban smoking in apartments and condominiums, with one notable exception to the rule: cannabis.

During a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, city administrators voted to amend the proposed ban to exclude marijuana.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced the amendment after community members and industry groups lobbied against the original draft of the proposal, which drew no distinction between secondhand smoke from tobacco and that of marijuana.

“Nonsmokers have no adequate means to protect themselves from the damage inflicted by secondhand smoke,” the proposal said, adding that regulation of smoking in multi-unit housing is “necessary to protect the health, safety, welfare, comfort and environment of nonsmokers.”

Advocates of California Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state in 2016, called the original proposal a de facto ban on cannabis use for most residents of the city.

“Unlike tobacco, which can be smoked outside on public streets, cannabis consumption is illegal in all public spaces under state law,” several residents wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “The proposed ordinance would thus leave apartment dwellers with no legal place to enjoy marijuana.”

Others said a ban on cannabis in multi-unit buildings amounted to a form of racism or classism in a city where the median price for a single-family home is $1.4 million.

“The proposed ban … effectively disenfranchises our rights to consume cannabis and discriminates against those who can’t afford to live in a single-family residence,” resident Mikki Norris wrote.

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In a telephone interview, Supervisor Norman Yee, who drafted the original proposal, said he saw it differently.

“There’s some people saying, ‘You’ll need to be rich to smoke,’” he said, “but I think it’s the other way around. You’ve got to be a homeowner to breathe clean air? Why do poor people that rent not get to breathe clean air?”

Yee said he began looking into the issue last year after receiving an email from a mother who had run out of options for protecting her infant child from smoke from the unit below hers.

“It dawned on me that we don’t actually have protections for people living in multi-unit buildings,” he said.

Smoking is already banned in common areas such as elevators and hallways, Yee said, but is still allowed inside units, although landlords may set their own rules.

“It didn’t make any sense,” he said.

The new ordinance will apply to all buildings with three or more units, and will be enforced by the Department of Public Health, which may issue fines of up to $1,000 for repeat offenders. Violations will not be grounds for eviction, the ordinance says.

During the lengthy and at times heated meeting, several supervisors said they were conflicted about a broad cannabis exemption and motioned for the proposal to be returned to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion, although that motion did not pass.

“The science, the information and the data is incontrovertible,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who co-sponsored the original proposal. “When you listen to the experts … secondhand smoke, regardless of where it originates from, is extremely impactful, particularly on the lives of low-income families of color that are living in multi-unit properties.”

While the harmful effects of secondhand tobacco smoke are well documented, the effects of cannabis smoke are much more hazy.

Yee said that cannabis smoke contains carcinogens and other toxins, a statement backed up by the American Lung Assn., and that children exposed to it can present with elevated levels of THC in their bloodstream.

But Dr. Donald Abrams, an oncologist and cancer researcher at UC San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, said evidence does not support the conclusion that cannabis smoke is a health risk for someone in an entirely different housing unit.

“Cannabis smoke has never been linked to increased mortality, even in firsthand users,” he wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “Nor has firsthand cannabis smoke been shown to cause lung cancer, COPD or other serious health effects.”

Reached by phone, Abrams — who was one of 16 scientists behind the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s sweeping 2017 study on the health effects of cannabis — said he thought including cannabis in the ban would do more harm than good.

“I’m an oncologist, I take care of cancer patients,” he said. “My concern is if my cancer patients can’t utilize cannabis in their own multi-unit places that they spend $3,000 to $5,000 a month to live in.”

With Tuesday’s amendment, the ordinance will be limited to smoke from tobacco, which includes cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaporizer products, the board said.

It will move to a formal vote during the board’s meeting on Dec. 8, then will go to the mayor for signing. Once signed, the legislation will go into effect 30 days later.

In August, the city of West Hollywood rejected a similar proposal to ban cannabis and tobacco smoking for existing tenants of multi-unit dwellings, although new tenants will be subject to a tobacco ban.

Other cities, such as Berkeley and Alameda, already ban smoking in multi-unit buildings, although their bans were passed before 2016 and do not account for cannabis in their language. Santa Clara, which passed its ordinance in 2019, bans both cannabis and tobacco smoking in multi-unit residences.

While San Francisco’s pot enthusiasts may celebrate the exclusion of cannabis from the ban, not everyone will see it as a victory.

“We currently live in a building with eight units, and one of our neighbors smokes cannabis and cigarettes frequently throughout the day,” residents Lucila Pereyra Murray and Langdon Quin wrote in a letter to the board.

“We believe that nobody should have to unnecessarily worry about factors such as someone’s else’s idea of ‘fun’ affecting their health inside their own homes,” they wrote.

Supervisor Dean Preston said that he spent many years advocating for tenant protection policies before joining the board, and that the issue of smoking in apartments came up again and again with little-to-no consensus.

“This is a very complex issue,” he said. “I cannot think of another issue that has so divided folks that really have good intentions on both sides.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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