There are houses in Abbotsford where pot is growing with the sanction of the federal government, and neither the Abbotsford Police nor city hall knows where they are.
Even Health Canada, which licenses these grow-ops, is not allowed to enter these residences to enforce regulations without the owner’s consent. It’s a system that frustrates politicians and police across the Lower Mainland, and Abbotsford’s mayor recently added his voice to the issue.
“They’re a nuisance and a hazard,” said George Peary, noting that the city can do nothing to regulate legal grow-ops, because they fall under Health Canada’s jurisdiction.
He said the city’s public safety inspection team sometimes becomes aware of these operations when they investigate illegal grow-ops, as they are flagged by neighbour complaints or high electrical use. Unlike illegal grows, no action is taken.
Peary said the residents in these legal grows compromise their own safety.
“If we find out about it, you can rest assured others in that industry (the drug trade) are finding out about it, and they are not as gentle and polite going in (as the city),” Peary added.
Peary said the city should have a list of legal grow-ops, if only to avoid the inspection team moving in.
“Otherwise, we’re assuming they’re illegal,” he said.
“It’s, to my mind, not a good system, and it’s dramatically in need of overhaul,” said Peary. “It’s largely unworkable.”
Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said police have asked the federal government for more information about legal grow-ops in the community. However, he said Health Canada cites the privacy rights of patients as a reason for keeping their locations unknown.
“They don’t have to report directly to us. They deal with Health Canada, and often our first interaction with them is them getting ripped off, and/or hearing from neighbours that they smell marijuana,” said MacDonald.
He said police do not enforce Health Canada’s restrictions on these growers, such as the size of their crops.
If legal growers are limited in the number of plants they can cultivate, there is apparently no restriction on size. MacDonald said APD have found enormous plants in legal grows.
“The Christmas-tree scenario is exactly what we’ve found – we’re talking about monsters,” he said.
He said these legal grows should be a concern.
“Any time you’re growing marijuana you’re talking about the potential for fire hazard and electrocution,” adding that he also knows of a few grow rips in recent years involving these houses.
One licensed grower in Abbotsford, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, lives in fear of grow rips. He received a Health Canada licence due to his deteriorative disc condition.
He was the victim of a home invasion in Chilliwack, and moved to Abbotsford. Now strangers have become aware of his grow-op in Abbotsford.
“I’ve got people coming to my door asking if I have pot for sale.”
Still, he did not let police or the city know about his legal grow.
“It’s none of their business,” he said.
Dana Larsen is a candidate for the NDP leadership, and also involved with a Vancouver-based dispensary that provides medicinal marijuana to some 3,000 patients in the region.
He also believes Health Canada’s present system is a poor one, and sees a working system of dispensaries as the answer.
“There’s no legislation that allows dispensaries to operate,” he said. “We are filling a gap in the system.”
He said the present federal system is designed to fail, providing product that is expensive and of low quality.
He said real expertise is necessary to create a “high-quality, medicinal product.” His group does that, selling the marijuana at not-for-profit prices. They offer more than 25 difference strains and varieties, which primarily go to patients with AIDs, cancer, epilepsy, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Larsen said quality pot, in addition to its well-known pain-relieving properties, can reduce epileptic seizures, help people with digestive issues, increase appetites and more.
His group produces capsules, pill products, tinctures and even salves that can be rubbed on the skin.
“We don’t just offer smokeable bud,” Larsen noted.
By contrast, he said the federal government sells marijuana that has stalk mixed with the bud, is generally of lower quality, and is freeze dried and vacuum sealed.
“It’s a product that’s not very medicinal at all,” he said.
The alternative is to mail order federal seeds, and patients grow their own.
He knows of 12 dispensaries operating in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, and estimates there are three or four more across the province.
They operate without oversight, but most stick to an ethical code, and he says being legitimized by government would be a good step.
Larsen said mayors and critics should direct their attention at the federal government, not patients growing their own marijuana.
“The patients are not to blame; they’re the wrong people to go after,” he said. “They are at risk and they feel very vulnerable. They are growing expensive medicine in their own home.
“We don’t ask people to make their own penicillin in their own home…”
He said Health Canada is offering its medicinal marijuana program only to meet legal requirements resulting from court decisions and legal precedent.
“It’s a terrible program,” he said.
Health Canada responded to The News’ questions via email.
How does the system work?
The Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) provide a means through which seriously ill Canadians can obtain access to marijuana for medical purposes.
An authorization to possess, and/or a licence to produce, marijuana for medical purposes may only be granted when all criteria have been met, as stated in the MMAR, including the requirement for a medical practitioner’s signature.
There are two categories under which individuals can apply for an authorization to possess marijuana for medical purposes.
Category 1 refers to individuals who suffer from various symptoms related to multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, or spinal cord injury/disease, or in case of compassionate end-of-life care.
Category 2 refers to individuals who are suffering from symptoms associated with an illness other than those mentioned in Category 1. Individuals applying under Category 2 are required to have the signature of a physician, to support their application, and where the physician is not a specialist, he/she must provide details regarding the evaluation of the applicant by a medical specialist in the area of specialization relevant to the treatment of the applicant’s medical condition.
Once approved, individuals have three options for obtaining a supply legally:
1) They can apply under the MMAR to access Health Canada’s supply of dried marijuana.
2) They can apply for a personal use production licence.
3) They can designate someone to cultivate on their behalf with a designated-person production licence.
Furthermore, holders of a production licence can produce marijuana for a maximum of two individuals who have authorizations from Health Canada to possess marijuana for medical purposes. In addition, the maximum number of production licences (either personal-use or designated-person) at one site is four.
An individual applying for a production licence must provide details about the site, including a description of the security measures they will take.
What is Health Canada’s response to the criticism that there is not enough supervision of growers?
Health Canada’s inspectors have the authority to conduct inspections for compliance with the MMAR and the terms of a licence to produce marijuana for medical purposes. Where the production or storage site is a dwelling-place, Health Canada inspectors must have the occupant’s consent, or a warrant issued by a Justice to enter the place.
Police say they don’t know what the addresses are of legal grow-ops – is this a problem?
Information regarding an individual’s application, authorization or licence is private and confidential. In order to protect the privacy of such individuals, Health Canada does not discuss or disclose their information to third parties.
However, Health Canada is authorized to provide limited information in response to a request from a Canadian police force engaged in an investigation under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), or the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).
Health Canada is currently considering measures to reform the Marijuana Medical Access Program and its regulations. In its considerations, the department is focussing on three key objectives: public health, safety and security; reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes; and examining the overall costs to Health Canada. Any changes to the program will balance the need to provide legal access to this controlled substance with the government’s responsibility to regulate it.