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Cannabis Gold Rush vs. Food Security?

Mar 05, 2018 Editor

by Sue Stroud – citizen reporter

Recreational Marijuana may be the new LNG for governments looking for lucrative revenue streams to support their budgeted programs.

Washington State expects to raise $730 million over the next two years from the sale of cannabis for recreational and medicinal use and Colorado raised over $1 billion in the first eight months of 2017.

Washington State expects to raise $730 million over the next two years from the sale of cannabis

It must sound too good to be true to all three levels of government as they all look forward to these new revenue streams that are not tied to something whose demand for is likely to diminish anytime soon.

But is it as easy as all that?

Central Saanich Mayor and at least two Council members will tell you it’s not – as will a newly-formed organization of citizens protecting farmland.

Concerns began shortly after the Provincial and Federal governments both announced changes to the use and regulation of marijuana and marijuana growing operations (grow ops).

While the cannabis growers are referring to their proposed premises as greenhouses, the public has begun to challenge this view. The immense size of the structures and the way they are built have raised red flags about what threat they may pose to the province’s limited fertile ALR farmland – and as such to BC’s food security. With roughly 5% of BC land being arable (suitable for farming) pressure is growing to protect it for the future as California’s farming bonanza dims due to global warming’s droughts, floods and fires.

The style of these buildings, partly necessitated by the need for tight security, has raised concerns. The concerns with the large concrete bunker-style buildings are that more permanent destruction of farmland will occur than would be the case with traditional greenhouse operations. Currently most greenhouses do not have cement floors, and are not 30 feet high as is proposed for Central Saanich’s newest grow-op venture. The operation will have no need for the topsoil on the land that it is building on and will likely remove it before laying down thick beds of concrete for the greenhouse structures.

In the past weeks and months Central Saanich Council has received numerous letters from citizens asking that the grow-ops be permitted only in industrial areas where the topsoil has long-been gone, and the industrial-strength services that these operations require already exist, as does suitable road access.

In response to the sudden rush to develop a cannabis industry on the Saanich Peninsula, Central Saanich Council recently passed a motion moved by Mayor Ryan Windsor to ask the provincial government for a moratorium on cannabis operations on ALR lands:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the District request that Premier of British Columbia and Minister of Agriculture place a moratorium on further use of Agricultural Land Reserve lands to grow cannabis while it performs a minimum of six month review and broad consultation with farmers, municipalities, industry and the public on the use of Agricultural Land Reserve lands for the growth and production of marijuana.

In addition, at least one of these cannabis grow-operations is planned on farmland that runs alongside the popular Lochside Regional Trail. This rural recreational strip is very narrow plant-lined path that meanders through the farmer’s fields on its way to Sidney. The cannabis operation is proposing 1,500 workers crossing the narrow path as they pull into their job site creating an increased hazard for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and scooters.

As the legal cannabis industry began to evolve, concerned members of the public began to organize. Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land (CPAL) was created by a group concerned citizens. CPAL has held public information sessions and has attended a town hall meeting put on by MP Elizabeth May. In February they presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures to Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands. The group is concerned that this rush on ALR land by the new legal recreational cannabis industry will increase the cost of farmland and increase speculation, thus further driving it out of the reach of new farmers.

Central Saanich Councillors Zeb King and Chris Graham introduced the following motion to Central Saanich Council on February 26th:

Re: Request for review and recommendations from the Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC) and the Peninsula Agriculture and Area Commission (PAAC) regarding cannabis production on farmland

Whereas these specific questions to the AAC and the PAAC will help Council and the District with the topic of cannabis production on farmland,

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council ask the Agricultural Advisory Committee and the Peninsula Agriculture and Area Commission to comment on the topic of cannabis growing on farmland and specifically,

  1. What are the risks of cannabis production on farmland?
  2. What recommendations can you give to the District of Central Saanich to mitigate any risks including a bond to remediate soils, traffic congestion measures, water usage etc?
  3. What is the risk of green houses on prime agricultural land?
  4. What are your recommendations about lobbying the province to preserve the best class of soils in the ALR, and specifically what is your recommendation about suggesting that the province ban greenhouses from being placed on the highest class soils?
  5. Is the ALR solely for human food production as recently suggested in the PNR (Feb. 8, 2018), and if not, which non-food uses are permitted and how much of the ALR is currently used for food versus non-food production?
  6. Can cannabis be a food crop?
  7. Should a municipality require a Transportation Demand Management Plan for large scale farming operations that may have a large traffic impact on rural roads?

Meanwhile the Ministry of Agriculture is undertaking a full public review of the Agricultural Land Reserve, but the results will not be complete until 2019. The Minister strongly encourages citizens to log on and have their say. You can find the review HERE.

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UPDATE: There was an error in the article: Counc. King did not in fact second Mayor Windsor’s motion. He was in fact absent from that council meeting. The story has now been edited.