April 18, 2014 - 12:20 PM
OKANAGAN - I’m following directions few people have to a location even fewer know about: A commercial medical marijuana facility hidden in the hills above the Okanagan Valley.
The dirt road carves up the mountainside in a flourish of switchbacks, leading me further from the small town below. It’s a nice neighbourhood: Large, modern homes with incredible views and ample privacy.
When I find the right address, all I can see from the road is a long, steep driveway leading into the woods. Herb, the anonymous producer who invited me to his ‘shop,' has arranged for one of his friends to drive me up the hill.
January snow squeaks under my boots as I walk over to the truck. I sniff the crisp air and there’s no whiff of what goes on at the end of the driveway.
Herb’s friend is about 25, clean cut, and a medical marijuana patient himself. It doesn’t take long to get to the shop, a warehouse concealed from outside view. Nothing—not smell, appearance, or sound—gives away its purpose.
Herb graciously welcomes us inside and begins the tour. We go through a comfortable lounge area into the sound of fans, a gurgle of water, and hum of energy in the production facility itself. It’s not as if I’d expected a basement lair at 420 Sativa St., but the facility is larger, more industrial, and more professional than I imagined.
Neatly planted potted clones sit under bright grow lights, labeled with names like Liberty Haze and Blue Dream. The heat and humidity in the grow rooms is a welcome change from the cold outdoors. Herb has about 10 strains on the go, all clearly tagged and set out in rows. Carbon dioxide is pumped in to promote plant growth while a ventilation system stirs the air—the perfect balance of humidity must be achieved to prevent mould. The whole facility has a heated floor. A network of black hoses deliver water and a calculated mix of nutrients to the plants, but Herb is careful of what comes in contact with his crop.
“Unscrupulous producers will spray the plants willy nilly with any kind of pesticide,” he says. “If you had a garden and you were going to eat the produce from it, you wouldn’t be spraying it.”
Instead, he’s cautious not to attract pests, like spider mites, into the grow rooms. He changes his clothes in the summer months to prevent contamination, but as controlled as the environment is, there’s always potential for unwanted pests to get in. Like any farmer, it’s just one of the inherent risks.
“All the same skills in farming are applicable,” Herb says. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a full time job.”
He hasn’t taken a vacation since entering the industry—leaving his shop, his livelihood, in the hands of hired help isn’t appealing. He’s invested thousands of dollars into making the operation fit Health Canada’s new code, with requirements ranging from video surveillance to storing product in a locked vault.
Herb says he’s not overly concerned about his safety. He doesn’t freely hand out his address and is choosy about who he shares the details of his work with. But he’s more open about his occupation than many growers.
“I choose to live a more open life than I think a lot of people would, and that’s partially because I believe in the industry and in what I’m doing. I don’t want to hide or propagate the stigma about how a lot of grows operate," he says. "I’ve brought people through to show them what this kind of operation can and should look like. I want to show there are people who run conscientious operations and take a lot of pride in what they do."
The career has had its share of bumps in the road. Navigating the bureaucracy of Health Canada has been one, dealing with the police another.
“The RCMP came in a few years ago when they didn’t know I was licensed. They raided me, they came in cut down all my plants, handcuffed me, arrested me, dragged me off to jail. I was there for a few hours while they phoned Health Canada to see if I was licensed and let me go.”
He got no reimbursement for the destroyed plants, but was advised by his lawyer not to push the matter. Since then, his relationship with the RCMP has improved. They even give him courtesy calls if there have been break-and-enters in the area.
Facilities like this, and people like Herb, are the new face of the medical marijuana system. The government doesn’t want people growing in their homes—that was illegal as of April 1. And while Herb doesn’t agree with all of the new system, he needs to be part of it to change it.
After touring the facility, we sit in the common area and Herb offers tea and cookies. As we chat about the future of the industry, Herb’s voice is full of passion and hope.
“Hopefully it all comes together and pays off in a more mature, safer, better industry. One that’s easier for people to access,” he says.
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