Canada has an intimate love affair with the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). While the nation generally condemns the poppy’s illicit products such as heroin, it eagerly consumes each year a billion dollars worth of legal opiates derived from the plant.
For instance, every year Canadians collectively pop 28,000 kilograms of codeine, a bona fide poppy pharmaceutical made directly from morphine, the key active ingredient in opium. That makes Canada, on a per capita basis, the world’s number one consumer of the pain killer.
Peter Facchini, a leading expert on the opium poppy, thinks our codeine habit may have something to do with the cold weather, easily available over-the-counter sales or our penchant for the bruising sport of hockey. “Although 28,000 kilograms probably isn’t enough to numb the pain of Maple Leafs’ fans,” quips Dr. Facchini, a native of Toronto.
The joy plant
Sixteen years ago the biochemist fell under the spell of what the Sumerians called “the joy plant,” and he’s been studying how the poppy makes pain killers ever since. The 45-year-old biochemist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Plant Metabolic Processes Biotechnology at the University of Calgary, directs one of the world’s only laboratories dedicated to studying the plant’s genetic and biochemical secrets. Out of 270,000 different flowering plants in the world, only the poppy can make morphine, enthuses Dr. Facchini.
“People see the problems like opium and corruption caused by opium but they forget that the human race has been using the plant as a legitimate analgesic for the last 8,000 years.” The scientist thinks the iconic plant deserves much more respect than it gets, and that people “should generally recognize the importance of the plant in our lives.”
To that end he has dedicated most of his career to identifying the cells and enzymes in the opium poppy that manufacture morphine, codeine and a variety of other pharmaceutically important alkaloids. To date, Dr. Facchini and other scientists have identified 17 genes in the plant involved in making opiates. (Incredibly, the plant has a genetic base 50 times larger than the human genome.)
Expertise in demand
In the process of scoping out the plant’s genetic map, both the scientist and his science have become so well known that government agencies, police departments and drug companies routinely tap his expertise. “There is no such thing as a dull day,” he says.
For starters, Dr. Facchini operates with a special licence from Health Canada. His plants, classified as a controlled substance, are grown in a $30,000 growth chamber in a windowless room equipped with a door alarm and motion detector. The room, conveniently located off a non-descript university hallway, can only be accessed by a single locked door.
Under the terms of his licence, Dr. Facchini can only grow 100 plants at a time. Exchanging seeds with other scientists, however, can be problematic. “It took Health Canada a couple of months to conclude that there was no policy that covers poppy seeds.” Eventually the agency allowed him to exchange seeds provided they were dry.
The infamous poppy, of course, has a multitude of uses. It remains the only commercially valuable source of morphine as well as the king of the illegal opium trade. Poppy seeds and oils, which don’t produce a narcotic effect, are used in everything from bagels to paints. Gardeners prize the wild and passionate color of ornamental poppies. “The plant connects us to our history,” he says.
No one really knows why the poppy makes morphine. “It’s probably not doing much for the plant,” explains Dr. Facchini. But clearly evolution has played a role. Plants make hundreds of thousands of compounds that serve as “a chemical arsenal against an ever-changing environment.”
Moreover, plants change this chemical arsenal regularly. At some point the poppy produced the enzymes necessary to make morphine. “Maybe there wasn’t a reason other than it was just time to change the arsenal,” notes Dr. Facchini. In any case, humans adroitly noticed the change, and “we propagated and helped it along.”
Dr. Facchini, who can talk endlessly about the plant’s many marvels, often sounds like a poppy encyclopedia. He notes that Egyptians cultivated the plant 1,500 years ago and that Hippocrates definitely understood the plant’s medicinal uses. He also suspects that Socrates died from a morphine overdose in addition to hemlock poisoning.
A global issue
Only seven countries have been sanctioned by the United Nations to grow what the ancients once called the “milk of paradise” and “the destroyer of grief.” Australia, the United Kingdom and France produce the majority of the world’s legal pain killers, while Turkey, India, Spain, Hungary and Slovakia provide the rest.
