FLIN FLON, Manitoba (AP) — Growing marijuana is an underground industry, especially when the Canadian government is the customer.
Deep in the earth of northern Manitoba, in an old copper mine turned underground greenhouse, 3,000 pot plants are being grown for Canada's newly expanded medical marijuana program.
The plants, nurtured by Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan under a five-year $3.7 million government contract, are thriving in the controlled subsurface environment of Canada's first legal marijuana farm.
Health Minister Allan Rock went down for a look Thursday and said the 43-day-old plants were almost as tall as he is — six feet.
Court decisions cleared the way for medical marijuana in Canada, Rock said, as well as an efficient, legal supply chain. So, he contracted Prairie Plant Systems to grow government-regulated marijuana for distribution to qualifying patients and for medical research.
As a lawyer and former justice minister, Rock said he could have delayed the implementation of the court rulings for decades.
``That was not the right thing to do. The right thing to do was to make (medical marijuana) available,'' he said after his tour. ``We have medical morphine and medical heroin, why not medical marijuana?''
Prairie Plants operations in other abandoned mines, including one in Michigan, have shown how plants thrive underground, where temperatures are stable and variables such as light and nutrients can be controlled.
The Trout Lake mine near Flin Flon is a bustling hydroponics lab carved out of the rock hundreds of yards below the surface.
Under tight security and the glare of powerful grow lights, the plants fill the chamber with a musky, sweet odor.
``It's an incredible experience to see this operation,'' Rock said of the underground operation named in his honor as the Rock Garden.
Once the company harvests its first crop in October, the Canadian government will inaugurate a distribution system for patients with terminal illnesses or serious conditions including severe arthritis. Rock said details for distribution still need to be worked out and could include using doctors or pharmacies.
Flin Flon Mayor Dennis Ballard was thankful for the publicity the marijuana mine has brought the city of 7,000, even if it comes with ``humor and some controversy.''
A local shop, the Zig Zag Zone, has sold nearly 10,000 T-shirts touting Flin Flon as the ``Marijuana Capital of Canada.''
Prairie Plant president Brent Zettl hailed the project as the beginning of a new ``biological era'' in technology, where production of pharmacological plants can move beyond laboratories.
Rock said other countries already have expressed interest in learning more about the expanded Canadian medical marijuana program that took effect Monday, along with the supply system.
The Canadian policy differs sharply with the United States, where the Supreme Court affirmed a federal ban on medical marijuana earlier this year.
Canada also has a legal hemp industry, banned south of the border, and its Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case challenging the constitutionality of criminal marijuana laws.
A Parliament committee has been established to look at the nation's drug laws, including the issue of decriminalization of marijuana.
Rock said Canada has to adhere to international treaties regarding drugs and drug laws, but insisted the government was committed to a ``made-in-Canada drug policy.''