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Pamela Roth

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  1. And what will happen next summer when recreational cannabis becomes legal in Canada? FOR THREE YEARS, Chris Zmuda soaked in the sweet smell of success wafting from his Downtown deli, the Taste of Europe, on Douglas Street. With the help of three employees, Zmuda happily served lunches made from the Polish recipes he acquired from his home country, and built a loyal group of customers eager to feast on kapuska soup and homemade pierogies. But in March of last year, his deli turned into a cannabis sandwich thanks to the arrival of two marijuana dispensaries on either side of his business. They were 20 metres apart, even though City of Victoria regulations call for a distance of at least 400 metres between dispensaries. Only one of them has a license to operate legally. The 1400 block of Douglas Street, just down the street from City Hall, where Chris Zmuda says his deli was squeezed out of business by the smell from nearby pot shops It didn’t take long before Zmuda noticed a dramatic change in business. “The customers didn’t like it. People stopped coming because they smelled marijuana inside the store. My business went into the toilet,” said Zmuda, who approached the City numerous times about the bylaw infraction pertaining to the distance between the dispensaries. The City has taken the unlicensed dispensary to court, but a decision has yet to be made on its future. In the meantime, Zmuda decided to move his business to a location on Yates Street. It’s a move he feels he shouldn’t have had to make. “I spent my life savings to invest in providing Victorians a unique kind of food and I worked hard to establish my business,” he said. “Now I am broke because of this situation.” ZMUDA IS NOT ALONE among Downtown businesses and residents when it comes to being impacted by the area’s numerous medical marijuana dispensaries. In order to get a handle on the number of medicinal dispensaries sprouting up in Victoria, the City developed and put cannabis regulations in place in November 2016, making it the first municipality on Vancouver Island to do so. Under the regulations, businesses selling cannabis are required to go through a rezoning process, then apply for a $5000 business licence to operate legally. They also can’t be within 200 metres of a school, must be 400 metres from other permitted marijuana storefronts, and follow a number of other rules, such as no consumption on site. These rules or policies, with the exception of proximity to a school, can and have been waived by City council. Following a 60-day grace period that allowed dispensaries time to adjust to the new regulations, the City announced it would take legal action against those who failed to comply. A year later, at least 32 marijuana dispensaries are now operating in the City of Victoria. Only seven of those have been approved for business licenses and another five are in the process of getting one. According to the City, 39 rezoning applications have been submitted, but some of those are for new operations. So far council has approved 11 of those applications and 11 have been declined. Ten dispensaries have shut down, but some continue to ignore the rules, causing bylaw officers to hand out more than $135,000 in fines. The City is currently taking court action against three dispensaries and recently won its first injunction when the BC Supreme Court sided with council’s decision to deny a rezoning application to the Green Dragon Medicinal Society, which is located 155 metres from the Chinese Public School. Mayor Lisa Helps called the decision significant, noting it was the first time the City’s marijuana regulations were tested before the court. “Unless we have the legal authority of the court with an injunction, we feel we don’t have the grounds to shut them down,” said Helps. The City, she noted, is also looking at taking legal action against landlords who continue to lease space to dispensaries that won’t follow the rules. Helps admits the process isn’t perfect, but she feels the City has the right framework and so far it seems to be working. In some cases, she said council can consider variances to the separation distance of 400 metres if the dispensaries are small in size. The City’s main focus is on medicinal dispensaries that have come to council, been turned down, but continue to operate. Once the federal government officially makes recreational marijuana legal—expected in August—and the Province’s regulations around that legalization come into effect, Helps expects things will change dramatically. THOUGH A LOT OF QUESTIONS REMAIN around the coming legalization, we do know that in BC, recreational marijuana will be sold from both private and government-operated stand-alone retail stores where customers will need to be at least 19. The BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) will be the sole, wholesale distributor of non-medical cannabis for the Province while the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch will be given the responsibility to license and oversee private stores. An early registration process for those interested in applying for a cannabis retail licence will be launched this spring. Helps is confident that when the Province becomes the wholesaler and a provincial licence is needed to operate, that will make the shops that continue to ignore the City shut down right away. “The Province has way more of a hammer than we do,” she said. “I can’t wait until the rules come into effect. It would be like a liquor store being open without a provincial licence and selling liquor that people have made in their basement. It’s unthinkable.” But it may not be as simple or as clearly a provincial matter as Helps suggests. The Province won’t cap the number of retail licences available and a license won’t be issued without the support of local governments, which have the authority to make decisions based on the needs of their communities, so city councils will still be involved. Moreover, the status of the current “medicinal” retailers is still a bit murky. The federal government has said it will be reviewing the medicinal cannabis system within five years. A Health Canada spokesperson recently told CTV News it will be up to the provinces to decide whether to licence medical cannabis dispensaries separately from recreational stores. A BC government spokesperson told Focus that at this time, all dispensaries are being treated the same. Alex Robb, director and general manager of Trees Dispensary, which became the first cannabis retailer to be rezoned under the City of Victoria’s new rules, said there’s a grey area that hasn’t been covered by either the federal or provincial government’s legalization plan. Trees began as a medical cannabis storefront, but has decided to proceed with the provincial licencing framework over fears it could be shut down. “There’s a lot to lose if we were to try and go against the system even though we disagree with some of what’s included in the planned legalization. In some ways we are more vulnerable than when we started,” said Robb, who believes, like Helps, that the Province will have additional enforcement tools. “It’s a difficult and stressful time to continue to be activists working to provide access for people [with medical needs] when there’s a framework being created that we can retail cannabis to the population at large.” Some of the city’s medicinal pot shops have a large and loyal network of supporters, like the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, which has been operating at its current location at 818-826 Johnson Street for almost 17 years. The organization, unlike most of the cannabis shops, has a consumption lounge on site; it had been granted an exemption to an on-site consumption ban in 2016. In January it went through a public hearing for a rezoning application at which numerous supporters turned up. Even though there are two approved dispensaries already operating within 400 metres, it was approved by City council. Most councillors cited the Cannabis Buyers Club’s longevity and that it had gone unnoticed for many years to justify their support for it, despite the proximity to other cannabis shops. The outcome, however, wasn’t without its detractors. One woman, who lives in a new condo building near the Cannabis Buyers Club and rents space for an art studio next to it, told council, “I don’t want to debate the ethics of cannabis, however, I think this location is different because the smell is atrocious outside and inside the building. It makes it very difficult for me to take people in [the studio].” VICTORIA POLICE, although they monitor the pot shops, won’t get involved unless they believe they are contributing to violent crime or seriously disrupting the surrounding community. Police Chief Del Manak said the current medicinal dispensaries become a priority only when officers receive information that organized crime is involved, if they’re dealing to youth, if they’re disruptive to the public peace, or if it’s advertised that clients don’t need a medical reason to purchase the drug. “The operation of a storefront cannabis retail business is contrary to federal law and is therefore subject to investigation and prosecution at any time,” said Manak. “However, given the unusual circumstances surrounding access to cannabis, including various court decisions regarding access to ‘medical’ cannabis and the federal government’s stated commitment to the legalization of non-medical cannabis, the Victoria Police Department has determined that at a strategic level, our approach to enforcement of cannabis storefront operations will take a variety of factors into account.” In January 2017, police raided Remedy Medicinals on Fisgard Street after 30 pounds of marijuana was discovered on a Helijet flight a few weeks earlier. The 23-year-old owner of the dispensary was later charged with possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking. Police cited the transport via commercial aircraft as a concern that potentially put the public, passengers, and crew at risk. Chris Zmuda could be forgiven for pointing out that many of the current shops contain enough cannabis to put neighbouring businesses at risk. With his Taste of Europe now on Yates Street, he doesn’t have any cannabis shops in his building—or even the same block. Yet. But who knows what will happen after the coming legalization of recreational cannabis. A journalist since 2003, Pamela has spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in western Canada, including the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Sun. An avid traveller, Pamela also specializes in travel writing and recently published a true crime book, Deadmonton.
  2. Unintended consequences of Airbnbs are leading to new measures to deal with the loss of housing stock. FOR $138 PER NIGHT, one can stay in a luxury two-bedroom condo in the heart of downtown Victoria. Located on Humboldt Street, the condo is within walking distance to a number of amenities and popular attractions. It’s also fully equipped with a concierge. But the condo is not a hotel; it’s a residential building where many residents no longer know their neighbour. Instead, they see a string of new faces passing through the halls each week, people arriving late at night, making noise, not knowing where to go, or the rules of the building. Many are fed up with living in one of the city’s many “ghost hotels.” “Living in the Downtown core, people always have safety and security issues and that’s kind of the impetus for people starting to question ‘why am I seeing strangers in and out of my building all the time?’” said Downtown resident Eric Ney, who’s part of a citizens coalition that’s trying to better regulate short-term rentals (STRs). He believes the vast majority of Downtown condo buildings have STRs operating in them—and this is borne out by websites advertising them. He notes that about half a dozen strata councils have now brought in bylaws that restrict the short-term use altogether. “Unless the strata council takes action to bring in bylaws to essentially make STRs illegal, operators are just going to go ahead and do that,” added Ney. The Janion, where nearly half of its 120 suites are used as short-term rentals CONDO BUILDINGS WERE ENCOURAGED DOWNTOWN to bring in more full-time residents who would presumably help maintain a healthy core. The City of Victoria allowed all buildings within the “transient zone” (areas allowing hotels, motels, vacation rentals and bed and breakfast accommodation) to host condos that could be rented out by their individual owners, likely never imagining the disruptive blossoming of a new vacation rental industry. With people able to rent out a suite for $165 per night, they can earn a substantial amount during the tourist season alone—often enough to out-price a year-round long-term renter. As a result, STRs have become a significant factor behind a rental vacancy rate that won’t budge from around 0.5 percent—the lowest in the country—despite the abundance of new developments built over the past half a dozen years. Due to STRs, many Downtown condo units that might otherwise have been rented out to local residents sit empty most days of the year. A recent City of Victoria report states there are close to 1,500 unique listings of STRs, with the bulk of them located Downtown. In order to prevent precious long-term housing units from being gobbled up for brief stays, Victoria City council started looking at ways to regulate STRs. Last fall it finally took action when a new set of rules was approved that include prohibiting STRs for less than 30 days in transient zones and no longer allowing them in new Downtown developments. A grandfather clause stipulates that property owners who already legally operate STRs as a business will be allowed to continue, but will lose that status if they are not operating for a six-month period. The only new STRs that will be allowed will be within the principle residence of the owner—one or two bedrooms in houses or condos. All operators will also have to purchase a business licence. The next item of business to be decided is what the City of Victoria will charge STR operators for that business licence. City staff proposed a fee of $200 for a principal residence that rents out a bedroom—and $2,500 per year for a unit that is not one’s principal residence. Besides the fees, STR operators would have to comply with a list of operating requirements such as getting a letter of approval from the strata council. The framework also calls for an enforcement strategy that involves a third-party monitoring service to identify STR addresses and non-compliant operators. The City recently found that many aren’t following the rules by operating outside of transient accommodation zones. According to the staff report, the proposed fees were developed to recover the costs of administering the program (including the third-party monitoring), level the playing field between STR operators and traditional accommodation providers, and ensure operators pay a fee commensurate with revenue generated. But after considerable pushback from operators, officials are now collecting more data and considering alternative fee structures, including a flat fee that all STR operators would pay, regardless of the type of unit. (“The majority of feedback received was from STR operators or individuals employed in the industry,” states the staff report.) Councillor Ben Isitt introduced the motion of STR regulations at council, pointing out that “These buildings were built, approved in this chamber, with people believing they were going to be ordinary, residential condominium buildings…We’ve found these buildings have evolved into something very different.” Councillor Geoff Young has heard from a number of unhappy residents living in ghost hotels and can’t help but sympathize with them. He’d like to see the proposed business licence fees start low and escalate over the years. What council would really like to see, he noted, are changes in the provincial legislation regarding the classification of those units. Hotel rooms are classified as commercial while STR accommodation is classified as residential, he explained. It’s important because commercial users pay three times the property tax that residential users do. Besides providing greater fairness among hosts, new property tax regulations would be fairer to the City. As Young explained, “We’ve been losing real hotel rooms once paying commercial property tax rates…at the same time that this Airbnb use has been burgeoning. The Airbnbs are paying much lower taxes than the hotels and we would like to see a fair, even playing field with everybody who’s operating a hotel paying the same taxes.” Another big change council would like to see is the grandfathering done on a unit-by-unit basis instead of building-by-building. “If a unit continues to be used for STRs, that’s fine, but you can’t take other units in the same building that have been used for residential accommodation and transfer them into