Poppies for legal painkillers closer to reality for Alberta

Import replacement Lethbridge company sees locally grown product displacing 
imports from Europe and Australia

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Poppies get a bad rap because of the opium variety used in the illegal drug trade, so it’s sometimes forgotten that they are also a source of important legal painkilling drugs. Canada is a major user of these painkillers, especially oxycodone and codeine, but this country neither grows poppies nor processes the narcotic raw materials into medications. It’s the only G8 country that doesn’t have its own production systems.

Glen Metzler, of API Labs Inc. in Lethbridge intends to change that and make Alberta a centre of poppy production for painkillers in North America. His dream is coming closer to reality with plant trials in southern Alberta this summer.

Many countries have produced and processed the alkaloids from poppies into painkillers for many years, but most grow the traditional opium or morphine poppy (Papaver somniferum), which produce a resin that can easily be diverted into the illegal drug market. Metzler plans to grow thebaine poppies, which produce thebaine, an alkaloid that cannot be converted into heroin or related narcotics, but is an excellent raw material for processing into codeine and oxycodone.

Thebaine is considered a controlled substance rather than a narcotic, and requires a much lower level of security. Thebaine poppies have been grown for over 20 years, mainly in Australia, Spain and France, but more recently in Britain as well. The demand for thebaine is increasing about six times faster than that for the traditional poppy resin, which has increased about 35 per cent in the last five years. According to a 2010 statement from the International Narcotics Control Board, global stocks of thebaine are 17 per cent undersupplied. Production increases in Australia and other regions have been absorbed in the last few years.

Favourable climate

Metzler sees potential for as much as 25,000 acres of poppies in Western Canada. He says the warm days and cool nights of the Prairies are generally ideal for poppies.

This year is the first year his company has field trials. “It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point, where we can finally do some field research,” he says. The current trials focus on testing a range of poppy varieties to find some that are well suited to Prairie conditions. They’ll also be working on developing agronomic systems — minor use herbicides, rotations, fertilizer needs, seeding rates and dates, irrigation, harvest practices. For the moment, the field trials are all in southern Alberta, close to API Labs’ Lethbridge headquarters, but eventually he anticipates growing thebaine poppies in Saskatchewan and central or northern Alberta as well as the south.

“We’ll need to grow the crop in two or three areas to mitigate the risk of a cropping issue in one area cutting into production,” he says. “Manufacturers demand security of supply.”

The thebaine is produced in the vegetative parts of the plant, mainly the seed pod. Poppy seed is valued for bakery goods — poppy seed breads and other baked goods are especially popular among central European bakers and their customers. So, harvesting both straw and seed will provide growers with two income streams, says Metzler.

Two-stage harvest

Metzler doesn’t plan to go into competition with drug manufacturers. API Labs plans to build a processing plant to extract the thebaine and sell it to manufacturers as pellets of the alkaloid resin. In total, Metzler expects returns from the crop could be as much as $2,000 an acre — enough to compensate a grower for the paperwork involved in producing a controlled substance and the modification of harvest equipment for the tiny seed and the seed pods.

Growers in other countries generally use a forage harvester to collect the alkaloid-rich straw and seed together and separate seeds and straw in a second operation. “It’s difficult to say what the regulatory environment for thebaine poppies will be,” says Metzler. “Thebaine production hasn’t required any special security measures in other countries — that’s Australia, France and the U.K. We hope it will be the same as for hemp — a licence to cultivate it and a contract with a processor.”

A processing facility would clean and package the poppy seed for bakeries across and pelletize the alkaloid resin from the pod material. A linked facility would process thebaine into painkillers.

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