Educating Politicians: The Role of Medical Marijuana in Society

Municipal politicians are still waiting for the smoke to clear after the federal government announced that Canada was transitioning into a private production business model for medical marijuana. The new Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation (MMPR) came into effect after March 31st, 2014 when the former system (MMAR) was repealed. I spoke with Stan Swiatek, veteran horticulturist and founder of Sundial Growers Inc., who was willing to take the time to share his dreams and frustrations with the current realities of medical marijuana in Alberta. I’ll add that Swiatek is a farmer who has invested the time to educate himself, (through the multitude of online resources) and has also met with MMJ patients personally. While he does not smoke anything other than tobacco himself, he understands the immense value that medicinal marijuana can bring to the health care industry and even to the economy: locally and provincially. 
One of the re-occurring challenges that Sundial Growers has been faced with in their bid to become a licensed produced is the position taken by municipalities — many don’t want medicine being grown in their backyard. It is a frustrating position because the issue is complex, layered throughout the political hierarchy, and people’s welfare is at stake.

Look at it and come back with an education.

Swiatek didn’t hesitate to say, “hat’s off to any politician who says, ‘well, why don’t I go and look at it and come back with an education. Your position needs to look at this from all sides for the benefit of all of us, not just a select few.” Clearly, there is no longer room at the discussion table for outdated, biased perceptions of pot. Swiatek added, “it’s more than an ethical choice.” Swiatek was correct to point out that the priority of all council members is to establish a responsible government. As taken from the Municipal Government Act, Division 3, Section 153(a) under “Duties, Titles and Oaths of Councillors” it does state: Councillors have the following duties: (a) to consider the welfare and interests of the municipality as a whole and to bring to council’s attention anything that would promote the welfare or interests of the municipality.

Responsible leadership requires accurate information.

The business community is providing support for the growing operations in Alberta. According to Swiatek, “Farm credit has elected to start funding these [marijuana production facilities], when they’re licensed. The mainstream businesses are coming out to fund them and many municipalities say we don’t want them. We don’t care if it’s legal or not.” Rocky View is not uniquely difficult to deal with, according to those that Swiatek has spoken with either. This attitude against medical marijuana is pretty much across the province. This really is a shame, since Alberta’s long, cool winters are perfect for growing cannabis, (mould isn’t nearly as much of an issue in a dry climate). Yet there is more to this issue than patient welfare. As Swiatek said, the “job creation and taxation is massive.” He continued, “many municipalities are coming forward and basically saying we are just not comfortable with it” Yet, introducing the medical marijuana industry to Alberta, would greatly benefit the province. As a province, “we have been dependant on oil,” noted Swiatek.

Alberta could be voluntarily missing out on a huge opportunity.

Medical marijuana would provide more sustainable growth for the economy. Swiatek commented, “who is holding it all back? Many municipalities. The province has empowered the municipalities. And now the province is pretty much saying there is not much we can do about it.” Swiatek stated that in his wildest imagination if he had been told thirty years ago that this is how archaic our society would act — he would have bet a million dollars that no, that’s not going to be the case. He added, saying “the big secret is that there is nothing that someone, as a result of Google, cannot go and educate themselves on.” Swiatek’s proposed facility was already identified as a “preferred candidate” to be a licensed producer in June, 2013. He later received his ready-to-build approval from Health Canada in January, 2014. Now, having long since completed building the necessary infrastructure, Health Canada has yet to actually come visit the premise and grant the final approval. The total investment in the facility is now over the $5,000,000 mark (and rising). There is a large group of investors with no idea when they can expect to see a return on their capital investments. In the meantime, local patients and the local economy could have greatly benefited from having the medical marijuana facility begin operations. Sundial Growers has declined registering any patients at this time because they can’t promise anything until Health Canada grants them final approval. 
There is a palpable sense of frustration. “The Municipality of Rocky View declined to meet with Health Canada.” In my interpretation, if they are turning down the Federal government, it can only be assumed they are obviously not listening to their constituents either. It also raises the question of whether they are acting in the best interests of the municipality as a whole. 

Cannabis should not be grown in a former paint bay or welding shop

Swiatek was passionate on this point. “What about the people out there who are using medical marijuana for cancer, for seizures for children, for other medical conditions for which they have had no resolution with medicine as we know it. That is overwhelming. This isn’t 1930’s and the prohibition, this isn’t about being drunk and disorderly on the street as a result of alcoholism. This is something that people are actually using and it is in our Charter of Rights. But many municipalities are saying that we don’t know anything about it, so our absolute prudence is simply we just want to be biased about it, and we don’t want to know anything about it.”

It had been suggested that the Sundial Growers operation needs to be moved into an industrial zoning location. However, as a horticulturist, Swiatek is adamant that consumable plants should not be produced in an potentially contaminated industrial facility. Medical marijuana is horticultural; it does not belong in a former paint or welding shop with PCB’s and other volatile compounds in the area. I asked Swiatek if the potential threat of growing cannabis was a real concern for his neighbours — recognizing that his current location is in a sparsely populated, rural community where he can’t even see his neighbour’s houses. The threat, “it’s absolutely over-exaggerated” he said.

Municipality of Rocky View would approve the facility in an industrial zone

However, he added, the Municipality of Rocky View would approve the facility in an industrial zone, right in the heart of Balzac, where you are literally a stone throw from the movie theatre. With a proposed three or four thousand house subdivision surrounding the centre of where you’re going to go. Swiatek commented on the situation nationally: “The whole program federally has been pushed around and hindered, and not just in Alberta, it’s in B.C, it’s Ontario, it’s in every province. They’re having the same issues. Many municipalities have been pushing around the [MMPR] program.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent who formally apologized on CNN. I’ve chosen to quote him here because of the need for education on the issue on marijuana that evidently is still being stigmatized. 
“I apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now. I didn't look far enough. I didn't review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.” “In my quick running of the numbers, I calculated about 6% of the current U.S. marijuana studies investigate the benefits of medical marijuana. The rest are designed to investigate harm. That imbalance paints a highly distorted picture.”

"I could not find a documented case of death from marijuana overdose.”

“Most frightening to me is that someone dies in the United States every 19 minutes from a prescription drug overdose, mostly accidental. Every 19 minutes. It is a horrifying statistic. As much as I searched, I could not find a documented case of death from marijuana overdose.” 
Marijuana was criminalized “not because of sound science, but because of its absence.”

 Swiatek had some powerful closing words: “When you have empowered that many people with the power of education The individual can source information like they have never been able to source information and get to the bottom of the truth themselves: without relying just on what other people say. So the result of that is our population needs to stand up and say, ‘you know what ‘we’re not that stupid.’” While the actual production of medical marijuana is going to take time, I did ask what strains that Sundial Growers had in mind once their licence is finally granted federal approval. Swiatek has a sensible plan in mind: “Growing a million different strains is not necessarily the answer. You want to start with a high cannaboid (less THC), a sativa, an indica (as pure as you can get it), and something in between.” Until then, you can help the cause. Please share this article and help people like Stan Swiatek grow.

It all starts with education. Let the politicians know.
Mark Hamhuis
Mark Hamhuis