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Closing Whistler's licensed grow-ops could pose public safety issue

Health Canada has no authority to ensure home growers cease production
Federal Changes Eighteen licensed medical marijuana growers in Whistler will be closed because of new regulations. Photo BY Alison Taylor

Eighteen licensed medical marijuana growers in Whistler will be forced to close their doors in the coming months thanks to changes in federal regulations.

This has local officials concerned about potential safety and legal risks these home grow-ops could pose without a serious plan to enforce their closing.

The concerns centre around Health Canada's lack of authority to ensure these grow facilities phase out production in a safe and timely manner.

As of April 1, Canadian individuals producing medicinal pot under Ottawa's Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) will no longer be permitted to operate licensed home grow-ops, turning the production over to approved commercial operators.

"It's a public health issue and a public safety issue," said Whistler's outgoing Fire Chief Rob Whitton, speaking to Pique during an interview on his more than 10 years with the resort's fire department.

"My concern with the changes that are happening, because they're not going to reissue these licenses... (is) what do you do with those 18 homes? Is there mould remediation (needed), is there mould growing?"

There are now more than 38,000 Canadians participating in Ottawa's medical marijuana access program, up from less than 500 in 2002, and after the current regulations are repealed on March 31, Health Canada will no longer have the authority to request the inspection of private dwellings that were cultivating medical marijuana.

Health Canada is also not permitted to inform municipalities of the location of home grow-ops, presenting a further barrier to ensuring enforcement, said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"Health Canada won't have any authority to ensure the remediation (of these grow-op homes) takes place, so that's a concern, but even under the Privacy Act, Health Canada can't tell us where they are, so we won't know whether they have been remediated," she said.

"They've allowed these (grow-ops) to pop up across the country, and now they're moving into a new regulatory framework and are effectively washing their hands of what they've created. There does seem to be a gap here."

Health Canada only tells police if a grower they are investigating is licensed when officers are about to execute a search warrant, according to Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair.

"This is something that's fairly new, so we're still trying to ascertain what our strategy will be," he said.

"But if (home growers) continue to operate, those places will become illegal grow-ops.

"I'm hopeful these individuals will respect the law."

Health Canada will provide guidance to all current MMAR program participants "so they are aware of their responsibilities with regards to disposing of their dried marihuana and plants," wrote media relations officer Sara Lauer in an email.

"Health Canada expects participants to comply with all federal laws, as well as, provincial/municipal bylaws and remediation requirements, where they exist," she added.

In preparation for April's new regulations, RMOW staff is drafting a zoning amendment bylaw to regulate commercial production in the resort. The bylaw, expected for council's consideration in the New Year, could regulate the future location of commercial grow operations in the community.

Licensed producers will have to meet Health Canada's list of stringent security and quality control requirements, including providing the operation's location to police and fire departments, employing a quality assurance staff member to approve the quality of marijuana, and ensuring the production site has 24/7 surveillance systems.

"Security, inventory, quality and environmental controls are among a myriad of Health Canada requirements, and all transactions are done through a bonded courier," said Whistler Medical Marijuana Company founder Chris Pelz, who's currently seeking a commercial grow licence for his 5,100 square foot industrial facility in Function Junction. "Health Canada has done their homework and want the (commercial grow) facilities to be safe and somewhat benign."

Pelz has recently secured an investment from PharmaCan Capital, a merchant bank focused solely on the medical marijuana industry, with plans to offer organic cannabis grown from pioneer strains on a small scale, if approved.

Pelz doesn't think the community's remaining home growers will undermine commercial operations if they continue to produce marijuana for the black market after April 1.

"I think what you're seeing is a real evolution of the acceptance of marijuana and cannabis as a huge and viable medicinal source going forward," he said.

"The momentum behind that is simply going to be too great for the private or illegal growers to be competitive in the marketplace."

—With files from Alison Taylor