Canada: New Deal For Federal Pot Grower

October 12, 2006

Alex Dobrota, Globe and Mail (Canada)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have decided the study of medicinal marijuana is a waste of money, but his government is still interested in selling pot. After gutting a $4-million fund destined to research the therapeutic properties of cannabis, the Conservatives recently extended the contract of Canada's only legal grow-op.

As part of the new deal, Prairie Plant Systems Inc.  will keep growing marijuana inside an abandoned mine shaft and sell it to the government for at least one more year.

The Health Department did not disclose the terms of the contract.  Spokesman Jason Bouzanis only confirmed that an extension of the contract was approved over the past few weeks.

But in an e-mail exchange obtained by The Globe and Mail, Michel Raincourt, a senior director with the Public Works Department, wrote that the program had been extended until September, 2007.

Officials with the company, based in Flin Flon, Man., did not return calls yesterday.

The secrecy shrouding the deal surprised health professionals, legal experts and marijuana advocates who say production with no research will ultimately yield a low-grade crop.

The government's decision also left them wondering why the Health Department is interested in subsidizing a product that seems to find little popularity with patients.

"People don't want the [government's] product," said Alan Young, a lawyer who represented several medicinal pot users in their bid to have the practice legalized.

Patients have grumbled that the pot produced in Manitoba is not strong enough and is hard to light.

"It's just a general distrust of government," Mr.  Young said.  "I mean how many governments are in the business of growing marijuana?"

In 2001, the Health Department changed the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to provide an exception for medical use of marijuana.  That year, the Chretien government awarded Prairie Plant Systems a $5.7-million contract to produce marijuana for research purposes.

In 2003, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge ruled that allowing the medicinal use of pot without giving patients access to a legal supply was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And within months the Manitoba grow-op started marketing its products to the public.

About 300 customers have bought marijuana from the government since 2003, according to Health Department statistics.  But only about 90 of them bought the actual buds that sell for $150 for a 30-gram bag.

The rest of the clients decided to purchase seeds and to grow their own plants.

Mr.  Bouzanis yesterday defended the marijuana.

"The marijuana produced for the government of Canada .  .  .  is thoroughly tested and is consistent from batch to batch," he said.

But one medicinal user remained skeptical.

Philippe Lucas, who runs a Vancouver underground distribution centre for about 600 medicinal users, said he tried the government product himself, but was disappointed.

"I've had problems with the strength of the product, with the smokability of the product," said Mr.  Lucas, a hepatitis C sufferer who says he needs marijuana for appetite stimulation and pain relief.

He estimated that 10,000 medicinal users across Canada resort to underground networks to satisfy their needs.  Different patients often prefer different strains of pot, which they claim can soothe their particular conditions.

But the government produces only one variety, which is not suitable for all patients, Mr.  Lucas said.

This is where research money would come in handy, Dr.  Mark Ware said.  The McGill University researcher is the only Canadian recipient of the research grant established by the Chretien government and gutted by the Conservative government.

The $4-million cutback was part of a $2-billion spending reduction package Mr.  Harper defended in the House of Commons last month. 

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