Cannabis is the word of the week as the premier of the documentary two years in the making hits the airwaves tonight on CBC. The show, Cannabiz, follows the evolution of the marijuana culture and industry in the Grand Forks area from the mom and pop growers to the more criminalized elements evident today. Cannabiz highlights the different factions involved in the industry, the economic dependence of the region on this illegal product, and the conflicts that the police and RCMP face fighting a seemingly futile battle.
“CannaBiz unfolds in Grand Forks, where draft dodgers planted the first “B.C. Bud” in the 1960s. With a constantly fluctuating forestry industry, marijuana has become the backbone of the local economy. In secret forest plots, basements, barns and high-tech underground bunkers, growers nurture some of the world’s most potent bud. Most of the marijuana here, and in the rest of Canada, is destined for the United States market where a pound of premium weed sells for a street price of $4,500,” says the press information from the film’s producers Omni Film Productions Ltd.
Along with the local focus including Mayor Brian Taylor, Mel Bell and Cst. Harland Venema, the documentary explores where the whole future of marijuana is leading – will it be legalized and taxed? Or will the visions of ex-con Sam Mellace to supply medical marijuana nationally through Shoppers Drug Mart outlets become the norm?
Lionel Goddard, the film’s producer and director, fell in love with Grand Forks during the making of this revealing film. During the time he spent in the area, nearly three full months by his estimate, Goddard was able to meet a variety of people involved in growing, or moving marijuana. While many doors were opened and people in the community agreed to risk exposure in talking with Goddard, he also says many doors were not so welcoming – at one time the film crew had shots fired at them in the Sleepy Hollow area.
Goddard said he discovered that while the growing of marijuana has been a part of the economy in the Grand Forks area, and throughout the West Kootenays, for many years, he spoke with many forestry workers who have turned to grow ops as a means of survival in the lean years. “I certainly met a number of people who were forestry workers who were doing it (growing),” says Goddard. “In fact there was a sawmill just outside of Nelson where there’s a huge grow op right in the sawmill. I think for sure the young people who might have gone into the forest industry didn’t have any other options. Was there a gradual shift? I think so. That’s what the demographic information suggests. To be honest I think a lot of people they did some logging, and they did some growing. Now they’re doing a little less logging and a little more growing.”
Regional Innovation Chair at Selkirk College, George Penfold agrees that there is a significant economy in the West Kootenay / Boundary based on marijuana. He has recently completed research on the impact of the marijuana industry on the economy of the region.
“From (the information I gathered) it looks like, for the West Kootenay region, the revenues – for street value not at the grow op - that (the marijuana industry) is responsible for 15 per cent of economic activity in the area,” said Penfold. “This is significant since construction in the area accounts for less than 15 per cent as well as forestry. When this is compared to employment statistics, it is more significant than forestry and manufacturing combined.”
Penfold said that there is no move at the provincial or federal level to legalize and tax the growing industry, but that in California the growing operations, which are legal and taxed, are contributing to the state revenues enough that they will not be backtracking on their decision to legalize anytime soon.
The story focus for Cannabiz started with the idea of exploring marijuana as a big part of the rural economy in B.C. For Goddard, what was surprising was the large urban economy in the drug and the volume in the system across the country. As the story evolved Goddard found that the changes over the years, as the industry moved from a gardening focus to a criminalized production industry, was a large part of the story. Goddard has a sense that there has been a culture about the marijuana growing operations in the rural areas, and that this culture is being lost as it moves to a different level.
“The marijuana industry seemed to come under the culture of gardening,” explained Goddard. “I was surprised at the knowledge people had of the plant itself. It was like wheat. There was a matter of factness about it and it didn’t seem as incongruous as a grow op in the city. I was surprised when I scratched the surface just how large the economy was in the area.”
There’s no typical profile to the growers in the area. Goddard was able to talk with about three dozen people in the Grand Forks area (not all appear in the show) who are involved with growing. Goddard says they cross the spectrum from city workers to back-to-the-landers.
For Goddard one of the parts of the filming that stood out the most for him was the dichotomy that one of the RCMP officers, Cst. Venema, lives adjacent to Taylor, who, for a while, was a licenced grower for medical marijuana users.
“When his neighbour, Brian Taylor, got held up it was pretty dramatic,” said Goddard. “It was a turning point for Harland.”
Goddard said he does not envy the conflicting position that Venema, and fellow officers, find themselves in because the law doesn’t distinguish between the respected citizen that grows marijuana who you might also meet in the evening at an event in town. “I’m glad I don’t have to do it,” said Goddard. “Harland is a good man, exceptionally proud and I applaud his candidness with me in the film.”
As for little old Grand Forks and the possible negative impacts from a documentary highlighting its illegal industry, both Taylor and Goddard see the potential for positive repercussions. From the money drawn to the community from the filming process, to the vistas that are part of the footage including golf courses, Phoenix mountain, and other parts of the valley, Taylor sees the film as an opportunity for promotions.
“It was enlightening to see how much money is spent on a documentary,” said Taylor. “At times there were four or five technicians in the area. The idea of courting productions like this is worthwhile in and of itself. I can’t apologize for putting us out in front of the world. We’re not being painted in a poor light, we’re going to be seen as typical of small towns in transition in B.C. But we’re going to get something like nine million viewers from this. Tell me that anybody else could get us that kind of recognition. So what, I get named the marijuana mayor again for a while, it’s a good trade off at this point.”
Despite the people of the community who would just rather not address this hidden economy Goddard hopes that locals don’t feel that they have been put under a microscope in the film. His sense is that the topic can’t be avoided any longer since the move into the more criminal elements. “When you see the room full of guns that Harland shows me, those are guns from Grand Forks. If I lived there that would certainly get me interested.”
Premiering on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 9 pm PST/EST on CBC’s DOC ZONE, CannaBiz untangles the inner workings of the exploding marijuana business and raises serious questions about Canada’s drug laws. Preceding the premiere of CannaBiz, CBC’s marijuana theme night continues on “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki” with the debut of The Downside of High, a new documentary examining whether today’s strong pot is damaging young minds.