Worlds collide in Stan Swiatek’s smoke-filled office.
Like many in this region of dirt roads and Denver Hayes, he wears a large belt buckle, drives a Ford F-350 and hangs an assortment of equestrian ribbons on his wall. There are horses in the back pen and a train of trucks towing hay bales up the driveway.
“You were expecting some kind of reggae pot commune?” he says in a du Maurier rasp. “I’m anti-drug.”
Within seconds of such pronouncements, Mr. Swiatek lights a cigarette and talks an hour at a single breath about plans to become a $350-million-a-year marijuana baron – the legal kind – a goal that has this rural community of commuters, retirees and farmers portraying him as a Pablo Escobar of the Prairies, certain to bring violence and gang infiltration should he make good on his ambitions.
Health Canada’s new marijuana production laws have kindled similar flashpoints all over the country. The updated regulations promise to replace Canada’s home-based patchwork of 26,000 marijuana production licences with a few dozen large-scale pot farms. But in Rocky View County, the drug’s sinister associations still overshadow any medical benefit, and the prospect of a super-sized grow-op is seen as a federal affront to local law-and-order values.
“This is a Conservative riding and this is what we might get in return, a marijuana farm next door?” said one of Mr. Swiatek’s neighbours, who refused to give his name. “I didn’t vote for them so I could get shot by some gang stealing marijuana.”
Starting April 1, all 38,000 people authorized to smoke marijuana in Canada will have to score their supply from one of the new super-grow-ops. Mr. Swiatek, proprietor of Sundial Growers, desperately wants to be one of them – even if it means bringing security guards, armoured cars and a surveillance system worthy of Fort Knox to his former cucumber greenhouse.
Health Canada is still considering his proposal, but he says Ottawa has sent a number of encouraging signs, including a note saying his operation fits all its criteria.
Local support has been less forthcoming. When Mr. Swiatek alerted Rocky View County about his plans last summer, an official replied two days later with an all-clear. Mr. Swiatek held a federal permit for horticultural development. “The County does not regulate what can be grown in the greenhouses,” wrote county official Yvonne Maughan.
The tenor changed when word got around town about Mr. Swiatek’s aspirations. Several neighbours contacted their councillor, Lois Habberfield, to see if she could block the application. The county is now exploring a new zoning bylaw that would confine commercial marijuana operations to industrial areas. From Nanaimo, B.C., to Charlottetown, virtually every town and city in the country is hashing out bylaws to gain a measure of control over the federally mandated farms.
The new rules impose hefty security requirements on aspiring medical marijuana kingpins. Mr. Swiatek said the tab for cameras, motion sensors, steel doors and a concrete vault has topped $150,000. “I’ll have 20 people working here in the day, all of them close to a panic button, so you’re not going to rob the place then,” he said. “So you better come at night.” And in case anyone is worried about his delivery truck being car-jacked, he’s priced out armoured vehicles at $1,500 per trip.
None of that has placated neighbours, who don’t want their bucolic lifestyle upended, whether by bullet or Brink’s truck.
“We don’t want armoured cars here,” said Naomi Kerr, a geologist whose property borders Mr. Swiatek’s. “We don’t care how big the fences are. What we don’t want is something that will attract a segment of society we moved here to get away from.”
A petition is circulating, and Ms. Kerr has hired a lawyer. They say they have nothing against the product, just the location, a view they share with the local Mounties. “Commercial areas are clearly more appropriate than residential areas for this kind of operation,” said Staff Sergeant Gord Sage of the Airdrie RCMP. “Compared to corn or cucumbers, this is a high-value product. You don’t see too many people ripping off a cucumber truck.”
Despite his position, Sgt. Sage has just as many unanswered questions about the new laws as the residents he’s supposed to protect. “We haven’t received much information about this from Health Canada and there’s a huge security concern around that.”
In an e-mailed statement, Health Canada played down criticisms, explaining the new measures replace a program that “was subject to diversions to the black market, home robberies and in some cases, of fires in homes and houses.”
Mr. Swiatek is hoping the economic potential will trump any security worries. Health Canada expects medical marijuana sales to top $1-billion within a decade. He has plans to max out his 28,000-square-foot greenhouse and then expand to another property a kilometre east. “If our expansion goes to capacity we could get to $350-million gross,” he said. “How many jobs is that? Yet there’s no support here.”
That could be a stretch considering Alberta’s paltry appetite for medical marijuana. The province counts about 1,400 legal pot-smokers among its 3.6-million people. British Columbia, by contrast, has 800,000 more people and 10 times the number of medical marijuana prescriptions, according to Health Canada.
But with two U.S. states recently launching sales of recreational marijuana, there’s no telling how big the market could grow if the legalization trend spreads. “There is tremendous opportunity in the industry and, if Alberta and Canada don’t get on board, we will be run over by the U.S.,” said Mohyuddin Mirza, a greenhouse researcher on the board of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.
Mr. Swiatek has no intention of being run over. He wants to be producing within three months – as long as Health Canada’s approval comes through. “It’ll work if they let me do it,” he said. “People attack without having the facts. It’s the stigma of marijuana. If this were Salem, they’d call it a witch hunt.”