One-ounce bags of medicinal marijuana are displayed at the Berkeley Patients Group on March 25

Applications to grow medicinal marijuana put counties in a bind

The federal government’s decision to turn medical marijuana production over to commercial-sized companies has left Central Alberta rural municipalities playing catch-up.

The federal government’s decision to turn medical marijuana production over to commercial-sized companies has left Central Alberta rural municipalities playing catch-up.

Both Mountain View and Ponoka Counties have wrestled with medical marijuana plant applications because they don’t comfortably fit within existing land-use bylaws.

Residents in Mountain View County were upset when a building permit for a proposed medical marijuana plant was issued last October.

Under the existing Land Use Bylaw, Releaf Inc. was not required to apply for a development permit because a facility for horticultural use — which includes intensively cultivated plants for medicinal purposes — is considered a permitted use.

In light of local reaction, a public meeting with county representatives took place last week in Cremona to hear concerns.

Coun. Al Kemmere, who chaired the information meeting, said water resources, odour, potential impact on property values, security and the approval process were the main concerns.

Since agricultural buildings don’t require a development permit, residents “felt they didn’t have a voice, and understandably so,” said Kemmere.

But security also loomed large as an issue. “There’s a fear that this is going to bring in . . . an element of the public they are not accustomed to having in their neighbourhood.”

Out of that gathering have come proposed amendments to the Land Use Bylaw that will require future applications for medicinal horticultural use to be located in industrial areas and business parks.

A public hearing on the amendments is set for Feb. 26.

In the meantime, Releaf Inc. is allowed to proceed with its 50,000-square-foot facility located about eight km northwest of Cremona in the southwest corner of the county.

In Ponoka County, another medical marijuana operation, Canruderal Inc., was turned down by the county’s municipal planning commission last November. It was appealed but the board upheld the original decision last month.

Neighbouring residents were strongly opposed to the plant setting up operation, with 16 letters of opposition sent to the county. Two letters were received in support.

Security was the big concern, said chief administrative officer Charlie Cutforth.

“The primary concern from the community was that this particular location where it was proposed was 23 miles (37 km) from the nearest RCMP detachment either way,” he said.

The proposed facility itself would have been “built like Fort Knox” so break-ins weren’t a pressing concern.

“The bigger fear was that it will attract potentially undesirables in a rural quiet community that doesn’t need that.

“It wasn’t a terribly emotional issue. It was just the fact this is brand new and there is no proven sort of experience to determine whether these concerns are founded or unfounded.”

Cutforth said the proposed site was zoned country residential and hobby farm and the plant was a discretionary use, which means council has final approval.

It would have been a different story if the area had been zoned agricultural, he said. “Technically, it’s a legal agricultural pursuit very similar to a greenhouse. If that had been the case, we would have had the same difficult situation (as Mountain View County).”

Ponoka County will be taking a look at its bylaws and talking to other municipalities to see how they plan to handle the issue.

“I think every municipality is going to be scrambling to try to deal with it one way or the other,” said Cutforth.

The question of how to deal with medicinal marijuana operations, which are regulated by Health Canada, is expected to be a hot topic at the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties annual conference next month.

The federal government announced that starting on April 1, only commercial-sized companies will be able to produce and distribute the plants to people with valid prescriptions.

Under the new rules, Canadians currently licensed to possess marijuana for medical purposes will no longer be able to grow their own or buy marijuana from small-scale producers.

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