HAMILTON STEPS UP IT'S CANNABIS GAME

The city of Hamilton, with the motto “Together Aspire – Together Achieve” is historically known for hammering out steel. But in the future, some suggest, medical marijuana would be another good niche. Hamilton – a city with one of the highest rates of enforcement of marijuana possession offences in the country. Statistics Canada information released this summer shows that the number of marijuana-related charges laid by Hamilton police increased 154 per cent from 2006 to 2014.

With new Health Canada regulations, a handful of medical marijuana growers have already applied to set up in Hamilton. The city has plenty of land zoned for agricultural and industrial that would accommodate these facilities, said Hamilton Coun. Chad Collins.

“We could be turning brownfields into green fields, and using green fields for their intended use,” he said at a planning committee meeting Tuesday.

In fact, if the city can decide by June how to zone and handle the facilities, “it could be the next big business in Hamilton,” said Coun. Jason Farr.

Municipalities across Ontario are grappling with how to deal with a potential influx of medical marijuana facilities. Hamilton Councillors voted Tuesday that they belong on agricultural land. But the city will also examine allowing them on industrial land, as some other cities have done.

Hamilton has plenty of both, said Collins, who represents Ward 5 in Hamilton, Ontario,. “We can advise investors looking at these facilities that we have two categories of land.”

Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 in Hamilton thought they were closer to industry than farming. In February, Whitehead suggested encouraging medical marijuana growers to locate in vacant industrial buildings.

“You’re dealing with cultivation, packing, delivery to end user — no wholesale — and you’re saying that is an agricultural use,” he said. “I don’t agree with it. When you look at it from beginning to end, it really is a process.”

But others said medical marijuana works similar to how flower growers operate. “Look at cucumbers, for example,” said Joanne Hickey-Evans, manager of policy planning. “They grow them, quality control them, wrap them in plastic and send them out.”

Andy Burns used to work with a Hamilton medical marijuana centre. Now he aims to build his own growing facility in a rural area near Woodstock. Such facilities are more like farms than industry, he said. “You grow seedlings, cut the flower off, dry it, put it in a bag and sell it,” he told CBC Hamilton. “It’s not an industrial process. We look like mushroom farmers or ginseng farmers except for the nature of our product.”

The facilities don’t draw a lot of crime or require armed guards either, he said. Staff will now identify appropriate locations for future facilities.

As of April 1, federal regulations will change regarding medical marijuana. Currently, patients can get it from individuals or one of four licensed producers in Canada. Under new regulations, patients can buy from licensed growers only.

The city has until June to finalize how it will zone marijuana-growing facilities, and where they can be located, Hickey-Evans said.

With new federal regulations, producers are popping up around Hamilton wanting federal licences to grow medical marijuana.

Coun. Terry Whitehead wants to look at offering up some of the city’s brownfields for that purpose.

Growing medical marijuana requires a large building with tight security. Meanwhile, Hamilton has a lot of unused buildings that fit the bill. “When you start building those sorts of block buildings in an agricultural area, does it make sense?” said Whitehead, who represents Ward 8. “We’ve got buildings that are virtually abandoned that would probably meet the requirements.”

As of April 1, federal regulations will change regarding medical marijuana. Currently, patients can get it from individuals or one of four licensed producers in Canada. Under new regulations, patients can buy from licensed growers only. That means more producers are setting up shop and requesting federal licences. City staff couldn’t say Tuesday how many have filed notices of intent in Hamilton, but Coun. Judi Partridge says she’s heard of about five. That includes a newly constructed facility in her area of Ward 15 in Flamborough. Neither Partridge nor city staff would reveal the exact location of the plant.

The city is now grappling with what to zone these facilities, and what sort of planning and building code measures will regulate them. The zoning is important — it will determine how much each facility pays in tax dollars, and where the facilities can be located. On Tuesday, the planning committee voted that when the city receives a notice of intent, ward councillors and the building department have to be informed. No one at the city building department knew about the new rural facility in her ward until a letter landed on her desk. It’s largely uncharted territory for the city, which doesn’t know if it can even set a limit on how many growing operations there are. Partridge has concerns. “What’s it going to mean security wise?” she said. “What’s it going to mean in terms of the impact on other residents and farms in the area? What’s it going to mean in terms of policing? We don’t have any of that information.”

How these buildings are zoned will also dictate how easy it is to locate them in brownfields, said Joanne Hickey-Evans, a manager in the planning department.

There are many important decisions to be made over the next year in Hamilton and the city is quickly becoming a hub of Southern Ontario cannabis culture.

With industry leaders like the Bright Moments Dispensary, Tweed, Bedrocan and a plethora of canna-friendly businesses gearing up to conquer the canna-industry in Hamilton – the timing on these major decisions could not be better.