Pubdate: Sat, 28 Apr 2012
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2012 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Tom Blackwell


Canadian Medicinal Marijuana Producers Are Trying To Put Down U.S.

The sprawling copper mine that stretches deep below White Pine once
employed thousands of people, helping make the remote Michigan town a
thriving outpost of the state's northern hinterland.

Prices for the metal started to plummet, however, forcing the facility
to shut down in 1996 and leaving White Pine a virtual ghost town.
Suburban bungalows that once housed copper miners and their families
now sell to vacationers for as little as $10,000.

Now a Canadian company is promoting an unorthodox form of salvation
for the area, floating a plan to grow marijuana inside the cavernous
mine to serve the state's legion of 180,000 licensed pot users. Like a
similar subterranean operation that Prairie Plant Systems (PPS) owns
in Manitoba, the Michigan site would offer security from theft,
natural climate control and little chance of contamination, its
supporters argue.

Legislation expected to be introduced in both Michigan state chambers
in the next week or two would set the stage for such industrial-scale
production, outlining a series of standards that medical marijuana
producers must meet. Michigan approved personal use of cannabis as a
health product in 2008, but its somewhat chaotic implementation has
undermined patient and public safety, said Brent Zettl, CEO of Prairie

"They've got wide-open, unbridled access there. It's about as
convenient to find cannabis there as it is to pick up a bottle of pop
and a bag of chips," he said "I'm just saying, 'Here's a system that
works. If you want to try it, it could be helpful. If you want us to
step up, we will.' "

Mr. Zettl's company bought the abandoned Michigan mine in 2003 and
already uses it to grow plants that have been genetically altered to
produce medicines. In Canada, the core of its $7.6-million in revenue
comes from selling marijuana grown at a mothballed mine in Flin Flon,
Man., to the government.

But PPS is struggling against conflicting currents in U.S. society:
the newfound and growing acceptance of pot as therapy in states like
Michigan, versus the fierce anti-drug mentality of the U.S. federal
government. Even the marijuana mine's proponents concede the plan will
remain, well, a pipe dream without approval from Washington.

In the meantime, the prospect of the mine being filled with emerald
rows of pot plants is understandably enticing to those who have stuck
it out in White Pine, located about 450 kilometres west of Sault Ste.
Marie, Ont. Mr. Zettl said a marijuana green light could quickly bring
the facility's workforce to as many as 300 people, much fewer than the
3,000 who worked for the copper operation, but a major step for the
community, nonetheless.

Tammy Tuttle worked for the mine until it closed, then got a job at
the local gas station. As White Pine's population evaporated and
schools shuttered, the gas station itself closed. Now she commutes 80
km to work in another town.

"We need something like that," said Ms. Tuttle of the
marijuana-factory proposal. "You have to put a lot of miles on your
car when you live here because there's no grocery store ... there's no
hospital here or clinic. It's gotten to be pretty quiet."

The dream of a marijuana boom for White Pine stems from a 2008
Michigan referendum that made it legal for patients with serious
conditions to possess marijuana for medical use, under a doctor's
care. It is among 16 states, and the District of Columbia, that have
passed such laws, with more looking at the idea.

The Michigan legislation has proven immensely popular, with close to
200,000 approved users, said Celeste Clarkson, manager of the state's
medical-marijuana registry. That compares with just 17,000 licensees
in Canada - which has three times Michigan's population - under a 2001

The policy has also produced a certain amount of disorder. Although
the legislation does not legalize production of marijuana by anyone
other than the patient or authorized caregiver, hundreds of pot
"dispensaries" have cropped up across the state. There's even one in
White Pine's mall, said Ms. Tuttle, though a recent court ruling has
led to a police crackdown on the cannabis retailers.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the U.S. federal
government still considers all forms of marijuana possession and
trafficking a crime, a legitimate target of its long-standing war on

"For us, there is no such thing as medical marijuana," said Rusty
Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency. "Marijuana is
marijuana. It's illegal. There are no medical benefits to it from the
government's perspective, as of now. If the science tells us
differently that could change, but as of now ... we would not be for

Mr. Payne acknowledged that the clash between the state
medical-marijuana policies and federal drug prohibitions has created
"an interesting dichotomy," but said that does not change the agency's
approach. "We don't pick and choose what we enforce and don't
enforce," he said.

While debate over the health benefits of marijuana continues, there
is, in fact, growing evidence of its value. Randomized clinical trials
comparing cannabis to a placebo have suggested that smoking it can
reduce pain and nausea from HIV and curb the effects of glaucoma,
while consuming marijuana extracts can lessen spasms caused by MS and
some types of pain, concludes a recently published review of previous

"There's no doubt about it, from the clinical standpoint, the science
is there," said Dr. Lawrence Leung, a Queen's University
family-medicine professor who wrote the paper.

Dr. Leung noted, however, that it is difficult to control the dose of
the plant's active ingredients when it is smoked, while mould that
often forms on the plants can cause disease in some patients, and
there is a risk of addiction in about 10% of users.

Mr. Zettl stresses that the mine would be ideal for avoiding those
quality and standardization problems, providing even temperatures
year-round and a near-sterile environment.

The Canadian admits the whole plan may turn out to be "a mission
impossible." But Chuck Perricone, a former Republican Speaker of the
State House in Michigan and a lobbyist for PPS, said the growing
number of jurisdictions buying into the idea of pot as medicine, plus
the science behind it, will inevitably force Washington to change its

"The bottom line is that in the dark of the night, we all fear being
seriously ill and being denied the ability to get our hands on the
medication we believe will help us," he said. "It is that fear that
has driven the passage of medical marijuana laws in many states, and
that fear is not going away." 
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