Of the approved nations, only India is allowed to take part in the labor-intensive process of lancing bulbs and collecting opium (other countries mechanically collect poppy straw). Altogether this legal market in medicinal pain killers generates more than $6.5 billion a year. “It’s a huge business,” says Dr. Facchini.
But it’s nothing compared to the poppy factories of Afghanistan. That country’s war-torn fields produce five to six times the volume of the legal trade. Despite a $600-million eradication campaign, the country actually increased opium production by 17 percent in 2007 to 9,000 tonnes. Much of the proceeds now fuel the Taliban insurgency and other terrorist groups.
How to stem the opium trade, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s GDP, has also sparked much debate. A couple of years ago, the Paris-based Senlis Council invited Dr. Fachinni to participate in a feasibility study on creating a legal opium poppy industry in Afghanistan.
Dr. Facchini declined; he doesn’t think the scheme will work for a number of economic and political reasons. For starters, Afghanistan already produces far more opium than what’s needed to serve the existing world market for pain killers.
“The only way I can see it working would be for Australia, France and Turkey to give up their poppy fields as an act of philanthropy and say, ‘Let Afghanistan do it.’” He also poses a good question: “Do we want to put the majority of the world’s licit opium production in a politically and economically unstable country?”
Senlis has also talked about the possibilities of genetically engineering poppies to maximize the production of pain killers other than morphine, and to design them in ways that they could easily be identified in the field. (A Tasmanian company has already developed a poppy that produces larger than normal amounts of thebaine, a precursor to Oxycontin and Percocet and highly prized by drug companies.)
But Dr. Facchini has his doubts about biotechnology’s abilities to resolve deeply entrenched political problems. “We can engineer poppies but it’s a relatively uncooperative plant. Having a flower with a certain glow for identification is just silly. It becomes a dangerous game.” He suggests rebuilding Afghanistan’s health care and school system instead.
He also thinks that Canada might one day grow its own painkillers.
Opening doors at home
The poppy not only grows extremely well in Southern Alberta – Hutterite farmers already cultivate poppies for the confectionary and bagel market – but could also provide farmers with a reliable cash crop.
Canada could also create its own pharmaceutical and processing facilities. “Why are we importing this stuff? It’s so typically Canadian,” he says. Health Canada is a long way from approving the idea but “everyone is fascinated by these questions.”
Dr. Facchini became a poppy fiend by sheer serendipity. While an undergrad, the observant science student thought that plant biologists seemed much happier than zoologists. “I also can’t deal with blood and research on animals. Plants, I don’t mind. I can grind them up with no problems.”
As a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal, he asked his professor if it mattered what plant he used to isolate a specific gene. When the answer was “no,” Dr. Fracchini suggested the opium poppy might be an interesting option because the gene was also involved in morphine production. After being initially shocked, the professor promptly produced a jar of seeds and Dr. Facchini became a poppy pioneer.
Sixteen years ago, none of the genes involved in morphine synthesis were known. Now, scientists are getting close to cloning all the genes associated with morphine production, says Dr. Facchini, who has published more than 50 papers on the plant.
“Imagine E. coli bacteria that can make loads of morphine. It’s not pie in the sky. It will happen.” His research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and from private-sector contracts.
Dr. Facchini is also working with researchers at the National Research Council on a $650,000 federal grant to develop new varieties of poppy and cannabis that can be used for medicine or by industry. “We have the market on illicit drugs cornered. We call it the Popp Cann project.”
To date both the public and his peers have warmly received Dr. Facchini’s work. “I’ve only been called a Canadian Taliban once.” He adds that most people now see beyond the plant’s reputation and realize it’s been both understudied and undervalued. “We have the world expertise in opium biochemistry in Calgary and that’s something, given the role of the plant in global politics.”
Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Greystone Books).