Denver marijuana farms make unwelcome neighbours

Before weed becomes legal in Canada, our leaders need only look southward to see how certain U.S. states have been negotiating the highs and lows of their new marijuana industry. And in a cluster of low-income Denver neighbourhoods, residents are experiencing the downside of Colorado's pot boom.

Residents say legalized marijuana has changed their area for the worse

Denver resident Candi CdeBaca says industrial marijuana grow operations like the one behind her are unwelcome neighbours in her community of Elyria-Swansea. (Solomon Israel/CBC)

EDITOR'S NOTE: With Canada poised to legalize marijuana in 2017, CBC News reporter Solomon Israel went to Denver to see how the fledgling pot industry there has affected where people live, their health concerns and how it shapes public spending. This is the first of three pieces in our series.

Even though pot isn't yet legal in Canada, marijuana dispensaries are already taking root in Toronto neighbourhoods like Kensington Market and the Danforth.

While that's sparked complaints to police and local councillors, it could be worse: Torontonians could be living near an urban marijuana farm.

That's exactly what's happened to residents from a cluster of neighbourhoods in northeastern Denver, where recreational marijuana sales became legal at the beginning of 2014.

The Colorado capital's experience offers an important lesson to city planners in Toronto and across the country — how will they decide where cannabis businesses should be allowed to operate?

An industrial marijuana grow operation is visible across the street from CdeBaca's house. (Solomon Israel/CBC)

Meet the new neighbours

In Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighbourhood, the scent of marijuana greets travellers driving along Interstate 70, the elevated highway that cuts the area in half.

Both Elyria-Swansea and neighbouring Globeville are mixed industrial-residential areas that both fall significantly below Denver's $73,100 US average household income — at $44,700 and $39,200, respectively. 

The neighbourhoods also house a large number of Denver's marijuana businesses. There are 54 cultivation facilities, 12 manufacturing facilities and 12 marijuana stores in Elyria-Swansea alone, according to a June analysis by the Denver Post. Roughly 6,600 people live in that neighbourhood.

Candi CdeBaca has deep roots in Elyria-Swansea and owns a home directly across the street from a nondescript warehouse where pot plants are grown. CdeBaca says marijuana growers took advantage of the neighbourhood's empty commercial real estate after the 2008 recession — and the city did nothing to stop them from concentrating in the area.

Marijuana production facilities with unfriendly exteriors are filling up Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighbourhood, residents say. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"I feel like it was an easy target because it was already zoned for commercial use," says CdeBaca, a neighbourhood activist and executive director of a local non-profit. "And because it was cheap."

The warehouses, however, are used to produce marijuana that's mostly sold elsewhere, and CdeBaca says that translates into businesses that have no stake in improving their neighbourhood.

"They don't care about the communities that they're in, they don't care what their building looks like, they don't care what the community smells like, because they never are planning to bring their clients into these communities to do business," says CdeBaca.

Toronto awaits federal guidance

In Toronto, zoning bylaws only regulate the location of medical marijuana production facilities. Those farms must be completely enclosed and in industrial zones at least 70 metres away from residential or commercial property, as well as any schools, places of worship or daycares.

The director of investigation services for Toronto's municipal licensing and standards division says it's too early to determine how the city will regulate recreational weed production until Ottawa's task force comes out with its own guidelines. 

"It's an industrial manufacturing process and it should be in the appropriate zones just like any other industrial process," Mark Sraga says.

Sraga says the city has not received any complaints about the zoning of the three known medical marijuana production facilities in Toronto.

Health and economic impacts

In Denver, Elyria-Swansea resident Cecilia Calvillo is concerned about the impact of pungent marijuana fumes on local children, especially those with asthma, which is more prevalent in her community than the city as a whole, according to census data. 

She also says the cost of living in the area has shot up.

"There are no houses to rent," says Calvillo, speaking in Spanish.

"We've seen a lot of people from other states who have come here because of marijuana, to live here in Denver."

The U.S. Census Bureau confirms that the fast-growing city is facing a housing shortage. Realtors frequently credit the marijuana industry for Denver's population boom — and it's not hard to find newcomers who came to enjoy legal marijuana or work in the industry. 

Colorado's move to legalize marijuana for recreational use has brought new jobs to the state, including manual labour like trimming. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press)

The industry has brought some new jobs to the area, but Calvillo describes the work of cutting marijuana plants as physically draining.

"A family member of mine, she works cutting [and] in order to last there for four or five hours, she has to bring two gallons of milk to drink," she says. "Because they get dizzy, they start vomiting, they have to be drinking milk the whole time they are there."

'It hasn't worked out the way we thought it would'

CdeBaca says others are kept out of the marijuana industry altogether because it's still not federally legal. 

"Because it's still an industry that discriminates against anyone who has a record, or against anyone who has expertise in this industry in the past when it wasn't legal … it basically excludes a huge population from being able to participate in the industry," says CdeBaca. "It hasn't worked out the way we thought it would."

Following pushback from Elyria-Swansea residents, Denver revoked the licence for Starbuds, one of the area's marijuana cultivation facilities. The chain of dispensaries was told to shut down the second-storey grow operation on top of its dispensary on Brighton Boulevard.

A customer enters the Starbuds marijuana dispensary on Denver's Brighton Boulevard. (Solomon Israel/CBC)

Starbuds owner Brian Ruden acknowledges his neighbours' concerns, but says his indoor farm was just one of many smelly industries in the area.

"We have the Purina [dog food] factory, we have the National Western Stock show — which smells like manure — oil refineries, sewage treatment plants," explains Ruden.

Ruden believes the city shut down his grow operation because it wants his location as part of a major redevelopment plan for the area.

"What they want to do is push the business out and then just take the real estate out from under me."

A symbolic victory?

Ending Starbuds' cultivation may be a largely symbolic victory for those Elyria-Swansea residents who aren't happy with their marijuana-farming neighbours. The Starbuds dispensary itself will stay open, and much larger cultivation facilities are still operating.

CdeBaca believes the municipal government should have acted long before the marijuana industry was able to establish such a concentrated presence in her neighbourhood.

And it's something Canadian city planners may also need to consider.

"I think that they should have ensured that it would be distributed evenly across Denver," says CdeBaca. "Specifically, they should have protected the most vulnerable neighbourhoods."

About the Author

Solomon Israel

Solomon Israel is a producer and writer for CBC News, based in Toronto. He's been on the business news beat since 2011, with stints covering technology, world, and local news. More recently, Solomon has been covering issues related to marijuana legalization. He can be reached at solomon.israel@cbc.ca, or on Twitter: @sol_israel.