The sprawling copper mine that stretches deep below White Pine once employed thousands of people, helping make the remote Michigan town a thriving outpost of the state’s northern hinterland. Prices for the metal started to plummet, however, forcing the facility to shut down in 1996 and leaving White Pine a virtual ghost town. Suburban bungalows that once housed copper miners and their families now sell to vacationers for as little as $10,000. Now a Canadian company is promoting an unorthodox form of salvation for the area, floating a plan to grow marijuana inside the cavernous mine to serve the state’s legion of 180,000 licensed pot users. Like a similar subterranean operation that Prairie Plant Systems (PPS) owns in Manitoba, the Michigan site would offer security from theft, natural climate control and little chance of contamination, its supporters argue. Legislation expected to be introduced in both Michigan state chambers in the next week or two would set the stage for such industrial-scale production, outlining a series of standards that medical marijuana producers must meet. Michigan approved personal use of cannabis as a health product in 2008, but its somewhat chaotic implementation has undermined patient and public safety, said Brent Zettl, CEO of Prairie Plant. “They’ve got wide-open, unbridled access there. It’s about as convenient to find cannabis there as it is to pick up a bottle of pop and a bag of chips,” he said “I’m just saying, ‘Here’s a system that works. If you want to try it, it could be helpful. If you want us to step up, we will.’ ” Mr. Zettl’s company bought the abandoned Michigan mine in 2003 and already uses it to grow plants that have been genetically altered to produce medicines. In Canada, the core of its $7.6-million in revenue comes from selling marijuana grown at a mothballed mine in Flin Flon, Man., to the government. But PPS is struggling against conflicting currents in U.S. society: the newfound and growing acceptance of pot as therapy in states like Michigan, versus the fierce anti-drug mentality of the U.S. federal government. Even the marijuana mine’s proponents concede the plan will remain, well, a pipe dream without approval from Washington. In the meantime, the prospect of the mine being filled with emerald rows of pot plants is understandably enticing to those who have stuck it out in White Pine, located about 450 kilometres west of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Mr. Zettl said a marijuana green light could quickly bring the facility’s workforce to as many as 300 people, much fewer than the 3,000 who worked for the copper operation, but a major step for the community, nonetheless. Tammy Tuttle worked for the mine until it closed, then got a job at the local gas station. As White Pine’s population evaporated and schools shuttered, the gas station itself closed. Now she commutes 80 km to work in another town. “We need something like that,” said Ms. Tuttle of the marijuana-factory proposal. “You have to put a lot of miles on your car when you live here because there’s no grocery store … there’s no hospital here or clinic. It’s gotten to be pretty quiet.” The dream of a marijuana boom for White Pine stems from a 2008 Michigan referendum that made it legal for patients with serious conditions to possess marijuana for medical use, under a doctor’s care. It is among 16 states, and the District of Columbia, that have passed such laws, with more looking at the idea. The Michigan legislation has proven immensely popular, with close to 200,000 approved users, said Celeste Clarkson, manager of the state’s medical-marijuana registry. That compares with just 17,000 licensees in Canada — which has three times Michigan’s population — under a 2001 law. The policy has also produced a certain amount of disorder. Although the legislation does not legalize production of marijuana by anyone other than the patient or authorized caregiver, hundreds of pot “dispensaries” have cropped up across the state. There’s even one in White Pine’s mall, said Ms. Tuttle, though a recent court ruling has led to a police crackdown on the cannabis retailers. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the U.S. federal government still considers all forms of marijuana possession and trafficking a crime, a legitimate target of its long-standing war on drugs. “For us, there is no such thing as medical marijuana,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency. “Marijuana is marijuana. It’s illegal. There are no medical benefits to it from the government’s perspective, as of now. If the science tells us differently that could change, but as of now … we would not be for that.”
Mr. Payne acknowledged that the clash between the state medical-marijuana policies and federal drug prohibitions has created “an interesting dichotomy” but said that does not change the agency’s approach. “We don’t pick and choose what we enforce and don’t enforce,” he said. While debate over the health benefits of marijuana continues, there is, in fact, growing evidence of its value. Randomized clinical trials comparing cannabis to a placebo have suggested that smoking it can reduce pain and nausea from HIV and curb the effects of glaucoma, while consuming marijuana extracts can lessen spasms caused by MS and some types of pain, concludes a recently published review of previous research. “There’s no doubt about it, from the clinical standpoint, the science is there,” said Dr. Lawrence Leung, a Queen’s University family-medicine professor who wrote the paper. Dr. Leung noted, however, it is difficult to control the dose of the plant’s active ingredients when it is smoked, while mould that often forms on the plants can cause disease in some patients, and there is a risk of addiction in about 10% of users. Mr. Zettl stresses that the mine would be ideal for avoiding those quality and standardization problems, providing even temperatures year-round and a near-sterile environment. The Canadian admits the whole plan may turn out to be “a mission impossible.” But Chuck Perricone, a former Republican Speaker of the State House in Michigan and a lobbyist for PPS, said the growing number of jurisdictions buying into the idea of pot as medicine, plus the science behind it, will inevitably force Washington to change its tune. “The bottom line is that in the dark of the night, we all fear being seriously ill and being denied the ability to get our hands on the medication we believe will help us,” he said. “It is that fear that has driven the passage of medical marijuana laws in many states, and that fear is not going away.”
via : National Post
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