MARIJUANA GOES LEGIT
Interest is high in Ottawa's plan to license growers of cannabis for medical research
The town of Grand Forks, B.C., sits primly along the Kettle River, casting a glance south past the Selkirk Mountains to Washington state, just 2.5 km away. It is the heart of a bucolic community of 10,000 people, farmers and forestry workers, roughly halfway between Vancouver and the Alberta border. Along the Crowsnest Highway, which cuts through town, signs tout the area's temperate climate and Doukhobor heritage: "Famous for sunshine and borscht." Now Brian Taylor, 53, a controversial former mayor, wants to see Grand Forks celebrated for something else entirely: high-grade marijuana.
Pot with impeccable pharmacological credentials. "This is going to be a big industry," he boasts.
With his company, Grand Forks Cannabis Research Institute Inc., Taylor wants to win a $5-million Canadian government tender to provide domestically grown marijuana for research.
A year ago, Health Minister Allan Rock announced a five-year plan to develop a Canadian source of medicinal marijuana.
First, scientists will evaluate the plant's reputation for increasing the appetite of AIDS patients taking nauseating medication, lessening the pain associated with glaucoma and alleviating the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Experts are establishing protocols for testing both cannabis and synthetic versions of its active ingredients. If the tests show medical benefits, Rock may allow greater legal access to marijuana.
In the absence of long-term clinical tests, information about the efficacious effects of marijuana has been anecdotal.
So far, Health Canada has received more than 230 requests from across the country for application forms to provide the high-grade marijuana required for trials.
The deadline for proposals, already delayed twice, is now June 21. Others expressing interest, besides Taylor, include Christmas-tree farmer Shannon Casey of Lake Paul, N.S.; Alfred College, an Ottawa affiliate of the University of Guelph; McGill University in Montreal; and P.E.I. Gourmet Mushrooms Ltd. in Fortune, P.E.I.
Taylor, known locally as an "old hippie," has spent 10 years researching the cultivation of marijuana's less potent cousin, hemp. He believes his Cannabis Research Institute, headquartered in a shabby mobile home on his farm just outside town, has a good chance of getting the federal nod. His proposal outlines plans to grow marijuana hydroponically in three greenhouses; hire soil specialists and lab experts; and provide the necessary strict security. "We feel the package we have put together is excellent," says Taylor. Although he lacks the science degree that Ottawa is seeking among bidders, he has three scientists on his eight-member board. The criteria also stipulate that bidders have no criminal record, and have the means to supply 100,000 standardized marijuana cigarettes with a tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC ) content between five and six per cent in the first year.
Taylor's marijuana project is gaining quiet approval in a region feeling the downside of the vagaries of the forest industry.
Bob Johnstone, acting president of the local chamber of commerce, says the area needs more economic development. "Medical research of this type will help the world," he adds. Marten Kruysse, director of economic development for the Kootenay-Boundary Region, shares that sentiment. "This would be a high-value agricultural crop," he says. "It would attract highly skilled and highly paid workers." Taylor's bid also has the endorsement of the Compassion Club of Vancouver, provider of organically grown marijuana to sufferers of AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses. "I am very supportive of the government doing research and creating a Canadian cannabis supply," says club founder Hilary Black. She opened the club three years ago after seeing marijuana alleviate the suffering of a woman in her 60s with chronic arthritis.
Black decided to supply pot to other patients who could provide medical notes from their doctors.
The Vancouver club now has 1,100 members who pay $15 a year in dues. There are similar operations in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.
A menu on the wall at the Vancouver site shows the types of marijuana available, most a combination of indica and sativa strains. ( Indica is supposed to reduce pain; sativa is reputedly better for neurological ailments. ) The menu, which changes daily, includes: Morning Glory, Frankie's Dream and Organic Outdoor Champagne, costing between $5 and $9 a gram. The grass comes from about a dozen local growers -- illegally.
And there's the rub. Although as of last week Ottawa had granted 42 Canadians, including two of Vancouver's Compassion Club members, permission to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons, many of the patients are too sick or do not have the facilities to raise a crop. Yet it remains illegal for them to buy it from another source.
Black, who has attracted the attention of police but has never been charged for trafficking, tried to help by mailing marijuana to some of the people exempted from federal drug laws. But police in Ontario have intercepted some packages, including one sent recently to Jim Wakeford, a 55-year-old Toronto AIDS patient who has spearheaded the legal fight for the medical use of marijuana. "I wouldn't be alive if I didn't use marijuana," Wakeford says. "My weight loss was so bad, but marijuana has stimulated my appetite." Finding a source of pesticide-free, inexpensive weed, however, has been almost impossible. Police have arrested two friends who tried to provide him with cannabis. "All I've been asking for," says an angry Wakeford, "is safe, clean, affordable, high-quality Canadian marijuana for medical purposes." While he welcomes Rock's initiative, years of head-butting with Ottawa have left him disillusioned. "I don't really trust the federal government," he says.
In Grand Forks, Taylor is high on the prospects of growing medicinal marijuana. If things go well, he plans to take the Cannabis Research Institute Inc. public. "In a couple of years," he says, "we could even be exporting to the U.S." That would undoubtedly create a new buzz in free trade.