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Health Canada considers abandoning highly potent marijuana strain

Apr. 20, 2003
By Dean Beeby
Canadian Press
Federal Health Minister Allan Rock (right) and Brent Zettl, president and CEO of Prarie Plant Systems inspect medicinal marijuana crops. (CP photo archive)
(CP) - A strain of government-certified marijuana is extremely potent but difficult to grow, and may eventually be abandoned as too much trouble, officials say.

The flowering tops or buds of the strain, grown for Health Canada in a vacant mine section in Flin Flon, Man., contain between 20 and 25 per cent THC, the most active ingredient of marijuana, laboratory results show. American tests on marijuana seized by U.S. police forces suggest ordinary street dope 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 - one of two official strains that together produced a crop of 244 kilograms last fall - is anemic and tough to grow successfully.

"We don't want high-maintenance plants," said Cindy Cripps-Prawak, chief of Ottawa'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 is producing a respectable THC content as well, between 13 and 18 per cent in its buds. Those levels are more in line with the needs of clinical trials, said Cripps-Prawak.

"By and large, the researchers have told us they're interested more in the lower-range plants, the lower-range THC content" of about 15 per cent or less, she said in an interview from Ottawa.

Health Canada has said it will not make any of its marijuana available directly to needy patients because it first wants to see scientific proof about whether the drug is effective.

Instead, patients approved by Health Canada must either grow their own marijuana or have someone else grow it for them.

If Health Canada agrees to abandon its high-potency strain, it will be another setback in a problem-plagued project to grow standardized Canadian marijuana for medical trials that will determine whether the drug offers any benefits - such as pain relief - to the chronically ill.

Some of the other setbacks, as outlined in documents obtained under the Access to Information Act:

- Prairie Plant Systems Inc. of Saskatoon, Sask., which in 2000 was awarded a five-year, $5.75-million contract to grow government dope, has so far failed to deliver any acceptable placebo marijuana.

The contract called for 50 kilograms of placebo product, containing less than 0.1 per cent THC, to be delivered last year. 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.

Researchers need a placebo product for blind trials to demonstrate whether THC is effective in alleviating some medical conditions.

- The contract also required delivery of 370 kilograms of regular product last year, but Prairie Plant Systems was able to produce only 244 kilograms.

- The project got off to rocky start when the company was unable to acquire U.S.-government approved seeds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. Instead, it had to rely on 10,000 seeds seized by Canadian police forces.

Only a third of the seeds sprouted, producing 185 varieties of wildly varying THC content and of little use to researchers, who require a standardized product.

That first crop of 74 kilograms, delivered in 2001, remains in storage but may be used to extract pure THC later.

Prairie Plant Systems, meanwhile, picked two strains from those 185 varieties to cultivate for the second crop. A third strain was held in reserve.

It wasn't clear how the company managed to select such high-potency pot from those varieties.

Cripps-Prawak said the company will use the third reserve strain if a decision is made to abandon the high-potency strain.

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, she added.

The company is currently testing blending procedures - mixing buds, leaves and small twigs - to produce five different grades of marijuana with differing potencies. The final product will eventually be sealed in 30-gram foil envelopes with labels.

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

Facts and figures about government-certified marijuana being grown in Flin Flon, Man.:

Purpose - Health Canada wants standardized supply of marijuana for accredited researchers to determine whether the substance has health benefits.

Contract - In December 2000, Prairie Plant Systems Inc. of Saskatoon awarded a five-year, $5.75-million contract to grow marijuana for Health Canada in an abandoned mine section in Flin Flon, Man. The Trout Lake mine, owned by Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co., is still active, producing zinc and copper.

Source - Prairie Plant Systems originally to obtain quality seeds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. Delays forced them instead to use more than 10,000 seeds seized by various police forces across Canada. Only a third produced plants.

First crop - First crop of 74 kilograms delivered December 2001 had 185 varieties, with broad range of quality. Two best strains later picked for their hardiness and potency. Another strain held in reserve.

Second crop - Second crop of 244 kilograms delivered in December 2002, based on planted cuttings from the two best strains to ensure genetic consistency. Crop fell short of the 370 kilograms required by the contract.

Tests - Laboratory tests show one strain contains 20 to 25 per cent THC, the most active ingredient, while the other has 13 to 18 per cent. But the more potent strain is anemic and may be abandoned. There is a seasonal variation in the THC content, even though the crop is produced far underground.

Processing and storage - Dried crop stored at Flin Flon to be bagged in 30-gram foil packs and labelled as necessary. No plans at present to produce rolled marijuana cigarettes.

Current trials - The Community Research Initiative of Toronto is testing the effect of marijuana on the appetites of AIDS patients. A group at McGill University in Montreal is testing the effects of smoked marijuana on neuropathic pain. Health Canada provides funding but not the marijuana, which currently comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Future trials - Health Canada is awaiting approval of proposed research projects before distributing its own marijuana.

© 2003