Grow ops spreading like weeds
Since there are 590 legal medical marijuana growers in Chilliwack and Health Canada has no rules that stipulate where pot should be grown, cannabis production takes place in commercial buildings, residential basements and agricultural outbuildings.
On one rural road in Chilliwack, neighbours of a suspicious medical marijuana grow operation have had concerns for years. The property has an alarmed security fence, a large dog and fans that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, inside outbuildings so large they dwarf the neighbouring single-family homes.
But concern turned to outright fear last Saturday when at least 10 trucks drove down the rural road, each dropping off a shipping container onto the five-acre property.
"I know myself what a small marijuana grow operation looks like," said one neighbour on condition of anonymity. "I have no opinion about medical marijuana. But this is a commercial operation that is supposed to be residential. And it's in the ALR."
Another neighbour expressed real concern about the dumping of plants, fertilizer and other chemicals and what effect that could have on their drinking water.
"This grow-op appears to be under a time crunch and is in full gear expanding to a commercial size grow-op," she said. "I have concerns that Health Canada will continue to allow the legal grow-ops in the rural areas.
"Health Canada have legalized these grow-ops with no regulations and no safety checks. . . . residents need to know the risks to their water supply."
Coming changes to the federal government's medical marijuana access regulations (MMAR) mean growing marijuana will no longer be allowed in homes but exactly what the new program will look like is unclear.
The proposal would see a number of larger commercial/industrial growers providing the marijuana, which could mean even small commercial operations will be forced to shut down.
Last week the city received a legal opinion that said farmland and the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is "an appropriate place to grow pot," Mayor Sharon Gaetz told the Times.
This is of concern to the city given community interest that farmland be used to grow food, according to Gaetz.
But also for tax reasons. "Residential and business subsidize farmers heavily and I think most people would be appalled to think they were subsidizing marijuana growers," Gaetz said.
Health Canada asked for feedback on the proposed changes to the MMAR up until Feb. 28. Those changes will come into effect April 1, 2014, with the current MMAR program being phased out in the fall in favour of the marijuana for medical purposes regulations (MMPR).
On Feb. 25, the city issued its formal response to the program and asked questions about the disclosure of locations, zoning, building codes and business licences.
"Our community's police force, fire department and staff are very concerned about how people are hiding behind the current rules to conduct illegal activity and subsequently putting the safety of Chilliwack citizens in danger," wrote director of development Lisa Thompson in the letter.
A third neighbour of the rural property in question told the Times there are possible gang connections to the owner.
The number of medicinal marijuana growers locally and provincewide has tripled in just one year, something that Gaetz said she predicted would happen.
The number of growers in B.C. rose from 3,831 in January 2012 to 11,601 (9,369 personal use and 2,232 designated growers) as of Feb. 18. That compares to a total of 9,846 growers in the nine other provinces and three territories combined.
Many critics of the MMAR program say the criminal element have moved into medicinal marijuana production. With virtually no site inspections or enforcement or monitoring of distribution, producing more than a licence allows, and selling illicitly, is simple.
One neighbour of a large medical marijuana grow operation in a residential area told the Times the stench is constant and a real nuisance. He's also concerned that the city is unable to inspect and Health Canada seems unwilling.
But that pales in comparison to the concern about living next to a marijuana grow operation with little security if one day someone decides to rip it off and picks the wrong house. He also thinks the growing at this location is connected to gangs.
"These people, they don't make deals with pens, they use glocks," he added.
The subject is so sensitive that neighbours don't want to talk on the record for fear of reprisals, and the growers themselves are quick to lawyer up.
When one local grower was asked about the expansion underway in their commercial unit, the Times was threatened with legal action.
Gaetz said that after a number of complaints, the last time city staff escorted by the RCMP paid a visit to the rural grow operation in this story, they were met at the gate by a lawyer who allowed city staff in and refused the police entry.
The mayor wonders why there is so much secrecy and clandestine behaviour given the legality of growing medicinal marijuana.
"This is supposed to be an above-board operation," she said. "So why should people have to be afraid of things that they say? That would not happen in any other zoning issue in our city. It's wrong."
One grower contacted the Times after the Feb. 26 story to say the topic was being sensationalized and the vast majority of growers are responsible and abide by the rules.
Gaetz said that may be true but city hall hears a lot of complaints about growers who don't follow the rules.
"The only way that you find out is through complaints and the conflict in our community is not about ones growing responsibly," she said.
But those who suffer serious medical conditions and who rely on marijuana to relieve symptoms fear the loss of personal production licences and the increased per gram cost that will come with the MMPR.
Jason Wilcox suffers from a terminal illness, grows marijuana for personal use and is the CEO of the newly formed MMAR Coalition Against Repeal. He said the proposed changes will trample patient rights.
"Our main concern is the barriers that may exist in relation to accessing medication," Wilcox told the Times. "And the courts have already ruled that access needs to be fair and reasonable.
"I can't afford the projected prices."
A GROWING CONFLICT
Feb. 26 - Fighting medicinal marijuana's growth in commercial zones
Part 2 - Use of farmland for future growth of pot industry is a major concern