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Kelly Coulter is a writer, environmentalist and farmers’ advocate. She has been involved with cannabis policy for more than 10 years.

There was a time when if you were a cannabis farmer, the golden rule was to be a good neighbour. It was illegal, after all, and the last thing you wanted to do was draw unwanted attention. Now that cannabis is legal, it is even more possible and important to be a good neighbour in every sense of the expression.

But despite the novelty of the recently legalized industry, the stink of the status quo persists, literally and figuratively. Complaints about odour from cannabis facilities are on the rise as they increase in size and production capacity. Public Health Ontario published a report last year to address concerns of increased grievances, and municipalities in lower mainland British Columbia have recently approached the federal government about concerns over how production licences are being issued.

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Cannabis farms are hardly the first types of industry and agriculture to be accused of producing odours or pollutants, but that doesn’t mean it is something we should tolerate. On the other hand, forcing cannabis producers to pay a higher price for its land use through restrictions, or even banning them altogether, is a stigma-stained, unreasonable solution.

The scrap over smell is an early inflection point for where the cannabis industry wants to go. New entrepreneurs in this still-fresh field have the benefit of centuries of best environmental, social and business practices at their fingertips. They know the mistakes of other industrial and agricultural sectors, and they know the heavy prices they’ve paid for them. They know industrial agricultural has crushed small family farms and has become a leading polluter worldwide.

Business as usual is due for an overhaul, and cannabis could be a great catalyst of change if industry leaders have the will.

Indeed, the cannabis industry has a truly unique opportunity to address and face head on the issues that plague other industries and have been identified as not just bad for business, but also bad for society in its entirety – from sexism to inequality to our finite natural resources. Grappling and griping over minutiae such as what smells are most offensive, what pollutes the worst, who deserves to grow how much and where – that just misses the forest for the trees. We should be taking advantage of this moment by thinking big, by setting an example and learning from the missteps and failures of other industries and doing better.

We can build a better and regenerative culture, rather than falling into the same old tired and destructive human and corporate patterns of extractive companies. We can create a diverse industry from the ground up. The federal and provincial governments can incentivize and support the creation of small sustainable environmentally friendly farms. In a transparent legal market, consumers can purchase cannabis aligned with their values, whatever they may be. We can promote gender parity and inclusiveness in the boardroom, and foster equity in the licencing process with buy-in from local, provincial and federal governments. Let’s create fair trade standards that will help farmers to not just survive but thrive, and give back to our communities economically, in the spirit of good stewardship.

The issue around smell feels like a small, local issue, but it is an important microcosm of the potential turning point the industry now faces. It’s a fracas that could whittle away goodwill around a nascent, stigma-soaked sector that needs to put a good foot forward before public perception catalyzes around it. The problem offers an early crossroads between the old way of doing things and a new, conciliatory way led by best practices in land use, corporate responsibility, environmental leadership and community relations. Solving the odour dilemma will take effort and it will be less convenient than following the status quo, but the reward will be benefits that go beyond profits: It will be a community.

If we are to fulfill our potential as good stewards of the land, now is the time to set out the policies that will allow this, all revolving around the golden rule. It’s rare, after all, that a multimillion-dollar industry springs forth from the ground. But when you have the opportunity, it is best not to miss the chance over some skunky smells.

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