STRs,” said Young. KEN HANCOCK LIVES IN THE JANION BUILDING where nearly half of the 120 suites are used as STRs. But he likes it that way—it’s one of the reasons he made the purchase, noting it’s the same story for many property owners in the building. Most of them, he said, either live Up-Island or in Vancouver and purchased their property as a place to retire or stay whenever they come to Victoria. Besides being the strata council president, Hancock also works as a concierge for a select group of condo owners in the Janion to assist travellers coming and going from various suites. Sometimes he feels like he’s living in a hotel, but he knows most of his neighbours and loves meeting new people from around the world. As for the proposed $2,500 business licence fee that could soon be required to continue operating many of the STRs at the Janion, Hancock shakes his head. “You have a group of people who specifically bought, invested and set up these little micro businesses because they were legal. The zoning has been in place since 1994,” said Hancock, who believes most people will keep their place if they don’t want to pay the fee, but won’t use it for long-term rentals. “They specifically bought it because of the Downtown location and as a retreat from their regular home. It’s for their use much more than an investment. Everybody I deal with is quite happy to have some sort of regulation as the industry matures and that’s not a bad thing. It just needs to be recognized that these are, for the most part, micro businesses.” But for Eric Ney, the proposed rules are a good first step. He’s pleased to see that STR owners must get permission from the strata in order to get a business licence, but he’d also like to see the elimination of STRs in multi-dwelling buildings. A strata council, however, is not likely to be able to disallow STRs or put strong bylaws into place if a good portion of owners are engaged in the practice themselves—like those at the Union in Victoria’s Chinatown where about half of the 130 units are used as STRs. Johanna Merth has lived in the Union for three years and noticed at the last AGM that those who own multiple units in the building, but do not live there, are able to vote en masse on issues that impact permanent residents. One person who owns multiple units, but doesn’t live in the building, holds a position on strata, which doesn’t sit well with Merth. “They are voting on issues that may not affect them directly, but affect their business prospects. As a resident and owner in a building, that’s a problem. I think some people who run business operations can sometimes forget there are people who live there full time,” said Merth, who didn’t realize the impacts of STRs when she purchased her condo. “It’s brutal. It does affect the culture. When I look out at night, I just see a wall of black windows because it’s not peak season so people aren’t renting the units. This is altering the structure of our city.” What impact the City’s new regulations will have on long-term rental housing remains to be seen. But with an expected growth of 20,000 residents by 2041, the City of Victoria needs an additional 13,500 apartment units and 2,700 ground floor homes sooner than later (as per Victoria’s Official Community Plan). Privately-owned condos are an important source of housing, including rental housing—they represent almost 14 percent of the total rental units in Victoria. But the City is slowly making strides. Since Victoria’s Housing Strategy was approved in June, 25 action items to improve housing affordability have been achieved, leading to an increase in the number of rental and non-market housing units developed and retained in the City (590 rental units are now under construction). There are, however, still a number of issues left to tackle in order to get a grip on the growing housing crisis. STRs are just one piece of a complicated puzzle. In early 2018, council will be presented with options for business licence fees, along with the short-term rental business regulation bylaw and amendments to the zoning bylaw. The new rules would come into effect shortly after. A journalist since 2003, Pamela has spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in western Canada, including five years at the Edmonton Sun. An avid traveller, Pamela also specializes in travel writing and recently published a true crime book called Deadmonton.
  3. The organization appears to offer addicts a needed route to recovery, while preserving farmland. What’s the hold up? RYAN COLWELL WAS ONCE ON THE FAST TRACK TO DEATH. Addicted to heroin and fentanyl, the former Surrey resident found himself living on the streets of Victoria at the age of 24, bouncing from shelter to shelter for a place to lay his head. Every day was the same routine—search for more drugs and money, which he’d steal and rob from people in order to get his next fix. “It’s pretty sad,” said the soft-spoken Colwell, sitting on a pile of hay bales at Central Saanich’s Woodwynn Farms. “You do whatever you have to do. You just want to be blissful.” Eventually, friends and family lost their patience, and cut ties with Colwell’s drug-fuelled life. He started seeking fentanyl to get high, even though he knew the dangers of using the deadly and highly-addictive opioid that’s 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 times more potent than OxyContin. Even one dose can be fatal. So far this year (October, 2017), 1,013 people have died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in BC compared to 547 deaths at the same time last year. Fentanyl was detected in more than 80 percent of the deaths—an increase of 151 percent over the same period in 2016. Colwell never overdosed