Rotating cannabis from Health Canada to Agriculture

| Tim Wilson

Many cannabis growers are frustrated that their agricultural products are entirely regulated by Health Canada, and believe that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada could take a more formal role in some aspects of cannabis regulation. 

This is particularly true for businesses that operate proper farms and grow other agricultural products. Having some regulatory oversight shifted away from Health Canada makes sense for these companies, as the agency has limited agricultural expertise. 

Given that agriculture is a shared jurisdiction with provincial and territorial governments, there is also an opportunity for cannabis growers to benefit from regulatory policies that are more specific to their local regions.

“A shift would support good agricultural practices,” says Colin Davison, CEO of McIntyre Creek Cannabis Inc., an outdoor cannabis cultivator in BC focused on both the medicinal and recreational markets.  “It would allow us to rotate crops. We could have cannabis on ten acres one year, and then switch to radishes to replenish the soil.”

“It’s hard to justify buying a hundred-thousand-dollar tractor to farm seven acres of cannabis six weeks of the year,” says Davison. “If I could use it for strawberry and wheat acreage, as well as for terpenes and flower, it would be a very different type of farming, all of which would be better understood by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada than by Health Canada.”

Colin Davison, McIntyre Creek Cannabis Inc.

The challenge is that, as a regulatory body, Health Canada is in no way equipped to address the complexities of an agricultural operation. The result is that numerous potentially beneficial policies are simply unavailable to cannabis growers, many of whom are engaged in complex and sophisticated agricultural practices.

“People think of agriculture as a traditional, old-world endeavour, but in fact it’s an advanced, sophisticated, well-integrated industry,” says Orville Bovenschen, President of Pure Sunfarms in BC, which grows tomatoes and cannabis in semi-closed greenhouses. “We already have government regulators who are experts in agriculture, and are much more experienced in crop management and disease.”

In this context, rather than taking an oppositional view of regulatory participation, Bovenschen believes that agricultural regulators could add value and help the industry grow.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and are always willing to collaborate with regulators,” he says. “The government has been involved with agriculture for over a century, and an agricultural perspective would be welcome – maybe we should get them involved.”

As it stands, cannabis growers are often excluded from some of the economic policies designed to help farmers.

“In BC, we don’t get farm status for tax purposes, and often don’t qualify for specific agricultural programs,” says Margaret Brodie, CEO of Rubicon Organics, an organic cannabis greenhouse cultivator in BC. “Health Canada taxes us 2.3% based on revenue and regulates us more heavily than they do tobacco or alcohol. Upon legalization, Canada overdid the regulations, and now we need to strip it back a bit.”

At present, cannabis growers have difficulty accessing farm credit programs and are still dealing with the pervasive stigma against the industry.

“Banks can be downright impossible to deal with,” says Davison. “It would be refreshing not to be focused exclusively on cannabis, but to see it as a matter of the specific needs of farmers. This could really help to stabilize our industry.”

A Modest Risk

The strict regulations and the exclusive oversight by Health Canada are a direct result of the overly cautious approach taken by the federal government upon legalization. It would have been a tall order to treat cannabis like any other agricultural product, and that may still be the case, but the risk to society – either from a health or law-and-order perspective – was likely overstated.

“It hasn’t come to fruition where people are driving through fences and stealing cannabis plants,” says Davison. “The crop is only valuable during the last few weeks of harvest. The reality is that it takes thirty people working full out for 20 days to get that harvest off. If someone drives through the fence, what are they going to steal, ten plants before the RCMP and staff arrive? It would be extremely minor in nature. Our facility is auto-monitored in every way, with quick police response. Large-scale theft by organized crime is simply not likely, as even our harvested product isn’t stored at our field.”

As it stands, an outdoor operation like McIntyre Creek often gets treated like an indoor grow, where crop turnover is much faster. Not only is the harvest time limited with outdoor grows, but there are also challenges with soil integrity that would benefit from a loosening of the security regulations.

“If we had a larger, mixed licensed area we could rotate our crops,” says Davison. “Right now, the extent of the security fencing doesn’t make sense. We have more than 20 cameras around our farm for a crop that’s only in the ground four or five months of the year, and only of any value for about four weeks. We would benefit from changes that were more specific to our reality, for example with regard to access control and secure storage.”

Davison says that McIntyre Creek, which farms for specific cannabis-derived terpenes, as well as cannabinoids, could enhance biodiversity and be more successful if its licensed area could include complimentary crops, such as strawberries.

“These are normal practices within the agricultural industry, and would still allow us to harvest a medical product in a controlled environment,” he says. “The market is already doing that when the product is shipped to the processor, who continues to treat it very much like a pharmaceutical product.”

The greater risk in not shifting to an agricultural purview is mainly economic, given that Health Canada’s regulations require cannabis to be grown under such isolated, highly specialized conditions.

“It’s hard to justify buying a hundred-thousand-dollar tractor to farm seven acres of cannabis six weeks of the year,” says Davison. “If I could use it for strawberry and wheat acreage, as well as for terpenes and flower, it would be a very different type of farming, all of which would be better understood by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada than by Health Canada, in my estimation. We have no complaints under the current legislation as to who looks after outdoor cultivation, but streamlining to respect a greater farming appreciation would be a benefit to cultivators.”

The desire for regulatory reform, with a greater agricultural focus, also applies to hemp, which has suffered from the stigma and ignorance associated with cannabis cultivation.

“Our basic position…is that there’s only one element of our industry that should be under Health Canada and Cannabis Act control, and that’s the extraction of concentrated and isolated cannabinoids from hemp flowers, which we agree should be done by licensed cannabis processors,” says Ted Haney, President & CEO at Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA). 

“Other than that, the rest of the plant, and the rest of the industry, need to be freed. They need to be moved to Agriculture Canada, which has an economic mandate, and understands how to work with farmers, and food and industrial processors, to build this industry into what it can be, rather than to hamper it with inappropriate regulation that doesn’t reflect the risk of the industry.”

Featured image via Good Buds

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