The scent of licensed cannabis production is wafting through rural municipalities dotted across British Columbia.
Some smell opportunity. Others smell a threat.
Businesspeople have been the first to set up shop in Canada’s legal cultivation market, whose first birthday is on Oct. 17 –four days ahead of the federal election.
Several of these billion-dollar companies have taken over massive greenhouses in the Lower Mainland, drawing criticism from municipal leaders for displacing local food production, and raising questions about the appropriate use of agricultural land.
Despite these producers expanding at breakneck speed, the unsanctioned market continues to dominate B.C.’s pot economy. Analysts estimate $10 billion in taxable revenue could be generated if the thousands of growers illicitly selling their product moved into the legal market.
Depending on whom you ask, the black- and grey-market growers who have built the world-renowned brand of B.C. bud represent a potential economic boon for the province, or a decades-long abuse of medicinal cannabis regulations, due for enforcement as soon as the legitimate industry stabilizes.
In this special three-part series, reporter Nick Laba takes an inside look at legal-era cannabis cultivation and what it means to citizens living in one of the most storied regions for growing it.
In visiting cultivation sites in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley — by speaking to producers, agricultural workers, government officials and next-door neighbours — you’ll hear a diverse cast of voices explain both the pains and promise of an industry that’s shifting societal norms like few others have.
The new smell in town
Along a narrow road that winds through the hills of rural Maple Ridge lies one of the first commercial facilities to legally grow cannabis in Canada.
Behind chain-link fence and razor wire, Tantalus Labs sits on a small piece of agricultural land, surrounded by neighbours who wish it wasn’t there.
To the cannabis industry, Tantalus’s purpose-built greenhouses represent an innovative leap and sustainable alternative to electricity-intensive indoor grows. To the nearby residents, they’re viewed as a disruption to years of peaceful life in the area.
|Travis and Shiv, who both live in Maple Ridge, are full-time employees and leaders of Tantalus’s cultivation team. (Nick Laba/Black Press Media))
While Tantalus’s engineered approach is unique, the complaints from its neighbours are not. Numerous cultivation sites, particularly those on designated agricultural land, have drawn the ire of their local populations. At the top of their list of complaints is the smell.
Across the street, Tom McLennan lives with his wife, Marilyn, in a house they built 40 years ago. He said Tantalus, along with the majority of legal cultivators, are non-compliant because of the odour.
“All the neighbours everywhere are complaining about the same thing all across Canada,” he said.
The Cannabis Act states that facilities must be equipped with air filtration to prevent the escape of odours. Concerns related to smell, according to Health Canada, should be directed to local governments or authorities.
Tantalus has air filtration and has passed multiple Health Canada inspections. CEO Dan Sutton said he’s gone above and beyond to mitigate the impacts of his operations.
“Our technology is working at industry-leading standards,” he said. “It’s been approved as compliant by Health Canada. We’ve never had an infraction from Metro Vancouver, or from any other odour-related governance body.”
A legion of annoyed noses has prompted the regional district to consider stricter bylaws on pot odours, but some agricultural veterans worry the scope could creep into other types of farming.
“If you want to look at all of agriculture — what about pig farms, chicken farms, manure spreading?” said Linda Delli Santi, executive director of the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association. “I mean, they smell pretty bad, too.”
|The roofs of Tantalus Labs are visible through the trees on Tom McLennan’s property across the street. McLennan is among a group of residents in the area that protested its development.(Nick Laba/Black Press Media)
However, McLennan said cannabis should be regulated differently than other crops.
“You got to remember one thing: We’re dealing with a narcotic on this. We’re not dealing with potatoes and vegetables.”
Cash crop or agricultural aggravator?
Many of the B.C. less contentious cultivation sites – such as Nanaimo’s Tilray and North Cowichan’s Broken Coast – operate on industrial land, not agricultural.
Although the province deems all cannabis production to be farming, several municipalities in the Lower Mainland have been vocal in their opposition to growing it in the Agricultural Land Reserve, a provincial zone of more than 11 million acres of land prioritized for agriculture.
Last December, the City of Richmond called for a provincial moratorium on growing cannabis in the ALR. Since then, land-use regulations were changed to give municipalities greater control over what can be built on agricultural land. In most cases, these amended rules are designed to prevent greenhouse construction.
Richmond was the first in the region to ban pouring concrete on agricultural land — a practice Coun. Harold Steves said mirrors land-use policy in Japan.
“We’re fortunate. We have very few greenhouses in Richmond. Delta’s about one climatic zone warmer than most of Richmond and so that’s where all the greenhouses went, but that’s one reason we brought in the bylaws — because we don’t want greenhouses built with concrete foundations,” he said.
“What happens is you end up losing whatever vegetable production is done in the greenhouses as they’re converted to cannabis. And I expect a lot of greenhouses in Delta will be converted. So the price of food will go up, but we get our cannabis.”
|A crop of corn grows on the Agricultural Land Reserve in Mission. Several experts say cannabis farming doesn’t pose a threat to food production. (Nick Laba/Black Press Media)
Delta city staff estimate nearly 30 per cent of the community’s greenhouse space has been converted since legalization. Companies that have traditionally grown vegetables, including Houwelings and SunSelect, are converting millions of square feet to marijuana. The City of Delta has been outspoken on the potential negative impact on local food production.
But these fears may be overblown, according to food and resource economics professor James Vercammen at the University of British Columbia.
It’s a little hypocritical to be concerned about losing land to cannabis production, he said, when property owners in the Fraser Valley sit on acres of unused agricultural land to get a break on their property taxes.
In terms of losing local food production, Vercammen said the claims aren’t based on facts.
“‘It’s healthier because it’s local and it hasn’t been stored as long’ — I don’t really think there’s much evidence there,” he said. “Markets are so globally integrated even BC Hot House owns a lot of production facilities in Mexico so that when the weather cools down, they can ramp up production there.”
Statistics show that B.C. is not a self-reliant producer of food. A 2011 study from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria states that we import at least half of what we eat. The numbers skew lower than 35 per cent when accounting for the recommended produce consumption in Canada’s Food Guide, according to a 2001 study from the Ministry of Agriculture.
If you’re able to grow a higher value crop like cannabis locally, Vercammen said, it makes sense from an economic perspective. He drew an analogy to B.C.’s heavily exported blueberry market.
“We can produce blueberries cheaper than everybody else and have a competitive advantage, so why not specialize and import our food from other places?” he said. “That’s what the market directs towards because it’s the least cost and most profitable outcome.”
Tomorrow: The rocky road of regulation
In part two of the series, you’ll read about how Canada’s history of licensed personal production, combined with today’s strict commercial regulations, has allowed for the existing multi-billion-dollar grey market to tower over the nascent legal regime.
Read the other two instalments:
Nick Laba is a 2019 graduate of the Langara College journalism program. He pursued this investigative series in partnership with Black Press Media.