After complaints from its residents, Wheatland County is confronting large, personal medicinal cannabis growing facilities that, unlike regulated commercial facilities, operate without having to notify the municipality.
Tom Ikert, Division 4 Councillor, brought forth the issue after becoming aware of a cannabis growing operation close to his residence. “I went to the county because the neighbours were complaining about the smell,” he said.
At first Ikert was assured that no growing facility exists in the area – the county allows commercial cannabis cultivation in the Wheatland Industrial Park only – but he later determined the facility was a personal medical cannabis growing facility. A big one.
In November 2020, Wheatland County published a white paper arguing there is a regulatory gap for personal and medicinal cannabis growing that is creating safety and environmental risks and causing disputes among neighbours. The white paper was sent to local MLAs, Bow River MP Martin Shields, and Premier Jason Kenney.
Under Canada’s cannabis laws, the federal government is responsible for the rules for cannabis production and processing, while provinces and territories are responsible for regulating distribution and sale. While Alberta municipalities have the power to create land use bylaws on where cannabis can be grown, these apply to commercial enterprises only. Municipal policies and land use regulations are not applicable to personal cannabis production.
Under Health Canada’s Medicinal Use of Cannabis application, individuals can apply for a medicinal growing license. The number of plants each license holder is allowed is determined by a calculator tool that creates an output based on the number of grams they are prescribed daily. Up to 485 cannabis plants can be grown at home, without the requirement of notifying local authorities.
“Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s 1,000 pounds of weed you can grow in a year if you’re using 500-watt bulbs,” said Ikert. He added many of these growers have brought three-phase power onto the sites, which raises questions as to whether the cannabis grown is strictly for personal use as restricted by law.
While the permit holder is expected to meet local bylaws, regulations and safety code requirements, the application and approval process does not require confirmation that all municipal requirements have been met. The county is arguing this has created a large regulatory loophole, where large cannabis growing facilities can be active without being known or accountable to municipal enforcement.
The problem is exacerbated by regulations allowing a designated producer to be registered by multiple permit holders. Multiple (up to four) registrations can be active at one same location, meaning up to 1,940 plants can be grown together.
“You can also congregate, in a sense,” said Bow River MP Martin Shields. “Three or four growers get together and say, ‘let’s just roll with this one place,’” he said. “Wheatland County is absolutely right saying that if cannabis is being grown as a congregated personal site, municipalities have no clue what’s out there.”
Many growers choose to make changes to their homes or buildings that legally require an electrical, gas or building permit. If they applied for a permit, it would be reviewed for compliance with the Alberta Building Code and the work inspected by a safety codes officer, once complete. But by not having to notify municipalities, these growers may skip the permit process and install new systems that are unsafe, the white paper argues.
Without the requirement for proper ventilation, there is potential for environmental health issues from home cannabis growing, including air quality and moisture concerns (e.g. mould), and chemical exposure from use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, it states.
Residents also have little recourse when faced with nuisance issues from a neighbouring facility, namely odours. If the county is notified of a nuisance growing facility that is not a known commercial operation with a development permit, the RCMP will be contacted. However, if the occupant or owner is found to have a license for medical cannabis, the only option is to let the license holder know of the complaint and work toward a voluntary solution.
These personal medical grow operations do not have to have the same security systems that commercial sites require, resulting in a higher potential for crime, added Shields.
The resolution of the white paper is for the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) to collaborate with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), to advocate for Health Canada to ensure municipal compliance for all personal medical cannabis production facilities for existing license holders and prior to approval for all future applications.
Reeve Amber Link presented the paper to the RMA District 2: Central directors, who supported the resolution. It will go forward to the RMA District 2 spring meeting on Feb. 5. If the resolution receives support at that meeting, it will go to the RMA spring convention for consideration by all rural municipalities in Alberta, she explained.
The paper will also be presented to the FCM during its March 2021 board meeting.
Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times