For centuries, poppy plants were grown in some remote fields well hidden in Afghanistan’s topography, thanks to a group of scientists, this may soon change.
The last gene in the quest to lab-engineer opiates such as morphine was finally identified. Some fear that the scientific breakthrough could perhaps be a double-edged sword, helping drug traffickers produce “Brown Sugar” in their backyards.
THE THIN LINE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND CRIME
About a month ago, researchers and policymakers started fussing about a frightening scenario for drug enforcement: the possibility of aficionados “home brewing” narcotics such as the highly addictive opiates. Well, we now know that this could happen sooner than predicted.
Researchers in the UK and Australia announced that they have discovered one of the most sought-after genes in poppies that could help scientists engineering morphine-making yeast to manufacture painkillers and other poppy-derived compounds.
THE LAST ELEMENT OF THE GENE SEQUENCE
Scientists have finally determined the last ‘ingredient’ playing a major role in the synthesis of the morphine class of alkaloids, which include the “most effective painkillers known to man,” according to lead researcher Professor Ian Graham.
The gene, called STORR, was the ultimate element of the sequence, which may now be used by researchers to coax opiate production from microbes such as yeast. STORR’s discovery was recently detailed in a new paper published in the journal ‘Science’.
People have grown poppy plants to produce pain relief drugs for thousands of years, generating global prescription sales of around 12 billion US dollars annually.
While the scientific (and pharmaceutical) community is thrilled about the new discovery, law enforcement authorities foretell the risk of people starting to illegally produce opiate on their own.
The potential exploitation of this technology could result in drug dealers developing narcotics as easily as brewers now craft their own cider.
What if a small garden of poppy plants in someone’s backyard starts feeding the growing appetite for heroin across the globe?
OPIUM PRODUCTION AND TRAFFICKING
According to the latest annual World Drug Report published by the United Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD) on Friday, illegal opium production occupies more land worldwide than ever before. Overall, global opium poppy cultivation in 2014 reached the highest level since the late 1930s. This is largely because of a surge in cultivation in Afghanistan, the dominant opium producer.
Although the destination of the additional quantities of drugs such as heroin is unclear, there are signs of change in the supply chain, underlining the fact that “the reach of organized criminal networks continues to be global and that organized criminal groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated and versatile.”
CONSUMPTION OF POPPY-DERIVED DRUGS
While data indicate that the use of heroin and opium has remained stable at the global level, the abuse of pharmaceutical opioids has continued to rise.
Some 32.4 million people – or 0.7 per cent of the world’s adult population – are users of poppy-derived drugs, with women being reportedly more likely to misuse pharmaceutical prescriptions.
POSSIBLE FUTURE SCENARIOS
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to focuses on alternative development; a long-term strategy aimed at coming up with substitute sources of income for farmers dependent on illicit drug cultivation.
As science is one step closer to producing poppy plants in labs, there are a number of scenarios that could unravel. Number one: the technology will remain within the scientific community, generating potential life-saving drugs. Number two: governments across the globe will consequently be encouraged to come up with alternative employment opportunities for all the farmers involved in opium production. Number three: drug dealers, even the “small fishes” in this big pound, will start growing their own poppy plants resulting in increased narcotics supply and easier access to the international illegal drug market.