former cucmber grower meets resistance

Canada: Struggling Airdrie grower wants to grow pot

Plunging cucumber prices turned out the lights in Stan Swiatek's greenhouse operation in 2010, but the Calgary-area grower believes a new cash crop - medical marijuana - is a prescription for success. Health Canada has changed the distribution system for the country's medical marijuana program, opening the door for private companies to grow the plants that will supply nearly 40,000 patients across the country.

The federal government estimates the number of licensed medical marijuana users could grow to 450,000 by 2024, generating $1.3 billion in sales for producers.

The prospects have prompted more than 150 applications to Health Canada, including one from Swiatek's company, Sundial Growers, in Rocky View County.

"I have a greenhouse, I have the zoning for it, I'm part of the industry they're targeting," said Swiatek, the company's operations manager.

Sundial's greenhouse sits on a rural parcel of land near Airdrie that Swiatek and his partners bought in 2006.

They made a good living growing cucumbers for a few years, at one point fetching $24 a dozen.

But prices plunged when the economy crashed in 2008 and, by 2010, Sundial had suspended its greenhouse operation.

Swiatek, who got into horticulture after working in construction and development, said he used to scoffat farmers' seemingly constant anxiety over weather, precipitation and commodity prices.

When the bottom fell out of cucumber prices, Swiatek said he learned the hard way how uncertain the horticulture business can be.

"The truth is, it's a really tough life," he said.

In 2010, Swiatek turned his greenhouse into a covered structure and began looking for ways to revitalize Sundial's business.

His research led him to marijuana, which has a similar growth cycle and does well in a greenhouse environment.

"The similarities are uncanny," Swiatek said.

But the self-described "anti-drug" former construction boss - who used to send workers home for smoking pot on the job - needed more convincing.

It came when Swiatek saw videos of multiple sclerosis patients whose tremors stopped after taking marijuana and testimonials from terminally ill people who used it for pain relief.

Now an advocate, Swiatek said a legal medical marijuana industry is a potential lifeline for struggling commercial growers and opens the door to health research and new treatments.

"Where else can you do some good for somebody and make some money out of it? It's a win-win," he said.

But with anything new, there are emerging issues: users are concerned they won't be able to afford their medicine once marijuana is sold on the open market.

Previously, medical marijuana users could grow their own plants or buy from licensed, small-scale growers.

For patients unwilling or unable to get their supply that way, Health Canada contracted a Saskatoon-based company, Prairie Plant Systems, to sell marijuana at the subsidized price of $5 a gram.

Prairie Plant Systems and its subsidiary, CanniMed, are so far the first companies to obtain licences for the new distribution scheme. CanniMed plans to sell its marijuana for between $9 and $12 a gram, depending on the potency.

Police, fire departments and local authorities pressured the federal government to scrap the old distribution system, saying home-based operations posed problems.

Critics said the old regime was susceptible to abuse by criminals diverting marijuana to the illegal market, and growers were potential targets for violent home invasions.

Health Canada has attempted to address those concerns by requiring applicants under the new program to pass criminal background checks and equip their facilities with security features such as intrusion alarms and closed-circuit surveillance.

But, despite Health Canada's legal sanctioning of a commercial marijuana industry, some municipalities - including Calgary and Rocky View County - are still grappling with how they'll handle any growers seeking to set up in their area.

"What we're trying to do is be very cautious with our applicants, our landowners and our residents," said Matthew Wilson, Rocky View's senior planning officer.

The county concedes its bylaws, in their current form, don't necessarily preclude Sundial from growing marijuana. The company has a valid permit for a horticultural development which doesn't specify the intended crop.

But Wilson added the county may rewrite its land use bylaw, saying officials still need to assess how a commercial marijuana operation would affect the area.

Depending on the findings, there may be new rules about where they can be located.

"We are kind of in a holding pattern," said Yvonne Maughan, Rocky View's senior development officer.

In the meantime, so is Sundial Growers.

Swiatek may have come to accept uncertainty in the weather, but said he has a hard time understanding the county's hesitance about allowing a medical marijuana operation considering how stringent the application process is.

Meeting Health Canada's requirements should more than satisfy any concerns over safety and security, said Swiatek, adding Sundial's operation will provide jobs and economic benefits to the area.

"Does this community not want an additional $10 million injected into its economy?" he said.

Other communities have already weighed the pros and cons and decided to embrace the emerging medical marijuana industry.

In Eastern Ontario, one company that has applied to grow medical marijuana has approached leaders in Smiths Falls about buying a vacant chocolate factory in the town of 9,000.

The town's mayor told the Herald the proposed marijuana operation is a much-needed economic boost for the town, which has lost an estimated 1,700 jobs in recent years.

"We approached it from the point of view that if Smiths Falls was suitable for their purposes, we welcome them here," Mayor Dennis Staples said in an interview last week.


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