Interview With Health Canada

Interview With Health Canada

Source: Cannabis Health vol 2, Issue 1
Pub date: Nov-Dec 2003
Subj: Interview With Health Canada

Health Canada was the final interview in this series and for the sake of brevity and clarity the interview with Valerie Lasher, and Dr. Richard Viau has been organized into topics.

Valerie Lasher is with the Office of Cannabis Mecical Access and Richard Viau PhD. is Director of Drug Analysis Service, Health Canada.

Prairie Plant Systems

Comments on the quality of cannabis and recent criticism by some patients.

Richard made it clear that quality was important, but, he was not convinced that stronger was better, pointing out again that scientific research was not available on this and other quality issues. He used the example of personal taste and preferences in whisky, beer, and cigarettes and went on to explain that no real science exists to support these preferences or some of the personal preferences expressed by cannabis users.

Valerie stated that only 2 patients have returned the product, and she expressed her regrets that some potential cannabis users might be frightened off by the reports of basically two patients.

Richard reported that product that they ordered from PPS was to be grown as close to the desired THC level as possible and then blended to achieve a THC level of 10% plus or minus 1.5%

Reduction of the THC levels was achieved by adding minimal amounts of lower THC leaf and stalk or small sticks. When asked if this made the product less smokable, Richard reminded me that HC did not recommend smoking anything.

When questioned on the slippery issue of "organic" his opinion was that since there is no official definition, the one used for plant food products was, the absence of the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Richard pointed out that if this definition is used, then the PPS product qualifies as organic. "However, the use of such a nebulous term in a scientific context is problematic since it is not clear what is meant if anything".

We asked Richard if the THC testing was as easily manipulated as James Burton had indicated in his interview.

He confirmed that yes, manipulation of results is possible, and sometimes desired, but, properly calibrated testing of the type used in the testing of the PPS product was extremely accurate in establishing cannabinoid levels and detecting any adulteration.

On the future of compassion clubs:

Individual US states and other countries have chosen to work with the existing club or other group distribution system. Valerie made it clear that the distribution networks that have been set up in Canada are illegal and the responsibility for dealing with this issue will be with the police and the justice system. not HC

On patient Involvement:

Both Valerie and Richard were happy with having 2 medical patients on the committee. Valerie indicated that patient input was also happening at the patient advocacy group level with the involvement of patients through their advocacy groups like HIV Aids, and the Arthritis society.

They pointed out that the committee was already large, and dealing with a highly sensitive issue affecting the whole community, a large number of stakeholder groups want representation.

On research

Over the course of the interview Richard made numerous comments on the need for more scientific data and clinical trials, specifically in relation to strength/potency and on smoking and vaporization.

He indicated the same concerns in relation to the impact of specific cannabinoids like CBDs and the whole strain efficacy debate.

Valerie announced that new other research initiatives were under consideration and that research at the University of McGill was proceeding using PPS product and she was optimistic that the work initiated by CRIT would be continued.

On Insurance coverage:

Valerie said an issue for insurance companies was that cannabis is not an "approved drug" which explains why insurance companies will be reluctant to cover the cost.

Valerie expressed her desire to improve communications with the medical cannabis community. Those of you who have followed our journal over the past year will realize that granting this on-therecord interview is in itself a breakthrough.

Thanks to Richard and Valerie for the interview and their co-operation.

Brent Zettl
Prairie Plant Systems


(Editors Comment) In early 2000, a year or so before the start of this journal, I led a team for the Cannabis Research Institute that responded to the Canadian federal government's call for a company to grow medical quality marijuana. I was elated at the chance to interview Brent Zettle the head of Prairie Plant Systems, the company that landed that first Canadian contract.

In general terms Brent, how have things gone?

Brent Zettle: This project has been a total personal challenge, and by far the easiest part has been the growing of the cannabis.

Dealing with the regulations, the exhaustive analyses and testing has been demanding, but frankly, communications with, and the expectations of Health Canada has been the biggest challenge. This is a sensitive political issue and the high turnover of staff has made communications more difficult.

The marijuana that was sent out from Health Canada to a select number of doctors in Canada has now been tried by some of the patients. Considering the obvious frustration with Health Canada expressed by some medical users, one could argue that being rated as 6 out of 10 is not a bad a rating for your introductory product.

Brent: I am pleased at the reception our product is receiving. Using cloning to reproduce the same genetics in each plant, we can produce our marijuana very close to the limit of 10% THC that Health Canada requires. In this release of product, we have chosen a strain that produces very close to 10%, and we have been required to make minor potency adjustments.

