Fields of poppies could sprinkle southern Alberta if a Lethbridge firm succeeds in its bid to grow an opium-free version of the plant for medicinal purposes.
API Labs Inc., managing director Glen Metzler said Wednesday he is close to receiving federal approval to grow thebaine poppies — a breed stripped of narcotic characteristics — and hopes to sow his first trial crop this spring.
His plan to ultimately begin the widespread cultivation of poppies in Canada is still under review by federal regulatory agencies, but has received support from the local business community hoping to reap the economic benefits of a new cash crop.
"We know poppies grow very well in this area. We know there is a (pharmaceutical) demand for the material. There's currently no production of poppies in North America. So it makes a lot of sense logistically to be cultivating them here," Metzler said.
Thebaine poppies are a unique species that can be used to produce such prescription drugs as OxyContin or codeine, but lack the narcotic properties of traditional poppies which are frequently converted into heroine or opium, said Metzler.
Thebaine poppies were discovered by accident, and halt the plant's chemical process at the stage before it produces morphine, said University of Lethbridge plant biotechnology professor Igor Kovalchuk who is also conducting research with Metzler.
The high-thebaine content can only be converted into commonly used prescription drugs in a high-tech laboratory.
The multi-million facility and hundreds of masters and doctoral-level scientists required to create those pharmaceuticals would make it uneconomical for anyone hoping to use these poppies as illicit drugs, said Kovalchuk.
While there may be little apparent financial gain for nefarious groups, it could become a considerable economic boost for local farmers.
"Our retail sales derived from pharmaceuticals derived from poppies in excess of $500 million a year. Australian farmers are being paid eight times more per hectare to grow these plants in Australia than traditional crops," said Metzler.
He estimates Canadian growers could get between $3,000 to $6,000 per hectare growing poppies compared to $500 or $700 per hectare for wheat or barley.
January 6, 2010
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