A North Shore couple hoping to receive one of the first licenses to produce medical marijuana under new federal regulations has run into a bureaucratic roadblock.
The Regional District of Central Kootenay last week denied a variance application to let the couple expand two outbuildings on their property to a combined 4,435 square feet (412 square meters) — more than four times the maximum size allowed for a home-based business in a residential area — and increase the number of permitted employees from two to four.
One of the applicants, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity, explained that by applying for a variance rather than going through a rezoning process, they hoped to avoid a public hearing that would have made their location common knowledge.
“I didn’t want it put on the map where a large medical grow facility was,” he said.
They aren’t hiding the nature of their proposed business from the regional district or neighbours, he added, but do have security concerns if their address is widely advertised.
However, when the matter reached the regional district’s rural affairs committee this month, directors upheld a staff recommendation to reject the variance and suggested the applicants seek rezoning instead.
Committee chair Hans Cunningham said the decision was based both on the size of the proposed variance and their belief regulations to be introduced this year will insist that commercial medical marijuana operations be located in industrial or agricultural areas.
“I applaud [the applicants] in that they want to get a jump on what’s going on,” he said. “But if we give them a variance and the government said ‘No, you have to be on agricultural or industrial land,’ they’re not going to get a license. So it makes sense to do the rezoning.”
The decision followed a presentation by the proponents, who came with several letters of support from neighbours and a petition of 30 names. (A staff report also listed objections from other neighbours, but they mostly related to the operation’s size, not its purpose.)
“They made a hell of a presentation,” said director Larry Binks. “Letter perfect. It was well written and well documented.” He was one of three directors who spoke against denying the variance, believing the subject of marijuana clouded the discussion.
The proponents had no obligation to disclose what sort of business they were planning, he noted. Still, he too believes rezoning is the right path — but wishes the applicants had been warned at the outset the variance had little chance of succeeding.
‘EPICENTRE OF MARIJUANA’
The applicant who spoke to the Star said they’re considering their options and haven’t decided whether to apply for rezoning. “I don’t feel I’ve been treated badly by the regional district,” he said. “It turned out my variance was too big. I was asking for a lot.”
Even so, they would still be among the smallest license-seekers, he said.
He also said this area is already home to a high density of marijuana grow-ops as part of an illicit “black and grey marketplace” and called the federal government’s new rules the first “white regulations,” which he hopes are the first step in legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
“This new well-regulated industry will simply absorb the black market in time as it takes the profit out of growing and selling marijuana in the black market,” he said.
“We believe Nelson is the epicenter of marijuana and that reputation can be exploited for the benefit of our entire community. Our leaders should wake up to this fact and see that there is an incredible opportunity for our community in particular to reap huge benefits.”
He urged local politicians to welcome and encourage medical marijuana entrepreneurs with “open door policies, rules, zoning, and investment,” and avoid making decisions “out of ignorance, fear, and the propaganda they have been fed for years.”
The North Shore application, the first to reach the regional district, comes as local government considers its role in policing medical marijuana operations.
The new federal regulations — originally expected to be unveiled next month but apparently now delayed until October — are intended to license commercial production and distribution of medical pot while eliminating personal grow ops.
But a recent memo from RDCK planning staff asks how Health Canada’s procedures will mesh with the regional district’s permitting process and whether building and bylaw officers will inspect commercial operations. It also wonders about the potential effect on neighbours and whether locations will be made public.
Staff consulted other jurisdictions and concluded the most practical solution is to focus on agricultural zones where licensed producers can operate in stand-alone buildings well away from homes. They suggest existing operators not zoned agricultural could stay put but would be required to apply for rezoning.
The board referred the memo to its April meeting, when Kootenay Columbia MP David Wilks, who is helping draft the new legislation, will be present.
But the North Shore proponent said he’s disappointed the RDCK is “playing follow the leader” when he believes it should be setting the precedents. “Our municipalities should be looking for ways to keep our cottage industry, by working with the new regulations for maximum Kootenay benefit,” he said.