How would you compare the product being delivered by the Dutch government to your product? I understand that the Dutch product will test at 15% with the higher potency, better quality reaching 18%.

Brent: To be fair, we have genetics and can produce plants with 25% THC but at this stage we are being told by Health Canada to produce 10% THC and we are. Also you have to consider the testing methods and the accuracy. PPS uses the LCMS液体クロマトグラフ質量分析計(LC-MS) method as opposed to the standard GC test and we provide a profile of 5 cannabinoids, THC, CBD, CBC, CBG,and CBN.

The safety of our product is the major concern for our company. Our testing identifies a broad range of potentially dangerous mold spores and residuals that could negatively affect patients with compromised immune systems. As well, our testing provides the most accurate cannabinoid profile.

How about the issue of variety and cost? Patients are saying that some strains are better and variety works best.

Brent: We are aware that patients are seeking variety and saying that some strains work better. You have to understand that we are working within a new and sensitive field. Under the rules and restrictions established by Health Canada and other regulating agencies, PPS is producing the best quality product possible.

We could provide variety, but right now the order is for one strain with a stable cannabinoid profile, and 10% THC. Health Canada has established the cost to the patients.

I am interested in the delivery and packaging.

Brent:: Our product is delivered in heat sealed air locked plastic bags. The marijuana is manicured, the moisture level is controlled and the plant material is predominantly mature female flower.

As you are aware, the federal RFP called for the delivery of rolled joints. Pre rolling is not attractive to the consumer. Holland and Canada both concurred that patients want the freedom to custom roll their joints or to use the product in a pipe or other delivery choice.

What do you think about the current nutrient war, and, do you favor a particular nutrient company?

Brent: PPS treats cannabis like any of the other plant we are asked to grow. It is interesting how some factions would like to convince you that growing cannabis is a mystical and magical process.

We approach cannabis as an elastic and highly adaptive plant, but in the end we look at the necessary 13 macro and micro nutrients that all plants require and we prepare our own nutrient formulas.

The other science we introduce is when you feed, how much you feed and in what nutrient ratios you feed the essential nutrients. In short, we have great lab facilities and we do not get involved in the politics and the competition over cannabis nutrient

Those who are aware of the RFP are interested in how PPS is doing financially with this contract and question who will own what at the end of the contract.

Brent: No windfalls, on this project, PPS is just holding their own. We have seen changes and additional testing requirements, and again security costs that have kept our costs up.

For instance, money saved from rolling has gone into packaging that delivers a product that is sealed and moisture controlled and safe.

Health Canada owns the genetics. The intellectual property is owned by PPS. As far as the future goes, we see the potential of the industry and we are looking at developing strains with cannabinoid profiles that address the increasing sophistication of research into cannabis and specific illness.

How do you deal with the politics?

Brent: From my perspective the changes that are unfolding are driven by the courts. Allen Rock had a vision for how this program would evolve, he was open and expected feedback. Ann McLelleand brought another approach, less open, more cautious.

But to understand how the problems develop you must look at the whole reality. HC is forced to deal with a new hot issue, few rules, no history and nervous politicians. Many of their people have never been in the spotlight, far less under the hot lights of weekly national television.

So what can we do better?

Brent: I see many of the problems as communications problems. Again, we are a company that is working within very tight parameters set by the government. Lots of details are being worked out and I am well aware of the cautious pace.

These are my tax dollars being spent. The most important improvement would be to introduce more openness, more transparency; be positive, the public is ready, they just want to know what is going on.

Too many unanswered questions: Health Canada Cannabis

Between the time of this first interview and our print deadline a number of medical patients and other cannabis activists took exception to the cannabis released by Health Canada and grown by Prairie Plant Systems. We reconnected with Brent to discuss the negative reactions of some medical patients.

What do you think is happening here?

Brent: I hesitate to point fingers at any one individual, however the persons that have released the so called results of secret testing are way off the mark, and frankly most appear to have a vested interest.

The agenda of this group appears to be organic growing and anger that the government has chosen not to support the distribution by these clubs and groups. Our product has gone through exhaustive analyses with both inhouse and independent testing.

If it wasn't for the fact that this emotional attack reflects so poorly on the credibility of the attackers, we would consider legal action.

What do you think of the pictures they have posted on their web site?

Brent: I can only speculate on what may have happened Is it our product, or has it been tampered with? Who knows? Emotions are running high and people have attitude and a vested interest.