Opium poppies could become southern Alberta’s next – legal – cash crop
by Carol Harrington
With a quick glance it looks like a covert operation straight out of a sophisticated spy novel. Secured by motion detectors and alarms, inside a light- and temperature-controlled room on the roof of the University of Calgary’s science building, Peter Facchini grows his mutant plants.
A closer look at this elaborate scientific operation, one realizes that it is simply a greenhouse for flowers. Poppies, to be exact.
University biology students call their professor Dr. Feelgood, a nod to the glam metal band Mötley Crüe’s 1989 album title. That’s because Facchini researches various opium poppies and their pain-numbing, analgesic properties.
“The poppy world is very strange, there is no question about it,” says Facchini. “There are the social and political aspects of this, and people get excited about it, even within the licit industry.”
Glen Metzler, a Lethbridge businessman, has been learning firsthand just how strange the poppy world is. Two years ago, his market development research firm, Metzler Trading Co., was hired to find a poppy seed supplier. That made him aware of some curious facts: Canada is the only G8 country that isn’t involved in growing or processing poppy; farmers elsewhere earn $3,500 to $6,000 per hectare growing poppy; Canada last year imported $7.4 billion of pharmaceutical products derived from poppy.
Metzler couldn’t ignore the obvious business opportunity. A company serving just 10% of that market would have serious sales. So he brought together several farmers and businesspeople as partners and teamed up with the University of Calgary to commercially grow medicinal poppies in southern Alberta to be processed in a planned $40-million pharmaceutical plant near Lethbridge. The initiative, under the recently formed API Labs Inc., is an example of how a lucrative industry can be developed for Canadians by Canadians, Metzler says, adding that the project could create 150 jobs at the plant and inject about $300 million annually into the economy.
“Canada should be involved in this industry,” he says. “The key for farming in Canada in the future is innovation. We have to develop new markets and ideas. So we say, ‘Let’s develop this value-added product for Canadians in need of pain-management control.’ If this isn’t the definition of innovation, I don’t know what is.”
The proposal does sound ideal for southern Alberta. After all, poppies thrive in the semi-arid conditions that characterize the region. Just ask Dr. Feelgood, who despite his tongue-in-cheek nickname boasts the worldwide distinction of devoting 15 years solely to researching papaver somniferum, a.k.a. the opium poppy.
“I like to describe poppy as the cockroach of plants,” he says. “When everything else on earth is gone, there will be poppies and cockroaches left. These things, they are very hardy and southern Alberta is a perfect breeding ground.”
API Labs’ main hurdle, and it’s a big one, is to obtain a license from Health Canada’s Office of Controlled Substances. Last year, Metzler applied for such a license and was turned down; he was told by the federal department that it would not at the time consider changing the existing legal framework for commercial opium production. But like the hardy prosperous poppy, Metzler is determined.
“I’m confident that we will move ahead with this project,” he says. “And if we don’t we’ll keep pushing until we do. There’s no downside; it’s all upside.”
Most Canadians know of the poppy through the national tradition of wearing a red and black plastic replica as an enduring symbol of Remembrance Day, honouring the military sacrifice of fallen soldiers buried in Flanders’ fields. There’s that, and imported poppy seeds are used in culinary dishes and baked goods.
Poppy plants are commercially grown in about 20 countries to make the painkiller pharmaceuticals morphine and codeine. The poppy is unique, as it is the only plant capable of biologically synthesizing the alkaloid morphine. It also produces at least twenty other alkaloids, the most important painkillers being codeine, oripavine and thebaine, which is manufactured into oxycodone (OxyContin), buprenorphine (Subutex), naloxone (Narcan) and naltrexone (ReVia).
There’s a dark side to the opium poppy. It’s also the raw organic source for the illicit drug, heroin, an extremely addictive, lucrative drug exported from parts of Asia and Latin America. Ever since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, the war-torn country has increasingly escalated its poppy cultivation, now accounting for 92% of the world’s heroin production.
In fact, poppy and heroin production currently accounts for about half of Afghanistan’s gross national product. As a reporter in Afghanistan in 2004, I watched farmhands in poppy fields score the large green bulbs with a five-pronged metal instrument, prompting a milky latex liquid ooze from the plant. After baking in the hot sun for a few days, the liquid becomes a thick brown opium on the pod, which is scraped off by dull knives, dumped into buckets destined for makeshift, crude heroin kitchens where morphine is extracted, then by adding simple acidic chemicals, including vinegar, it becomes heroin. The crude science is called bucket chemistry.
