Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2012
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2012 Detroit Free Press
Author: Paul Egan
Note: Video, photos and map at


WHITE PINE - In this hard-luck town in Michigan's western Upper 
Peninsula, rumors persist of a company growing pot deep in the bowels 
of a former copper mine nearby.

In 2010, the rumors got so bad, the State Police contacted the owners 
and asked to inspect the White Pine Mine sometime in the next couple of days.

"No, right now, " SubTerra official Mark Pierpont said he told them, 
not wanting lingering suspicions that he had spent a day hiding a 
stash of marijuana.

Trooper Timothy Rajala later reported how he "entered the mine in a 
vehicle which we drove approximately 1 mile underground" before 
reaching a sealed and brightly lit chamber he could only enter after 
washing down his feet and putting on clean clothes.

Inside, Rajala "noted several plants that were not narcotic, " he 
wrote. "There was no evidence of marijuana nor any signs of 
suspicious activity."

Still, Rajala's tip had a grain of truth.

The mine's owners want to use its underground chambers to create the 
state's largest pot farm with a potential market of 131,000 
Michiganders (about 1 in every 75 residents) who hold medical 
marijuana certificates. The company, Prairie Plant Systems (PPS), 
already has a contract to supply medical marijuana in Canada.

Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana in 2008, but few people 
think the regulatory system is working. "Chaos" is a word frequently 
used by editorial writers and other critics.

Officials with PPS and its Michigan subsidiary, SubTerra, which now 
uses the White Pine Mine for other plant-based pharmaceutical 
research, granted exclusive access to the mine and the company's 
plans to a Free Press reporter and photographer. They say their 
methods would stress security, safety and science, treating pot as a 
pharmaceutical, rather than a street drug.

"There's a need to bring this under the proper reins of appropriate 
manufacturing for patient safety and for public safety, " said Brent 
Zettl, president and CEO of PPS, a plant-based biopharmaceutical 
company based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

But Zettl acknowledges he has major state and federal hurdles to 
clear before he can convert the mine, which closed in 1996.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug 
Administration, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder would all have 
to sign off, and in the case of the first two agencies, reverse 
direction on policy. Federal agencies consider marijuana illegal. DEA 
agents have not cracked down on small operations to supply licensed 
patients but almost certainly would view SubTerra as a major bust opportunity.

The FDA supports research to capture marijuana's benefits in tablet 
form, but opposes "the use of smoked marijuana for medical purposes, 
" spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said.

Growing marijuana hundreds of feet underground - the same way the 
company started its Canadian operations in 2001 - provides security, 
constant temperature, controlled light and humidity, and protects the 
plants from bugs and diseases, eliminating the need for harmful 
pesticides and herbicides, Zettl said. He said any medical marijuana 
sold in Michigan should be subject to the same regular and rigorous 
testing as is found in Canada.

To help get around a federal ban on the sale of controlled 
substances, state law relies on the legal fiction that licensed 
caregivers provide patients with marijuana for free and get paid for 
helping patients register.

Canada, with a population of 34 million, has 17,000 patients approved 
for medical marijuana. Michigan, with less than a third as many 
people, has nearly eight times more cannabis patients, and a few 
physicians have been accused of indiscriminately approving patients 
to use the drug.

An explosion in medical marijuana dispensaries caused control 
headaches for cities. The shutdown of most dispensaries as a result 
of a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in August broke the supply chain.

But Zettl says there is a more fundamental problem in Michigan.

With no testing or standards, nobody knows what Michigan patients are 
smoking. In Canada, Zettl's cannabis is tested not just for active 
ingredients such as THC, but for mold, fungus, pathogens - including 
bacteria - and metals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.

"We've breached the first cardinal rule of pharmaceutical 
manufacturing, " Zettl said. "It doesn't have any safety bells or whistles."

PPS began in 1988 developing disease-free berry trees and other 
products aimed at farmers. It later moved into medical cannabis and 
plant-based pharmaceutical research. The company had to leave the 
leased facility where it grew its medical cannabis in Manitoba in 
2008 because the owner wanted to resume mining. It now grows the 
plants above ground at a location kept secret at the request of the 
Canadian government.

Zettl, who has a farming background and a bachelor's of science 
degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, said the 
company had 2011 sales of $7.6 million, about 75% of which came from 
medical cannabis contracts with the Canadian government. Its SubTerra 
subsidiary acquired the White Pine Mine in 2003.

