When a deal to purchase a 97-acre farm for cannabis growth fell through earlier this month, the proponents at Evergreen Medicinal Supply were understandably disappointed.
The deal, had it succeeded, would have seen metal and glass greenhouses built on the former Stanhope Dairy Farm in Central Saanich.
According to Shawn Galbriath, the owner of Evergreen Medicinal Supply, that disappointment is, at least in part, based upon the belief that some tactics utilized had more to do with the nature of the crop than it did with food security or protecting soil.
“The way this was handled was highly discriminatory,” claimed Galbraith.
“Think about it. If a petition with 1,400 signatures can make the government change the law on the growth of a crop, then it’s almost certainly based on discrimination.”
Galbraith went on to say that, in light of the recent Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) policy decision, Evergreen is taking a brief step back in order to determine how best to proceed at its Health Canada approved site in Central Saanich.
“The company is disappointed by the ALR policy change as we’d done our due diligence in selecting the site and prior to entering into an agreement to purchase the site, only to have the rug pulled out from under us some 12 months into the project,” said Galbraith.
“Evergreen has already invested over $750,000 in this opportunity, all with the understanding that the proposed greenhouse project was consistent with both ALR policy and land use regulations of Central Saanich for this property. The actions of the local government has meant that there will be many lost jobs and a significant lost opportunity for the region.”
An opposition petition was launched early this year by a group called Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land (CPAL).
That group garnered the 1,400-signature petition and presented it to the provincial government in March.
At the same time, the District of Central Saanich, and shortly thereafter the Union of B.C. Municipalities, called upon the province to place a six-month moratorium on the approval of cement-based, industrial-style cannabis production on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land.
No moratorium was launched, but, in response, the Ministry of Agriculture moved in mid-July to allow local and Indigenous governments the power to prevent those operations in their communities.
The government did note that cannabis production cannot be prohibited if grown lawfully in an open field or in a structure that has a soil base. The regulations also grandfathered in existing greenhouse operations.
The possibility of a soil-based operation moved CPAL’s communication co-ordinator, Ken Marriette, to laughter.
“This is all about money (for the marijuana producers),” said Marriette. “They are never going to grow it in the ground. Their production relies on a concreted greenhouse model.”
When pressed on whether CPAL would still have an issue with a hypothetical in-ground operation, Marriette said: “I don’t know if we’d still have issues (if someone chose to grow in the open ground). Call me for an interview if that happens.”
“Our group is about preserving agricultural land for food production. If other issues arise in the future we’ll have to look at it then.”
And while food security was a factor for Central Saanich council’s concern, Mayor Ryan Windsor said that one of his concerns centred on the issue of drainage.
“Any time you put an impermeable surface down, drainage may become an issue. Each development would require a management plan (for drainage),” said Windsor, who also expressed concern that an increase of marijuana operations on ALR land might drive up land prices in the region, making operations more expensive for other farmers.
Windsor, whose family owns de Vine Wines and Spirits, said wine is different from cannabis as it has historically been part of “food culture.”
He added the introduction of another type of crop was a competing use, and could increase agricultural land prices and make it difficult for other farmers, particularly those starting out.
Galbraith maintained that the concerns about food security are largely a smokescreen (no pun intended) for people who oppose marijuana grow operations based on the plant, not food security or drainage.
In a letter to Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham, Galbraith pointed out that the percentage of total ALR land in B.C. currently in use for cannabis production is 0.0000051 per cent and that Evergreen’s total land use currently sits 36 acres of the total 11.5 million acres of ALR land.
“I can tell you that this is an issue that is not going away,” said Galbraith.
Black Press reached out to Minister Popham and to Canada’s largest cannabis grower, Canopy Growth, for comment but received no reply by press time.
For his part, Marriette is not celebrating what some have characterized as a victory.
“I can tell you that we are not breaking out the champagne just yet. We’re going to stay vigilant. If this re-emerges in a different form, there may be other issues we need to tackle.”