Poppies still face hurdles

It is another year and another period of wait-and-see in the 10-year effort to grow poppies in Western Canada for the pharmaceutical market.

Lethbridge-based API Labs is awaiting federal approval to proceed with this year’s test plots for thebaine-expressive poppies.

Managing director Glen Metzler hopes it will come before the seeding window closes. Ideally, test plots would be planted before mid-May.

Beyond that, the company is awaiting approval from Health Canada to proceed with its plans to build a seed cleaning plant and alkaloid processing plant to produce ingredients for pain medications.

Once that happened, it could contract poppy acres with farmers.

“It’s all up to the federal government,” Metzler said March 15.

“At this point, we can’t go much further with any of our work until we hear something back on whether or not we have support on the development of this industry. We’ve spent millions already in research and development to this point. Our intention has been since day one to develop a commercial industry. We’ve been very candid about that.”

The proposal received a boost earlier this year when Alberta premier Rachel Notley sent a letter of support for the project to federal health minister Jane Philpott.

In it, she asked for timely approval of the necessary exemptions that would allow poppy production.

Exemptions are required because the ingredient derived from poppies is deemed a controlled substance under federal rules.

“It was great,” said Metzler about the Notley letter.

“It’s good to see that we have a premier that’s supportive of innovation and supportive of agriculture. It’s important that we have new industries here. They’re saying that they support diversification. It’s great to see that they are reiterating that with their federal counterparts.”

Metzler said API Labs is seeking approval this year for poppy trials at eight sites, but he declined to elaborate on locations or number of acres.

“We know that there’s international eyes on us right now and we’re trying not to tip our hand to show competitors in other jurisdictions what we’re doing or where we are in our process,” he said.

“This is a billion dollar industry, and we’re not the only ones that want to play in that sandbox. There’s lots of other companies that are trying to figure out what’s happening in Canada right now.”

Canada uses $600 million worth of medications that are derived from poppies, but all of that ingredient is imported.

API Labs wants to grow poppies and manufacture the ingredients for use in Canada and for sale to other countries.

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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