A bill is expected to be introduced in the Legislature before summer 
to establish testing standards similar to Canada's that would go into 
effect if and when medical marijuana is approved for sale in 
Michigan. SubTerra hired former House Speaker Chuck Perricone, a 
Republican, as its lobbyist.

"Neither the physician nor the patient have a clue what it is that is 
being ingested, " and high mold content and pesticide residue is 
common, Perricone said. "Michigan needs to protect its citizens. 
Proper testing will do that."

Tim Beck of Detroit, a leader of the movement to legalize medical 
marijuana in Michigan, said PPS may offer "the gold standard in an 
ideal world, " but "until federal law changes, it's just not viable."

Also, "to some degree, this testing issue is overblown, " Beck said. 
"There is a free market, and people tend to know who the good" suppliers are.

Even if the bill is approved, SubTerra would be far from the starting gate.

Experts may differ on the therapeutic use of morphine, but they at 
least agree it's a medicine. Not so with marijuana.

"We don't give people a plant and call it medicine, " said Joel Hay, 
a professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern 
California. "You've got a product with thousands and thousands of 
compounds, some of which are unknown what their effects are, " he said.

"It's lunacy to call this medicine. It's like going back 100 years."

But Dr. Lester Grinspoon, associate professor emeritus of psychiatry 
at Harvard Medical School, said in a 2006 article that marijuana 
"will one day be seen as a wonder drug, " as penicillin was in the 
1940s. It's "remarkably nontoxic (and) has a wide range of 
therapeutic applications, " he said in a column in the Los Angeles Times.

Before the FDA approves new drugs, it requires clinical trials with 
blind tests in which some patients receive a placebo. Because it's 
smoked, finding a marijuana placebo is tougher than using a salt 
tablet to replace a pill.

Some complain of a Catch-22. The FDA won't approve the drug's use 
without more research, but researchers face legal obstacles and a 
lack of support because the drug is banned.

Dr. Mark Ware, associate medical director of the McGill University 
Health Centre Pain Clinic in Montreal, one of a small number of 
experts who has published extensive cannabis research, said many 
doctors don't take medical pot seriously and physicians like him must 
"deal with the perception that you're really just looking to get 
people stoned and high."

But "there has to be a mechanism for patients with genuine medical 
needs to have access to cannabis until such time as something better 
comes along, " Ware said, adding that other treatments should be 
explored first.

Those include certain marijuana compounds that have been approved in 
tablet form, but have significantly different properties from smoked cannabis.

The approach used by PPS gives patients comfort because the cannabis 
has been standardized and "tested and been shown to be free of 
impurities that may be hazardous to health, " whereas Michigan 
patients have "no way of knowing what they're getting, " Ware said.

But cannabis is generally safe. The extra safety standards are 
positive, but not essential to producing safe cannabis, he said.

PPS is the only authorized mass supplier of medical marijuana in 
Canada, but serves only about 2,000 of the 17,000 approved patients. 
Others can grow their own or get their cannabis from small growers.

Particularly in the early years, the company was dogged by complaints 
from patients who said they didn't like the taste or the quality.

Zettl said a court ruling forced the Canadian government to rush 
medical cannabis onto the market sooner than it wanted. The company's 
product had a THC content of about 14%, but the government ordered it 
to dilute it with leaf material to bring the THC content down to what 
the Canadian government believed was the norm for street marijuana: 10%.

It was that required blending, which has since been relaxed so that 
PPS can provide marijuana with 12.5% THC content, combined with the 
fact that the Canadian government would allow the company to supply 
only one variety of cannabis, despite a wide range of needs, that led 
to complaints, Zettl said.

"In 12 years, we've made several evolutionary changes."

Ted Smith, founder of the Cannabis Buyers' Club of Canada in 
Victoria, British Columbia, said quality concerns persist: "It 
doesn't smell very good; it doesn't look very good."

But Adrienne Baker-Hicks, 53, of Warkworth, Ontario, said the PPS 
product has been "wonderful" for her because the company irradiates 
it to ensure it is germ-free.

"I have autoimmune deficiencies, quite a few, " said Baker-Hicks, who 
uses medical cannabis to help with a spinal condition, a blood 
disorder and tremors. "If I smoke something that isn't clean, it can 
make me really sick."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom