DAVID HUTCHINSON 778-839-5442 DAVID.HUTCHINSON@CENTURY21.CA
Fires, floods, terrified neighbours, the whiff of weed driving customers away.
These are problems that have come with the huge number of medical marijuana grow-ops that have flourished secretly throughout British Columbia over the past year.
At the start of 2012, there were 4,169 Health Canada-approved grow-ops in the province. By the end of 2012, the number had jumped to 11,601. B.C. accounts for over half of the growing licences issued in Canada.
“We don’t know where they are in our communities. We only learn of their existence if there’s a grow-rip or if neighbours complain and we visit,” said Peter Fassbender, mayor of Langley City.
When police arrive and a permit is shown they check the grower doesn’t have more plants than they are permitted. If they do, the extra plants are confiscated.
“If it’s licensed, there’s nothing we can do,” Fassbender said.
RCMP, FIRE, BUILDING INSPECTORS IN DARK
Take Tamer Salloum’s case.
The 30-year-old knew that the tenant who moved in beside his Surrey custom hot-rod shop was not making cabinets, even though that’s what the landlord said.
Since when did the making of cabinets require fertilizer?
So when Salloum showed up at his shop to discover water seeping through adjoining walls and the smell of marijuana wafting in, he wasn’t surprised, even though there’s a strata bylaw against cultivation.
“I knew it was a grow-op the whole time, I’m not stupid,” Salloum said.
“When they moved in, I saw these plywood greenhouses they were building and thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder what these are for?’ They told me they were their paint booths.”
Surrey RCMP, when they investigated, left empty-handed because the grower had permits for at least 1,060 plants at the 20,000-square-foot space on 130th Street.
A Health Canada sign at the Surrey medicinal grow-op states: “This area is monitored by the RCMP.”
Except the RCMP would never have known it was there were it not for the flood. Same for the fire department and building inspectors.
'24 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO CATCH FIRE'
“In Surrey, there are licences for 500 properties,” Surrey fire chief Len Garis said. “The fire department and police know where about 100 of those are,” he said, from emergency responses and complaints from neighbours.
A grow-op, legal or not, is 24 times more likely to catch fire than a regular home, Garis said.
Two weeks ago, Abbotsford Police confiscated 260 marijuana plants from a grower who had a licence to grow 35; on the same evening, another Health Canada-sanctioned grow-op had a fire from faulty wiring.
Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said that about nine out of 10 times police get a search warrant it turns out Health Canada has licensed the place.
“The truth of the matter is, a lot of time we don’t even get in the door,” MacDonald said. “The only thing that gets us through the door is if we get information that they’re growing excess amounts.”
Consider a tiny cul-de-sac in Port Coquitlam. A home on Governor Court is a licensed grow-op and neighbours are so terrified they don’t want their names revealed.
The house was raided recently by RCMP and almost 400 marijuana plants were confiscated, but 171 plants — the amount Health Canada OK’d — remain, although the city has turned off the power and slapped a no-occupancy order on the house.
Neighbours fear that their own homes may be mistakenly targeted by drug gangs, given events like the discovery of a murder victim at a Langley grow-op on Tuesday night.
The man who runs the PoCo grow-op has a criminal record, but since it’s for theft and not drug-related he was eligible for a Health Canada license.
“This is crazy,” said one neighbour, noting there are two elementary schools nearby.
These problems are supposed to be addressed by new legislation governing medical marijuana in which only commercial marijuana growers will be licensed to grow pot.
Those growers will be required to make municipal governments, fire departments and police aware of their plans and of the location of every grow-op.
Thursday marked the end of a 75-day public input process into the federal government’s new legislation, which comes into effect April 1, 2014.
“The coming changes in the legislation are good,” said Fassbender. “I wish they could happen faster. In the meantime, it’s very frustrating.”
As it stands today, a large number of grow-ops have taken advantage of the system, operating in secrecy without the knowledge of police, building inspectors, fire departments or neighbours, often with inadequate wiring or ventilation and often far exceeding the number of plants for which they’re licensed.
Health Canada spokesman Stephane Shank said the current system “is open to abuse.”
“That’s why we’re changing the law,” Shank said. “Under the proposed legislation commercial growers will need to meet security and site-design requirements.
"It explicitly says they must comply with the regulations of other levels of government [by obeying zoning bylaws]. And they must let Health Canada know that they are following all the regulations regarding fire safety, electrical use and property bylaws.”
People won’t be allowed to legally grow plants in their homes any more and Canada Health will quit subsidizing medical pot to the tune of millions of dollars (Canada Health estimates the cost will rise from $5 a gram to $8.50).
That, of course, doesn’t help Salloum. He put a notice on his company’s Facebook page after rumours got back to him that some customers thought it was him smoking the pot they smelled at his shop, Speedpro High Performance.
“If you’re going to have a federal licence to grow pot and have no safety inspections, that’s not right,” Salloum said. “I’ve busted my ass off for two years, worked 18-hour days to get my name respected, I didn’t need this.”