Calgary

Stan Swiatek's medical marijuana dream is a nightmare for his neighbours

Stan Swiatek hopes to become the owner of one of the first federally-licensed facilities to produce medical marijuana in Alberta, but his dreams are a nightmare for his neighbours.

Stan Swiatek wants to produce medical marijuana near Airdrie

Stan Swiatek, through his company Sundial Growers Inc., hopes to run one of the first federally licensed facilities to produce medical marijuana in Alberta. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Stan Swiatek has tried his hand at many businesses.

He used to grow cucumbers, dabbled in home construction and boarded horses. But it’s his newest business dream that he thinks will make him rich: medical marijuana. Through his company Sundial Growers Inc., Swiatek hopes to become one of the first federally-licensed facilities to produce medical marijuana in Alberta, to service what Health Canada estimates will be a $10-billion industry within the decade.

In April, Ottawa changed its marijuana laws to phase out personal licenses to grow medical marijuana in favour of commercial operations.

"What it represents to Canada and to the farmer, it’s substantial. The potential is great,” says the entrepreneur from his property west of Airdrie.

But Swiatek’s dreams are a nightmare for his neighbours. They say their quiet rural acreages are no place for pot production. And they’ve now managed to get their local councillor on side as a last-ditch effort to stop him.

Neighbours gather with concerns

Neighbours say the location of Sundial Growers Inc., surrounded by rural acreages, is not a good fit. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Up the road, seven of Swiatek’s neighbours have gathered around a kitchen table to vent their frustration.

“I was driving home from work when I first heard about his plans to grow medical marijuana,“ says Naomi Kerr, whose property borders Swiatek’s. “I nearly drove off the road. This is a small group of acreages close together. To place a facility like that in an area like this, so far from police and fire, just floors me.”

They say the location, surrounded by rural acreages is not a good fit. They worry about the safety of having armoured vehicles driving their quiet roads (sales are never done on-scene so the controlled substance has to be moved off site to be sold.) They worry about the health and environmental effects of intensive marijuana production.

Planning department approves

When Swiatek first applied to become a commercial producer of medical marijuana, he had an agricultural licence to grow cucumbers. So the Rocky View County planning department gave him an OK.

He already leases space in his greenhouse to two individuals who grow marijuana for their personal use as medicine. He wasn’t required to tell his neighbours about his plans, so he didn’t. He started building, sinking $2.5 million into the facility, much of it for the intense security required to ensure the pot stays in the building and the thieves stay out.

The county then scrambled to change its land use bylaw to limit medical marijuana production to areas far from these acreages in the industrial zone.

Rocky View Coun. Lois Habberfield feels that because the amended bylaw came into effect just prior to the change to Health Canada regulations, it should apply to Swiatek.

“Council definitely said growing cucumbers and growing marijuana is not the same thing. I mean really. We never talked about marijuana before because it was illegal. I don’t think this is the right location.”

Swiatek disagrees.

“And so do my lawyers,” he said.

Habberfield says when and if Swiatek gets the final approval from Health Canada to start, the county will oppose it. 

"I don’t know if we can stop it. The feds can trump us," she said.

Ripple effects

The experience in Rocky View County has had ripple effect in neighbouring regions.

In Taber, council changed its bylaws preemptively, to keep marijuana in industrial areas. In the Municipal District of Willow Creek, an application to build a medical marijuana facility was approved for just outside of Claresholm.

“We felt our hands were tied,” said Glenn Alm, the chair of Willow Creek's planning commission. “The licence is issued by the federal government.”

Council then altered its bylaws to stop another facility from coming.

Terry Booth knows that people in rural Alberta are apprehensive about the arrival of this new cash crop, but he says that will change. Booth is the CEO of Aurora Marijuana Inc.

It is in the final stages of being approved to build a massive facility on the outskirts of Cremona. It will be Alberta’s largest medical marijuana facility — growing 5,500 kilograms of pot every year, enough to satisfy the requirements of 12,000 to 16,000 patients.

“There still a stigma attached and we do happen to be in one of the more conservative provinces. But I think that stigma and those walls are being broken down. The studies that are coming in are plentiful. It’s far better than your OxyContins and your Percocets that are killing a number of people per day in the United States. Marijuana has never killed anybody.”

Airdrie's Swiatek knows there’s big money to be made in marijuana. But there’s also a lot of push back. He suggests that Alberta’s lukewarm reception to the new cash crop could scare away business.

“Let’s call it what it is. Simply put, we don’t like marijuana. Marijuana has a stigma,” he said.

His neighbour Kerr disagrees.

“I have no problem with the growth of medical marijuana. I have a problem with it here. Everyone will say it’s a NIMBY thing and you’re right, I don’t want it in my backyard because it’s not an appropriate place for it. Would you want it in your residential community in Calgary? I don’t think so.“

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