EFESkopje

The mere mention of opium poppies can bring to mind an international narcotics trade that moves billions of dollars in laundered narco-dollars and condemned uncounted users to the misery of heroin addiction.

However, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is a traditional grower of the opium poppy flower that during the 90's cut back its production amid fears that its crop could be used to manufacture the illegal drugs.

Then, heroin was responsible for killing thousands of European addicts.

Now, Macedonian experts and academics are calling to recover the poppy agriculture to boost an ailing economy.

In their opinion, the poppy flower could be a remedy against poverty, as many Macedonian farmers still recall its cultivation technique.

The Papaver Somniferum, whose Latin botanical name means "sleep-bringing poppy" is also one of the national symbols of this small Balkan nation.

Some 14,000 hectares of white and pink poppies were traditionally grown to support the livelihood of many rural Macedonian families who sold their crops to the pharmaceutical industry which used it to manufacture prescription pain relievers such as morphine and codeine.

This year's crop season is already underway, although only 100 hectares of poppy fields remain in the country.

"Macedonia without its poppy crop is like France without its vineyards, Spain without its serrano ham or Holland without its tulips," EFE was told by Zoran Dimov, professor at the Skopje's faculty of agriculture.

The first Macedonian poppy was planted in 1835 during the Ottoman empire's rule.

Towards the end of the 19th century, 30 percent of the total output of the Turkish empire came from Macedonia.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, the leading regional rival to Ottoman rule, kept a vigilant eye on the Macedonian opium production as any increase in output meant the Turks were gearing for war.

Opium was used to alleviate the suffering of wounded soldiers.

Though Ottoman empire fell, the poppy remained in Macedonia.

"After World War 2, Macedonia remained the sole poppy producer in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia," said Dimov. "Its production boasted one of the world's highest yielding varieties, with a raw morphine content between 14 to 16 percent," he said.

Poppy seeds are used to produce confectionery and industrial oil.

Every Macedonian carries an image of the poppy flower, a symbol of the nation's past, in the 500 dinar banknotes (8 euros.)

Poppy production nearly stopped after Macedonia became independent in 1991.

The pharmaceutical industry stopped buying the crop and farmers encountered growing legal obstacles.

Finally, production dropped to 100 hectares destined exclusively to supply the pharmaceutical industry, subject to stringent government controls.

Experts consider a production increase of 2,500 to 3,000 hectares could easily be achieved if allowed by the authorities.

"The countries where growing opium poppies is legal have a straightforward way of achieving economic prosperity," said research professor Gjoshe Stefkov. "From a single hectare you can obtain a 20 kilogram yield."

According to the Macedonian National Strategy for Agricultural development, the local production (2007-2015) only covered 30 percent of pharmaceutical requirements.

The shortfall was covered by imports from Spain or Australia.

The poppy debate in Macedonia surges after the Macedonian parliament legalized the production and sale of cannabis for medical purposes earlier this year.

EFE