More MS news articles for Jan 2002

A trip to a funny farm

Toby Harnden visits the world's first government-run cannabis farm, deep in the wilds of Canada;$sessionid$Q5VHSCQAADIWLQFIQMFCFFOAVCBQYIV0?xml=/outdoors/2002/01/19/odope19.xml&sSheet=/outdoors/2002/01/19/ixoutleft.html

Toby Harnden

IN Britain, the argument for and against cannabis legalisation continues to rage inconclusively, libertarians pitched against traditionalists. In Canada, however, the debate is being taken one dramatic step further.

Precise details of the project are guarded as though Canada's very existence depended on it. Video cameras, reinforced steel doors and computerised passwords protect the site, hidden deep in the bedrock beneath Trout Lake, on the outskirts of a remote mining settlement in frozen Manitoba. The identities of the workers involved are kept secret to protect their safety.

Named after the adventurer Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, from J E Preston Muddock's obscure 1905 book The Sunless City, Flin Flon is often cited as the only town in the world that takes its name from a science fiction character. But this is not an episode of the X Files or a Tom Clancey sub-plot.

Surreal as it may be, the remote, rough-hewn location and elaborate security provide the setting for the world's first government-run cannabis-growing operation - the laboratory where the raw material for up to a million state-issued reefers is being produced, above board but underground.

For the time being, its clients are those Canadian citizens whose physical suffering is so great that no other relief from pain is available. But Flin Flon is fast becoming the inspiration for marijuana proselytisers everywhere, the vanguard of the drive towards making the drug legal and available for all.

The first Canadian harvest is due this month, and the product, close to a ton of which should be grown over the next five years, sent out to sufferers of diseases from epilepsy to Aids and cancer to multiple sclerosis. Clinical trials will be held to assess its potency and effectiveness.

Medicinal marijuana - or "marihuana" (the h is for health), as the Ottawa government prefers to spell it - was made legal in August after an Ontario court ruled that the national ban was unconstitutional.

If the state was going to have to permit its patients to use it, Allan Rock, the Canadian Health Minister, reasoned, then the state had better start providing it, too.

The £2.5m contract was put out to tender and Prairie Plant Systems, based some 500 miles away in Saskatoon, picked out of 130 bids. The company had a track record of sustaining vegetation in disused parts of the Flin Flon mine which were leased by the Hudson Bay Smelting Company.

Brent Zettl, 39, Prairie Plant's founder and chief executive, first experimented with phytotrons, or artificial-growth chambers, more than a decade ago.

In the 1970s, mine workers in Ontario had noticed that their discarded orange pips and apple seeds had sprouted quickly and grown several inches high before withering due to lack of light.

Zettl started in Flin Flon with hibiscuses, Madagascar periwinkle and sweet basil. His most important product became roses, which he found grew five times more quickly underground than they did in the open air.

Miners took the flowers home and, he says, a small population explosion took place in Flin Flon as a result. Having smelled his roses, drug companies woke up to the other possibilities available.

Soon, Prairie Plant was growing wild yew trees, the bark of which contains paclitaxel, the active ingredient in taxol, used for treating breast and ovarian cancer. When the Canadian government asked for bids for its new cannabis project, Zettl knew he was in pole position.


The security of the site was a key factor in Zettl's victory. "People were worried about growing it on the bald open prairie, but underground in northern Manitoba is a different matter," says Wayne Fraser, of the Hudson Bay company.

For Flin Flon, whose population had shrunk to 7,000 from 12,000 over the previous decade, cannabis was a golden opportunity to diversify. "You live on the bubble when you're a one-industry town and it's mining," says Dennis Ballard, Flin Flon's mayor, a cheery former headmaster who revels in his town's 15 minutes of fame.

"All it takes is for the metal prices to plunge and it goes scary again. So you're always looking to diversify the economy and in this situation, there's real potential. They could extend the operation here tenfold. It could be the start of a huge industry."