on fentanyl, but has seen plenty of people who have. He just never thought it would happen to him. “You see people around you die, but you think that you’re not going to die because ‘I don’t do as much’ or ‘I don’t shoot it with a needle,’” said Colwell, who’s watched many acquaintances receive multiple injections of naloxone—a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. “It’s scary, but you’re mostly scared for that person. You think they’re going to die.” Battling his addiction since the age of 18, following the death of his father, Colwell has been in and out of numerous treatment facilities, but none of the tools he learned from them ever stuck long- term. Last January, sick of life on the street, he wound up living at Woodwynn Farms, waking up every day at 5 a.m., slinging hay bales to feed the livestock, and whatever else is required among the lengthy list of daily chores. The 193-acre organic farm has been operating for eight years now, providing those struggling with addictions, homelessness or mental health challenges with a therapeutic community that gives them the tools needed to integrate back into society. Those who come to the farm are mainly men, ranging in age from 19 to 60, and stay for an average of 18 months. Although the facility has attracted a large crew of volunteers, and thousands of donors, service clubs and church groups to help out, it’s still trying to get fully off the ground, due to an eight-year battle between the Creating Homefulness Society (Woodwynn’s operator) and municipal authorities over the housing and operations of the farm. Woodwynn Farms' Richard Leblanc (Photo by Pamela Roth) RICHARD LEBLANC, WOODWYNN’S FOUNDER and executive director, worked as a contractor for much of his career, but couldn’t help notice that Victoria’s homeless problem was spiraling out of control. Feeling like there had to be a better solution, he stumbled upon a free therapeutic community in Italy called San Patrignano, which has become the largest therapeutic work community in the world with 1,800 participants at a time. In 30 years, San Patrignano has helped more than 20,000 people. Seventy percent of them are still drug-free years later. “Everybody has something meaningful and purposeful to do here every day,” said Leblanc about Woodwynn. “Over and over again you’re watching people that might die. You help them out and they move on with their life.” Each day begins with a morning yoga session at 5:45 a.m., followed by a healthy breakfast from food grown on the farm, then a group meeting. The rest of the day is spent tending to the daily duties of running a farm that has 400 livestock consisting of chickens, cows and pigs; food crops (60 different fruits and vegetables); and a woodworking shop that’s helped spruce up the property immensely. The goods created there, which range from salad dressings, jams, pickled zucchini, soaps and herbal teas to meat and produce, are sold in a market at the farm, providing what Leblanc calls an “incredible showcase” of what those who work there can do. But it’s only scratching the surface of the farm’s potential. Most of the property is currently used to grow hay, noted Leblanc, who wants to use more of those hay fields for even more food crops and livestock, with a small portion devoted to housing farm workers. A dozen donated recreational vehicles for housing are parked in a meadow on the farm, but only eight people can be housed on the property at a time, due to Central Saanich zoning restrictions. In mid-September, four people were living at the farm, but the average is closer to eight. Leblanc’s vision is to house 96 people at a time, who would arrive through a gradual process in order to build the necessary staff and management required. First they detox for seven to nine days at Royal Jubilee Hospital, and then go to Woodwynn, as long as they’re willing to commit to the farm’s long-term abstinence-based program for a minimum of 90 days. Leblanc has worked with an architect to design a cluster of eight small dorm buildings (housing up to 15 each), along with a communal dining room that will sit on 1.5 acres (.08 percent) of the large site so it wouldn’t detract from the amount of land available for farming. But first he needs a zoning permit from the municipality in order to proceed. Despite the society’s commitment to farming, some people and politicians are still firmly opposed to Woodwynn. Central Saanich council has refused to amend bylaws to permit the facilities necessary to house the labour force needed to grow more produce, and has even taken the matter to BC Supreme Court. Effort is now being made to settle the matter out of court. Most recently, council requested that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) review the Society’s application for temporary housing for up to 40 farm workers, to ensure it is consistent with uses allowed on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The matter remains under review by the committee, with no timeline set for the decision. And the final outcome still lies in the hands of council, which rejected the society’s 2012 application to the ALC to spot-rezone a couple of acres for housing. CENTRAL SAANICH MAYOR RYAN WINDSOR has been watching the matter unfold ever since he was elected to council in 2013. He understands the concerns around the opioid crisis, but noted the issue at Woodwynn simply revolves around land use. According to Windsor, the municipality has communicated many times that farming is the primary purpose of that land, and it’s what he believes it should be used for as well. Windsor acknowledges the Society’s plans to increase farming on the Woodwynn property, but noted the problem still lies with the number of people the organization wants to house. Regardless of what the ALC recommends, he suspects the application will likely lead to a public consultation process. When that could happen is anybody’s guess. “Agricultural land has a very specific use and we want to see it used for productive farming. It wasn’t reserved for housing or other uses,” said Windsor, noting it’s up to Woodwynn to gather support from the community—something that will be seen when the matter proceeds to public consultation.