During droughts, desperate farmers fight with one another over sparse irrigation to water their poppy fields. Lawless warlords and commanders who rule the countryside force many farmers to grow poppy for heroin, rea-ping rewards by extorting a percentage of the farmers’ harvests. Some farmers who don’t want to grow poppies complained to me that they have no choice: they are ruled by violent threats. Although the Afghan federal government of Hamid Karzai vows to eradiate poppies, little has been accomplished. In a country that is one of the five poorest in the world, officials are easily bribed or, worse, killed.
A kilogram of heroin in Afghanistan fetches $800 to $1,000, which jumps to $10,000 in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, skyrocketing up to $300,000 in Western Europe, where most of the drug is exported.
Periodically, some well-meaning groups recommend that the illicit Afghan poppy trade is redirected into the legal pharmaceutical industry. Even Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Ducceppe earlier this year suggested purchasing Afghan poppies for pharmaceutical proces-sing in Canada.
Facchini, who serves as a technical adviser to the API Labs venture, scoffs at such proposals, pointing out that Afghanistan’s black-market poppy production is 20 times more than the entire world’s licit production. “I think in a country that is as unstable as that, I doubt it is possible to regulate something like this,” he adds.
The legal opium poppy market is tightly regulated by international treaties and special trade agreements. Opium cultivation first came under international control in 1912, when the Opium Convention came into force, with numerous successive treaties superseding, including the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Australia, which began its commercial opium poppy industry in 1970, is now the world’s largest legal producer of morphine and codeine as well as over-the-counter analgesic drugs, mainly manufactured by a subsidiary of the American pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. Last year the Australians grew 18,000 hectares of poppy, hiking it to 34,000 hectares this year. “We look at Australia as a model,” Metzler says of API Labs’ southern Alberta poppy plan.
Metzler says that when he initially touted the project proposal, many officials feared that organized crime mobs could take over the commercial poppies for heroin production, turning southern Alberta into a little Afghanistan. “Lethbridge Mayor Bob Tarlick, when he initially heard about the project, he said, ‘We don’t want bikers running this,’” Metzler recalls.
To avert any such scenario API Labs plans to grow only thebane poppies, an opium mutant poppy, whereby the biochemical pathway that normally leads to morphine is genetically blocked, making it far more difficult to produce morphine and heroin.
“Thebane is not narcotic,” Facchini explains. “You can convert thebane into morphine or heroin but you would need a chemist to do it in an elaborate facility.”
Even so, API Labs has hired Lloyd Hickman, a retired RCMP officicer who oversaw the security for the 2003 G8 Summit in Kananaskis, to devise a security plan to protect the poppies. “There will be ISO standards that will be established to deal with organized crime,” Metzler says.
While it currently exists only on paper, API Labs is setting office and lab space at the University of Lethbridge and applying for government funding for research trials. The $40 million to build its processing plant would come from Metzler and his partners, bank financing and a large, pharmaceutical partner. The company is in negotiations with two multinational drug companies that are interested in becoming project partners, Metzler says. At this point, the proposal is to produce pharmaceuticals for the Canadian market, but they could some day export painkillers.
The big hurdle now is to get permission from the federal government. The province is onside. Alberta Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld wrote to Metzler in June, confirming the province’s commitment to the project once federal approval is received.
After meeting with federal officials in Ottawa last spring, Metzler and Facchini are optimistic that they will get a licence from the Office of Controlled Substances to commercially grow poppy. They point out that the existing law doesn’t have to be rewritten; the federal health minister can simply write a regulation, as Ottawa did for the country’s hemp industry and medicinal marijuana growers. Given a prompt approval, API would commence trials at federal and provincial research stations in Brooks and Lethbridge, respectively, next year. The first commercial seeding could be as early as the spring of 2009.
Farmers involved in the project, who for years have been struggling from paltry grain prices ($800 to $850 per acre for wheat), say poppy farming will be a cash boon.
“It would give us another crop, a cash crop, which is important,” says Lloyd Mercer, who for 40 years has farmed 25 kilometres
southeast of Letbhridge. “It will pay more per acre than any other crop we’ve grown. All we need now is some political will from the federal government.”