A high court gavel may have ordered the feds to keep doling out weed to the nation's sick this week, but it looks like the government's perpetually problematic stash is in trouble again. Medicinal marijuana advocates say that Ottawa's herb is laced with high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. It's yet another chapter in the tragicomedy of Canada's medical pot saga, marked by years of judicial tug of war, flip-flopping government support and notorious delays in the production of certifiably weak greens. Most recently, Canadians for Safe Access (CSA) decided to act on their mounting suspicion that growing medicinal herbs in an abandoned zinc and copper mine shaft could lead to contamination. The organization sent a sample of federal bud (as well organic herb for comparison) out to three labs for independent testing. When results uncovered much higher levels of toxic compounds like lead and arsenic in the government stash, the advocacy group started sounding alarms.
"Inhaling heavy metals or arsenic in your lungs - I don't have to tell you that can have some serious health consequences," says Philippe Lucas, CSA's director. "When we're talking about people who are already critically or chronically ill and in many cases have immune deficiencies, this becomes a much more dangerous situation."
But both the manufacturer (Prairie Plant Systems) and Health Canada were quick to discount the data. PPS co-founder Brent Zettl says that every batch of grass is measured for over two dozen heavy metals, and there has never been any indication of elevated levels.
"These allegations are not based on science or fact," says Zettl, pointing out that CSA refuses to identify its labs by name. Lucas says he's only protecting his sources because, though they are accredited labs, they aren't licensed to handle the illicit drug. But Zettl isn't convinced. "They might as well pull those results from the air," adds the former blueberry farmer turned national drug lord.
Then again, Health Canada, which safeguards all info on the pot project, won't share its findings with the public either. Its spokesperson, Jirina Vlk, will only say that its test results were much lower than CSA's. "(The results) are similar to what one finds in Canadian tobacco and are well within allowable limits," says Vlk.
But when asked what those limits are, Vlk admits there are no standards in place limiting the presence of heavy metals in either tobacco or marijuana. She does suggest that levels are well in line with heavy metal limits on echinacea and other herbs, which are allowed up to 5 parts per million of arsenic. (CSA's test revealed levels of 2 parts per million in the federal bud.)
Brennain Lloyd of North Watch, a public interest group that monitors northern mining, energy and forestry activity, argues that there is no safe level of arsenic exposure. "Both (lead and arsenic) will lead to long-term loading in the body, so it doesn't make sense to have those contaminants in medicinal marijuana."
And while Health Canada reassures NOW that these compounds can be found in "every agricultural product grown in the world," critics are quick to point out that not every crop is grown in Flin Flon, Manitoba.
The town has been a hotbed of mining and smelting activity since the early 1900s. And according to a Mining Watch report, over 4 tonnes of heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, are still dumped into Flin Flon's water annually, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes are released into the air. All thanks to the same company (Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting) that offered up an old mine shaft for PPS's underground pot op and still operates just 12 kilometres away.
Brettl insists that despite earlier media reports PPS does not use local soil, and that both air and water are well filtered before they are piped 366 metres below ground. "The water is clean, the soil is clean, the air is clean," says Zettl.
Regardless, Lucas says this week's move by Ontario appellate court to loosen legislation around who can grow herbs for ailing users and how much they can grow will spell the end of PPS's virtual monopoly over medicinal plant production in Canada.
"The (court has) just allowed a whole bunch of people to enter the market who know what they're doing and can do it better cheaper and faster," says Lucas. "That may be the death knell for that cultivation program in Flin Flon, Manitoba."