Photo by Martin van den Hemel
The owner of an East Richmond farm says fears that much of Lulu Island’s agricultural land will be converted to grow cannabis—after next summer’s expected legalization of marijuana—are unfounded.
Avtar Dhillon and his wife Diljit Bains own a 21-acre parcel at 6980 No. 9 Road, where two 7,000-square-foot greenhouses are rising in the shadows of Lafarge’s cement tower near the south arm of the Fraser River.
Dhillon told The Richmond Sentinel that he hasn’t ruled out growing cannabis in the greenhouses once marijuana becomes a legal crop in Canada. The City of Richmond has been told the greenhouses will be used to grow vegetables and other edible green products.
“We’re going to keep all of our options open,” said Dhillon, who currently grows blueberries, walnuts, almonds, and prunes and runs cattle on his properties. “We are not eliminating any possibilities of agricultural crops that would be allowed.”
Dhillon is the executive chairman of Emerald Health Therapeutics, a publicly-traded company that is planning to become a “large-scale, low-cost cannabis producer,” according to its website.
He referenced a Deloitte and Touche report that estimated Canada’s demand for cannabis will reach 600,000 kilograms annually by 2022.
To produce that amount in a greenhouse would require fewer than 500 acres, or some 10 million square feet, Dhillon said.
Considering how much farmland exists in Richmond, let alone the rest of the Lower Mainland and B.C., that’s a “grain of sand on a beach, it’s such a small quantity of land,” he claimed.
Emerald has already made plans to retrofit a Delta greenhouse with 1.1 million square feet, he noted, with an option to expand to five million. That could meet half of the demand for all of Canada.
“It’s a big misconception that is being propagated at times…that there’s going to be large tracts of land that are going to be taken over,” Dhillon said of the fear mongering by cities that marijuana greenhouses will suddenly pop up everywhere. “It’s simply not true.”
Dhillon, who is also a family physician in the Lower Mainland and now farms close to 2,000 acres in California and B.C., said it’s the medicinal benefits of marijuana—including its anti-seizure potential in children—that has him excited.
“There are tremendous benefits for sleep, for other disorders, for cancer, for infectious diseases, epilepsy, nausea, weight loss. There’s a whole host of medical conditions that are being investigated with this, and it’s going to be exciting to see the misconceptions of that one molecule. When you take out the THC (which has psychotropic effects), you still have a very active plant that can be used for medicines, and that’s really our focus at Emerald.”
According to a press release on Emerald Health’s website, the Saanich, B.C. firm partnered with Village Farms to retrofit a 25-acre, 1.1-million-square-foot greenhouse in Delta last June that had been used to grow tomatoes so that it instead can grow cannabis.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said he’s definitely concerned about what will come in the wake of the legalization of marijuana.
Simply take a drive to Saanich, Brodie suggested, and take a look at the bunker built into the middle of an agricultural field and is visible from the highway. It is ringed by chain link fencing and comes across as a very secure facility, he said.
“It’s not like anything we see on farmland today,” Brodie said.
Coun. Harold Steves fears Richmond could become the pot producing capital of the country.
“We could well end up being the heart of the marijuana industry,” Steves said.
Brodie agrees, but said the City of Richmond has had success in its previous efforts to limit the number of production facilities for medical marijuana.
“It’s a matter of mirroring that type of approach for the non-medicinal use (of marijuana). I don’t think we want to become the centre of activity for the production of marijuana.”
Richmond council is on record as not endorsing the legalization of marijuana.
The No. 9 Road property isn’t the only one that appears, Steves said, destined to become part of the marijuana industry, which one estimate pegs at worth more than $20 billion annually in Canada.
The City of Richmond has received a request to change the designation of a 40,000-square-foot horse barn in South Richmond, with the proposal to add 20,000 square feet.
“We should not be building what we call warehouses, or factories or bunkers for marijuana on farmland,” he said.
Steves said Richmond is ideally suited to both grow marijuana and distribute it, noting the city’s proximity to the Vancouver International Airport.
“For greenhouses, or even growing marijuana outdoors, we have the best soil and the best climate in all of Canada. So we are a prime location for marijuana production. Of any place in the country, this is the best place to do it.”
The predicted growth of the marijuana industry poses a threat to Richmond’s ability to produce food for its residents, he said.
“That’s why our very fragile, food-producing land, is threatened by marijuana production. If we start taking our best lands for growing marijuana, and not growing food, we’ve got a problem.”
While greenhouses might seem innocuous for farmland, Steves said that’s not always the case.
He said he opposed the construction of concrete-based greenhouses in Delta, but the province ruled that growing tomatoes without soil was an agricultural use.
“That precedent has already been set. Anybody that wants to build a greenhouse once (marijuana) is legalized, can build one. But when you build greenhouses with acres and acres of concrete floors, you’re actually destroying the farmland.”
While concrete-based greenhouses can grow food, Steves said it’s not good food.
“I wouldn’t eat it and I wouldn’t recommend anybody else eat it. It’s like processed food. The nutrition is taken out of it with these processes…It’s taking us in the opposite direction of where we should be going.”