Medicinal marijuana grow operations — sanctioned by Canadian law — are unworkable, not just in this province but across the country, say a growing number of B.C. mayors.
The municipal politicians say hundreds of authorized grow ops are blurring the line for police, who are trying to combat a parallel, multi-billion-dollar drug trade controlled by violent gangs.
Fraser Valley mayors are speaking up and calling on the federal government to significantly change the way they administer the marijuana program, which is designed to provide pain relief for medically-approved patients.
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz, whose council is trying to shut down about 50 grow ops, says the legalized grow operations have wrecked houses, started fires and been infiltrated by gangs.
“When police come upon a medical grow home with 150 plants, some of them [two metres] tall, the structural integrity of the house is compromised by moisture in the air,” she says.
“There is a risk to the neighbours when grows are ripped off. . . . I believe gangs have infiltrated the system,” she says.
Gaetz says police have their hands full with the illegal drug trade in Chilliwack. In 2002, the city was tarred with the label of being No. 2 in Canada for illegal grows.
“We know how to grow plants in the Fraser Valley. You do it in greenhouses, which are made of glass, not in people’s homes, which have drywall,” says Gaetz.
Hundreds of medical grow operations have been allowed by Health Canada since 2003 after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling determined the drug could legally be used to relieve pain.
Health Canada licences grow ops on behalf of authorized patients, but the locations are kept secret from authorities for “privacy reasons.”
Gaetz says confusion results among neighbours who smell nearby grow ops as well as municipal regulators concerned about long-term consequences such as toxic mould.
Chilliwack isn’t the only B.C. city concerned about how to deal with the fast-growing industry.
Pitt Meadows banned medical grow ops last year, Surrey says grow op information needs to be disclosed to police and both Langleys have come out against current practices.
“The lack of adequate inspections, enforcement, controls and oversight is a significant public safety issue,” say Langley Township Mayor Rick Green and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender in a letter dated March 8 to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
“This issue is becoming critical in every municipality across Canada,” they say.
Health Canada agrees the system needs to change.
“Heath Canada is considering long-term measures to reform the program and its regulations. Objectives include security and safety,” says Health Canada spokesman David Thomas from Ottawa.
‘Doing what they want’
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says Health Canada grow ops are open to abuse because the department does not monitor them effectively.
“We know if they have a licence, they pretty much do as they want,” she says. “We don’t know who’s got a licence or how many plants are permitted.
“These things need to be disclosed so we can monitor them. The system is open to abuse,” she says.
RCMP Const. Michael McLaughlin says the system is abused, but he is not able to say to what degree.
“Both criminal organizations and individuals use the marijuana licence as a way to hide criminal activities,” says McLaughlin,
spokesman for provincial RCMP headquarters in charge of the federal drug enforcement branch.
“It presents a challenge. The risk assessment going into any marijuana search is high for us because of the use of weapons and violence. . . . People who will try and steal each other’s marijuana will often use
violence,” he says.
McLaughlin would not comment on a CBC report which quoted Langley RCMP Supt. Derek Cooke as saying there are now more than 800 legal medicinal grow ops in B.C.
Health Canada guide to “marihuana”
Health Canada has been providing authorized patients with medical marijuana for eight years, but it admits not everything has worked out as planned.
For starters, the department calls the high-grade, dried-up flowers “marihuana,” whereas just about everyone else knows it as “marijuana.”
The government’s program has lost money, which stands in marked contrast to gangs’ money-making endeavours which have been estimated to be worth more than $3 billion annually in B.C.
The department admits it has incurred a “significant amount of debt,” according to information provided on its website, at www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
The debt has been run up “as a result of the accounts in arrears of some authorized persons,” it says.
The website provides advice about how to grow marijuana and explains how a doctor’s certificate is needed in order to become a person authorized to possess.
Health Canada allows patients to buy bud from the government for $5 per gram, roughly half the street value, and they can pay by credit card.
A package of 30 seeds costs $20, plus GST.
A note on the website reminds users that money can be refunded only if the sealed bag “has not been opened.”
Medical reasons for receiving marijuana include epilepsy, AIDS, cancers, skin diseases and muscle spasms.
The department had no comment on the mayors’ efforts to shut down legal operations, but its own data backs up Gaetz’ assertion that the industry is growing quickly.
A sharply rising bell curve on a government graph shows new applications more than tripled from 2007 until 2009, rising from 100 to more than 300 a month.
Health Canada says in an email to The Province that 2,995 persons in B.C. are authorized to possess the drug and 9,251 across Canada.
“Since September, 2009, there has been a sharp increase in the number of applications,” it says.
Marijuana advocate Dana Larsen, who is running for the provincial leadership of the NDP, says the numbers are much bigger than Health Canada suggests.
He says a network of one dozen “quasi-legal” dispensaries in B.C. serve about 10,000 people for medical reasons. The majority of patients and growers are not Health Canada-certified.
“It’s a growth industry. Dispensaries will double in B.C. next year and again the year after,” says Larsen, who operates two Vancouver-area dispensaries at cannabisdispensary.ca.
‘Happy and satisfied’
Stephanie Fields of Victoria, 28, has been a longtime user of medical marijuana.
The drug helps her cope with a severely irritable condition in her digestive tract.
“I’ve tried every sort of diet pill out there. Nothing takes care of it. Marijuana is a huge help. I’m definitely happy and satisfied with the program,” she says.
Fields, who has only been in Health Canada’s program for the past four months, attributes her tardiness in joining to a lack of awareness of the program.
Other difficulties include getting a doctor’s approval and lengthy bureaucratic delays.
She says the process begins with a complex 33-page registration form. Annual renewals are mandatory, resulting in more lost time.
But despite the adversity, she says, the legal designation has enabled her to stop feeling like a criminal who was sneaking around her landlord.
“I am not in constant fear of getting arrested. I can get what I need when I need it. My intestines don’t go into muscle spasms. I actually want to eat,” she says.
The system is user-pay. Larsen says patients spend up to $200 per day, although the average is closer to $30.
‘Knee jerk reaction’
Russell Barth, a marijuana advocate from Nepean, Ont., says B.C.’s mayors are violating the law.
“If this was happening to the mentally disabled, there would be a public outcry,” he says.
“Chilliwack’s reaction is absolutely terrible. It’s a crazy, knee-jerk reaction which violates peoples’ constitutional rights. It’s deliberate discrimination,” he says.
Fields also opposes the mayors.
“There’s a stigma against marijuana and a lot of misinformation. Growers pay for electrical and water use. Other problems can be solved by inspections,” she says.
Larsen says it’s “wrong to blame sick and dying people for the problems.”
No meeting of minds
The issue of whether marijuana should be decriminalized has divided the country since getting high became popular in the hippie culture of the 1960s.
There is usually no room for agreement between those who believe in the drug’s healing/recreational qualities and those who say it’s just a way for potheads to zone out.
“Pot is illegal, but we have a specific right to do this thing. Marijuana’s good for you. The people in charge of prohibition don’t want to hear that,” says Barth.
Gaetz’ roots are in the eastern Fraser Valley, where conservative values predominate.
Gaetz, however, says the issue is “absolutely not” about a narrow-minded aversion to illicit drugs.
“In B.C., the way we do business is by picking up drugs at a pharmacy. I’d like to see medical marijuana treated like other drugs dispensed by a pharmacy,” she says.
BY KENT SPENCER,
MARCH 13, 2011 4:05 PM