New federal medical marijuana laws could provide a lucrative agri-business opportunity to growers – if municipalities will accept the businesses.
The new rules that take effect April 1 govern how medical marijuana is grown and distributed. They are much tighter than before and they encourage large-scale operations rather than smaller, home-based ones that are harder to monitor.
But B.C. growers are finding themselves stymied by municipalities that don't want the large-scale operations. Meanwhile, smaller growers that have invested in equipment and nurtured businesses under the old rules are having to decide whether to go big, go rogue or shut down.
As of last week, Health Canada had received 383 applications for commercial production. Many municipalities around Vancouver are taking precautions against the coming wave of large, commercial medical marijuana operations. Delta is the most recent, having decided last week to ban all aspects of medical marijuana production, following what many other municipalities have done since the announcement of the Health Canada changes last June.
Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and the Fraser Valley Regional District have also severely restricted where grow-ops can put down roots.
"We don't want it grown in open fields," said Delta Mayor Lois Jackson. "We also want it to be in an area where people will be safe from the people who would attempt to break in or steal the product."
But federal law already covers growing marijuana in open fields, and indoor operations require thorough security processes. Dana Larsen, founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party and the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary, says the municipalities are trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist any more.
Regardless of the new rules, Mr. Larsen doubts that all of the small growers currently licensed will dispose of their plants and shut down when the word comes from Health Canada that their licences are obsolete.
"Some of our cultivators are people who have Health Canada licences and some of them don't," he said. "Some of the ones who have Health Canada licences are going to stop growing and some of them aren't. But there's always going to be marijuana for sale out there. We purchase from a lot of different people."
James Poelzer, the young chief operations officer of Agrima Botanicals, said he and his company have been treading carefully to meet all the various federal and municipal strictures as Agrima prepares for commercial distribution under the new rules.
Mr. Poelzer said his company searched around for a municipality that would be willing to have them and chose Maple Ridge, where grow facilities are allowed on agricultural land.
"We built on [Agricultural Land Reserve] with the thought that it [marijuana] would fall under the ALR as an approved product that should be grown on farmland," he said.
But while the law recognizes medical marijuana as an agricultural product, some municipalities want provincial authorization to ban its cultivation even from farm land.
"I think that's based on preconceived notions of what a marijuana production facility is," said Mr. Poelzer.
With state-of-the-art fire-suppression systems, air filters, painstaking supply chain monitoring, and constant human and electronic surveillance, these are not the grow-ops of the past.
"You don't get your licence unless you've taken those into consideration," said Mr. Poelzer. The video monitoring systems alone can be composed of dozens of security cameras recording video that must be kept for at least two years.
Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang derides the new Health Canada regulations, saying that no resources have been provided to the local governments to deal with individual growers who disregard the new rules and continue growing. Since the current system came into place in 2001, Health Canada has issued more than 16,000 licences to growers in B.C., but has not provided local authorities with their locations. As a result, Mr. Jang says the city will not be devoting any resources to enforcing the new laws.
"It's their mess," he said. "Until they get their act together and really think these things through, the current system of providing medical marijuana for individual use with a prescription and all the permits is fine."
Mr. Jang believes that the changes are not motivated by a desire to improve the system, but rather to restrict the program altogether.
"If this is just an ideological thing," said Mr. Jang, "then it has no place in public health."