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Pushing back against pot

The rapid expansion of cannabis production in rural areas has prompted residents, farmers and municipalities to call for a slowdown in growth

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Ontario’s rapidly growing cannabis production sector is facing a backlash after the addition of many new growing facilities has resulted in interim control bylaws from municipalities and the formation of local protest groups unhappy with smell and traffic.

Why it matters: Cannabis production in Canada has grown quickly since legalization a year ago last October. That’s sparked a lot of investment and rapid growth without widespread guidelines for municipalities or best management practices by growers.

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The Niagara Peninsula is the epicentre of the growth of cannabis production, with indoor and outdoor production growing quickly.

Health Canada, the federal department that regulates cannabis licensing, had issued 117 licences in Ontario for indoor production and 11 for outdoor production as of Nov. 30.

The federal government will supply a list of licensed growers and dealers of cannabis, but most of those are numbered companies and the list doesn’t provide a location. However, there’s no doubt that cannabis production has centred in the Niagara Peninsula, where there’s a history of greenhouse production, a great climate for growing indoors and close proximity to the region around Toronto.

Leamington is the other main growing area, where there is significant growth in greenhouse construction for cannabis.

Rapid growth has meant a wild west of regulations and politicians are now putting the brakes on cannabis production approvals. Interim control bylaws have been implemented in Pelham, where several of the largest producers in the country such as Redicale and CannTrust are based. Niagara Falls has one and Welland passed an interim control bylaw just before Christmas. Fort Erie has a meeting this month to discuss an interim control bylaw for new cannabis operations.

What is the concern?

Greenhouse operations have existed next to farms and houses for generations in the areas around Niagara and Leamington, but as many of those greenhouses are converted to cannabis production, there are new concerns.

“Everybody is on edge, councillors struggling to understand. It’s all new to them,” said Kathleen Edwards, who lives and farms near Welland. The farm next to the one she owns with her husband, Ed, has been bought by a Toronto company that plans to produce cannabis.

A group of people affected by existing and proposed cannabis operations recently gathered at the Edwards farm to talk to Farmtario about their concerns.

A group of people affected by burgeoning cannabis production operations included Ed and Kathleen Edwards, left, Mark Strasser, Sandy Jeffs, Jeff McIntyre and Fred May. They all live on the Niagara Peninsula.
photo: John Greig

Jeff McIntyre, who has a farm next to a proposed indoor and outdoor cannabis operation near Fort Erie, said he’s concerned about water and traffic. Many houses in the area are on cisterns or wells and there’s concern that the large volume of water needed to grow cannabis plants will seriously affect water levels.

He’s also worried about the increased traffic from additional people needed to help manage and harvest cannabis compared to greenhouse vegetables.

Fred May, who lives near Welland and has a proposed cannabis production facility going up on 27 acres next door, said a cannabis greenhouse production facility can employ hundreds of people.

Odour is also a concern, as the funky and distinctive smell of cannabis plants can be pervasive, especially during harvest.

The owner of the proposed operation next to McIntyre said they could pay for a trip for the family in the fall during harvest, but that’s not a solution to McIntyre.

There’s also concern that the odour will be detectable on clothes and in vehicles, especially involving people crossing the United States border nearby.

Edwards shows horses in the U.S. and worries about crossing the border if the cannabis odour remains on her vehicle, trailer, animals or belongings.

Cannabis also needs more intense lights to grow, meaning greenhouses that have grown vegetables and are now growing cannabis are much brighter to neighbours. Edwards said they can see light from cannabis greenhouses about 30 kilometres away.

There are also concerns about the amount of security needed — including large fencing, security guards and security cameras. As well, some people have expressed worries about the people who might be drawn to cannabis operations.

The CannTrust cannabis greenhouse near Fonthill has residences nearby, as did many greenhouse that formerly grew vegetables, but now grow cannabis.
photo: John Greig

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) says he’s also hearing more concerns, especially from the Niagara area. He says the OFA will be discussing the cannabis situation at its next board meeting, but says, “if it’s a legal facility, and they are following bylaws, how will they step in and say they can’t do it?”

He also thinks there’s some pushback because the product is cannabis. He wonders if there would be the same level of questioning if a farmer was building a barn or a greenhouse for another use.

Agriculture has been here before

Concerns with odour, waste, traffic and pollution have prompted interim control bylaws from municipalities struggling to manage the changes. Local groups have organized to protest and engage with their local politicians.

Sound familiar?

Wayne Caldwell said he sees similarities to the growth of large livestock barns, especially hog barns, and the patchwork of municipal regulations and protests that led to the creation of the province-wide Nutrient Management Act.

Caldwell, a professor in rural planning and development in the school of environmental design and rural development at the University of Guelph, has proposed a research project. It would outline lessons and best practices from other areas of the world where legal cannabis production has grown. The cannabis situation can also be likened to objections that arose with the growth of wind turbines, before minimum distance separations were increased.

“Traditional farming, whether cash crops or livestock, the rules have evolved over 200 years,” said McIntyre.

“These guys have no rules or regulations. They do what they want. Municipalities don’t seem to understand the gravity of risk to people’s livelihood.”

Part of the concern, like it was with the growing number of large livestock barns decades ago, is that the cannabis operations are more industrial than agricultural in nature.

Caldwell said that cannabis growers are being treated as agriculture so far, as growers of crops. That means they have the exemptions that agriculture activities have from site-planning requirements and they pay taxes at the agriculture rate.

Opposition to both large livestock barns and wind turbines decreased when significant minimum distance separations were established.

Indeed, the group of people who gathered at the Edwards home said they aren’t against growers of cannabis, especially when it comes to medical cannabis.

However, they want cannabis operations sited properly and under rules that follow researched and established best practices for cannabis production.

A recent meeting for municipalities in the Niagara Peninsula involving mostly planners, brought out many issues faced by those attempting to regulate the growing cannabis sector, said Sara Epp, an assistant professor in rural planning and development at the University of Guelph. She is working with Caldwell on the proposed study of cannabis planning best practices.

She’s from the Niagara region and has seen cases where cannabis production has fit into communities with little acrimony. When cannabis company Canopy Growth bought a Niagara-On-The-Lake greenhouse, the company went door to door talking to neighbours about its plans and the transition went smoothly.

However, as vast amounts of speculative money pour into cannabis production, many people are trying to get a share of it. That has given rise to developers from varied backgrounds with a wide array of practices.

“Municipalities are looking for the province to take the lead,” Epp said. They would like to see provincial perspective on minimum standards and normal practices, “so they don’t have to worry about having their zoning bylaws appealed.”

She said that new cannabis operations will be able to meet potential minimum distance separation requirements, but the quandary will be how to manage greenhouses that have been retrofitted for cannabis, but don’t meet minimum distances.

Caldwell said he thinks soft policy direction rather than hard regulations might work best at this stage.

“It is challenging for municipalities to know what are the best strategies because it’s new for them as it is for the province,” he said.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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