Prairie Plant Systems is into underground pot production.

What's even more surprising, the police are in on the action.

In fact, the federal government is paying Prairie Plant Systems
almost $6 million to grow marijuana.

Is this a massive conspiracy to deride Canada's drug laws?

No.

Health Canada has awarded the Saskatoon-based company a five-year
contract to produce marijuana as a pharmaceutical.

Grown and processed to exacting standards, some of the marijuana will
be supplied to a select list of people suffering debilitating illness.

But the majority of the almost two tonnes over five years will go to
researchers who will try to determine what it is in the plant that
makes it a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.

People with conditions as diverse as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy,
AIDS and arthritis have in some cases found cannabis relieves
symptoms.

Prairie Plant Systems was chosen to produce the marijuana because of
its expertise and because of its unusual facility -- a plant growth
chamber in the Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Co. Ltd. copper and zinc
mine at Flin Flon, Man.

Plants are grown 360 metres below the earth's surface in a 24-hour
environmentally controlled space. Without stress and with a slightly
elevated carbon dioxide air source, plants grow faster than they
would in a greenhouse.

"We identified way back that we could grow plants fast and we could
grow them well, but because of the expense we had to grow things of
high value," said Brent Zettl, company president.

Pharmaceuticals from plants fit the bill.

The company already has grown the Pacific yew tree that produces the
cancer drug Taxol, genetically engineered tobacco that produces a
pharmaceutical protein, genetically engineered canola that produces
hiridin, an anticoagulant, and soon will be growing a polio-vaccine
engineered rice.

Growing cannabis in a mine shaft offers obvious security benefits, he said.

The Flin Flon mine, and another in the United States, is one reason
the company has targeted the bio-pharmaceutical market, he said.

In the Health Canada project, PPS is responsible for obtaining
marijuana seeds from an approved source and screening them for the
characteristics needed. Once varieties are selected, PPS will grow
the plants and clone them for uniform production.

PPS has hired staff to run the laboratory to do the required quality
control and measure the five active components of the plant's
chemical makeup, including tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that
produces a euphoric feeling.

"They are really stringent," Zettl said. "If they are going to test a
patient with this, they have to define what it is that's going into
the patient and know how it affects the patient."

To ensure the operation does not produce unauthorized pot, staff have
undergone fingerprinting and security checks by the RCMP and are
subject to random checks by the police and Health Canada, he said.

While there will be growing pains pioneering this work, Zettl is
delighted to have won the contract because it gives legitimacy to
bio-pharmaceuticals.

"We've been preaching this concept for the last five years and we've
been getting sideways looks, especially from the finance community.

"Now with this contract, it will bring some legitimacy to what we've
been talking about and crystalize this concept of bio-pharmaceutical
production and pave the way for future research dollars."

Newshawk: Sledhead
Pubdate: Thu, 04 Jan 2001
Source: Western Producer (CN SN)
Copyright: 2001 The Western Producer
Contact: newsroom@producer.com
Address: Box 2500, Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7K 2C4
Fax: (306) 934-2401
Website: http://www.producer.com/
Author: D'Arce McMillan