Pubdate: Thu, 09 Oct 2003
Source: NOW Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2003 NOW Communications Inc.
Author: Adria Vasil


Is Ottawa's Medical Mary Jane Laced With Heavy Metals?

A high court gavel may have ordered the feds to keep doling out weed to the 
nation's sick this week, but it looks like the government's perpetually 
problematic stash is in trouble again. Medicinal marijuana advocates say 
that Ottawa's herb is laced with high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy 
metals. It's yet another chapter in the tragicomedy of Canada's medical pot 
saga, marked by years of judicial tug of war, flip-flopping government 
support and notorious delays in the production of certifiably weak greens. 
Most recently, Canadians for Safe Access (CSA) decided to act on their 
mounting suspicion that growing medicinal herbs in an abandoned zinc and 
copper mine shaft could lead to contamination. The organization sent a 
sample of federal bud (as well organic herb for comparison) out to three 
labs for independent testing. When results uncovered much higher levels of 
toxic compounds like lead and arsenic in the government stash, the advocacy 
group started sounding alarms.

"Inhaling heavy metals or arsenic in your lungs - I don't have to tell you 
that can have some serious health consequences," says Philippe Lucas, CSA's 
director. "When we're talking about people who are already critically or 
chronically ill and in many cases have immune deficiencies, this becomes a 
much more dangerous situation."

But both the manufacturer (Prairie Plant Systems) and Health Canada were 
quick to discount the data. PPS co-founder Brent Zettl says that every 
batch of grass is measured for over two dozen heavy metals, and there has 
never been any indication of elevated levels.

"These allegations are not based on science or fact," says Zettl, pointing 
out that CSA refuses to identify its labs by name. Lucas says he's only 
protecting his sources because, though they are accredited labs, they 
aren't licensed to handle the illicit drug. But Zettl isn't convinced. 
"They might as well pull those results from the air," adds the former 
blueberry farmer turned national drug lord.

Then again, Health Canada, which safeguards all info on the pot project, 
won't share its findings with the public either. Its spokesperson, Jirina 
Vlk, will only say that its test results were much lower than CSA's. "(The 
results) are similar to what one finds in Canadian tobacco and are well 
within allowable limits," says Vlk.

But when asked what those limits are, Vlk admits there are no standards in 
place limiting the presence of heavy metals in either tobacco or marijuana. 
She does suggest that levels are well in line with heavy metal limits on 
echinacea and other herbs, which are allowed up to 5 parts per million of 
arsenic. (CSA's test revealed levels of 2 parts per million in the federal 

Brennain Lloyd of North Watch, a public interest group that monitors 
northern mining, energy and forestry activity, argues that there is no safe 
level of arsenic exposure. "Both (lead and arsenic) will lead to long-term 
loading in the body, so it doesn't make sense to have those contaminants in 
medicinal marijuana."

And while Health Canada reassures NOW that these compounds can be found in 
"every agricultural product grown in the world," critics are quick to point 
out that not every crop is grown in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

The town has been a hotbed of mining and smelting activity since the early 
1900s. And according to a Mining Watch report, over 4 tonnes of heavy 
metals, including lead and arsenic, are still dumped into Flin Flon's water 
annually, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes are released into the air. 
All thanks to the same company (Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting) that 
offered up an old mine shaft for PPS's underground pot op and still 
operates just 12 kilometres away.

Brettl insists that despite earlier media reports PPS does not use local 
soil, and that both air and water are well filtered before they are piped 
366 metres below ground. "The water is clean, the soil is clean, the air is 
clean," says Zettl.

Regardless, Lucas says this week's move by Ontario appellate court to 
loosen legislation around who can grow herbs for ailing users and how much 
they can grow will spell the end of PPS's virtual monopoly over medicinal 
plant production in Canada.

"The (court has) just allowed a whole bunch of people to enter the market 
who know what they're doing and can do it better cheaper and faster," says 
Lucas. "That may be the death knell for that cultivation program in Flin 
Flon, Manitoba."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman