Somewhere in a quiet corner of Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows, a cannabis crop is being harvested right now, legally.
The half-dozen or so known local growers are a select bunch of 4,869 people in Canada authorized to possess the narcotic plant under Marihuana Medical Access Regulations.
“Cannabis isn’t for everybody, but patients are entitled to pick and choose their own medicine,” said Michelle Rainey, a Maple Ridge resident and vice-president of the B.C. Marijuana Party.
“I help patients access the Health Canada program and I’m more of a coach and almost a role model for others to understand not to be afraid to use alternative medicine.”
Wanted by the U.S. DEA, along with the self-proclaimed “Prince of Pot,” Marc Emery, and Greg Williams on charges of growing marijuana, conspiracy, seed sales and money laundering, Rainey is a medical cannabis advocate who is fighting off Stage 3 melanoma and suffers from Crohn’s disease.
She is also one of 1,137 people in Canada who hold a Personal Use Production Licence, or Designated-Person Production Licence, from Health Canada – a permit that allows her to grow legal pot.
Currently, 85 per cent of those authorized have 25 plants or less.
As illegal grow operations proliferate and police raids on those properties net explosives and guns, medical marijuana users like Rainey are being increasingly lumped in with criminals.
Fire chiefs associations in B.C. and Ontario say Health Canada’s secretive permit process and refusal to bring in better regulations for growers put lives and health at risk.
RCMP remain concerned that the legal cannabis crops are prime targets for thieves who often resort to violence while committing crimes.
“It’s very unfair. Keep in mind, I do want to see cannabis taxed, regulated and want the propaganda and myths to be extinguished,” said Rainey, noting that municipalities, including Maple Ridge, police and fire departments want Health Canada to supply a list of legal cannabis producers in their jurisdiction.
Due to privacy considerations, Health Canada does not provide the breakdown by cities of individuals authorized to possess or produce marijuana for medical purposes under the regulations.
In July 2009, Rainey and Williams were sentenced to two years probation in Canada. In early September, Emery decided to sign a plea deal for a five-year sentence in the U.S. federal prison system.
A former banker and currently director of marketing for an alternative medicine journal, Treating Yourself Magazine, Rainey said getting a Heath Canada permit isn’t easy. The exemption form is 33 pages and patients must satisfy legal and medical conditions set by Ottawa before a permit to possess marijuana is issued. If the person wants to grow their own marijuana, they must complete another application if they want to purchase seeds from Prairie Plant Systems (PPS) — the only government-approved supplier.
If they can’t grow their own crop, a “designated person” who clears a criminal record check must apply for a licence.
“It’s not like going to your doctor and saying, ‘Can I get some Tylenol 3 and some Prozac,’” Rainey explains. “It is a fight and battle. It’s a horrible battle when you know, for myself – cannabis saved my life. When I had Tylenol 3, morphine, Fentanyl, I couldn’t function properly. I lost a couple of days because I was in a complete delirium.”
Health Canada has the authority to conduct inspections on producers for compliance, but does not prosecute violations.
Spokesperson Dave Thomas said the department is working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to determine how best to address the risks that may be posed by licensed grow operations.
“Health Canada strives to maintain an appropriate balance between providing seriously ill people with access to marijuana for medical purposes, and providing adequate regulatory control of marijuana,” Thomas added.
Under medical marijuana regulations, Health Canada is authorized to provide only limited information in response to requests from police officers engaged in an investigation.
Thomas said Health Canada does not disclose information on people authorized to possess or produce marihuana for medical purposes to other organizations, to protect their privacy.
Despite the regulations, Maple Ridge Coun. Craig Speirs has concerns about legal marijuana producers – especially those growing locally.
He told council Monday that the federal government could download regulations on medicinal marijuana operations to municipalities.
“For me, I can see us wearing it. There’s a huge amount of legal grow ops. We don’t know how many because they’re kept very secret.”
Speirs said medicinal operations could possibly damage homes as much as illegal grow ops and noted that police get complaints about legal grows and don’t know how to respond.
Bylaws director Brock McDonald said people usually don’t tell the district they’re growing the plants and there’s nothing in the Health Canada licence requiring people to inform municipalities.
But three or four legal marijuana growers have contacted the district in the past year.
In turn, inspectors just checked on the electrical, plumbing and overall safety of the operation.
One of those operations takes place on a property that a local marijuana advocate provides for “a friend of a friend who has cancer and suffers from arthritis.” His friend has a Health Canada licence to grow the medical marijuana, but the address listed as the location for growing 49 plants belongs to Pat, the advocate who requested his last name be withheld for safety reasons.
He’d like to expand that to another location so he could help more people and has inquired with the District of Maple Ridge several times about bylaw requirements.
“I know the individual [at district hall] who I’m trying to contact. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or because he’s busy, but he won’t respond to my e-mails. and tell me what exactly is required.”
For Pat, the frustration lies in the stigma around marijuana use.
If you grow illegally, then people say you’re horrible – but if you try do it legally, they try to paint you with the same brush.
“Like anything, it can be abused, but used properly, I think it has good potential benefits.”
He doesn’t advocate kids using marijuana, but can’t see why it wouldn’t be legalized for adult recreational use or medicinal purposes.
“If a person can get some relief, I really don’t see the problem,” said Pat.
“It’s a God-given plant. It’s not cocaine and it’s not a chemical concoction. It’s a plant that’s put on this earth and if a person can find some relief for a medical condition, I really don’t see the evil of it.”
Pat says most of the problems are caused by its prohibition.
“If they would legalize it and treat it like alcohol, all this shoot-’em-up-stuff would go away.
“I resent being lumped in those other people but the justice system does that. If you’re a pot grower, you’re an evil, heroin-pusher kind of thing.”
Conservative MP Randy Kamp said local police and firefighters are in the best position to determine whether or not medical marijuana growing sites pose a threat to public safety.
“The fact that Health Canada issues a permit to grow medical marijuana should not permit the grower to endanger public safety,” he added.
“If there are cases where public safety is being put at risk, I certainly want to know about it so that I can bring it to the attention of the Minister of Health and the Minister of Public Safety, because that is simply unacceptable.”
By By Monisha Martins
– with files from Phil Melnychuk