British pride in its opium processors

Paul Madden, the UK’s High Commissioner in Canberra, Australia, is just back from Tasmania full of enthusiasm for …

UK pharma giant GSK.1 They process poppies grown by some 400 farms around the island, which go on to become the basis for many important global medicines. It is a very R&D oriented business, as new plant varieties are constantly being developed to produce increasingly sophisticated alkaloids.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know what comes next, and I hate to disappoint.

Why on earth is Tasmania encouraged to produce “half the world’s legitimate opiates,” while the same liberty and investment are not afforded the poor farmers of Afghanistan? Britain has interests there too, I believe. Less than a year ago the cumulative cost of those interests was estimated at GBP18 billion. How much would have been needed to create a properly constituted market that would adequately reward Afghan farmers for their resilience, agricultural know-how, and contributions to on-farm conservation? How much might such an effort have saved in not having to combat the people who are supporting Afghan farmers?

It isn’t just the drugs. Madden notes that

Nothing is wasted: the poppy seeds which are a by-product are sold into the catering industry. When you tuck into a lemon and poppy seed muffin anywhere in the world, the chances are the seeds came from GSK in Tasmania.

Funnily enough, that doesn’t impress me either. Were there no sour notes in the High Commissioner’s trip?

My only disappointment was to learn that these poppies are all white, rather than the red ones we associate with Poppy Day in the UK.

How very parochial, and biologically unbriefed.

The red poppies — Papaver rhoeas as opposed to P. somniferum — don’t produce opium or morphine, although they make plenty of thebaine. And believe it or not, thebaine is often the basis for those “increasingly sophisticated alkaloids,” and Tasmanian researchers are working hard to block synthesis at that point, so the poppies would be “useless for the illicit drug trade“.

One final point; they don’t have to be all white, unless you want them to be.

Petal colour diversity in Papaver somniferum.
Petal colour diversity in Papaver somniferum.
  1. The company formerly known as Glaxo Smith Kline. []

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