Company wants to grow quality medical marijuana in old [Michigan Upper Peninsula] mine – by Paul Egan (Detroit Free Press – April 22, 2012)

WHITE PINE — In this hard-luck town in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula, rumors persist of a company growing pot deep in the bowels of a former copper mine nearby.

In 2010, the rumors got so bad, the State Police contacted the owners and asked to inspect the White Pine Mine sometime in the next couple of days.

“No, right now,” SubTerra official Mark Pierpont said he told them, not wanting lingering suspicions that he had spent a day hiding a stash of marijuana.

Trooper Timothy Rajala later reported how he “entered the mine in a vehicle which we drove approximately 1 mile underground” before reaching a sealed and brightly lit chamber he could only enter after washing down his feet and putting on clean clothes.

Inside, Rajala “noted several plants that were not narcotic,” he wrote. “There was no evidence of marijuana nor any signs of suspicious activity.”

Still, Rajala’s tip had a grain of truth.

The mine’s owners want to use its underground chambers to create the state’s largest pot farm with a potential market of 131,000 Michiganders (about 1 in every 75 residents) who hold medical marijuana certificates. The company, Prairie Plant Systems (PPS), already has a contract to supply medical marijuana in Canada.

Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana in 2008, but few people think the regulatory system is working. “Chaos” is a word frequently used by editorial writers and other critics.

Officials with PPS and its Michigan subsidiary, SubTerra, which now uses the White Pine Mine for other plant-based pharmaceutical research, granted exclusive access to the mine and the company’s plans to a Free Press reporter and photographer. They say their methods would stress security, safety and science, treating pot as a pharmaceutical, rather than a street drug.

“There’s a need to bring this under the proper reins of appropriate manufacturing for patient safety and for public safety,” said Brent Zettl, president and CEO of PPS, a plant-based biopharmaceutical company based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

But Zettl acknowledges he has major state and federal hurdles to clear before he can convert the mine, which closed in 1996.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder would all have to sign off, and in the case of the first two agencies, reverse direction on policy. Federal agencies consider marijuana illegal. DEA agents have not cracked down on small operations to supply licensed patients but almost certainly would view SubTerra as a major bust opportunity.

The FDA supports research to capture marijuana’s benefits in tablet form, but opposes “the use of smoked marijuana for medical purposes,” spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said.

Growing marijuana hundreds of feet underground — the same way the company started its Canadian operations in 2001 — provides security, constant temperature, controlled light and humidity, and protects the plants from bugs and diseases, eliminating the need for harmful pesticides and herbicides, Zettl said. He said any medical marijuana sold in Michigan should be subject to the same regular and rigorous testing as is found in Canada.

To help get around a federal ban on the sale of controlled substances, state law relies on the legal fiction that licensed caregivers provide patients with marijuana for free and get paid for helping patients register.

Canada, with a population of 34 million, has 17,000 patients approved for medical marijuana. Michigan, with less than a third as many people, has nearly eight times more cannabis patients, and a few physicians have been accused of indiscriminately approving patients to use the drug.

An explosion in medical marijuana dispensaries caused control headaches for cities. The shutdown of most dispensaries as a result of a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in August broke the supply chain.

But Zettl says there is a more fundamental problem in Michigan.

With no testing or standards, nobody knows what Michigan patients are smoking. In Canada, Zettl’s cannabis is tested not just for active ingredients such as THC, but for mold, fungus, pathogens — including bacteria — and metals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.

“We’ve breached the first cardinal rule of pharmaceutical manufacturing,” Zettl said. “It doesn’t have any safety bells or whistles.”

PPS began in 1988 developing disease-free berry trees and other products aimed at farmers. It later moved into medical cannabis and plant-based pharmaceutical research. The company had to leave the leased facility where it grew its medical cannabis in Manitoba in 2008 because the owner wanted to resume mining. It now grows the plants above ground at a location kept secret at the request of the Canadian government.

Zettl, who has a farming background and a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, said the company had 2011 sales of $7.6 million, about 75% of which came from medical cannabis contracts with the Canadian government. Its SubTerra subsidiary acquired the White Pine Mine in 2003.

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