Globe And Mail
Seized pot packs punch, Ottawa finds
But patients fuming at Health Canada over supply delays
By CAROLYN ABRAHAM
Monday, August 19, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A6
They may have come from a meadow in British Columbia -- or a well-lit basement in Brampton, Ont.
But whatever their origins, two strains of marijuana have been selected, from hundreds of others, as possible candidates for clinical research in Health Canada's beleaguered program to investigate and supply cannabis as medicine.
Both varieties pack a punch, sources say, with a level of THC, marijuana's key active ingredient, of 10 per cent and up. The strains have been cloned to produce plants in large quantities.
To date, Health Canada has been unable to beg, buy or borrow marijuana seeds or plants from any legitimate source -- including the U.S. National Institute on Drug Addiction or the Netherlands.
The federal department has instead had to rely on dope seized in drug busts across the country to support its medicinal pot plot in an abandoned Manitoba mineshaft.
Although the final decision on ideal strains has not been made, the two candidates to emerge from the bags of illegal weed are the first signs of progress in months.
"It is progressing well," said Gillian Lynch, director general of Health Canada's Drug Strategy and Controlled Substances Program, who confirmed last week that "we are looking at a couple of strains."
Any approved harvest from the government's year-old pot-growing operation in Flin Flon will be used in clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of marijuana in treating symptoms associated with diseases such as AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
But the program, on which the government is spending $5.7-million, was originally designed to supply the drug to all sick Canadians medically qualified to possess it.
Now, however, Ms. Lynch said that aside from approved strains, the bulk of the pot grown to date -- more than 250 kilograms worth -- will be used only for non-human research.
Patients anxious for a steady supply of marijuana are meanwhile fuming over the delays.
Eight Canadians are heading to court in September to have the program's restrictive regulations struck down and the marijuana grown in Flin Flon turned over to patients by year's end.
Toronto lawyer Alan Young, who is heading up the case, said the bureaucracy at Health Canada has come up with excuses to delay its release.
"The bureaucracy never wanted this program, it's too much work, and I think there's been some intimidation that if Health Canada started distributing it, the Americans would crack down on customs," Mr. Young said.
"It's really a shame to invest so much money to grow this much marijuana, which far exceeds the needs of a couple of clinical trials."
Like some government critics, Mr. Young suspects that Health Minister Anne McLellan, who inherited the file from her predecessor Allan Rock, had cold feet about moving ahead with a pot program.
This spring, Ms. McLellan said the drug's delivery would be delayed for several months because of the inconsistent strength and wide variety of the plants grown.
Some reports implied that the Saskatoon-based Prairie Plant Systems Inc., which won the contract to run the Flin Flon pot operation, had bad, or impure, weed on its hands.
In response, PPS president Brent Zettl, who was asked by Health Canada not to speak to reporters, wrote a letter to the Health Minister, that was leaked to the news media, defending the operation and the product it aims to produce.
Mr. Young said the issue of the "impure strains" being unsafe is a "red herring," particularly since all the marijuana in the mine is being grown in a clean, secure environment. "The marijuana they're sitting on is light years safer than what's currently available to medicinal users," Mr. Young said.
Ms. Lynch explained that the company has been documenting its operating procedures to ensure the pot is produced according to good manufacturing practices.
As well, she said Health Canada is working with the company to conduct a chemical analysis of the various plant strains. "You want to make sure you're getting a level of consistency," Ms. Lynch said.
She refused to offer a date as to when the first approved harvest might reach clinical trials. She said, however, that she realized many sick Canadians are waiting for it.
"We are moving ahead as quickly as we can," she said. "But we are taking a responsible approach."
This is little comfort to people such as Alison Myrden of Burlington, Ont., one of the 806 Canadians licensed to possess marijuana for medical purposes and one of the eight now suing the government.
Ms. Myrden, a former corrections officer who suffers from multiple sclerosis, had bought marijuana from the Toronto Compassion Centre club since 1997 to relieve pain.
But earlier this week, Toronto police raided and shut down the organization, which sold cannabis to 1,200 ailing Ontarians. Four people were arrested on trafficking charges, in part because it remains illegal for people to sell pot to the sick, even though it is legal for many of them to use it.
"I don't know what I am going to do -- I've never been able to grow it myself," said Ms. Myrden, who has federal permission to cultivate her own pot plants.
"The government is forcing me to go out on the streets. If I don't find a source on the black markets, I'm back to taking 32 pills and 600 milligrams of morphine a day."