Cannabis odour: Part of farming or an environmental problem?

May 22 2019, 4:00 pm

Something stinks in the cannabis business, and according to Vancouver’s air quality planner, it’s the plants themselves.

In a recent Metro Vancouver’s Climate Action Committee meeting — a committee made up of representatives from municipalities across Metro Vancouver — Julie Saxton, air quality planner in the Planning and Environment Department presented a report and recommendations on the subject.

In the report, she outlines the steps she recommends the municipalities implement to deal with the odour as well as a summary explanation of the issue.

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According to Saxton, volatile organic compounds (VOC), Particulate Matter, and ground-level ozone VOC are air contaminants that are emitted by cannabis plants. They not only contribute to the smell, but also raise “environmental and health concerns due to the role of VOC in the formation of harmful ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.”

According to Environment Canada, VOCs are organic compounds with one or more carbon atoms with “high vapour pressures.” This quality causes them to evaporate quickly into the atmosphere. The agency says thousands of compounds meet their definition of VOCs, but “most programs focus on the 50 to 150 most abundant compounds containing two to twelve carbon atoms.”

Licensed producers are required by Health Canada’s regulations to filter air to prevent the escape of VOCs and odours. According to the report, however, local governments have concerns about the environmental and health impacts of emissions of air contaminants, “including volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.”

Odours are a protected part of farming

Not everyone agrees that the smell is obtrusive, especially in farmland that regularly deals with the smell of fertilized crops.

“Noise and nuisance associated with farming is actually not regulatable by districts that have farming in their land allocation,” said Dan Sutton, CEO of the BC-based licenced producer Tantalus Labs. “So if we’re going to allow it for cattle and an outdoor cannabis farm now has formed status and is able to maintain that farm status, the noise and nuisance that come from emissions regardless of Metro Vancouver’s regulations are actually protected.”

Sutton is referring to the provisions in BC’s Right to Farm Act, that allow for farms to produce everything from noise to nuisance to those living around them. According to the act, “the farmer is not liable in nuisance to any person for any odour, noise, dust or other disturbance resulting from the farm operation,” as well as not being “prevented by injunction or other order of a court from conducting that farm operation.”

Until earlier this month, the Agricultural Land Commission, a body that regulates BC’s designated farmland, had asked some cannabis growers to designate their land as non-farm use. However, according to an update released on May 8, that regulation has been repealed and there is now no distinction between certain types of cannabis cultivation on the province agricultural land reserve.

Recommendations to Metro Van

The air quality planner made several recommendations in her report. Chiefly, the development of regulatory processes that address environmental concerns related to VOCs and ground-level ozone, as well as the apparent discomfort caused by odours.

In addition to its role in ground-level ozone formation, the 2018 Special Report of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies the reduction of ground-level ozone in some pathways to limit global warming, due its role as a short-lived climate forcer.

She cites the regional Odour Management Framework to “control odours when the odorous substances emitted into the air are capable of causing material physical discomfort, interference, or harm,” not the Right to Farm Act, as the policy tool that should be used to control cannabis discharge.

The report also states that the emissions from cannabis facilities are capable of causing various impacts to the environment and potentially public health as a “result of their odorous properties and other chemical properties.” Environment Canada says that VOCs contribute to the creation of pollution like smog.

As a result of the recommendations, the MVRD board decided to direct their staff to begin a consultation on developing an approach to regulating air emissions from cannabis production using existing bylaws, while also submitting a letter to Health Canada asking that they “actively enforce federal regulations regarding the prevention of odours from federally-licensed cannabis producers.”