“It’s important when you have a significant piece of land like this that farming remains the primary use and a couple of acres for housing and therapeutic activities that maybe are beyond farming, I don’t think are in the spirit of the agricultural land use. I think most of my council feels that way too.” Comprising just five percent of BC’s total land base, the ALR is a provincial land use zone where agriculture is the priority use, but regulations do not require the farmland to be farmed. ALR regulations also stipulate any housing “must be necessary for farm use,” but what’s seen as “necessary” is influenced by what the local authority advises. About 60 percent of the land base in Central Saanich is designated as farmland. But how much of that is actually farmed? Central Saanich’s CAO told Focus they do not track such usage, but a 2011 report by the Agricultural Area Plan Steering Committee District of Central Saanich noted that “The farmland base used for crops, other than tame hay, represented less than 30 percent of the total farm area. About 21 percent of the farms did not have any land in crops and were kept in tame seeded pasture, natural pasture, woodlands and wetlands.” Over half of the cropped area, it stated, “is in tame hay grown for the local livestock and equine feed market.” The 2011 report spelled out the pressures leading to a “deteriorating” use of farmland, and made a number of recommendations. Key among them was reducing non-agricultural demand for farmland by limiting the size of housing through bylaw amendment and other disincentives to non-farm use. Central Saanich has never done that, though maximum heights of structures on agricultural land are specified. Though focused on the Lower Mainland, a May 2017 Postmedia investigation explains why such disincentives are important as farmland crucial to BC’s future food needs is “increasingly falling into the hands of speculators and builders of luxury property.” Stories of huge houses—often 12,000-square-feet-and-up—abound on farmland in the Richmond area. With minimal effort, such investors (showing $2500 in farm revenue) claim major (often 50 percent) tax breaks, which are prompting politicians to look for ways to crack down on the trend of farmland being used for trophy estates. Meanwhile, Leblanc feels Woodwynn has already bucked the trend: Since the Creating Homefulness Society took over Woodwynn’s 193 acres, more food crops are coming off its land than in previous decades. THIS YEAR THE PROVINCE IS ON PACE to lose more than 1,500 people to drug overdoses, compared with an average of about 200 from 2000 to 2010. Last year there were more than 900 overdose deaths, with fentanyl at the root of the epidemic. Victoria is among the three cities in BC experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses this year, with 65 deaths recorded so far this year. A supervised injection site, to be located on Pandora Avenue next to Our Place, was recently given the green light from Health Canada, but won’t begin services until the spring or summer of 2018. Four overdose prevention sites have been set up in the meantime and continue to be heavily used, but they don’t provide any treatment. Victoria police started noticing fentanyl creep into the city’s drug culture in 2012, and now officers see it on a daily basis. Staff Sargeant Conor King said the drug seems to be replacing heroin as the opioid that’s available on the street due to its powerful, euphoric affect that users are becoming accustomed to. Drug dealers are also seeing there are profits to be made, since fentanyl is relatively easy to procure. One of the most concerning things for King is that the drug is now being detected in samples of other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but the user is likely unaware it’s there. In response to the crisis—King believes it will only get worse—police are now targeting dealers selling the deadly drug. Those who go through the court system are also getting slapped with tougher sentences. A recent investigation by Vancouver police resulted in a 14-year prison sentence for trafficking fentanyl. “Every two to three weeks we are laying new charges in our ongoing fentanyl operations plan, so it’s a regular occurrence. We have a good basis of knowledge for who the traffickers are on the South Island,” said King. “Where we get frustrated is that we will arrest one trafficker and incarcerate them, but another trafficker will fill the void. Where we feel there is some light at the end of the tunnel is there has been some very stiff sentences handed out in BC.” As police and paramedics continue the fight against fentanyl on the front lines, addicts keen on transforming their lives are still left with few options. A handful of detox facilities exist in the capital region, but they only last for a week or so. The only long-term recovery programs are privately run and can cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach for those eking out an existence on city streets. Seeing a need for more solutions, Our Place Society is proposing to set up a long-term, live-in, locked-down treatment centre for addiction and chronic homelessness at the former youth custody centre in View Royal. The