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Inconsistent policies over cannabis operations 'very frustrating'

Local politicians, Health Canada officials field cannabis concerns during forum; 'All municipalities are struggling and frustrated,' says Oro-Medonte mayor
2022-01-20 Shipley cannabis meeting
Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP Doug Shipley, top left, hosted an information session Thursday to address concerns about cannabis production facilities.

Inconsistent policies and laws among various levels of government are causing challenges and concerns when it comes to cannabis operations in municipalities.

That’s one of the messages delivered Thursday evening during a virtual information session hosted by Doug Shipley, MP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte.

Since being elected in 2019, a year after the federal Cannabis Act came into effect, Shipley has heard a number of concerns from Oro-Medonte residents “affected” by cannabis operations in the township.

That’s why he organized Thursday’s session, which included a panel of politicians and representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police, Health Canada and the Oro-Medonte Community Coalition Corp.

“All municipalities are struggling and frustrated with … the same concerns being raised by residents,” said Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes.

There are two cannabis production facilities in the township that are near residential areas.

Oro-Medonte council created a bylaw that restricts those operations to land zoned industrial. That prompted cannabis companies to appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, with a hearing slated to begin in March.

There were, at times, about 200 people listening in on Thursday’s meeting. One of them asked whether a licence holder could be in compliance with Health Canada rules while in violation of municipal bylaws at the same time.

That is possible, said Benoit Seguin, director of Health Canada’s office of medical access and specialized authorizations.

Bylaws differ in many places across the country, he said, while Health Canada has a federal set of regulations and a process to follow when issuing licences.

When asked what recourse a municipality has when a bylaw is being contravened, Hughes said one option is to “engage our municipal bylaw and involve, in some situations, perhaps, the OPP, depending on the violation.”

He wants Health Canada to be able to revoke a licence if a township bylaw is being violated.

The panel was asked if there should be a provincial plan to deal with the zoning issues, and what the province is going to do to help solve the problem.

Attorney General Doug Downey, MPP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, said there should be some sort of “uniformity” regarding the rules.

He also expressed frustration with the roll-out of cannabis legalization.

“This was brought on us very quickly with no co-ordination between the levels of government. We’re now trying to play catch-up,” he said.

“It’s very frustrating.”

Concerns about hemp production were also raised during the meeting.

Four industrial hemp operations were growing in Oro-Medonte in 2021, but none of the companies were based in the township, Seguin said.

Unlike cannabis producers, hemp companies do not need to notify the township before setting up shop. They just need the consent of the landowner.

Seguin was asked how Health Canada verifies companies are, in fact, growing industrial hemp.

When they submit a notice of cultivation, they have to tell Health Canada where they are growing and what species are being grown, he said. They can only grow strains approved by Health Canada. There are currently 71.

The hemp must contain less than .3 per cent THC, which is verified during the licensing process, but the federal body has the authority to attend a site to confirm.

“When we know there’s a risk, believe us, we will go and try to address the risk as much as we can,” Seguin said.

Health Canada can inspect cannabis production facilities, but, similar to the situation with hemp, “we take a risk-based approach when we’re looking at our inspections,” said Carlie Watson, acting director of inspection operations.

That’s because there are many more licence holders than there are inspectors.

There are about 80 Cannabis Act-specific Health Canada inspectors, approximately 30 of whom are in Ontario.

Inspections typically include a tour, and officials assess the security of the site and might take samples to check for unauthorized pesticides or contaminants, she said.

One of the major complaints from residents is odour. That is not something Health Canada looks for during an inspection, Watson said.

Odours emanating from the operations “drastically reduce the quality of life in the residential areas surrounding these facilities,” said Matt Pryce, of the Oro-Medonte Community Coalition Corp.

Other concerns include noise from generators and “watching our beautiful agricultural fields and farmlands changing into barbed-wire boxes.”

“We are very concerned with the impact this industry has on our community and in communities across the province,” he said.

One resident wanted to know why taxpayers don’t have a say over operations that might interfere with their quality of life and enjoyment of their property. Hughes passed the buck to the province, saying that is its jurisdiction.

Downey noted conversations are happening about whether cannabis and hemp should or could have agricultural zoning different from other crops. Tobacco is “a bit of a model for what could be,” he said.

When asked if there were any health risks to those living near hemp or cannabis facilities, specifically related to air and water, Seguin said there is “no well-known scientific evidence on this.”

There is nothing to suggest odours are “specifically detrimental to human health,” added France Beaudet, associate director with Health Canada’s compliance directorate, but she said she knows it can affect one’s quality of life and well-being.

Thursday’s session provided “a clearer picture of the situation,” Hughes said, adding it has shown the different levels of government are “not really working in partnership.”

That affects a municipality’s ability to have a positive working relationship with producers, he said.

Seguin suggested the mayor have “an open conversation with the company,” which could lead to better co-operation.

The panel did not include representation from the cannabis industry. However, Elliot Galbraith, who said he was a licensed retail cannabis manager in Toronto, asked a couple of questions in the comments section.

“Why does Oro-Medonte actively support criminal activities through opting out of cannabis retail stores?” he asked. “Why do you wish to prop up criminal organizations instead of collecting taxes, ensuring safety, and allowing for more safety to occur around the consumption of cannabis in Oro-Medonte?”

His questions were not addressed.


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Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is the desk editor for Village Media's central Ontario news desk in Simcoe County and Newmarket.
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