News  Alberta may grow opium-free poppies

Valuable crop would be used to produce medicinal drugs

If pharmaceutical research company API Labs’ non-narcotic strain of poppies is approved by the federal government, they may be grown in Lethbridge, Alberta as early as 2013. This would be Canada’s first commercial cultivation of poppies.

“We need to focus on innovation,” said Glen Metzler, president and directing manager of API Labs, arguing that agricultural research is central to the development of Canada’s economy.

The company hopes to kick-start the production of thebaine poppies, a unique species that does not produce opium. Instead, it provides a high yield of thebaine, a chemical used by pharmaceutical companies to produce medicinal drugs like OxyContin and codeine.

Metzler believes this crop could increase the independence of Canada’s economy, create 300 new jobs, and provide farmers with a viable cash crop.

Thebaine poppies are valued at $3,000-$6,000 per hectare as opposed to the $500-$700 per hectare value of typical crops such as wheat and barley.

“To me it comes down to [the] market and having a buyer in place for your commodity,” said Robert Spencer, commercial horticulture specialist for Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Farms and other businesses in the area have provided financial backing for the project, while the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce has begun lobbying the provincial and federal governments for financial support.

“We’re very much in support of this and we are going to take resolutions of support forward to be passed by the provincial Chamber of Commerce” said Paul Pharo, president of the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce.

There are concerns, however, that the increased availability of thebaine poppies could lead to its illegal diversion into the making of controlled substances, such as hydrocodone, with relative ease in a small-scale operation.

But according to Metzler, large-scale processing would require a $40-million facility and 70 per cent of the employees to be educated to a Master’s or PhD level, making it economically unfeasible for the poppies to be used in any significant trafficking operation.

Furthermore, reports from the Poppy Advisory Control Board of Tasmania, Australia, where thebaine poppies have been grown for 40 years, recount only 30 minor cases involving the illicit use of poppies, and only three cases resulting in prosecution.

Metzler hopes to initiate crop testing by spring, and begin widespread cultivation within the next three to five years. First, the proposal must undergo assessment by Health Canada, to ensure “the issuance of the license would not create a risk to public health, safety, or security; and, the activities to be carried out under the license do not infringe any of Canada’s international obligations.”

Southern Alberta was chosen as the ideal location for poppy cultivation due to its dry environment, which deters mould and fungi that would prey on the crop. Moreover, the high variation in temperature from day to night would produce higher thebaine yields from each poppy.

Currently, Canada is the only one of the G-8 countries that is not involved in poppy production, which has led to imports of up to $1.2 billion per year in poppy products.