Fire chiefs and municipalities around the province say a lack of regulation and oversight of residential cannabis grow operations is putting people at risk, as evidenced by a fatal fire at a licensed medical grow op in Surrey this week.
Regulations and compliance are top priorities for cities as the legalization of recreational marijuana nears in the coming months. A provincial framework is expected in the coming weeks.
“The (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations) has been flawed since its inception,” said Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz, who is a vice-president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. “The program has led to a proliferation of grow operations in residential neighbourhoods. The operations are frequently out of compliance with our bylaws and provincial health and safety and building regulations.
“I do think that we have an opportunity to get it right this time as marijuana is legalized.”
The current regulations permit people to produce cannabis for their own medical use after registering and providing medical documentation.
The regulations allow for inspections of legal operations, but Gaetz joked that federal inspectors are so rarely seen that they are considered “mythical creatures, like unicorns.”
Health Canada states that registrants are “expected to comply with all relevant provincial/territorial and municipal laws, including local bylaws about zoning, electrical safety, fire safety, together with all related inspection and remediation requirements.”
But Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said the main issue is that, due to privacy concerns, local governments aren’t told where licensed grow operations are located, and therefore they cannot find them to conduct inspections. This means licensed operations in private residences could be exceeding their plant limits or violating health, safety, electrical, plumbing and building regulations unchecked.
“We have no idea where they are, or what’s going on, or when it’s going on,” Garis said. “We’ve kind of lost faith in the licensing system, to be honest with you. It’s been quite challenging, I think, for everybody.”
Garis said this lapse in safety will not be rectified under the proposed federal legislation legalizing marijuana, which will allow adults to grow up to four cannabis plants per household for personal use from licensed seeds or seedlings.
There are some rules for personal cultivation, but a submission from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to Health Canada said the legislation is “dangerously silent” on expectations related to fire safety.
According to the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., legalization delivers “false protection” and will not deal with the dangers of growing cannabis from a building and fire code perspective.
“Licensed medicinal cannabis growing has been shown to have as many issues as illicit cannabis growing,” the association said in a letter sent to Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth in February.
Although the B.C. government has not yet released its provincial framework for cannabis legalization, it has made some regulatory decisions, including that it will align with the proposed federal legislation on personal cultivation.
However, it does have the option to create additional rules for growing cannabis at home, such as lowering the number of plants per residence.
The B.C. fire chiefs are urging the province to prohibit growing in residential buildings.
“If it’s going to be legalized, for crying out loud, and distributed through all these types of stores and stuff like liquor stores or whatever, it really isn’t necessary for people to be growing it in their homes,” Garis said.
At the very least, he would like to see legal medical marijuana operations and personal grow operations monitored.
“These places at a minimum should be inspected and they should be regulated so that the work is done safely, so they don’t bring about dangers to themselves and/or others,” he said.
For example, firefighters had no idea the home that caught fire this week was a grow operation licensed for almost 200 plants, nor did they know that the basement door was fortified. It is suspected that the electrical equipment used in the operation caused the fire.
Although a four-plant grow operation allowed under legalization would only require one 1,000-watt bulb that could be plugged into a conventional outlet and wouldn’t require an electrical permit, Garis said there are other factors — humidity, pesticides and herbicides — that can have serious health effects and cause damage to residences.
“If you grow in your home, you can expect there to be certain levels of contamination that will go with it,” Garis said. “We just don’t think it’s appropriate.”
He also said there would be nothing to stop people from having larger grow operations other than the penalties in the legislation, which range from tickets to prison time. Garis believes it is unlikely those would be imposed often enough to be a deterrent.
Mayor Gaetz said, personally, she would like to see the province outlaw residential cannabis growing, but the Union of B.C. Municipalities hasn’t made any specific safety recommendations other than to ask the federal government to review the rules around personal production of medical cannabis.
At a minimum, Gaetz said, municipalities need information about grow locations and funding for enforcement.
“People believe that they’re safe and believe that they’re regulated,” she said. “That protection does need to be in place before we go too much further.”