Making it legal: The Challenges of growing controlled crops in Canada

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer



As the Canadian economy struggles, one of the bright spots has certainly been the performance of the agriculture industry, both on the cattle and the cropping side. With agriculture doing better than most other industries at the moment, Glen Metzler, president and CEO of API Labs Inc., feels now is the time for Canadian farmers to consider establishing new varieties of specialty crops to provide for specialty markets like the pharmaceutical industry.

API Labs, based in Lethbridge, has led the charge in Canada for the past nine years to establish a domestic pharmaceutical poppy growing program. Canada is the only G7 country which does not have a pharmaceutical growing program or a national Thebaine extraction facility for mixing its own opioid based drugs like codeine, morphine or other pain management medications.

“Canada uses about $600 million in medication from outside sources,” explains Metzler. “Where Australia, France, the U.K. have been growing these poppies for a long time.  Australia, for instance, has been growing them for over 50 years. Because it is a high value crop in those countries, we thought it would be an opportunity for Canadian farmers to look at the ability to grow the medications that Canada uses.”

API Labs is waiting for federal approval to begin commercially growing poppy seeds as a first step before eventually transitioning into pharmaceutical production. Metzler says they decided to go the seed route first to help everyone involved on the regulatory side get comfortable with the idea of growing poppies right here in Alberta. Poppy seeds are commonly used in baked goods and other nutritional sources, and contain none of the pharmaceutical properties needed for the production of medicines. That medicinal element, called Thebaine, is found in the seed pod, not in the seeds themselves.

“Poppy seed is freely available in any grocery store,” states Metzler. “Even a bagel in Tim Hortons has them. In that capacity it is just another crop. That’s how we see it, and we hope the government views it in that capacity as well… We have to take a measured approach. We are not looking to throw the doors wide open on this thing in the next 12 months and go right into pharmaceuticals. (Seed production) would be more conducive to meeting any concerns federal officials and the federal government may have in us rolling it out.”

Metzler is hopeful once farmers and regulators get used to seeing poppies grown commercially in Canada, this will open the doors for future expansion into other areas of production.

“Because you are dealing with controlled substances, we’d obviously have a dedicated seed facility, assuming we get the approval on what we have asked for now. If we then get the go ahead on the pharmaceutical side we would then build a processing plant that would enable that as well.”

Metzler feels there are a lot of misconceptions about what pharmaceutical poppy production would mean in Canada, and it’s an ongoing re-education effort to get some of those misconceptions changed.

“Why are we continuing to rely on product that is being imported from Australia, France and the U.K. when our own farmers are missing out on this? As far as the risk goes, people think of Afghanistan, for example. But you are comparing apples to oranges because obviously Canada, Australia and France are not the same as Afghanistan. In other countries there are licensing processes which are required as far as background checks, and whatnot, go for the farmers. But, effectively, there is no situation where there has been diversion for sale in organized crime since this became a regulated industry back in 1961.”

Metzler says it is almost like some people believe a criminal can just jump the fence, pick some poppies and make illegal drugs out of them. And that’s just not the case.

“There is a lot of processing involved. The varieties we propose to focus on are high in Thebaine, and Thebaine does not even have narcotic properties. It is a controlled substance in Canada, and actually toxic, but it doesn’t contain any narcotic effects. Anyone who would try to steal the pods to ‘get high’ would not get any benefit that way. It’s like someone going into a potato field and making vodka. It’s just not going to happen.”

After nine years of trials in southern Alberta to see if poppies are a viable crop, Metzler says the verdict is clear.

“If you can grow a decent canola crop, you’ll probably be able to grow a good poppy crop. It’s about the same growing season length, and maturation time is about the same. Water usage is maybe a little less, but the fertilizer requirements, and whatnot, are similar.”

Metzler is encouraged by recent developments in Ottawa which has begun clearing the way for more widespread commercial, medical, marijuana production. He is hopeful this signals a willingness on the federal government’s part to eventually pave the way for pharmaceutical poppy production as well.

“With process we are seeing with the federal Liberal government in approving marijuana production, we would think that would translate over to our industry; so working with this government to understand what concerns they have that we can address. But it’s still kind of a wait and see for us… It’s been a long nine years, but we have to push forward. We have spent millions getting to this point, but there is no point in us going forward without signals from our federal government that they want to see innovation. We’re hopeful we have the approvals move forward by this spring.”