OTTAWA - The RCMP has voiced concerns to Health Canada about an Alberta company's plans to cultivate opium poppies over fears the medicinal project could attract drug-peddling criminals.
Lethbridge-based API Labs Inc. says it understands the national police force's worries, but insists the risk of criminal involvement can be managed with the proper precautions.
The national police force expressed its reservations about API Labs' activities during a conference call with several other federal agencies — including Public Safety, the Privy Council Office and Health Canada — in April last year, an internal RCMP briefing note reveals.
The RCMP followed up the call with a letter to a Health Canada assistant deputy minister outlining the force's concerns about the possible diversion of opium poppy material to "the illicit market" as well as infiltration of the project by "organized crime groups," says the briefing note.
The partially censored July 2014 note to Mike Cabana, the RCMP's deputy commissioner for federal policing, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
API Labs is trying to lay the groundwork for a western Canadian poppy industry that would see harvested plants refined into medicinal opiates — such as morphine, codeine and oxycodone — and the poppy seeds sold to bakeries.
It says establishing the industry would allow Canada to become self-sufficient in cultivating and processing poppies into medicine used by Canadians — products that currently account for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales.
API Labs was licensed by Health Canada in 2011 to conduct research, and its desire to expand the scope of those efforts attracted the RCMP's attention, API Labs president Glen Metzler said in an interview.
Australia and France have been cultivating poppy high in morphine content for 40 years with no significant criminal diversion problems, the company says.
"The risk of diversion is there," said Metzler. "But it can be mitigated."
The company has hired a former RCMP chief superintendent to help with security.
Although Canada does not have poppy growers, it already has manufacturers of opiate-based medicinal products that rely on imported materials, Metzler added.
The RCMP was contacted last year by a lobbyist representing API, and a chief superintendent with the force planned to "meet and listen to the lobbyist's perspective on the issue," the briefing note says.
Metzler confirmed the company had met with the Mounties as recently as last month to get a better understanding of their concerns.
The RCMP will "not be providing further comment on this matter," Staff Sgt. Julie Gagnon told The Canadian Press.
The briefing note points out that the company has garnered support from the mayor of Lethbridge, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Alberta's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development by touting the economic benefits of opium cultivation.
The strategic policy section of the RCMP's federal policing branch in Ottawa contacted a member of the Australian Federal Police to learn more about that country's experience with poppy-growing in Tasmania, the note adds.
Initial research revealed that crops are monitored by control board field officers and suspected wrongdoing is investigated by Tasmania Police Poppy Task Force officers. Three deaths had resulted from ingesting stolen opium poppy heads since 2011.
The strategic policy section also reached out to the force's Alberta division to ask about "any issues connected to API or their crop," the note says. The section planned to "continue to document the RCMP's principle-based concerns with the commercial cultivation of opium poppies in Canada."
The note also suggested the RCMP might consider raising the issue at a meeting between Commissioner Bob Paulson and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.
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