Papaver somniferum ©Getty Images
Papaver somniferum ©Getty Images

Global focus on… opium poppies

4 May 2018

Don’t be fooled; these innocent-looking flowers are at the heart of a multi-billion pound global industry – legal and illegal – that’s as controversial as it is lucrative

The opium poppy, also known as the breadseed poppy (Latin name Papaver somniferum) is an annual herb that grows in temperate climates. It is known for its bright petals, hairy stem and distinctively shaped cup-like seed pod.

Several varieties of poppy are simply ornamental, and some are grown for their seeds, which are harvested to make poppyseed oil. However, many contain varying quantities of opium.

Opium latex, extracted from the seed pods, can be used to produce a range of opiate alkaloids, such as morphine, codeine, thebaine and oripavine. These can be refined into both legal painkillers and illegal narcotics.

Triple harvesting
Poppies grown for pharmaceutical companies  are usually harvested once the flowers have fallen and the seed pods are dry. But in the drugs trade, live, unripe seed heads can be ‘tapped’ without destroying the plant, so that up to three harvests a year are possible.

Opium from poppies has been used for centuries to treat illnesses such as coughs and asthma, and has prompted trade wars and smuggling operations for as long as it has been cultivated. Its medicinal use has always been tempered by its addictive qualities.

The top poppy growing countries are Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mexico and India, with Tasmania in Australia providing pharmaceutical-grade opium for Big Pharma giants GSK and Johnson & Johnson.

Opioid drug-related overdoses killed over 42,000 people in the US in 2016, two fifths involving prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin, Co-codamol and OxyContin, according to the US’s FDA.

Heroin is a synthetic opioid created when opium is chemically modified. To prevent its production, countries attempt to regulate poppy growing. In the UAE you can be jailed for possessing poppy seeds found on a bread roll.

What They Say

“I’ve spent most of my career suing the pharmaceutical industry. The fact is it rarely changes.” Paul Hanly Jr, Law firm Simmons Hanly and Conroy

“In the past 20 years, global opioid consumption tripled because of US demand and most manufacturers invested in extra capacity on the back of some over-optimistic projections for the US market.” Keith Rice, CEO of industry group Poppy Growers Tasmania 

“The farmers are the ones who get exploited most. But if they aren’t offered a better alternative, they’ll just keep returning to poppy. I’m not justifying it, I just understand their needs.” Lt Col Juan Jose Orzua Padilla, Mexican army spokesman in Guerrero state, on poppy growers who face both cartels and crop destruction


Donald Trump has declared a war on opioids, calling it a ‘healthcare emergency,’ as US prescriptions for opiate drugs have quadrupled since 1999 – and an estimated 115 Americans die from opioid-related deaths every day. Since 2008, the US has put aside $2.5bn to fund the destruction of poppies in Mexico and spent $1trn over 16 years fighting in Afghanistan in a failed effort to wrest control of the opium trade from the Taliban. The Afghan opium harvest grew to 9,000 tonnes in 2017. The knock-on effects for supply chains will vary: the cartels and Big Pharma always seem to find a way – for farmers, as ever, life just seems to get more complicated.

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