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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Big Weed's distancing act

Cannasat's biz meet stokes pharma-pot threat to compassion clubs

By MATT MERNAGH
NOW Magazine (Toronto)

With feds expanding their legal dope op, med pot users fear Health Canada will wipe out licensed grow-your-own options.

I arrive at U of T's Massey College prepared to celebrate five years of Health Canada's Marijuana Medical Access Regulations stoner-style. Alas, our hosts, Cannasat Therapeutics, are hoity-toity wine sippers.

Lucky for me I wore my Goodwill white tuxedo jacket. The finger-food sampling at this November 2 investor seminar for the company, which hopes to market cannabis pharmaceuticals, is fantastic. But I'm barely able to nibble the shrimp skewers and smoked salmon puffs because I haven't had time to take my marijuana meds.

It's a delicious irony that sparking a med doobie would be frowned upon here. The fact is, while Cannasat Therapeutics celebrates its successes making use of Health Canada's med marijuana program (it's part owner of the company that holds the feds' sole growing contract), folks using legally ambiguous compassion clubs live in fear.

Still, the happenings here are intriguing. It's certainly the first time I've listened to speakers yak about cannabinoids, CBDs and tetrahydracannabinol without puff-puff-passing. But throughout the proceedings, my horribly arthritic back keeps intruding on my attention.

McGill University Health Centre research director Dr. Mark Ware explains that "we have THC receptors all over our bodies. They are working in all of you right now. If we play around with them we can create an effect such as hunger, pain relief or tremor control."

Cannasat Therapeutics' scientific affairs VP Umar Syed declares, "CBD is a very exciting molecule. It's very effective against schizophrenia." Then his amazing revelation: cannabis is "treating cancer and shrinking tumours." Cannasat Therapeutics, he say, has patented technology to deliver the plant in a form doctors will prescribe. "We think this is the bandwidth to be on."

Brent Zettl, prez of Prairie Plant Systems, the Manitoba-based company partially owned by Cannasat that produces for Health Canada's med pot program, takes the podium. Zettl boasts that the feds have asked him to increase production by 80 per cent not exactly good news for the med-cannabis community, which fears HC is eliminating the grow-your-own option for licensed users, forcing everyone to purchase one strain of pot medicine from one company.

Currently, PPS supplies only 247 licensed med marijuana users from an operation buried under Manitoba's Trout Lake. Unlike most growers, who like to boast of their farming secrets, Zettl reveals very little: no mention of feeding schedule, kind of nutrients (organic or chemical), growth cycle, whether it's soil or hydroponic, or the cannabis cloning process.

Instead, we get "This is the cola" and "We call these lower branches tweeder buds.''

It's info every grade nine science student who's read Ask Ed knows, and every one of them could grow better pot than PPS's, which, though it's improving, doesn't rate with compassion club stuff.

Zettl blames PPS's product problems on the feds' contract and the RCMP. The company, he says, has been told by Health Canada to use only one plant, but they are lobbying for the right to grow different strains. "We're encouraging more variety," he says.

Cannasat chair Moses Znaimer invites the gathering to tour PPS's biosecure underground growth chambers. "If you can ever visit, it's a trip," like there's a daily 4:20 tour. Funny, I asked Health Canada for a media invite and was denied permission. Guess it's only for shareholders.

I'm also a little put out by the fact that when Znaimer speaks, he uses the term "social change" instead of "legalization.'' And when he wraps up by introducing some of the dignitaries in the room, including his own family physician, he makes no mention of respected Toronto Compassion Centre funder and hemp entrepreneur Dom Cramer, who's sitting with me in the third row.

I'm struck by the way prohibition prevents compassion folks from engaging in the very same dialogue and marketing that Cannasat Therapeutics monopolizes.

Afterwards, during the schmooze, the one-time Citytv mogul gives a feisty interview. He jabs at my suggestion that he's been catering to the cannabis community for 30-something years by means of the station's nighttime programming. "I'm about social change," he tells me. "My motive is a social science pursuit. The business guys are in it for the business; I'm a social activist."

Znaimer seems surprised by the idea that I'm managing my horrific arthritic pain so well. That's because I'm working hard to cast off my inner disabled dude for an imaginative, sociable stoner. Maybe I should have shown up in my sickly flannel garb stinking of illness.

He informs me, "If you have pain, [pot] is something that takes your mind off it. Sick people have to have access to it."

True, but "you're the only one who can wear the 'legal dealer' T," I tell him. And the more important his company becomes, the stronger the possibility Health Canada will disallow legal grow-your-owners and the department of justice will use the supposed supply solution to crack down on compassion clubs.

Znaimer responds bluntly that if med users get grass from the black market, "they overpay. Ours is $5 a gram versus $15 a gram." Either his market research is wack or a dealer is righteously ripping him off. Quality-consistent med cannabis is priced at $6 to $9 a gram.

"You don't get social change without investment," he tells me. "More and more companies are engaging in this space. As you know, the first through the door doesn't naturally win. Participation of credible companies will change the legal status through widespread use."

One would think 15,000 toking at Queen's Park demonstrates widespread use, and thousands using compassion clubs shows that people want many avenues of legal choice. And that's probably the one thing Znaimer and I agree on: med users need a marketplace.

LTE Contact: letters@nowtoronto.com

NOW Magazine



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