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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 13:19 GMT
Commercial poppy-drug crop tested
A Guambiano Indian hacks down heroin-producing poppies in Silvia, 230 miles southwest of Bogota
A field of heroin drug poppies.
Poppy growers are hoping to extract morphine from the first large-scale crop trial of the drug-producing flower in the south of England.

From next spring, up to 740 acres of farmland in Hampshire will be used to grow a particular variety of poppy from which the narcotic will be extracted for medical purposes.

Any addicts looking for a quick fix from a field of these poppies will be disappointed

John Manners
United Oilseeds

The crop in the trial is different from the variety grown elsewhere in the world for heroin.

If the experiment is successful, it could provide an alternative "cash crop" and much-needed boost to beleagued farmers looking to diversify.

Laboratory trials of the crop, using seeds from Poland, began last year and will take a step forward next spring with the first commercial-scale planting.

The Hampshire crop will be harvested in the autumn and the poppy straw - the whole plant - processed through purification to extract the morphine.

To produce heroin from the poppy crop grown in countries such as Afghanistan, the juice of the plant's capsule - inside the flower - is used to extract the opium. The Hampshire crop does not contain the same capsule.

Macfarlan Smith, an Edinburgh-based pharmaceutical company, has been given a licence to produce the morphine.

John Manners, sales director of United Oilseeds, the company growing the crop, explained: "When you break down the poppy species there are many varieties.

"Some of them you can buy in your local garden centre which have very, very minute traces of morphine in them. The ones we produce will have about 1% morphine.

Sheep shearing in Hampshire.
Alternative to sheep farming?

"The ones they grow in Afghanistan, for example, are a totally different variety again and they are not grown for morphine, they produce opium.

"Any addicts looking for a quick fix from a field of these poppies will be disappointed."

Morphine-producing poppies are already grown in other parts of the world, including France, Spain, China, India, Turkey and Tasmania, in southern Australia.

Although the crop could be grown in this country, Mr Manners said it was unlikely to become widely used by farmers.

"We are giving the British farmer a chance to grow a different crop, but the demand will never be big, it will always be limited.

'Small exercise'

"It's a small exercise and minute in terms of the cereal production, for example, in the UK."

An earlier trial of the crop in the UK took place in the 1950s but failed because the amount of morphine which could be extracted was too little.

A spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union said: "Farming incomes are at an all-time low and alternative crops are being considered.

"A lot of our farmers have already branched into plants that are used for industrial, pharmaceutical and medicinal uses such as lavender and coriander.

"The poppy could be yet another important cash crop that could turn things around for some of the arable farmers on the right sort of land and the right sort of conditions in the south."

See also:

25 Apr 01 | South Asia
UN team assess Afghan poppy eradication
22 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghans planting opium after strikes
05 Jul 01 | Health
Cannabis 'not medical panacea'
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