Australia Is About to Grow Even More Opium Poppies

International need for opiates has now surpassed production, but growing more poppies is a political nightmare. Luckily, Victoria will take it on.

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Apr 8 2014, 11:00am

Tasmania currently grows about 50 percent of the world’s legal opium poppies. These produce the morphine for most modern analgesics, as well as thebaine for specialist drugs like buprenorphine and oxycodone. The UN regulates poppy agriculture to keep the plants off the black market, but also to ensure there are enough painkillers to meet world demand. The current problem is that demand has surpassed production, yet Tasmania is just about at capacity. Getting more poppies grown is a bureaucratic and political nightmare, but it looks like one state will take it on. Enter Victoria.

Victoria was already processing a lot of product from Tasmania, plus it has a similar climate, and their recently willing government has sealed the deal. The three companies that rule Tassie’s industry—GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and TPI Enterprises—are now pushing the final touches through state parliament and are hoping to get plants in the ground this winter. TPI Enterprises has even spent the past weeks holding information nights for Victorian farmers. According to CEO Jarrod Ritchie, they’ve had enough interest to plant between 1,200 and 2,500 hectares this year. “That is compared with around 25,000 in Tasmania, but in my estimate, the industry will be growing 10 percent more of what is already being grown in Tasmania.”

No, you won’t be able to get high. There are a few reasons for this, starting with the fact that the poppies will be grown in secret, isolated farms away from main roads. But the most serious disincentive is that most of the plants will be producing a nasty chemical called thebaine. Thebaine is an alkaloid from the sap of the Papaver somniferum poppy, which becomes morphine as the plant develops. But if you douse the soil in growth regulators, its thebaine never matures, and you’ll end up with a product that requires a lengthy chemical process to become edible. If you try eating it raw, you’ll die a sad, painful death, as a Danish tourist learned this year.

It started when two 26-year-old Danes broke into a farm near Oatlands, about 50 miles north of Hobart, and stole enough poppy heads to boil into a tea. One of them went for a walk while the other stayed back in a camper van to get high but instead became sick and ended up in bed. His friend found him dead the next morning, after he’d suffered convulsions similar to those of strychnine poisoning. That was February 18, and it was the third such death in three years.

“It’s the same way people will always want to drink too much alcohol or drive too fast," Ritchie says simply. “And that’s very much a concern, and there are systems in place to minimize the harm. We’ll be putting in security for field monitoring, appropriate fencing, and signage, because of course we don’t want to see that happening again.”

Tasmania’s opiate security measures have been so successful that heroin is virtually unavailable on the island, which has created a rather ironic misuse of prescription opiates. The state’s paper, the Mercurylast year reported that “Tasmania has the highest abuse rate for the pharmaceutical opiate painkiller Oxycodone, and the second highest abuse of morphine and methadone [in the country].” Also ironic is the fact that a lot of Tasmanian thebaine ends up as Oxycodone, but whether the introduction of a poppy industry into Victoria will affect the state’s taste for prescription drugs is yet to be seen.

So how do Tasmanian farmers feel about losing their monopoly? “Well, there are farmers who have had a protected position and don’t want to compete with Victoria,” admits Ritchie. “And I’m empathetic with that, but restricting the industries growth will only harm it. This is (a) an industry that is a human right and (b) an industry that is growing.”

And luring Victorians with “$6,000 to $8,000 / hectare [for] very diligent farmers,” according to TPI’s own information guide, it’s probably something the Tasmanians will have to just put up with.

Follow Julian Morgans on Twitter.@MorgansJulian