A proposed pilot programme to divert Afghanistan's infamous and illegal opium supply for legal use in analgesics has been backed by the European Parliament but is facing fierce criticism elsewhere.
The Senlis Council, a think-tank for security, development and counter-narcotics issues came up with the plan for the maligned substance, citing it as a solution to the illegal opium trade and the shortage of medical opiates, especially in developing countries.
Opium poppy accumulates the alkaloids morphine, codeine and thebaine and Afghanistan produces 93 per cent of the opiates on the world market.
Under the proposal, opium producing licences would be granted to whole villages, allowing their poppy crops to be cultivated and processed into morphine for medical purposes only, using laboratories based in Afghanistan. To discourage any illegal diversion, the whole village would lose its licence if any one farmer was found to be selling their crop to be made into heroin.
Current efforts to stem the illegal poppy trade in Afghanistan are failing miserably and similar programmes have been successful in India, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey, the Senlis Council said.
However, while the European Parliament has given it the thumbs up, there is still much opposition from a variety of sources and it is believed the plan is unlikely to ever come to fruition.
There are fears that Afghanistan, still largely war torn, is not ready for such a programme, and that any move towards legalisation will only encourage an increase in poppy production, making the problem worse.
There are also concerns over the practicality of opiate production facilities operating in the country, especially in relation to security of inventory.
In addition, the programme is also unlikely sit well with the Afghan government, which bans opium production and is strongly against legalisation of any kind. Islam also forbids poppy production, according to Afghanistan's mullahs.
The Senlis Council's proposal will undergo consideration by European Union foreign ministers later this month.
Meanwhile, the world's leading expert on the opium poppy, Professor Peter Facchini is leading a team in Canada who are working identify novel genes for use in the metabolic engineering of opium poppy to accumulate high-value pharmaceutical alkaloids that can be grown in Canada.
The domestic market for codeine, morphine and oxycodone, which is derived from thebaine, is in excess of $1.6bn (€1.1bn) annually; however, the entire supply is currently imported.
"The overall theme of this work is to modify plants to make them more useful as crops and chemical factories," Facchini said.
"Canada is well-positioned to support the development of new crops cultivated for the production of valuable bioproducts."
Facchini received a CAD$650,000 (€480,000) Strategic Project Grant from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for the purpose.