Ottawa, municipalities can’t co-operate on cannabis, Norfolk police board told

Members of Norfolk's Police Services Board discussed problems with Health Canada's designated grower program for legal users of medicinal cannabis during a video conference at Governor Simcoe Square Wednesday. Among those speaking on behalf of the federal agency's cannabis program was Benoit Seguin. Monte Sonnenberg/Postmedia Network jpeg, TN

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Problem producers of cannabis in Norfolk County are taking advantage of federal regulations that prevent the municipality and Health Canada from working together to weed out bad actors.

In a video conference with senior Health Canada officials on Oct. 7, Norfolk’s Police Services Board heard that the federal agency cannot alert municipalities to designated-grower operations because that involves divulging medical information about identifiable individuals.

“There is enormous sensitivity around this within the program,” said Joanne Garrah, Health Canada’s director of licensing and security for cannabis legalization and regulation.

As well, Benoit Seguin, Health Canada’s acting director of medical access to cannabis, said federal labour regulations prevent federal agencies from delegating inspection and enforcement authority to other levels of government.

This was in response to a question from police services board chair Dennis Travale, who suggested municipalities like Norfolk would have fewer problems with delinquent producers if this authority was vested in local health units. Travale noted that health units, as a matter of routine, keep sensitive health records about identifiable individuals and conduct on-site inspections in a host of health-related areas.

Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp steered the discussion in the direction of local authority, citing it as the solution to the county’s ongoing problem with designated producers, some of whom grow hundreds of plants on behalf of legal medicinal users in built-up areas.

This has given rise to thousands of complaints about odour, light pollution, the use of pesticides, and a spike in criminal activity. Numerous residents have complained that out-of-control grow operations have made their homes unlivable.

As well, police have shut down several producers in Norfolk with federal permits who were growing thousands of plants beyond the legal limit. A recent enforcement action this summer resulted in nearly two dozen arrests at a single greenhouse and the seizure of thousands of plants.

In another enforcement action this summer, 60,000 illegal plants were seized from a single greenhouse, also in Norfolk.

Chopp has spoken of Norfolk’s problems in this area at recent municipal conferences. The problem is especially acute in Norfolk, which has 80 known designated-grower locations and probably more.

“Unfortunately, I think your system is being completely abused,” Chopp told Seguin and Garrah. “My suggestion is go online and see how easy it is to get a prescription for 500 plants. We need to be able to regulate this at the local level.”

Even as federal officials are forbidden from delegating enforcement authority, Seguin said COVID-19 has constrained them since March from conducting their usual regimen of inspections. This has given some designated growers a free hand to push the envelope.

Some or all of this could change, Seguin added, now that Health Canada is on the cusp of a mandatory review of its legal cannabis policies. This review, he said, can start no later than October of next year, with a final report — with recommendations — coming to the federal government no later than April, 2023.

Police services board member George Santos of Simcoe said this is not good enough.

“In Ottawa, they say you wake up and smell the coffee,” he said. “In Norfolk County, you wake up and smell the cannabis.

“This is about as useful as re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have a problem here.”

During the discussion, Benoit said Norfolk County is home to about 525 licensed producers. This includes users of medicinal marijuana who produce their own plants. Benoit said this is not an inordinate amount given that there are 11,500 licensed producers in all of Ontario.

In an interview, Chopp said she is a supporter of legal cannabis and producers who play by the rules. The problem, she said, is with a handful of growers who take advantage of loopholes in the federal legislation.

“It only takes a couple to produce enormous problems,” she said.

 

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