British Columbia·GREENLIT

ALR advocates aim to ban pot farms on B.C.'s fertile land

Towns across the province remain divided on whether to allow weed on prime farm land.

Petitioners claim cannabis rush will threaten food security; B.C. government still silent on issue

Only medical marijuana is allowed to be grown on B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve. (Aphria/Canadian Press)

Every gold rush comes to an end — and sometimes they leave the land a little worse for wear.

As marijuana legalization looms, there are fortunes to be made. Small towns like Williams Lake, in the B.C. Interior, are venturing to become major players in the cannabis industry, while licensed medicinal growers are buying up swaths of prime B.C. farmland — land that could soon be ripe for recreational crops.

It's a trajectory that Victoria's Ken Marriette fears could leave the province's fertile fields in ruin.

"Frankly, there's a gold rush on right now," said Marriette. "[But marijuana] should not be grown on existing, fertile agricultural land."

This story is part of Greenlit, a CBC Vancouver series exploring ways the legalization of marijuana will affect B.C. Other stories in the series include:

Marriette fears grow operations will cause irreparable damage to prime farmland, threatening B.C.'s food security for generations to come — and he has 1,400 friends who share similar concerns.

Opponents fear that marijuana growth on the ALR threatens the future of B.C.'s food security. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Petition delivered to legislature

Marriette is the spokesperson for Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land — an advocacy group that's fighting against the growth of recreational marijuana on prime B.C. farmland.

On Thursday, the group delivered a petition with over 1,400 signatures to the B.C. Legislature, urging the province to prohibit marijuana grow operations on the Agricultural Land Reserve — a 4.6 million-hectare zone meant to preserve the province's food production.

Currently, medical marijuana production is allowed on the ALR.

Marriette says concerns sparked when licensed grower Evergreen Medicinal Supply proposed to transform a local dairy farm into a medical marijuana plant, which, he said, would significantly alter the landscape with the construction of a series of greenhouses.

Neighbours gather in front of Stanhope Dairy Farm in Central Saanich which is the proposed site for a 150,000 square foot cannabis-growing facility. (Michael Tymchuk/CBC)

"We are not against marijuana, it just should not be grown on prime agricultural food land... which has been reserved for food sources, and protection and security for future generations," said Marriette.

The group plans to meet with B.C.'s agriculture minister in the coming weeks.

Municipalities divided

The B.C. government remains tight-lipped on where recreational marijuana will legally be allowed to grow on the ALR; a committee is currently reviewing ALR regulations.

Some municipalities, including Delta, hope the province will rule out ALR use for recreational pot.

"I'm very, very concerned about the number of applications coming in, and the ability for anybody to buy up farmland and essentially take over our food supply land," Delta Mayor Lois Jackson told CBC News.

Jackson fears large producers with deep pockets could potentially buy up all of the region's ALR land, squeezing out local farmers.

In Williams Lake, municipal leaders are encouraging growth of the pot industry to help diversify its economy. (CBC)

"Any lands that are in the ALR are going to be open to conglomerates from the U.S... and that land will then be very, very expensive."

However, leaders in other municipalities aren't all that concerned.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb says his town is turning to cannabis to diversify its economy after being hit hard by wildfires and the pine beetle epidemic.

"We've done quite a bit of work in getting our bylaws in place," said Cobb, adding that various licensed growers have visited the town.

Cobb says the city is currently looking at industrial-zoned lands as potential growing sites, but he said ALR land is also an option for potential investors with licences.

'A crop like any other'

Cannabis activist Dana Larsen says the crops are no different than growing hops for beer, or grapes for wine.

"Not all of the ALR land is currently being used for food anyways," he told CBC News. "I think its a crop like any other."

But he admits that it could be difficult for small farmers with little capital to get into the industry — especially in the Lower Mainland where the cost of ALR is soaring.

"You need very strict security, you need cameras and records... it's very expensive," he said. "These costs also artificially push up the price of the cannabis."

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