Norfolk police services board members express dismay over cannabis oversight

This aerial photo of a suspected greenhouse operation at an undisclosed location in southern Ontario was taken this summer during a major sweep of illegal marijuana production facilities. Health Canada officials discussed abuses of the federal agency's medical marijuana program with members of Norfolk's Police Services Board on Oct. 7. OPP photo jpeg, TN

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While members of Norfolk County’s Police Services Board were grilling Health Canada officials on Oct. 7 on their policies regarding medical marijuana, local OPP were shutting down an illegal cannabis production facility in Simcoe.

“During the course of the search warrant, three individuals were taken into custody without incident,” Const. Ed Sanchuk of the Norfolk OPP said in a news release. “As a result, officers seized approximately $796,000 in cannabis plants and approximately $20,400 in processed cannabis.”

The three arrested are from Norfolk, Markham and Brantford.

The enforcement action was an exclamation point on a day at Governor Simcoe Square that left police services board members shaking their heads. The main issue for Norfolk involves abuses of Health Canada’s designated grower program.

Under the program, individuals with prescriptions for medical marijuana can enlist third parties to grow it. With some doctors writing prescriptions for hundreds of plants a year per individual, these greenhouse operations can be large and disruptive when established in built-up areas.

Board members heard that authorities know of 80 such operations in Norfolk. Many more are in undisclosed locations and authorities suspect a significant number are connected to organized crime. County officials find it frustrating that Health Canada does not share information with municipalities regarding third-party production of medical marijuana.

Speaking to the police services board by video link were Benoit Seguin, an acting director with Health Canada’s cannabis branch, and Joanne Garrah, Health Canada’s director of licensing and security for cannabis legalization and regulation.

During the discussion, the board members learned Health Canada is unable to co-operate with municipalities because medical marijuana involves confidential health information. The board also heard that Health Canada cut back on site inspections this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to a suggestion from police services board chair Dennis Travale that Health Canada delegate oversight to local health units, Seguin replied this would contravene regulations forbidding the transfer of federal authority to other levels of government.

Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus, a county appointee to the board, found the Oct. 7 exercise “disgusting.”

“There’s a real disconnect,” Columbus said the next day. “Meanwhile, it’s a free-for-all down here. The police board expected answers and we didn’t get them.”

Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp raised the issue of physicians who write prescriptions amounting to hundreds of plants a year. Chopp believes that over-subscribing is a major part of the problem. The Health Canada team replied that the medical profession in Canada is self-regulating and that it is up to provincial physician associations to address abuses.

The next day, Chopp re-iterated her support for a legal cannabis industry in Norfolk where everyone plays by the rules and is considerate of their neighbours when it comes to odour and light pollution.

That said, she too finds Health Canada’s oversight deficient.

“The impact on the quality of life of our residents living in close proximity to these unlawful operations cannot be understated,” the mayor said. “It is abundantly clear that Health Canada bureaucrats in Ottawa do not remotely understand the complexity of what municipalities must deal with as a result of glaring loop holes in their own regulations.

“The federal and provincial governments continue to cash in on the upside to cannabis while the local taxpayer is left holding the bag with long drawn out legal battles.”

George Santos of Simcoe, vice chair of the police services board, was also dissatisfied with the Oct. 7 exchange.

“I am not impressed by our bureaucrats in Ottawa,” Santos said. “There is so much of a disconnect that our federal government has no idea of what is going on in our Norfolk County or Canada for that matter.

“We must keep putting pressure on our Minister of Health (Patty Hadju) and advise our politicians to stop talking in circles and start working together. I would like to know why we haven’t seen or heard of any inspectors down in our area.”