The Peterborough Examiner

Hookah houses’ last stand

Vancouver’s hypocritic­al smoking crack down

- BRIAN HUTCHINSON National Post bhutchinso­n@nationalpo­

VANCOUVER — Smokers aren’t welcome in sanctimoni­ous Vancouver. Everyone knows that. Most are also aware of this: The city’s sweeping smoking bans are applied to tobacco and any other substance that isn’t cannabis.

Tokers rule the roost in Canada’s most pot-friendly city, where people routinely partake of their favourite marijuana-based products, in any number of special lounges and shops. It’s been going on for years.

The situation and the city’s blatant hypocrisy drive Abbas Abdiannia nuts. They are driving him to ruin. It’s astonishin­g he hasn’t already been drummed out of business by Vancouver’s unbending anti-anything-but cannabis bureaucrat­s and politician­s.

Abdiannia owns Ahwaz Hookah House, one of the city’s last surviving, Persian-style smoking joints. It’s all ersatz these days; smoking or burning any material, tobacco-laced or otherwise, inside his cozy little hookah room is forbidden. Abdiannia offers a bland facsimile instead, the electronic vapour experience. Instead of puffing on traditiona­l shisha via glass waterpipes, customers suck back scented, nicotine-free herbal gas, using an electronic vaporizing device imported from the United States.

The activity appeals, somewhat, to homesick Middle Eastern guests, and to virtually no one else.

Two young students from Saudi Arabia were in his lounge one afternoon this week, purposeful­ly sucking at long tubes attached to glass hookah pipes, exhaling clouds of “Golden Double Apple” steam. “It’s different from what we are used to at home,” one of them said, diplomatic­ally.

It’s “horrible,” Abdiannia admits, but it’s all he has left. Even that’s too much, for city anti-smoking zealots. As things now stand, he’s operating undergroun­d, yet in plain sight.

“The city has destroyed my business,” he complains. “I have made compromise­s, but they won’t. It’s crazy.”

Abdiannia opened his lounge almost a decade ago, when hookah smoking was still tolerated in Vancouver. But in 2007, the city banned “all indoor smoking or burning of any substance in commercial establishm­ents.” An exemption for city hookah and cigar lounges was revoked a year later. Abdiannia and the owner of a second Vancouver hookah shop, Hamid Mohammadia­n, were told by the city’s deputy chief licence inspector to cease operations.

They did not; instead, they switched from selling traditiona­l, tobacco-based products to more benign, herbal stuff. But not before undercover police caught them selling the old-fashioned, nicotine-ridden smoke, according to court documents.

Vancouver police launched an undercover hookah sting in 2009. Two officers in plain clothes scoped out the two shisha shops. Another pair went inside, posing as customers, and puffed on water pipes.

Abdiannia and Mohammadia­n went to trial in 2011, arguing the city’s anti-smoking and burning bylaws were too broad, and claiming hookah smoking in cafés is a legitimate social practice in Middle Eastern cultures. Something close to a religious experience.

Meanwhile, marijuana lounges were left alone, for reasons no one in authority could ever articulate.

The trial sputtered along in B.C. Provincial Court for more than two years. The Crown called several expert witnesses, including a professor from the University of Toronto; she testified “all water-pipe smoking is harmful to users and to those in the immediate environmen­t.”

The court also heard “from enforcemen­t officers that in addition to the known health effects of smoking water-pipe, hookah venues are linked to criminal activity.” That evidence was “anecdotal,” nothing else.

The trial finally ended in 2014. A judge found the defendants guilty of “allowing customers in their commercial premises to smoke hookahs.” Abdiannia and Mohammadia­n appealed.

Last month, a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed their appeal, and gave the two men 30 days to close up shop. The deadline came and went.

Both lounges continue to operate, selling only the vaporized herbal product. Mohammadia­n, who launched a hunger strike this year to protest the city’s attempts to shut him down, says he would rather die than quit his business, or what’s left of it.

Abdiannia says he just hopes inspectors will leave his lounge alone, and allow his customers to enjoy their phoney shisha.

Fat chance of that. More regulation­s and enforcemen­t measures are coming to Vancouver, meant to assert some local authority and control over the city’s 80-odd pot dispensari­es. Among other things, the city will impose a $30,000 licence fee on stores that sell illegal marijuana, a hypocritic­al cash-grab if there ever was one.

And henceforth, according to notices sent from city hall, smoking and vaping pot in local stores and lounges will no longer be tolerated. It will be interestin­g to see whom inspectors pick on first: Lounge operators where cannabis is consumed, or the beleaguere­d shisha herbalists.

 ?? BEN NELMS/FOR NATIONAL POST ?? Abbas Abdiannia, owner of Ahwaz Hookah House is pictured in his Vancouver shop.
BEN NELMS/FOR NATIONAL POST Abbas Abdiannia, owner of Ahwaz Hookah House is pictured in his Vancouver shop.

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