9 November 2001

First licence is granted for British drug poppies

By Tom Allen-Stevens

DRUG-PRODUCING poppies are to be grown by a handful of Hampshire farmers after the Home Office issued the first commercial licence for the crop.

The poppies will be used to produce morphine – a powerful painkiller used to treat terminally ill patients and most commonly found as codeine in headache tablets. The drug comes from Papaver somniferum – the same type of poppy used for heroin production in places such as war-torn Afghanistan.

The farmer-owned co-operative United Oilseeds has won a contract to supply the poppy-heads to MacFarlan Smith, a Scottish-based pharmaceutical company. But there is no danger that the farmers involved will be contributing to any local heroin problem, said United Oilseeds sales director John Manners.

"Any addicts looking for a quick fix from a field of these poppies will be disappointed," he told FARMERS WEEKLY. "This variety is rather similar to the cannabis used for commercial fibre production – it has a very low narcotic content."

Nevertheless, growers will be asked to keep the crop away from roads and footpaths. They will receive £100/ha (£40/acre) when the crop is drilled in late March and a further £200/ha after it is harvested in the summer. The poppy heads yield about 2t/ha (800kg/acre), half of which is the seed – a by-product. Growers will receive bonuses or deductions of £10/100kg above or below the target yield.

Mr Manners said: "Its a no-lose contract for growers. We provide the seed and all the inputs free of charge and then harvest the crop. All the growers have to do is make the seed-bed, drill the crop and follow our agronomists instructions. Even if your yield is zero, you still receive the initial payment. And its grown on set aside, so you can claim your area aid payment on top."

Crop trials have been successful and about 300ha (740 acres) of poppies will be grown commercially in Hampshire next year. This is in marked contrast to Tasmania, south of Australia, where half of the worlds legal morphine is produced. There it is illegal to enter a poppy field and possession of poppy material attracts a fine or up to two years in jail.

Tasmanian growers may not welcome a newcomer in the market. Global legal opiate production has exceeded the annual 235t consumption for the past two years. But Mr Manners said: "Production goes up and down like a yo-yo." &#42

Besides, the Tasmanians have switched a lot of their production to thebain – a totally separate product."