A little poppy on the Prairies? Feds mulled commercial crop: document
OTTAWA — Another kind of flower could be coming to Wild Rose Country.
A type of opium poppy used to make painkillers may be sown across southern Alberta's plains, a newly released document shows.
The federal government is giving thought to planting Canada's first commercial poppy crop and the parched Prairies are the perfect place to do it, says a briefing note for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.
"Parts of Canada, particularly southern Alberta, are ideally suited for the production of poppies," it says.
Ottawa is mulling a variation of the opium poppy called the thebaine poppy.
Thebaine - chemically similar to both morphine and codeine - is used to make painkillers such as percocet, buprenorphine, oxycodone, naloxone and naltrexone.
Poppies could be a cash crop for farmers battered by record dry weather this year.
"Significant domestic consumer demand and commercial opportunity for the agricultural sector exists relative to poppy production in Canada," it says.
The government estimates farmers could earn $3,000 to $6,000 a hectare growing poppies, compared to about $800 for a hectare of wheat.
The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.
The briefing note, dated Feb. 10, does not make any recommendations and it is marked for "information only."
It's not clear if the government ever reached a conclusion over a commercial poppy crop. The Agriculture Department said the note wasn't meant to elicit a decision.
"The research for the note did not find a plan for the production of thebaine poppies in Canada, and the note did not seek a decision to that effect," spokesman Patrick Girard said in an email.
Agencies such as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would have to approve and regulate any plan to grow poppies, he added.
It's illegal in Canada to possess the opium poppy plant or its derivatives, other than poppyseed. Canada gets most of its poppy products from Australia and France, where the plants are grown legally.
The only places in Canada where poppies are legally grown are at labs in Flin Flon, Man., and the University of Calgary, which hold research licences.
Thebaine poppies are prized because they're more malleable as a chemical and act as feedstock for painkillers like oxycodone, said Peter Facchini, who teaches at the university and holds the Canada research chair in plant biotechnology.
The poppies are also difficult to turn into street drugs, he added.
"Thebaine itself, because it's non-narcotic - and in this poppy variety there's no codeine or morphine at all - you could not divert the crop into illicit activity," Facchini said.
"Well, you could, but you'd probably have to have a PhD in chemistry to be able to convert thebaine to heroin, while you can do morphine-to-heroin conversion in your garage with a few simple chemicals."
But some wonder why Canada is giving thought to growing poppies at home while taking a see-no-evil approach in Afghanistan to both the cultivation and the eradication of the crops.
"It seems to be very ironic if you directly combine the situation in Afghanistan with the policy at home," said Jorrit Kamminga of the International Council on Security and Development, a group that does research in Afghanistan.
Poppies flourish across Afghanistan's dust-dry south - including Kandahar province where Canadian troops are stationed.
From those sere plains comes 90 per cent of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin. The multibillion-dollar harvest helps fund Taliban militants and criminal groups.
Kamminga suggested Canada could pick the insurgents' pockets by buying poppies from Afghan farmers.
"Canada at home is willing to grow poppies while they could benefit from a similar and very important industry in Afghanistan, which at the same time would do a lot to control the insurgency," he said.
The briefing note apparently anticipates a public-relations battle over planting poppies on the Prairies.
"Education and awareness efforts regarding the pros and cons of poppy production in Canada are limited," it says.
By Steve Rennie (CP)
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