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The Canadian Federal Government is having problems again, 

as it tries to grow the nation’s official crop of medical marijuana.



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The news comes at a bad time for Health Canada, which has been told by an
 Ontario court to find a way to supply medically authorized users with the drug
 rather than making them get it from criminal dealers.

The federal department has been trying to produce a uniform, quality controlled crop since 2000, when it gave Saskatoon-based Prairie Plant Systems a $5.75-million contract to grow the stuff inside a mine in Flin Flon, Man.

Health Canada is growing the drug so that it can test whether it is effective. It says it must complete the trials before it can supply needy patients with the drug.

But last year, it became clear that the project was having problems. Because the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse would not share its seeds, Prairie Plant systems used seeds from plants seized by Canadian police. Rather than a consistent crop, the result was a hodge-podge of 185 different varieties.

Asking for patience, the government said it would produce a second crop, using the two most promising strains from the first. Last summer, Health Minister Anne McLellan indicated clinical tests would begin by this winter. They didn’t.

That’s because the second crop is now having problems. One of the two strains is very potent, and it is so difficult to grow that it may be abandoned as too much trouble.

The flowering tops or buds of the strain contain between 20 and 25 per cent THC, the most active ingredient of marijuana, laboratory results show.

By contrast, American tests on marijuana seized by U.S. police forces suggest ordinary street marijuana averages about five per cent THC, with sinsemilla — considered the champagne of weed — averaging about 10 per cent.

But the highly potent Flin Flon strain is anemic and tough to grow successfully.

"We don’t want high-maintenance plants," said Cindy Cripps-Prawak, chief of the federal government’s medical marijuana program. "It’s still unclear to me whether or not that is going to be the strain we’re going to continue with."

The second strain, which is producing a THC content of between 13 and 18 per cent in its buds could be a better bet. According to Ms. Cripps-Prawak, such percentages are more in line with what researchers want.

But even still, the crop is nowhere near as abundant as the government had contracted for. Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show that while the contract required delivery of 370 kilograms of high-quality marijuana last year, Prairie Plant Systems was able to produce only 244 kilograms.

A third strain was held in reserve by the company and Ms. Cripps-Prawak said the company will use it if a decision is made to abandon the high-potency strain.

In addition, the contract called for 50 kilograms of placebo product, containing less than 0.1 per cent THC, to be delivered last year. Researchers need a placebo product for blind trials to demonstrate whether THC is effective in alleviating some medical conditions.

But the company has been unable to grow anything with so little THC, and is considering using chemical means to remove the active ingredient in some of the existing crop.

The department has withheld payments from Prairie Plant Systems for not providing a placebo product and for failing to deliver the contracted 370 kilograms last year, Ms. Cripps-Prawak said.

The company is currently testing blending procedures — mixing buds, leaves and small twigs — to produce five different grades of marijuana with differing potencies.

None of the government-approved marijuana has been sent to researchers yet pending approval of their proposals by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The fresh setback for the government’s marijuana crop comes just as an Ontario court deadline is looming.

In January, Ontario Superior Court Justice Sidney Lederman ruled that the federal government’s Marijuana Medical Access Regulations violated the Charter of Rights because there is no legal source of marijuana for people with medical exemptions. He suspended his order for six months to give the federal government time to "provide for a legal source and supply of the drug."

© Copyright 2003 The Ottawa Citizen

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