Friday August 3 6:59 PM EST
By JOHN COTTER
FLIN FLON, Man. (CP) - Like a proud farmer admiring a bumper crop, Health Minister Allan Rock was all smiles Thursday as he went deep underground to tour Canada's only legal marijuana growing operation.
Dressed in blue coveralls and wearing a miner's helmet, Rock and his entourage boarded a vehicle that slowly snaked down through the dark silence of an old copper mine shaft to a bustling hydroponic lab carved out of the rock hundreds of metres below the surface.
There, under tight security and beneath the blinding glare of powerful grow lights, a forest of vibrant green plants burst from containers, filling the chamber with a musky sweetness.
"So this is what they look like," Rock joked as he watched expert growers wearing white sterile suits baby the plants that will provide the roots of Canada's new medicinal marijuana policy.
"It's an incredible experience to see this operation. It's obvious that we have good growth. I'm quite impressed."
During a brief ceremony employees unveiled a sign that named the grow operation the Rock Garden in his honour.
After returning to the surface, the minister cut a gold ribbon at the entrance of the mine tunnel as he stood beside an RCMP officer in full dress uniform.
"Let's open this mine and get the plants to patients as soon as we can," he said.
Within weeks technicians at the remote site 650 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg will begin harvesting the bedrock buds for tests that will determine their potency and other chemical properties.
After some clinical trials, the marijuana will be made available as early as February to the terminally ill and people suffering from serious diseases who want to use it as a pain reliever - if they qualify.
Canada's new medicinal marijuana policy, which came into effect on Monday, allows people who have been granted an exemption from narcotics laws to possess pot and grow it or have someone grow it for them.
So far less than 300 people have been approved with another 500 applications pending.
Rock said the policy to use marijuana to help people suffering chronic pain is based on logic and common sense.
"It is a matter of simple compassion and reflects the views of Canadians generally," he told a news conference that included reporters from across Canada and the United States, including High Times Magazine.
"We have got medical morphine. We have got medical heroin. Why not medical marijuana?"
Critics claim the exemption policy is too restrictive, that the mine won't produce enough pot to meet demand and that the pot won't be strong enough to deaden the pain of people suffering from AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
Others say the subterranean grow operation, run under contract by Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, is a $5.7-million absurdity when most Canadians can easily obtain pot in their own communities. Some doctors worry about prescribing a drug that hasn't been fully tested.
Rock said when a government launches a groundbreaking policy there are bound to problems.
"I don't pretend they are perfect. We can adapt and adjust these regulations to overcome problems that arise."
The mine has brought international headlines and prompted some groups to hold Canada's policy up as an example of compassion that other governments should follow.
In the United States, where a person can be sent to jail for as much as a year for possession of a joint and five years for growing a plant, pro-marijuana lobby groups publicly praised Ottawa.
"The Canadian government is permitting medical use, cultivation and distribution," said Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D.C.
"It is a shame the United States government is falling so far behind the curve. The U.S. government gives patients two options: suffer or go to jail."
Rock said he isn't worried Canada's liberal medicinal marijuana policy might draw the wrath of the President George W. Bush's administration.
He said in time and with further research other governments around the world will probably follow Canada's lead.
"We are Canadians. We have made our own judgment. We are reflecting our own values. I will look first to Canadian needs and interests rather than the opinions of others around the world."
People in Flin Flon don't quite know what to make of all the attention their community of 7,000 is getting, or of the hot-selling T-shirts that proclaim it as the marijuana growing capital of Canada.
For 75 years their fortunes have been dictated by the fluctuating price of ore processed by the huge zinc-copper mine now operated by the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company.
Mayor Dennis Ballard said so far the marijuana mine has only created about a dozen jobs and most of the profits will flow out of the area. But he is convinced that could all change if the project is successful.
"It could be a godsend. It is the potential down the line that really impresses me," he said. "The size of the chamber they are operating in means they can expand by 10 times."
Still, some longtime Flin Flon residents scoff at the idea that there is much of a future in underground marijuana growing.
Gordon Wells and his pal Rod Rutherford chuckled over their coffee at Johnny's Confectionery when asked if the pot mine will help Flin Flon.
"It's just a big fuss over nothing," Wells said. "Everybody just laughs about it."
Rutherford, who worked at the copper mine for 30 years before retiring, frowned and pointed out the window toward the massive Hudson Bay smelter smokestack that looms over the community.
"It is just an experiment," he said.
"The future of this town is that stack."
Copyright © 2001 Canadian Press
Copyright © 2001 Canadian Press