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James Poelzer, CEO of Agrima Botanicals, handles seedling marijuana plants at his medical marijuana production facility in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
James Poelzer, CEO of Agrima Botanicals, handles seedling marijuana plants at his medical marijuana production facility in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

New medical marijuana laws won’t change low-priority status in eyes of B.C. police Add to ...

Several police forces in British Columbia say they don’t plan to crack down on patients growing medical marijuana for their personal use once federal laws make the practice illegal next month — an approach a pair of criminologists describe as sensible.

New federal laws come into effect April 1 that will allow only select commercial growers to produce medical marijuana, meaning patients who currently have Health Canada permission to grow their own will be breaking the law if they continue.

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This week, the Vancouver Police Department said it doesn’t plan on treating small-scale “personal” grow operations as a priority after April 1, unless they are also suspected of being connected to gangs, violence or other criminal activity.

Several other forces, including Abbotsford, Victoria and West Vancouver, say they plan a similar approach.

Neil Boyd, director of the criminology program at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, said the police forces’ planned response to the new laws makes sense.

“I think it’s a sensible use of police resources,” Boyd said in an interview Thursday.

“In terms of public safety and a threat to the social well-being of the community, it just isn’t there.”

Boyd said the public likely doesn’t have the appetite for a significant crackdown on medical marijuana growers, even if those growers could be breaking the law.

“A majority of Canadians don’t think it should be a criminal offence to use it,” he said.

“When you put that into the medical sphere, the idea that you’re going to treat people trying to use this drug as a medicine as criminals — there’s no significant public support for that approach.”

Ottawa has justified the imminent overhaul of the medical marijuana regime, in part, by raising concerns about criminals infiltrating the system.

Canada’s medical marijuana regime was first introduced in 2001, when Health Canada granted fewer than 100 medical marijuana licences. The federal government says the number of people authorized to either possess or grow medical marijuana has now increased to 37,000.

Rob Gordon, another Simon Fraser University criminologist, said it’s not feasible to expect local police forces to follow-up on the tens of thousands of people with medical marijuana licences after the law changes.

“It’s highly likely that the police simply wouldn’t have the resources to do it,” said Gordon.

“It’s absurd to think that the local municipal police departments would be running around with a hit list to check if people had dumped their marijuana plants.”

Vancouver police issued a statement Wednesday that said the force would take a “priority-based” approach to medical marijuana users with “personal” grow operations, primarily targeting cases involving gangs and violence. The force will take a similar view on medical marijuana dispensaries, which are already illegal under the current law but have flourished in Vancouver.

Abbotsford police spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald said his force’s plans are similar to Vancouver’s. He said small-scale grow operations that don’t have ties to organized crime aren’t a priority right now, and they won’t be next month.

“I think people are incorrectly envisioning that everything changes as of April 1, and I don’t expect that to be the case,” said MacDonald.

“We won’t be seeking to search them out. We won’t be mustering at 6 a.m. with a master list and start door knocking.”

MacDonald said small grow operations don’t typically end up on the police force’s radar, and he doesn’t expect that to change.

Officials with police forces in Victoria, Abbotsford and West Vancouver echoed that sentiment.

The RCMP, which acts as the municipal police force in most cities and towns across B.C., said in a written statement that it will continue to enforce federal drug laws.

“The RCMP respects individual’s privacy and will only pursue leads based on information received about potential criminal activity,” Sgt. Julie Gagnon wrote.

“However, any marijuana activities not explicitly regulated under the (new rules) as of April 1, 2014, may be a contravention under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.”

The federal departments of Justice and Public Safety both referred questions about the issue to Health Canada.

A written statement from Health Canada largely reiterated the new laws and made it clear growing or selling medical marijuana without a licence will be illegal as of April 1.

“Also by that date, all dried marijuana produced under a personal use or a designated person production licence, or purchased from Health Canada, must be destroyed,” the statement said.

Internal government briefing notes released earlier this year suggested medical marijuana users who have leftover pot should destroy it by mixing it with water and cat litter before throwing it in the garbage.

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