Alberta chases the dragon

An editorial
by Chris Hibbard
The Meliorist

Alberta Chases the Dragon

Albertans from different walks of life have been speaking up lately about tiny little flowers. Specifically, two people have been talking about Alberta’s untapped potential for growing opium poppies, an idea that invites controversy and is sure to ignite a big debate.

Peter Facchini, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at the University of Calgary and the Canada Research Chair in Plant Biotechnology, has spent the better part of the last decade attempting to genetically modify opium so that they produce higher levels of codeine and lower levels of morphine – poppies that can no longer be used for the manufacture of heroin. Through his work at the U of C, Facchini operates one of only two poppy labs in the world.

If Facchini’s life’s work (solving the mysteries of opium poppies) continues to progress successfully, the ‘new’ poppies could allow farmers to grow morphine-free opium poppies. These poppies could become a valuable alternative cash crop for farmers in Alberta and around the world, without the additional risks and problems associated with illicit narcotics.

Why are they interested in growing poppies here in Alberta? There’s no short answer I’m afraid, but here are some facts about the little flowers that pack a definite punch. They paint an interesting picture.

1. Opium poppies are the only source of morphine and codeine, the active ingredients in many pain relief products.

2. The morphine derived from these plants is also used in some parts of the world for the illicit production of narcotic heroin.

3. Only five countries, including Australia and France are sanctioned by the United Nations to grow opium poppies for pharmaceutical use.

4. The poppy (Papaver somniferum) has been grown, processed, refined and studied for over 4000 years.

5. Along with providing the raw materials for the illegal drug trade in high-grade heroin, the poppy is also a valuable food crop, a favourite ornamental garden flower, and a symbol to honour the memory of our fallen soldiers.

6. Afghanistan provides 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opium, mostly as heroin sent to Europe.

7. A third of Afghanistan’s national income (approximately $3.3 billion dollars) comes from the annual illegal opium poppy crop. The Afghan poppy business involves an estimated three million people in all 28 of the country’s provinces.

8. Australia has been producing and exporting whole poppies and refined morphine and codeine for 40 years, an annual average business of $178 million. (India is the world’s only legal producer of raw opium.)

9. Canada is the world’s number one consumer of opium-based codeine, importing an estimated $100 million worth of painkillers every year.

10. The sale of heroin and other opiates has been against federal laws in the U.S. since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, and specifically in Canada since 1961.

11. Alberta’s climate is ideal for growing opium poppies.

Dr. Facchini’s work acted as a partial catalyst for another gentleman’s involvement. Glen Metzler, head of Metzler Trading Company Ltd., based right here in Lethbridge, has written letters to the provincial and federal agriculture ministers, lobbying for opium poppy production in Alberta for pharmaceutical use in Canada.

If his letters achieve their desired effect, Health Canada would issue a special permit to start field trials in the Lethbridge area. Metzler has been quoted as saying, “Australia’s been growing poppies for 40 years now and very successfully. They’ve had up to 22,000 hectares in production. For their farmers, it does exceptionally well.”

Peter Facchini echoes these views. He has said that the proposed poppy industry could inject $100 million a year into the Canadian economy. “We certainly have varieties of opium poppy that could be cultivated in Canada right now and that could provide a new source of extensive revenue…to farmers in Western Canada,” he said. “Farmers benefit because they could cultivate the opium poppy as a cash crop to supplement their production of commodities like wheat and barley, for example,” he said. “You could also build the processing plant nearby.”

In Tasmania, this is exactly what has been done. The raw plant material from the poppies is transported to a nearby pharmaceutical processing plant and turned into pharmaceutical products.

As the World Health Organization claims that medical treatment in developing countries is hindered by the high cost of opium-based drugs and the Canadian military says that their mission in Afghanistan is hindered daily by giant fields of opium poppies and cannabis, these two gentleman seem to be proposing a viable solution to both problems.

Yet the basis for controversy is certainly not unfounded. Starting in the 1500s, British ships traded opium from India for tea from China. By the 1700s, China had 14 million opium addicts, prompting a strict ban on all opium imports. In a familiar turn of events, this opium ban caused the European powers to launch military campaigns against China, forever known as the Opium Wars. However, by this time, opium was being consumed by members of Queen Victoria’s court and by poets and writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey. Fast forward to a young America, and ‘opium dens’ were commonplace – safe havens to “chase the dragon” – until the new American government cracked down on opium and other drugs (including alcohol) with a vengeance.

So it is fairly reasonable to assume that our neighbours down south would take some issue with Canada choosing to grow the stuff legally – not to mention many of our own more conservative politicians. (Ahem… Harper…)

The other glaring question revolves around security. Even if the plants were to be genetically engineered, they would still be valuable, even if as a trade secret rather than an illicit ingredient. How do we mass-produce an intoxicating drug and still keep it from falling into the proverbial wrong hands?

It is not likely that anything will come of this issue for many years to come, but it provides some interesting food for thought about the future of our province and our country. Consider yourself served and bon appetit.

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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