What is Opium and why government opens its production?

The government of India has opened up the highly regulated sector of producing and processing opium to private players. Bajaj Healthcare has become the first company to win tenders for producing concentrated poppy straw that is used to derive alkaloids that are the active pharmaceutical ingredient in pain medication and cough syrups.

What is opium used for?

Opium is a natural substance obtained from poppy seeds and its derivatives are mainly used for pain management. “The extracts from opium poppy such as morphine are potent painkillers and are mainly prescribed to cancer patients,” Gulhati said. The opium product codeine is helpful in cough suppression.

It is used illicitly for smoking, drinking, or even eating as pills. The addictive properties of opium are the reason that the cultivation of poppy is highly regulated around the world. Only 12 countries including India allow its cultivation legally for medicinal use.

History of growing opium in India

India has been growing poppies at least since the 15th century, as per historical records. The British East India Company assumed a monopoly on the cultivation of poppy when the Mughal Empire was on the decline, and the entire trade was brought under government control by 1873.

After India gained independence, the cultivation and trade of opium were passed on to the Indian government, with the activity being controlled by The Opium Act, 1857, The Opium Act, 1878, and The Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. At present, the cultivation and processing of poppy and opium are controlled by the provisions of The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act and Rules.

Process of growing and processing opium in India

Due to the potential for illicit trade and the risk of addiction, the cultivation of opium poppy is strictly regulated in the country, with the crops being allowed to be sown only in tracts of land notified by the central government in 22 districts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

The government announces the licensing policy for opium cultivation every year, providing details on the minimum qualifying yield, the maximum area that can be cultivated by a single cultivator, and the maximum benefit that is allowed to cultivators for damage to the crop due to natural causes.

The opium produced in the country is currently processed entirely at the Government Opium and Alkaloid Factories in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur and Madhya Pradesh’s Neemuch. Products such as morphine, codeine, thebaine, and oxycodone are produced.

Involvement of private players in Opium production

The private company will process 6,000 MT of unopened poppy capsules and opium gum to produce active pharmaceutical ingredients over the next five years.

The involvement of the private sector might boost the domestic production of various alkaloids such as morphine and codeine, bring in modern technology, and reduce imports. Despite being one of the few global cultivators of poppy, India still imports these active pharmaceutical ingredients as well as poppy seeds, which are also consumed as a food item in the country.

The move is also aimed at offsetting the declining area under cultivation of poppy in India. In 2017 and 2019, under a trial phase, two private companies were allowed to produce concentrated poppy straw.