Welcome to Tasmania: the Island That Fueled America’s Opioid Crisis

It was May 2003 and farmers Bruce and Kathryn Goss had just won a new Jaguar X-Type. For about a decade they’d been planting rotations of opium poppies on their 50-hectare property and having some success. But that season’s rain came at the right time and the Gosses pulled in the most opioid-laden crop in Tasmania, winning them a luxury car.

“We’ve never had a passenger car before,” Bruce Goss told the local newspaper in an article covering the awards night. “We’ve got an old farm four wheel drive but it will be nice to have a nice car that is comfortable to drive.”

Reading this article now, it feels like a story from a parallel universe. Even on the Australian island of Tasmania, a world away from the opioid-ravaged communities of West Virginia, it would now be inconceivable for a pharmaceutical company to goad poppy farmers with luxury cars. But this was 2003. The phrase “opioid epidemic” was at least a decade away, and everyone involved in its genesis was making money. Including the farmers.

For nearly 25 years, Tasmanian farms have produced some 50 percent of the world’s legal opioids. It was here that hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women grew the crops that produced the alkaloids that were transformed into oxycodone and sold to Americans as OxyContin. These farmers were incentivised with luxury cars—BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars—to grow bigger crops with higher yields. And now, in 2020, these farmers are reckoning with their own participation in the crisis. Or in many cases, not.

“The first time I heard the phrase [opioid epidemic] would have been around 2017,” says AG Morrison, a poppy farmer in Tasmania’s north central town of Cressy. “Honestly, I just ignored it. It’s something I’ve got no control over. The situation in the US doesn’t interest me one bit.”

Like many Tasmanian farmers, Morrison argues that poppies were and still are just a small part of his operation, thereby reducing his accountability. He and his brother also grow wheat, barley, and peas and he estimates that poppies make up just 15 percent of his total business. But more importantly, he says the issue in the US was never one of supply, but over-prescription.

“It’s their government, it’s their laws that are to be blamed, it’s nothing to do with us. It’s like blaming tobacco farmers for people getting lung cancer or something. They’re two different matters.”

Morrison’s argument is not without merit. Like so many others, he was contracted to grow a legal crop heavily regulated by the Australian Government, which in turn was heavily monitored by the United Nations. So at a glance, Tasmania’s farmers can claim plausible deniability.

Except that the truth isn’t so black and white. The reality is that it was a Tasmanian innovation that produced enough poppies to spawn an epidemic.

Tasmania is about the same size of Switzerland. It’s an Australian island, thrust from the mainland into the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica. Much of the state is mountainous, or covered in temperate rainforest, except for a north-central band which is used for agriculture. And it’s from here that much of the world’s painkillers originate.

Tasmanians first started experimenting with poppy crops in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the UN approved Tasmania to start cultivating the plants on a commercial scale. In 1977, for the first time ever, exports of Tasmanian poppy seed to the United States exceeded imports from the Netherlands. By 1985, the island was supplying around 13 percent of the world’s opioids and the industry was expanding. But in the mid 1990s everything changed.

A state-run subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson called Tasmanian Alkaloids bankrolled research by the Australian Government scientific agency CSIRO to see if poppy yields could be improved via genetic modification. And it turned out they could.

In ordinary poppies, Papaver somniferum, the plant generates a precursor known as thebaine, which eventually matures into morphine and codeine. But researchers identified a number of genes that blocked the biosynthesis of these opioids, allowing the plant to preserve large amounts of thebaine.

For pharmaceutical companies, this was a bit like developing a grape that synthesized its own wine. Usually, chemists synthesize thebaine out of morphine in order to create such drugs as oxycodone and hydrocodone. But growing a plant that produces only thebaine removes a costly step in the manufacturing process. And suddenly the Australian Government owned the genetic code for a plant that could produce vast quantities of thebaine on the cheap. They called it the “top1” poppy, and later the Norman because it produced “no morphine.”

The next quietly disastrous step came in 2000, when, after years of lobbying by Tasmanian Alkaloids, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Australian Government, the US government announced it would change their importation rules on “narcotic raw materials.” For years the US had dictated that 80 percent of imports should come from Turkey and India, leaving Australia and a few other producers to scramble over the remaining 20 percent. But in 2000 US officials announced that since Tasmanian farmers weren’t producing morphine or codeine, but thebaine, their exports were exempt from the rules.