South Africa, Brazil and Ireland have all made inquiries. "Maybe Canada should become the supplier to the rest of the world," he says. Besides, "The Sunless City", which was found by the area's first prospectors in 1914, is a "bloody awful book", he says, so it would be better if Flin Flon were known for something else.

Below ground lies what may well be Flin Flon's future when the last of the copper and zinc is chipped away. The distinctive leaves of 3,000 cannabis plants hang languidly from stalks well over 6ft high.

It is a botanical Cote d'Azur, albeit one produced by 150 1,000-watt sodium and halide sun-lamps dangling overhead.

The cavern's concrete walls are painted white and there are porous tiles on the floor to allow drainage. The first impression is one of brightness and space as the eye takes in the 230-cubic-yard growth chamber.

At least, that's what Mark Hetherington, Zettl's right-hand man and Prairie Plant's cannabis "quality control" officer, assures us. A trip down the mine is absolutely forbidden. Much to his chagrin, even Mayor Ballard has not been allowed down. "It's better protected than Fort Knox," he says. "I imagine the reason is politics. I don't know how the hell all of this wild, crazy dope is going to escape into the outside world."

Zettl says the paranoia about security is justified because he and his staff have already received death threats from irate drug dealers who believe the Canadian government will put them out of business.

Concerned about the ethical and public relations problems of using cannabis seeds from illegal producers, the Ottawa government has opted to supply Prairie Plant with seeds seized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"The good news is they got us some seed," says Hetherington. "The bad news is we don't know anything about its history."

Another gripe is that the hurdles that must be overcome to become registered as a medicinal cannabis user could lead to some deserving cases dying before they get there. Two doctors have to certify that every other form of pain relief has been tried without success.

But the Canadian Medical Association has declined to back medicinal marijuana, stating that clinical trials are needed first. In the meantime, some Mounties are by and large ignoring the "compassion clubs" that have sprung up around the country to dispense cannabis for medical use to those they judge as deserving cases.

Like most Canadians, Mayor Ballard - whose wife suffers from fibromyalgia which causes constant muscle pain - argues that the Canadian government should go full steam ahead.

"I'm all for it," he says. "If you've ever had a loved one with a terminal illness or chronic pain, then you really don't have an option. If it's going to do anything to help people, get on with it."

Mine workers have entered into the spirit by producing business cards with the Hudson Bay logo beside an image of a cannabis plant. Some wags have suggested Canadian flags with the illicit weed instead of the maple leaf.

At the Zig Zag Zone store on Flin Flon's Main Street, Chris Pilz has become the first entrepreneur to cash in on cannabis. Sales of T-shirts depicting cartoon miners singing `Hi Ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we grow" have been extraordinary and thanks to the internet, there is demand from around the world. "It's sending us to the Bahamas this winter," Pilz says.

The case against cannabis is articulated by Ron Dobson, 47, the intense, engaging editor of the Flin Flon Reminder newspaper. He accuses Pilz of glamourising the drug.

"I used to smoke a lot of pot, but in 1984, I left it behind," he says. "I was in that culture in the 1970s and I saw what damage it could do. I am dismayed how much light people are making of it. Smoking pot took away my initiative, my desire to improve myself. You just sat around and enjoyed the day."

The biggest fear of people like Dobson is the suspicion that this is a stalking horse for the full legalisation of cannabis. Allan Rock, the Canadian minister, used his visit to the mine in the summer to call for "a discussion in Canada about all of this".

Dobson shrugs. "When I used to smoke pot, I wondered if ever there would be a time when there would be a breakthrough and people would accept it. And this is it.

"Canada is a progressive country and sometimes in these issues, we progress a bit far. It's very liberal. On the one hand, I like that but, on the other, it can get you into trouble."

With the Mounties turning a blind eye to cannabis being handed out by compassionate clubs, and the courts reluctant to prosecute recreational users, it seems only a matter of time before the law is changed. Flin Flon's biggest tourist attraction is currently a grotesque, 24ft wooden statue of a cartoon version of the Flonatin character. But perhaps one day the town will raise a monument to its cannabis leaves and how they helped change the world's attitudes towards drugs.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2001