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Newshawk: Carey Ker
Pubdate: Fri, 22 Dec 2000
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2000, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Campbell Clark


Ottawa - The federal government's first legal supply of marijuana will come from high-tech greenhouses hundreds of metres below the ground in an unused portion of a copper and zinc mine near the remote community of Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Health Canada announced Thursday that biotechnology firm Prairie Plant Systems, of Saskatoon, won the first government contract to legally produce marijuana for medical purposes, in a five-year, $5.7-million deal.

The high-tech, subterranean growing environment, normally used to keep in the genetically modified seeds and pollen of plants grown for pharmaceutical purposes, was in part chosen because it will keep potential pot thieves out.  "In this case, it's for the two-legged biological control," said Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems.

The awarding of the contract solves a conundrum for the government, which had seen courts in Ontario and Alberta strike down marijuana laws because they did not allow for medical use, but had not yet identified a legal supplier.

However, Health Canada officials gave no indication whether Canada's relatively stringent policy on medical marijuana, which now allows only patients in clinical studies and about 140 people with medical exemptions to use marijuana legally, would be loosened.

Medical marijuana proponents said that unless those policies are made less restrictive, they will continue to challenge the current drug laws in court.

Under the contract, Prairie Plant Systems, will supply at least 1,865 kilograms of marijuana in cigarette and dried-leaf form.  That means the marijuana will cost just over $3 per gram, less than a third of the $10-15 street price.

The first delivery to the government will not take place for a year, however, and Health Canada official said they have not yet decided how they will distribute the drug to patients who use it under a doctor's orders, or whether those patients will pay.

Judy Gomber, the director-general of Health Canada's Drug Strategy and Controlled Substances Program, said they are considering whether it will be distributed through pharmacies, delivered or made available through government offices.

"We imagine we have a few months to take into account the distribution details," she said.

However, some marijuana activists said the government will have to do a lot more to avoid fresh legal battles.

Marc-Boris St-Maurice, the leader of the Marijuana Party who was arrested for selling marijuana at Montreal's Compassion Club, where the drug is sold to those who bring a note from a doctor, said the government must widen its exemption system to allow any patient with a doctor's prescription to obtain the drug.

He noted that earler this month, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench gave Grant Krieger, a Calgary man who suffers from a chronic disease of the nervous system, the right to grow marijuana for his own use, even though he does not have a government medical exemption.

In July, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down criminal laws banning marijuana possession, but gave the government one year to revise the law to allow for medical use of the drug.

"The government has reacted in a very short-sighted way.  They haven't addressed the issue of doctors and prescriptions," Mr.  St-Maurice said.  "They haven't tied up all the loose ends.  They're far from being done with us."

The government's proposal to provide the marijuana in cigarette form also came under fire from an antismoking group, Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, who criticized the government for planning to distribute marijuana in cancer-causing form when smoke-free forms, like marijuana brownies, could have been tried.

Prairie Plant Systems beat out 34 other bidders for the medical marijuana contract, a deal that will require them to provide two types of marijuana with controlled levels of THC, the ingredient that causes intoxicating effects.  A regular strain will always be five to six per cent THC, while a placebo strain for clinical tests will have less than 0.1 per cent THC.

The company, founded in 1988 with a plan to produce Saskatoon Berry trees for farming, branched out into carefully controlled plant biotechnology including producing plants for ingredients in drugs to fight diseases like cancer, Mr.  Zettel said.

Since 1991, it has produced specialized plants in a mine owned by Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting, and will grow the marijuana in a similar process, he said.  Mr.  Zettl, who said he has never smoked marijuana, said the company has plant-growing expertise, but no experience with marijuana.

"But there's a lot of information on the internet," he joked.  on the Internet?

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