The Government of Canada passed a bill legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes on June 19, 2018 with a legalization date of October 17, 2018. With the legalization of production (indoor and outdoor), processing and sales for both recreational and medical use now in place, individuals and businesses are actively searching for land to establish growing operations and processing facilities. The rise of this new market has prompted public debate on the land use impacts associated with cannabis production, processing and sales.

This has significant implications for planning. We know from experiences in Ontario and across Canada that cannabis production, processing and cultivation can impact adjacent land uses if it is not properly controlled. These impacts are mostly related to odour, noise, lighting and security. Numerous examples of pungent smells in rural areas during harvest, or excessive water usage resulting in dry wells have popped up in various communities across the Province. However, with the right land use controls, cannabis facilities can exist in harmony with sensitive land uses.

Municipal “Loopholes”

The primary issue in most municipalities is that their planning documents – Official Plan, Secondary Plans, Zoning By-law, etc. – do not account for cannabis facilities. Unless any of these documents have been recently updated, cannabis production, processing, cultivation or sales were not contemplated by municipalities in the past, as such uses (outside of Health Canada licensed medical facilities) were illegal. While this may not appear to be cause for concern, these documents may, by default, permit these uses in certain land use designations and zones.

For example, the cultivation of cannabis is, by definition, an agricultural use. Since most Zoning By-laws identify the growing or cultivation of crops as an agricultural use, the growing of cannabis could be considered in the same vein. Moreover, if the cannabis crop is processed on the same site, this could be considered a value-added agriculture-related use, much in the same way as a small tomato canning facility would be to a tomato farm. Although municipal Official Plans and Zoning By-laws differ, there are any number of similar “loopholes” that appear in planning documents across the province.

As such, municipalities find themselves in a position where they must update these documents to accommodate this new land use. Although cannabis facilities require licenses from Health Canada, who have strict requirements related to odour control and security, a municipality may still control where these facilities can be located. Municipalities can also ask for additional site development requirements, as long as those requirements are rooted in good planning. For instance, an Official Plan can be amended so as to prohibit facilities in residential designations and encourage large processing facilities to locate in industrial areas in order to avoid land use conflicts. Likewise, a Zoning By-law can be amended to provide general provisions that require a set of criteria (e.g. ensure adequate servicing, demonstrate adequate security measures, etc.) to be followed for any new facility within a municipality in order to prevent impacts to adjacent land uses.

It is important to note that these facilities can bring positive growth and economic benefits to communities across the Province. However, the establishment of these facilities must be done in a smart and responsible way that minimizes land use conflict and promotes good planning.  By incorporating land use control measures through planning documents such as Official Plans and Zoning By-laws, municipalities can ensure that the orderly development of these facilities is implemented.