Friday, February 03, 2006

Getting the dope on hydroponic shoppers

The Globe and Mail

Chilliwack wants to know who's buying products that could be used to grow marijuana

VANCOUVER -- The name, address and date of birth of anyone who shops at a hydroponic store in Chilliwack, even if only to buy some fertilizer for a home garden, may soon be entered in a police database if a controversial bylaw is passed by its city council.

The bylaw is aimed at helping police shut down marijuana-growing operations.

The provisions, which permit police to enter hydroponic stores without a warrant, are being criticized by the provincial Privacy Commissioner and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. As well, the hydroponic industry says it is being unfairly targeted and effectively being asked to be police agents.

City council has called a public information meeting for Monday night to debate the bylaw, which would require any store identified as a "dealer of hydroponics equipment, drug paraphernalia or iodine" to acquire a licence from the city. The cost of the licence is $1,000 annually and subject to the approval of the RCMP.

Paraphernalia is defined broadly as "materials of any kind," which may be used to plant, propagate, cultivate, harvest, store or "otherwise introduce into the human body" an illegal drug.

Plant food, propagation trays and indoor lights are some of the items that could be considered drug paraphernalia under the bylaw definition.

Photo identification is required to purchase any product that fits the definition. The hydroponics store must then record the customer's name, address and birthdate, details about the identification, and all the products that have been purchased. This information is to be transmitted electronically to the RCMP "immediately after the purchase occurs."

The regulations unfairly criminalize the hydroponics industry, said Fonda Betts, president and co-founder of Allie's Wholesale Garden Supply Ltd. in Langley.

Ms. Betts, whose company has an international base of clients, said 90 per cent of food products in the world are grown with hydroponics, from large-scale operations to private organic-vegetable gardens. Many of the items covered by the bylaw definition can be used for legitimate crops, she said.

Hydroponics is very specialized, and smaller hydroponics operations offer a level of knowledge and service "that you don't get at a big-box store," she said.

Don Marsden, who sells hydroponic equipment at his garden centre in Chilliwack, said his clients include the local orchid society.

"I am not going to ask for their date of birth; they might slap me in the face," he said.

He also expressed concern about being required to collect information about his customers. "Are they going to give me a gun and a badge too?" asked Mr. Marsden, who suggested the logic behind the bylaw could extend to asking lingerie stores to collect data on customers to crack down on prostitution.

"The state should not be conscripting members of the public to spy on other members of the public. That was already tried in the Soviet Union," said Jason Gratl, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis said yesterday he has written to Chilliwack City Council and is asking it to conduct a privacy-impact assessment.

He also questioned the effectiveness of the bylaw. "The bad guys are just going to get fake ID," he said.

The Chilliwack bylaw is similar to regulations in many municipalities that require pawn shops to collect customer data and forward the information to police.

There are continuing court challenges to these regulations in New Westminster and Oshawa, Ont., and Mr. Loukidelis said "co-opting private citizens to compile information for private citizens" is part of a broader concern for privacy commissioners.

But Sharon Gaetz, a Chilliwack city councillor, said: "If you are a legitimate business person then you have nothing to fear."

"Our intention is not to infringe on people's privacy rights. We are trying to protect the public," said Ms. Gaetz, who referred to an RMCP-commissioned study that said Chilliwack had the second highest number of marijuana grow ops in B.C.

The bylaw "has gone through a vigorous legal vetting," said Ms. Gaetz, who predicted it would withstand any court challenge.

By Shannon Kari


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