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Uncertainty for hundreds of medical marijuana grow-ops in Chilliwack

Owners of the 600-or-so legal medical marijuana grow-ops in Chilliwack got a reprieve from the April 1 deadline to shut down thanks to a Federal Court injunction last week. - Darren McDonald
Owners of the 600-or-so legal medical marijuana grow-ops in Chilliwack got a reprieve from the April 1 deadline to shut down thanks to a Federal Court injunction last week.
— image credit: Darren McDonald

Hundreds of people licensed to grow medical marijuana in Chilliwack have been working hard to dismantle their gardens and destroy their plants in advance of April 1, the day it was all supposed to become illegal.

Or maybe they haven’t.

“We are prepared but we have to wait and see what to be ready for,” Sgt. Duncan Pound of RCMP E Division told the Times regarding police planning in advance of the April 1 deadline.

“The numbers could be high, middle, they could be low.”

Mounties have no idea how many of the approximately 600 medical marijuana growers in Chilliwack will dismantle their grow-ops and destroy their plants and seeds, as per requirements in Health Canada’s marijuana for medical purposes regulations (MMPR) scheduled to come into effect April 1.

The new rules also require licence holders to provide written notice to Health Canada by April 30 that they have destroyed their marijuana, plants and seeds.

Anyone who does not do this will be reported to police.

But after a Federal Court judge granted an injunction on March 21, implementation of the new rules is on hold. Abbotsford lawyer John Conroy argued successfully on behalf of medical marijuana users, who said forcing patients to access their medicine through the mail from largescale growers will be too expensive and will affect the quality of the product.

In response to the court ruling, Health Canada said in a statement it would review the decision and consider its options. The ministry added that the rapid expansion under the medical marijuana program to the point where more than 40,000 people hold licences “has had significant unintended consequences on public health, safety and security.”

Specifically, growing marijuana in homes adds to risks from home invasion and theft, fire and toxic mould, and these are risks shared by neighbours and the community at large.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose responded to the decision on Twitter: “We are disappointed with this decision,” she wrote. “Allowing marijuana to be grown in Canadian homes and neighbourhoods has led to serious abuse. This includes public health and safety risks such as criminal diversion, fire hazards, and mould infestations. We will review the decision in detail.”

The RCMP and Chilliwack city hall agree.

“Marijuana grow operations attract a criminal element whether legal or illegal,” Sgt. Pound said. “They have the risks associated with them in terms of fire and in terms of illegal electrical bypassing, the moulds, the fertilizers everything being used—the dangers those pose to not only the individuals in the residence but to the community. Criminals didn’t distinguish between illegal grows or legal grows. For us the dangers posed by both were very consistent.”

For her part, Mayor Sharon Gaetz said the growing of marijuana in residential homes has had a “deleterious effect on some of the housing stock” in the city, and there have been no shortage of complaints about odour and safety.

“Some of our citizens have let us know that they are glad that we will now have the ability to shut grow operations down,” she told the Times via email. “It may be challenging to attend to each complaint, but we have added additional police in our budget this year for that purpose.”

Asked if Health Canada had provided any further resources to municipalities to crack down on the 18,000 grow-ops in B.C. that will, if not taken down, suddenly be illegal overnight, she said no.

“In spite of local government’s request for more resources from Health Canada, none have been forthcoming,” she said. “In fact, we understand that there are still only three inspectors for all of Western Canada and we further understand that these inspectors are mainly looking for precursors to the production of crystal meth.”

As of a year ago, there were 580 licences to grow marijuana in Chilliwack, according to Health Canada. That was more than triple the number of legal marijuana growers in Chilliwack from a year prior and well above the per capita number in other communities.

One of those licence holders told the Times this week he is not shutting down his marijuana growing.

“They care more for the fledgling commercial growers than the patients,” he said of the federal government.

If there was uncertainty regarding what would happen after April 1 before, the court injunction delaying that deadline only adds to the uncertainty.

Whenever Health Canada’s changes are eventually in place, the city’s local health and safety team—made up of city building and bylaw department staff, the fire inspector, electrical inspector and the RCMP—will continue to inspect properties where illegal marijuana grow ops are reported.

“The team will respond to complaints of grow ops in neighbourhoods,” Gaetz said.

But no one is in the business of guessing how many of those will still be active and how many will be reported.

“Can we predict how it’s going to look? Not really,” said Pound.

(There may be uncertainty, but one sign the RCMP are taking this very seriously is that a call to the Chilliwack detachment spokesperson was deferred to E Division, which is provincial headquarters in Vancouver.)

And while the RCMP do say legal and illegal marijuana grow ops can be trouble for communities, Pound emphasized that the RCMP does “support the legislation that says sick people that need marijuana to help them should get that marijuana.”

* If people suspect an illegal grow op in their neighbourhood, they can report it to the health and safety team at 604-793-2908 or email schipper@chilliwack.com.

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