facility is owned by BC Housing and is currently being used as temporary housing for the homeless, but it’s slated to shut down at the end of the year. According to Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie, the society plans to model the proposed centre after the same therapeutic community program in Italy as Woodwynn does, housing up to 50 men at a time for a minimum of 12 months and up to two years. The facility already has a gymnasium, a woodworking shop and an art room, which could allow for some social enterprise. The days will be busy, with various programs taking place to change criminal thinking and street mentality so people have a higher chance of success. Some participants could also be bussed to Woodwynn to work on the farm during the day. The plan is to have the facility up and running by early 2018, but the matter has yet to go to View Royal’s council for rezoning. So far McKenzie said that council has been supportive about the proposal, along with the provincial government, which would provide funding for operations during the first seven years. DESPITE THE HURDLES HE CONTINUES TO FACE, Leblanc feels a facility like Woodwynn is needed more than ever, as the ballooning homeless and opioid crises continue to show no sign of slowing any time soon. Every day he receives calls from people in despair about the risk of losing their loved one. He’d like to help, but continues to be challenged with the number of people Woodwynn can accommodate, due to government restrictions. Leblanc received pushback from some neighbours at the get-go, even though police have only been called to the property twice to deal with two minor incidents involving program participants over its eight years. But he feels like he’s gaining support, noting some key people at the provincial level are doing their best to make things happen. “It’s frustrating. The doors should be flying open. People should be tripping all over themselves to rewrite zoning, to rewrite bylaws and [issue] permits to make the obvious rational decision of helping us in any way possible to bring more people here,” said Leblanc, noting the services are free, depending on an individual’s financial situation. “We have a solution to an enormous public health crisis and we are not being allowed to even give it a try.” Current Woodwynn worker/resident Ryan Colwell admits life on the farm, with its structured routines and hard physical labour, hasn’t been easy. But after watching many of his acquaintances overdose and die from fentanyl, he knows staying at Woodwynn is necessary if he wants to save his life. “Conquering any addiction is hard work,” said Colwell, who’s not sure he would have been ready for it a couple of years ago. He understands that “there is no magic pill, no special fix. You have to find a different way to cope and to live.” Now, after nine months at Woodwynn, he feels he has never been in as good shape physically, emotionally or mentally, though he said he still has a lot of soul-searching to do. “There’s a lot of solidarity, peacefulness, just being in the moment and being okay with that. It’s always been go-go-go, excitement and chaos for me. You have to be super-willing to change and put in the work.” Woodwynn is giving him the space, time and training needed to do just that. A journalist since 2003, Pamela has spent the bulk of her career covering court and crime for various newspapers in western Canada, including five years at the Edmonton Sun. An avid traveller, Pamela also specializes in travel writing and recently published a true crime book called Deadmonton. Editor’s Update: On November 9, 2018, Woodwynn Farm’s application to house up to 40 worker/rehabilitation participants on its 193-acre property was denied by the Agricultural Land Commission. The Commission’s executive committee, led by Frank Leonard, stated: “Based on the current and proposed agricultural activity…the Executive Committee finds that the level of agricultural production, both current and proposed, is insufficient to justify the placement of 40 farm worker accommodations. Furthermore, the Executive Committee finds that the addition of 40 farm worker accommodations would increase the residential footprint and non-farm based infrastructure on prime agricultural land that is currently in production.” It also noted that “the Proposal could be located on lands outside of the ALR.” As noted in Pamela Roth’s Focus article, Woodwynn’s proposal for housing only involved 1.5 acres of the 193-acre property. A prime purpose of the Creating Homefulness Society is to offer therapeutic rehabilitation to people recovering from addictions and homelessness—and it does this by engaging them in farming the land. In a press release after the ruling, Richard Leblanc stated: “As the founder of this project, I cannot quite articulate my oh-so-deep level of disappointment. While our Board of Directors and our core funders are somewhat at their wits end, my own resolve is only temporarily shaken. Daily, our phones ring and our email inboxes fill with desperate requests for help.” He referred to the latest record-breaking number of overdoses in BC: 1,100 as of the end of September for 2017. It seems worth noting that if the Creating Homefulness Society gave up their fight to provide a sorely needed rehabilitation program and sold the Woodwynn property, the ALC would be powerless to stop a new buyer from completely ignoring all the farming (and rehabilitative) potential of the land and merely using it as a trophy estate. This has happened to many properties in the Agricultural Land Reserve. The complete ruling of the ALC is here: ALC ruling on Woodwynn Farms.pdf
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