More MS news articles for July 2001

Canadian mining town discovers a pot of gold

BY Annette Witheridge in New York
(Filed: 29/07/2001)

A REMOTE mining town, at the heart of a gold rush early last century, is enjoying a fresh boom after being picked as Canada's first government-licensed centre for growing marijuana.

Allan Rock, the country's health minister, will open the cultivation plant this week in a disused mine shaft 1,000ft below the oddly named town of Flin Flon on the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces.

The cannabis plants are being grown for medicinal research and for the 140 Canadians legally registered to smoke the drug, which can be used to relieve pain by those suffering chronic medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and arthritis.

When the authorities announced that Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon had won a £3.5 million contract to grow marijuana, the news barely registered among Flin Flon's 7,000 residents.

They are now finding, however, that their town has become an inspiration for cannabis campaigners around the world.

With the legalisation debate growing in other countries including Britain, the Flin Flon economy has been given an unexpected fillip. Internet sales of a T-shirt - depicting a dopey looking miner pushing a cart of marijuana and singing "High ho! High ho! It's off to work we go" - have gone through the roof, and the town's only novelty store is doing so well that it has moved to bigger premises.

Prospectors discovered gold near the town, 600 miles north of Winnipeg, in 1910 and originally called their settlement Beaver City. By 1914, they had changed the name to Flin Flon in honour of a fictional character called Josiah Flintabattey Flonatin - from a turn-of-the-century novel called The Sunless City - who found a city laden with gold at the bottom of a lake.

The gold rush did not last long and, despite a brief revival during the 1920s when seams of copper and zinc were found, the town sank into obscurity for the next eight decades until a novel use was found for the disused shafts.

The underground pot plants, housed in a giant greenhouse three times the size of a football field and cultivated under special lighting by a team of 20 gardeners and researchers, were planted two months ago. For this Thursday's official opening, Flin Flon's three hotels are fully booked as Mr Rock, his entourage and a curious media pack arrive to see the marijuana mine for the first time.

One of the few people concerned about the town's fresh fame is Ron Dobson, editor of the Flin Flon Reminder newspaper. He said: "I think this is sending out the wrong message to children. We have a lot to offer here. We are in the heart of beautiful countryside; there's fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter."

He added: "But now we will be known for more dubious reasons. However, I think I'm the only person here who is annoyed about it. Everyone else seems to be delighted."

Chris Pilz, a local businessman who runs the Zig Zag Zone novelty store and has designed T-shirts on the theme with his artist brother-in-law, said: "This is the best thing to happen to Flin Flon since the gold rush. The marijuana mine has not so much propped up business but ripped it right through the roof. We can barely keep up with internet sales. We've had orders of up to a 1,000 T-shirts a time from as far away as Europe, South America and the Caribbean."

He added: "My shop used to be in a dingy basement. Now we've been able to move into a spacious suite. We used to sell just rock and pop memorabilia and posters. Now we have coffee mugs, T-shirts and sweatshirts, all depicting the marijuana mine. There's also a special dope-smoking calendar in the works."

However, the new development gets no mention on the town's official website. Instead, it boasts "something for everyone" - including an annual trout fishing festival, a wildlife sanctuary, a camp site and an underground "Secret Garden", which grows fruit, vegetables and flowers.

The community is dominated by a 24ft statue of Flin Flon's eponymous founding character. Described on the website as "the gateway" to the town, it could soon become a place of pilgrimage for the world's dope smokers.