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British Columbia Fire chiefs differ on safety risks of home-grown medicinal marijuana

Health Canada overhauled its medicial-marijuana system last year partly because of concerns of public safety.

Fire chiefs testifying on opposite sides of a constitutional challenge to Canada's medical-marijuana laws disagree on whether growing medicinal pot at home poses an increased fire or safety risk, a federal court in Vancouver heard Tuesday.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis's affidavit said that more than half his city's illegal and licensed operations posed a "high or extreme" electrical risk, and about a quarter of both illicit and licensed operations had observable mould, according to his report on 1,800 inspections by a joint municipal-RCMP team over the last decade. Nearly all (98 per cent) licensed growers had modified their structure without a permit, Chief Garis's affidavit stated.

However, the chief's report did not mention any fires at a legal medical-marijuana facility, and during cross-examination Monday he told a lawyer for four British Columbia plaintiffs that licensed operations posed a significant, but unquantifiable, risk to public safety.

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Tim Moen, acting battalion chief with the fire department in Fort McMurray, Alta., said in his affidavit that Chief Garis's report made the facts fit the chief's preconceptions and did not consider other possible risks, such as home renovations. Mr. Moen said the report "contains numerous methodological and analytical issues and contains a number of assertions of fact that directly contradict my experience as a fire safety professional."

Concerns about fire and electrical safety formed part of the rationale that led Health Canada to overhaul its medical-marijuana system last year to strictly license only industrial-scale production in secure commercial facilities. Last week, an RCMP expert told the court during cross-examination that Mounties had no data on how many of the roughly 28,000 people authorized to grow their own pot, or have another licensee do it for them, were subverting or abusing the old system.

The case involves the constitutional challenge by four plaintiffs alleging that their Section 7 Charter rights were violated when the federal government enacted the new system that outlawed their personal grow operations. They say they can't afford marijuana under the new system, which also doesn't give them control over the specific strains they use. They are asking the court to force the government to allow patients to grow their own marijuana, which many licensed Canadians kept doing after the Federal Court judge granted an injunction to the four plaintiffs in March, 2014, pending the outcome of this legal challenge.

Scott Wilkins, an Abbotsford insurance broker specializing in covering licensed medical-marijuana producers, told government lawyers Tuesday that only six of his roughly 300 clients had registered claims over the past four years, and that none of the damage to their buildings was attributed to grow-ops. For example, he said one fire had started in another outbuilding from an unknown ignition source; another was set by roofer working on the building, while another two claims had involved unrelated sewage problems in homes beside the grow-ops.

Mr. Wilkins said potential clients are required to have their sites inspected by licensed electricians. If they modify their site, they must give him an annual report showing that such changes were signed off by a licensed electrician. He told government lawyers that he doesn't screen his clients's operations for security standards, as each site's security considerations are listed in the application to Health Canada.

His firm also doesn't ask potential clients to get certified inspections for mould, plumbing, fire risks, bylaw compliance and structural risks, nor safe chemical and pesticide storage, Mr. Wilkins said.

John Conroy, lead counsel for the four plaintiffs fighting to keep growing their own medical marijuana, said outside the court Tuesday that the government has "quite limited" evidence that grow operations licensed under the old system pose fire risks.

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"Most of their information seems to be with respect to illegal grows," Mr. Conroy said. "We're tryign to show that the problem isn't what they make it out to be and this can be done safely and securely without risk to others if an effort is made on the behalf of everyone, including the patients."

Closing arguments in the challenge are expected some time in May.

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