Ruling disappoints medical pot producer

January 14, 2008

Darren Bernhardt, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (Canada)

Health Canada's contract producer for medicinal marijuana fears patient safety and product quality will suffer as a result of a federal court ruling that relaxes government restrictions and allows other growers to become suppliers.

"There's all kinds of security risks. Hopefully, common sense and logic prevails sooner rather than later, for the sake of the patients," said Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems (PPS), a Saskatoon-based company that produces medical marijuana in a former mine chamber 365 metres below the surface of the earth in Flin Flon, Man.

It grows and cultivates the plant then ships it to the doors of 2,261 patients authorized by Health Canada to possess marijuana for medical purposes.

A federal court ruling released Thursday by Judge Barry Strayer struck down a key restriction in Ottawa's program, which allowed medical users to grow their own pot but prohibited them from supplying the drug to more than one other user at a time. Strayer found that to be unconstitutional, opening the door for medical marijuana users to pick their own grower. This will give those growers permission to make the drug available to dozens more people.

Ron Marzel, a Toronto lawyer representing the group of medical users who mounted the federal court challenge, called the decision a "God-send to the patients." The ruling will help establish a cottage industry where designated producers approved and licensed by Health Canada can supply 30, 40 or 50 patients, he told Canwest News Service last week. However, he expects this week to receive the Crown's notice of appeal against Strayer's ruling.

"Why would they do that? What reason do they have?" said Debbie Palm, a grower in Nipawin who uses the medicinal plant to treat her epilepsy. "If the government appeals, it is basically declaring war on the sick of this country."

Zettl sees it as exactly the opposite. By maintaining tight control, the government is protecting those individuals.

The use of marijuana as an approved medicine is still in its infancy, Zettl warned. Strayer's ruling means patients could be taking a product they think is medicine but hasn't been tested enough to be defined as such, he said.

Before PPS product is shipped, each batch of marijuana is put through more than 100 tests to meet specific standards, Zettl said, adding that type of rigorous analysis will be absent from the process used by basement growers.

As a grower, Palm said she is in control of the entire process -- her plants are entirely organic -- whereas she has no idea if PPS uses chemical fertilizers and bug sprays.

"I control the quality and safety of my product and if I supplied someone else, they would also know exactly what they were getting," she said. "I don't understand what everyone is afraid of."

Palm and her husband, Joe, have a friend who refused to pay for a shipment from PPS and sent it back. The product was black and powdery and "just horrible," Joe said, adding PPS has a reputation for inferior quality.

Palm thinks PPS is worried about losing its monopoly to competition but Zettl denies the company has any concerns about a slowdown in production.

"For us it's business as usual. The sky is not falling," he said. "Our concern is that everyone focuses on the ability of others to grow the product. Well, there's way more involved in producing medicine than just growing the plant."

Allowing people to grow and supply marijuana is akin to encouraging them to grow poppies to produce their own supply of morphine, or growing willow and boiling it down to make acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin).

"It doesn't make sense to have it (production and supply) wide open. There is a reason it is done under strict, definable standards," Zettl said. "When you're looking for medicine, as a patient, you want to be sure it is what you expect."

The allegation of poor product is not supported by the feedback received, said Zettl. The return rate is less than one per cent, which means an approval of better than 99 per cent.

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