Company studies economic feasibility of thebaine poppy

Pharmaceutical opportunities | Alberta firm seeks federal support in tapping the potential of poppies as a lucrative crop for Canadian farmers

Poppies are not as red as the tape entangling government approvals to grow them in southern Alberta.

Glen Metzler, managing director of API Labs in Lethbridge, has been working for eight years to obtain approval for large scale poppy production in southern Alberta. The process now involves nine government departments from health and agriculture to pest management and western diversification.

He will draw closer to his goal this year if a request to plant 200 acres of poppies is approved.

API wants to grow thebaine-
expressing poppies, which are close relatives of the more famous — or infamous — opium poppies from which heroin is derived.

Thebaine, an alkaloid, can be processed into opiate pain relievers, which are a $500 to $600 million market in Canada and a multibillion-dollar market in the United States.

Canada imports all of its thebaine-based drug ingredients from other countries, but Metzler believes Canada could supply its own needs and manufacture them in its own plant.

“That’s what we’re involved in today, is instead of these products being grown in France and Australia and the U.K. and Spain, we propose to the federal government that we should be growing them here,” said Metzler.

“Our farmers should be the ones that are benefiting from this. Our kids should be the ones that have those jobs, and then we should become self-sufficient in the medications that we need as a country.”

Metzler said thebaine poppy growers in Australia earned $3,480 per acre last year.

API grew four acres of thebaine poppies last year in southern Alberta, the first company in Canadian history to obtain a licence to grow them outdoors for scientific purposes, according to Metzler.

A crop of 200 acres, some under irrigation and some on dry land in six sites within a 200 kilometre radius of Lethbridge, would allow company researchers to explore agronomics and crop handling using standard farm equipment.

“We’re trying to get some more information just on the area as a whole and how altitude, for example, or different varying growing conditions, will affect the crop.”

Metzler said thebaine doesn’t have narcotic properties. Anyone who eats them would get sick rather than high.

However, poppies are a controlled substance, so API doesn’t publicize the location of its plots.

“At this point we haven’t been disclosing that information. Not that there’s really an issue per se. If there’s people touring the sites, we will open up our research farm to the agriculture sector and offer tours at certain times,” he said.

“As we get further on, obviously we want to become more engaged with the agriculture sector so that the farmers have a chance to see this crop in the field, and when we offer contracts in the future, they’re more familiar with it.”

Cheryl Dyck, chief executive officer of Economic Development Leth-bridge, recently told a chamber of commerce meeting that the thebaine project is “the single most dramatic economic opportunity I have seen come across my desk.”

She said poppies could yield three to five times the average farmgate return per acre of grain and oilseed crops.

“Besides agriculture, it could be an opportunity for Canada to develop a pharmaceutical industry,” said Dyck.

If API receives approval for 200 acres this year, the crop would provide the foundation seed for the 2015 crop, which it hopes will be larger still, at 3,200 acres. However, that would depend on receiving government approvals.

The big money down the road would lie in manufacturing and marketing drugs, but API anticipates that its first returns will come from the sale of poppy seed for food use.

The thebaine is harvested from the pods and straw in the top several centimetres of the poppy plant.

Metzler estimated that 25,000 acres of poppies could meet Canada’s domestic needs for thebaine-based analgesics.

“We think there’s a lot of potential for export, just because the demand for the product is quite large on an international scale,” he said. “If you were to capitalize on even 20 percent of the U.S. market, that would be another 50,000 acres of production.”

API has a board of directors with considerable experience in agriculture and marketing, as well as law enforcement. Its recently appointed chair is former federal health minister Jake Epp.

Metzler said he is hopeful that the red tape surrounding the project will soon be untangled and replaced by the red of thebaine poppies.

“We’ve tried very hard to do everything the right way since day one and I think the people in Ottawa appreciate that, but we’re in a position now that for this industry to go forward, we do need some intervention from government.”

  • Thebaine, an alkaloid derived from papaver somniferum poppies, can be converted into oxycodone, buprenorphine and other drugs used primarily as painkillers.
  • Thebaine is a Schedule 1 substance under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
  • Canada is the only G7 country that does not cultivate or process poppies.
  • Thebaine-expressing poppies are legally grown in Tasmania, Australia, the United Kingdom and Spain.
  • Canadians are prescribed $500 to $600 million worth of poppy-derived drugs a year.
  • Such drugs comprise 10 percent of all prescriptions issued in Canada.
  • Thebaine comes from the pods of the plant rather than the seeds.
  • Poppy straw has more value than poppy seed.
  • Poppy seeds are about one-tenth the size of canola seed.
  • Poppies take two to three weeks to emerge after planting.