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Newshawk: Herb
Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jun 2005
Source: CTV (Canada Web)
Copyright: 2005 CTV Inc.
Author: Kathy Tomlinson and Margo Harper
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)


Cindy Reardon lives with constant pain in her legs. The Toronto resident says she would be bedridden with a debilitating nerve condition, if it weren't for the only thing that gives her relief: medical marijuana.

Reardon is one of about 800 Canadians licensed by the federal government to buy pot through a four-year-old Health Canada experiment in growing medical marijuana. But Reardon says the stuff that Ottawa sends her is powdery and sub-standard.

"It's not potent enough," says Reardon. "Generally cannabis works for me -- this does not."

Reardon is not the only medicinal marijuana user in the country with complaints about the government grow operation. Of the 800 Canadians licensed to buy marijuana, only about 150 are currently ordering Ottawa's pot. That's because -- like Reardon -- many users say the government pot is too weak to relieve their pain. And there is also a widespread perception that the stuff may not even be safe for consumption.

"What we see is a massive level of distrust with the entire program," says Philippe Lucas of Canadians for Safe Access, an advocacy group for users of medical marijuana.

Distrust, says Lucas, because Ottawa chose one of the most polluted mine sites in the world for its experiment in producing medical marijuana.

The site is a former mine shaft on the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting property in Flin Flon, Manitoba -- about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg. And even though heavy metal tests have shown the pot is safe, many smokers simply don't want the stuff. Most of Canada's registered medical users buy their pot through the country's network of compassion clubs.

In 2001, Ottawa awarded a company called Prairie Plant Systems an experimental contract to grow pot in the old mine shaft. The program was launched with a beaming Allan Rock, then the federal health minister, touring the facility.

"It's a great operation," Rock said at the time.

But four years, and $24 million worth of taxpayers' money later, critics say Ottawa's experiment in medicinal marijuana has been a disaster.

In that time, the federal program has harvested about 1,800 kilos of pot. Almost half of that is not up to standard for human consumption, according to Health Canada. So the unmarketable pot is sitting on ice, with your tax dollars being used to study the "long term stability of the product under storage conditions."

"We keep it in storage," says Health Canada's Richard Viau. "We keep it in freezers and indeed the material that wasn't suitable for distribution we use for research."

Given the $24 million cost of Ottawa's entire medical marijuana experiment and the fact that so little pot produced in the government grow operation is reaching its intended users -- advocacy groups are calling on the government to re-think the whole thing.

"To continue to dump money down the big hole that is the Prairie Plant Systems mine, to me that is offensive," says Philippe Lucas. "It's offensive to see Health Canada and the Office of Cannabis Medical Access pretend that everything is working when they are very well aware that this program is a failure."

Current Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh defends the government grow operation.

"It always takes time when you are dealing with new issues and new substances that otherwise have not been dealt with by government," says Dosanjh. "I believe the situation has improved. The potency has improved. The grower is learning. As is the government."

In fact, CTV News has learned that Ottawa is preparing to re-tender the marijuana project when its contract with Prairie Plant Systems expires at the end of the year. But many users, like Cindy Reardon, say that government should hand the contract over to Canadians who know how to properly produce pot.

"If they are going to offer it to me, why not offer it so it can work for me, and offer it properly" says Reardon. "Put it in the hands of the master growers - people who do this for a living."

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