If you’ve been keeping up with news from Afghanistan in recent years you’ll know that a significant problem for NATO governments is the rapid growth in illicit opium poppy farming and export from that country.
Opium poppy extracts are used to produce opium and, by means of some simple chemistry, to produce heroin. The effects of such an industry on a nation in crisis is profound. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2009 Afghan Opium Survey, Afghan drugs have catastrophic national consequences: “they fund criminals, insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and abroad. Collusion with corrupt government officials keeps undermining public trust, security and the law.” The cost becomes even more tangible on a human level where “the vulnerable are most at risk: drug use in Afghanistan is a growing problem, particularly among refugees [ . . . ] Around the world, but especially in Europe, once again tens of thousands will die this year from heroin overdoses.”
The catch-22 of the poppy problem is that the extremely high price the poppies command at market serves to support many of the average Afghans who farm them. As proof of the current level of poppy production in the area, consider that in the Helmand province of Southern Afghanistan 50 per cent of the world’s poppies are produced.
Attempts by NATO governments to stop this production seem to work against their other nation building and employment efforts; burning someone’s fields, and livelihood, does not endear an occupying force to a local population.
In the hopes of introducing more favourable agriculture, attempts were made to distribute wheat seeds to farmers in that area. Unfortunately, the profit from selling wheat is so much lower than opium poppies that there is little incentive to the farmer to replace their crops. In addition, unemployment becomes an issue in this scheme. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a narcotics expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a recent U.S. Senate testimony that growing wheat only requires about a tenth of the workforce needed to cultivate and harvest opium poppies, so switching the crops would increase unemployment in an already troubled nation and possibly swell the ranks of the Taliban.
Is there any hope to solving this stalemate? Perhaps, but the answer may come from pharmaceutical botany not governments or the military.
First, a quick summary of some of the science behind poppies.
The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is just one of several species within the poppy (papaveraceae) family. It is the opium poppy which is used to extract valuable alkaloid chemicals like morphine, papaverine and thebaine. Other species of poppy such as Papaver rhoeas (the rememberance day poppies) are not used in this way and are freely grown in gardens.
Morphine is the most important opiate extracted from the poppies, both for its medical uses and also because, with simple chemistry, it can be converted to diacetylmorphine (heroin). The analgesic codeine can also be derived from either morphine or thebaine. Oxycodone, another analgesic, is also produced from thebaine. Currently these valuable substances are obtained from opium poppies grown legally and under careful security in Australia, Turkey and India.
There have been initiatives in recent years to allow Afghanistan to begin producing opiates legally under this same international scrutiny to sell them on the global market, however these proposals were based on the argument that current global supply cannot meet the medical demand.
Unfortunately, the International Narcotics Control Board, which regulates UN’s drug control conventions, has stated that supply exceeds demand, effectively silencing this viewpoint.
The problem with opium poppy cultivation is that, by growing it for medicinal purposes, the basic ingredients for heroin are inevitably produced. The question for Afghanistan is how to turn their existing poppy cultivation expertise away from illicit uses and into a profitable and productive end without having to enter the conventional medical morphine production system. One potential answer: grow a morphineless species of poppy which can be used for exclusively medical purposes. What luck, then, that Australian scientists have produced just such a plant.
In 2004 a German and Australian research team led by Philip Larkin of the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO) Plant Industry described a naturally mutant poppy breed that has been called “Norman.” The Norman (or no morphine) poppies are unique in that they, unlike other opium poppies, do not produce morphine. Overexpression of 10 key genes in these plants blocks the biochemical pathway that normally produces morphine. It also causes an accumulation of precursor chemicals thebaine and oripavine, which can be used to produce useful drugs such as Buprenorphine and Naltrexone. Buprenorphine is a powerful painkiller used after surgery and in the treatment of addictions; Naltrexone, is also used in addictions treatments.
Ordinarily, Buprenorphine and Naltrexone would be produced from thebaine and oripavine and these would mostly have been produced from morphine. The Norman poppy essentially saves a step in production of Buprenorphine and Naltrexone by concentrating thebaine and oripavine and not producing morphine.
The Norman poppy has been commercially grown on the island of Tasmania since 1997. Importantly, the Norman poppy grows in the same climate as the wild type of opium poppies, thus providing a simple transition for Afghan farmers already growing poppies who would want to grow a legal crop.
While the Norman poppy is a naturally occurring mutant breed, Larkin’s team has also been experimenting with genetic modification of the morphine biosynthesis pathway to produce other possibly useful drugs. By identifying the biochemical pathway which is responsible for morphine production they were able to see what effect inhibition of specific genes would have on the plant’s opiate production. After identifying the gene which produces an enzyme needed for the second last step of morphine production they inserted a synthetic version of the gene which effectively blocks production of the enzyme. The result was that the second last step could not proceed; this caused the buildup of a precursor called reticuline. Reticuline is a useful chemical in the development of anti-cancer and anti-malarial drugs. The team hopes that by experimenting with the 10 genes identified in the Norman poppy, they can observe the various effects on morphine production and potentially create high-yielding strains for useful compounds.
Because of the potential benefits of the Norman and of genetically modified poppies and their genetic incapacity to produce morphine, it seems only logical that their cultivation should be attempted in Afghanistan. Successful introduction would provide an alternative to the socially destructive opium and heroin trade. Furthermore, the cultivation would employ the same workforce and farmers whose expertise already exists, unlike the proposals to grow wheat. It is unlikely that the introduction of these morphine-less poppies will solve all of Afghanistan’s problems or totally prevent illicit opium production there, but perhaps it is a reasonable middle ground between burning the fields and simply turning a blind eye to the trade. While I doubt that anyone in the Karzai administration reads the Manitoban, maybe someday these poppies might bring some good news to a country that so desperately needs it.