New Grow Options 'Tip Of Iceberg'

With the future of the federal medicinal marijuana program potentially in
doubt, the company chosen to grow the crop underground in a Flin Flon mine
shaft is exploring what other crops it could produce there.

Phil Robinson, president of the Flin Flon and Area Chamber of Commerce,
says Prairie Plant Systems is looking into growing genetically-modified
crops and pharmaceuticals.

"It makes sense," Robinson said yesterday.

"We see this as the tip of the iceberg to see the mine be developed even
further. We see it as a much larger operation."

Robinson said if the test plants were grown hundreds of metres underground,
there would be no danger of having any of their qualities spread to plants
in nearby fields.

"If they could put a new drug for people in bananas, it might be a boon.
But you have to make sure it's safe first and if you grow it down there,
you could make sure. You have to control it; you can't let it get away."
Prairie Plant Systems was awarded the $5.7-million, four-year contract in
2000 to grow 400 kilograms of marijuana annually.

In the last few months since Allan Rock was shuffled from health to the
industry portfolio and replaced by Health Minister Anne McLellan, the
future of the medicinal marijuana operation in an abandoned section of a
mine has been thrown into question.

In late December, Health Canada said the marijuana had been extensively
tested and all that was needed was to set up a distribution system.

But since April, McLellan has continued to say the marijuana won't be
released to patients until it had been put through clinical trials.

Alex Swann, a spokesman for McLellan, said "our goal is to develop a
research grade marijuana.

"We hope to complete this in the coming months... but we have to complete
the process of perfecting the product." A spokesman for Prairie Plant
Systems was unavailable for comment.

The company's Web site says the benefits of the underground growth chamber
is it "offers a relatively disease-free area, completely isolated from the
outside environment."

As well, the plants grow faster under conditions that are constantly
monitored by computers and, because they are 360 metres below the surface
of the Earth, they are in a secure area.

Mayor Dennis Ballard said the community has always hoped the underground
plant growing operation could be expanded with more and different crops
being grown there.

"There's not a lot of jobs at this point there, but there could be in
future and that's what we hope for," Ballard said.

"But right now, we're opening a new mall here... and that's probably going
to have 20 times more jobs than this operation has."

Dr. Jim Bole, director of the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg, said
there could be benefits to growing some experimental crops underground.

"Certainly, if there was an extremely valuable compound they were worried
about escaping, it could have potential," Bole said. And Wayne Fraser,
director of environment and plant engineering with Hudson Bay Mining and
Smelting, said Prairie Plant Systems wouldn't be lacking for space in the
company's underground mine if they decide to go ahead with their plans.

"This particular mine did 20 million tonnes of ore," Fraser said. "There's
almost an infinite amount of space down there.

"There's 10 million cubic yards of void space down there. There's 150 to
200 acres available in that mine.

"They're using less than an acre now."

Pubdate: Mon, 26 Aug 2002
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2002 Winnipeg Free Press
Author: Kevin Rollason