Behind the medical marijuana dispensaries that are proliferating faster than Starbucks franchises is the new industry of upstream production. Cloaked in secrecy and shielded from local interference, authorized pot farms are fortified against local opposition.
In British Columbia, half a dozen pot farms have been approved on land zoned for agricultural production. Many more are in the works – there are 13 applications in the municipality of Maple Ridge alone.
Some of these medical marijuana facilities will disappear into the landscape: greenhouses guarded by barbed wire fences, tucked away in industrial zones. Not all, however, are being welcomed.
Patricia Purdy has been trying to locate a politician who will take responsibility for the facility that is being built two doors down from her.
Bureaucrats and politicians are issuing municipal permits, setting provincial regulations and handing out federal licences for these facilities. In all that paperwork, it seems, the buck stops nowhere.
The mayor of Maple Ridge wants Ottawa to disclose proposed sites and allow public input.
The provincial minister of agriculture says the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) shaped his regulations that ensure local governments cannot prohibit medical marijuana production on protected farmland.
And a senior Health Canada official advises concerned residents to take their complaints to the province.
"No one is going to take responsibility for anything," Ms. Purdy said.
Ms. Purdy lives in a rural residential neighbourhood in Whonnock, about 60 kilometres east of Vancouver, in a house that has been in her husband's family for more than 100 years. The neighbourhood is mostly hobby farms and includes a school, playgrounds and a community theatre.
When the six-hectare property two doors down from her sold last summer, she was told it was being developed as a tree farm. She became suspicions when truckloads of gravel were delivered, which turned out to be the foundation for an industrial-scale greenhouse operation.
Ms. Purdy said it is not the crop itself that offends her. "None of us [opponents] are rabidly anti-medical marijuana," she said. "I use medical marijuana for my rheumatoid arthritis."
She is concerned that all those thirsty plants will empty the small aquifer that feeds the local wells. "I don't care if they are growing orchids there. We have no water to spare," she said.
Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said such conflicts are common between farmers and their neighbours. "It's always the balance between the farmer's right to farm and the aspirations of local residents," he said. "The provincial government ... has determined, based on advice from the ALC, that growing medicinal marijuana is a legitimate farm use."
Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read sympathizes with the Purdys and their neighbours, but says her hands are tied. Mr. Letnick told her she cannot prohibit legal grow ops even in residential areas, and Health Canada will not allow her to disclose the 13 proposed locations to residents.
"We are trying to figure out, is there anywhere in this whole thing where we have any power?" She said the proponent is following the rules, but she would like to see the farm in a different location. "This isn't serving anyone well."
The federal government is a reluctant partner in the development of this new enterprise, evident in its efforts to thwart storefront dispensaries. The courts have ruled that Canadians must have access to marijuana when authorized by a health-care professional. However, Ottawa is reluctant to allow public input on the facilities' locations.
Health Canada says it will look at recent aerial views of the neighbourhood within 500 metres of the proposed facility before deciding if it will issue a licence, but by then it will already be built.
"This is government making policy from 10,000 feet," said Mike Farnworth, the B.C. NDP justice critic.
He said the province could avert most of the budding conflicts by setting minimum sizes for farm parcels. "That would solve the problem of putting production facilities in the middle of residential areas. That's the public's big concern."
Medicinal marijuana has been deemed a legitimate crop, but it is silly to pretend it is the same as any other farm product.
"They have four security perimeters and their product is stored in a vault," Ms. Read noted. "You don't do that for tomatoes."