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Praire Plant System's marijuana is grown underground near Flin Flon, Man. ((File/CBC))

Demand for medical marijuana has grown by 80 per cent this year for a Saskatoon company that grows the plant in an old northern Manitoba mine shaft, its president said.

In fact, Health Canada has asked Prairie Plant Systems Inc. to produce more medical marijuana at its underground facility near Flin Flon, Man.

The company hassigned a one-year contract extension with Health Canada to grow the medical marijuana and has received its largest order in the past five years, said Prairie Plant president Brent Zettl.

Zettl wouldn't specify how much marijuana his companyhas to produce, but did say itgrew 420 kilograms last year and the demand has jumped by about 80 per cent over last year.

Expansion required

He said the new demand means he'llhave to expand Prairie Plant's operations and hiremore people. The company also recently opened a new 15,000-foot head office and laboratory in Saskatoon.

"We have to do some upgrades and minor expansions and some tweaking of our facilities, so it's going to require about $500,000 worth of investment in the underground chamber in order to bring it up to speed," he said.

Ten people currently work in the Flin Flon facility, Zettl said. He added thathe would like to hire more people from the town and surrounding areas.

"We think that this program has tremendous merit. We're actually quite excited about the fact that we're right in the pioneering edge of this coming into its own as a true medicine," he said.

Officials from Health Canada would not comment on the latest order, but officials said it provides marijuana to patients who suffer from serious illnesses and for whom conventional therapies don't work.

More than 1,400 Canadians are authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes. Of those, 300 people receive it from the Prairie Plant product grown near Flin Flon. Patients must have the support of their doctors to be considered for authorization.

Not concerned about pot study cuts

Despite the company's growth, Zettl said he's not worried about the federal government's recently wavering commitment to funding medicinal marijuana.

Last month, Ottawa cut a $4-million program to study the medically therapeutic properties of cannabis, as part ofcost-saving measures.

"I'm not overly concerned about… having this fund reduced," Zettl said. "It just means that it's going to have to become more mainstream. Which is not a bad thing."

A group of medical marijuana users, researchers and advocates haverecentlycalled on Ottawa to conduct performance audits of the federal medical cannabis program in light of Health Canada's contract renewal with Prairie Plant Systems.

As well, some critics have alleged that Prairie Plant's marijuana is not of good quality— an allegation thathas long dogged the firm andthe federalmedical cannabis program since 2001.But Zettl defended his product, saying the return rate is less than one per cent.

"That means that 99.5 per cent or thereabouts or better have accepted the product and are continuing to buy it on a monthly basis," he said.