Cities’ powers limited to regulate medical marijuana growers

Municipalities also seek authority to control pot dispensaries

Cannabis plants are seen here growing at MediJean

Cannabis plants are seen here growing at MediJean

Jeff Nagel

Black Press

The province has given the green light for medical marijuana to be produced in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) despite objections from some cities, including Abbotsford.

Lower Mainland municipalities are also collectively demanding authority to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries even though Vancouver is the only city so far actively trying to exert control.

Along with the formal change to the ALR regulation making medical cannabis an allowed use, the province has established a standard that municipalities are expected to follow in passing local bylaws to control any federally licensed commercial pot producers within their boundaries.

Delta, Langley Township, Abbotsford and Kelowna must have approval from the province on any bylaws they pass affecting farmland, so Victoria has a hammer to force them to comply.

Abbotsford previously tried to pass a bylaw prohibiting the commercial grows from ALR lands, but the request was denied by the province last year. The city did pass municipal bylaws to prohibit grow-ops from industrial and residential lands.

Other municipalities may have a somewhat freer hand in passing restrictions but they cannot prohibit licensed grows outright.

The province’s bylaw standard dictates setbacks from streams and property lines, a maximum footprint size for a facility, and minimum distances from parks, schools and urban or ALR boundaries.

The agriculture ministry said it expects all local bylaws to comply with the bylaw standard and the amended regulation by early fall, adding it sought to ensure as much ALR land is used for agriculture as possible while balancing other requirements.

City manager George Murray said in an email to The News that the city is reviewing the information from the province, which has provided municipalities with ready-to-use bylaw provisions.

The city will now amend its bylaw in order to reflect the new standards, and staff will bring a report forward for council to consider, he said.

Producers looking to set up a legal grow must notify their local government, local police force and local fire officials of their intention to apply to Health Canada.

Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese, one of the municipal leaders who opposed allowing any construction of heavily fortified pot factories on ALR land, said he is studying the new rules.

Froese said the province appears to have taken into account many issues raised by municipalities, but added he is still concerned that cities will face higher costs to regulate the facilities and patrol quiet country roads for any criminals they may attract.

“The biggest concerns we have is safety and protection of the environment,” he said.

Langley Township has already set a business licence fee of $5,000 for medical marijuana producers and Froese hopes that won’t have to change.

“That gives us some control over inspection and that’s important,” he said.

Under the provincial rules, pot producers on ALR land will have to pay industrial property tax rates, not the lower agricultural rate.

Last week, a resolution seeking acceptance of municipal authority to regulate pot dispensaries passed a vote of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association (LMLGA).

Medical marijuana policy has been complicated as efforts from the federal government to move the system from home grows to the new mail-order-only model of commercial producers has become mired in court challenges.

Though commercial grows are being established, the shift remains under a legal cloud, awaiting a ruling on a constitutional challenge launched by Abbotsford lawyer John Conroy on behalf of authorized growers who want to continue home production.

Producers were granted a temporary injunction to continue growing until the outcome of the court case is determined.

New Westminster Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said one dispensary tried to open there – initially calling itself an information centre as it sought to clear various hurdles – but police raided it and the operators were charged with trafficking.

Vancouver’s policy aims to regulate locations and set a $30,000 licensing fee.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has urged the city to shift course and shut down dispensaries, warning they send a signal to youth that drug use is normal.

Puchmayr said he supports municipalities having the power to control dispensaries even though his city didn’t consider it viable.

“Our legal opinion in New Westminster was that it was quite clearly not a permissible use,” he said. “Vancouver’s obviously interpreting it differently. And in doing so they’ve seen this proliferation in medical marijuana dispensaries and therefore they’re asking for some regulatory help from senior levels of government.”

– With files from Alex Butler