By D'Arce McMillan
Prairie Plant Systems is into underground pot production.
What's even more surprising, the police are in on the action.
In fact, the federal government is paying Prairie Plant Systems almost $6 million to grow marijuana.
Is this a massive conspiracy to deride Canada's drug laws?
Health Canada has awarded the Saskatoon-based company a five-year contract to produce marijuana as a pharmaceutical.
Grown and processed to exacting standards, some of the marijuana will be supplied to a select list of people suffering debilitating illness.
But the majority of the almost two tonnes over five years will go to researchers who will try to determine what it is in the plant that makes it a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.
People with conditions as diverse as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, AIDS and arthritis have in some cases found cannabis relieves symptoms.
Prairie Plant Systems was chosen to produce the marijuana because of its expertise and because of its unusual facility -- a plant growth chamber in the Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Co. Ltd. copper and zinc mine at Flin Flon, Man.
Plants are grown 360 metres below the earth's surface in a 24-hour environmentally controlled space. Without stress and with a slightly elevated carbon dioxide air source, plants grow faster than they would in a greenhouse.
"We identified way back that we could grow plants fast and we could grow them well, but because of the expense we had to grow things of high value," said Brent Zettl, company president.
Pharmaceuticals from plants fit the bill.
The company already has grown the Pacific yew tree that produces the cancer drug Taxol, genetically engineered tobacco that produces a pharmaceutical protein, genetically engineered canola that produces hiridin, an anticoagulant, and soon will be growing a polio-vaccine engineered rice.
Growing cannabis in a mine shaft offers obvious security benefits, he said.
The Flin Flon mine, and another in the United States, is one reason the company has targeted the bio-pharmaceutical market, he said.
In the Health Canada project, PPS is responsible for obtaining marijuana seeds from an approved source and screening them for the characteristics needed. Once varieties are selected, PPS will grow the plants and clone them for uniform production.
PPS has hired staff to run the laboratory to do the required quality control and measure the five active components of the plant's chemical makeup, including tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that produces a euphoric feeling.
"They are really stringent," Zettl said. "If they are going to test a patient with this, they have to define what it is that's going into the patient and know how it affects the patient."
To ensure the operation does not produce unauthorized pot, staff have undergone fingerprinting and security checks by the RCMP and are subject to random checks by the police and Health Canada, he said.
While there will be growing pains pioneering this work, Zettl is delighted to have won the contract because it gives legitimacy to bio-pharmaceuticals.
"We've been preaching this concept for the last five years and we've been getting sideways looks, especially from the finance community.
"Now with this contract,
it will bring some legitimacy to what we've been talking about and crystalize
this concept of bio-pharmaceutical production and pave the way for future