From there, America’s floodgates opened to cheap and plentiful Tasmanian thebaine, and the state’s poppy industry boomed.

Max McKenna lives in the town of Ulverstone, where his family has been farming since 1903. He’s a master of understatement who describes the boom period as “nice,” but says the giveaway cars simply hedged a farmer’s bets against losing on some other crop.

“There’s a fine line between some of the crops,” he says over the phone. “There’s often not much difference in returns, and you put a Mercedes or whatever car on top, it was a big boost to get something like that.”

McKenna never won a car, nor knew anyone who did, but he says he knew farmers who went on overseas holidays bankrolled by pharmaceutical companies.

“One company, for a while, had overseas travelling and they would give you money. People were encouraged to travel to countries where they might see something [related to] agriculture. Although I don’t think you specifically had to do that.”

There was another unexpected development, though. As the price of opioids rose, more and more farmers began putting in poppies, turning more and more of Tasmania’s midlands a light pink as the plants bloomed in December. And with that came an increasing number of thefts as local drug addicts began stealing poppy heads.

According to the Tasmanian Justice Department’s Annual Report, a total of 4,700 poppy capsules were stolen in the 2009/2010 financial year, compared with 2,200 the year before. And with this trend came another worrying phenomenon: accidental poisonings.

While the sap from traditional morphine poppies can be ingested in low doses, the genetically modified thebaine poppies are far more toxic. This was a security benefit spruiked by the inventors of the Norman Poppy, who didn’t anticipate that people would eat them regardless.

In 2011 a 50-year-old man from Launceston died after drinking tea brewed from stolen poppies. Then a 17-year-old boy died from another tea in 2012, followed by a 26-year-old Danish backpacker named Jonas Pedersen in 2014.

In this latter case, the coroner’s report offered a particularly tragic account of a young man who boiled some poppy heads into a goopy drink, then went to bed feeling sick and didn’t wake up.

“Mr Pedersen informed [his friend] Mr Kaiser that he felt unwell and possibly had too much ‘tea’. Mr Kaiser realised this was credible as Mr Pedersen did not look well. He had the impression that Mr Pedersen was scared.”

The 2015 report ended by suggesting that Pedersen’s death “served as a warning against engaging in this activity,” before stating the case was inadequate grounds for upgrading Tasmania’s security measures.

However, on the other side of the world, a different kind of alarm was sounding. For the first time in modern history, life expectancy in the United States entered a period of steady decline. According to the World Bank Group, the country’s average life expectancy had fallen from 78.8 years in 2014 to 78.7 years in 2015. The following year, in 2016, it fell again to 78.5 years and plateaued at this low level into 2017.

The culprit was opioid-based pharmaceuticals.

Years of unfettered overprescription of heavy-duty pain medication had created an epidemic of dependency. From Baltimore to Oklahoma City, people were overdosing in their thousands.

In 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration responded by slashing quotas of opioid medications able to be manufactured in the United States by 25 percent, immediately lowering global demand for raw plant material. In Tasmania the effect was sudden and dramatic. In that same year, just 7,500 hectares of poppies were harvested in Tasmania, according to Deloitte, which was a quarter of the peak harvest of 2013.

Farmer AG Morrison remembers it well: “The worst of it was probably around 2017… when the poppy companies cut their areas by probably 50 percent [and] people just moved on and did other things.”

Morrison says he put in a lot more wheat that year, just like many others in the region. “In all honesty, a lot of people reckon it did them a favour,” he says of the abandonment of poppies. “People were sick of having issues with the industry and stuff. And now they’ve got no desire to come back.”

Today, the American companies behind the epidemic are facing a storm of litigation. The most infamous of these players, Purdue Pharma, filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2019. The next-most infamous brand, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, filed for bankruptcy last week.

And now, as the Australian summer of 2020 approaches, the Tasmanian countryside looks like a very different place. There are more fields of wheat and cattle and far less poppies.

The business structure has changed too. After an onslaught of negative press in 2016, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Tasmanian Alkaloids, was sold to a private-equity firm SK Capital. They’d stopped giving farmers luxury cars about a decade earlier, and the company now maintains a far more muted presence in the island’s economy. They also claim no liability.

In a statement provided to VICE News they wrote: “Tasmanian Alkaloids is a raw material supplier, which does not manufacture, sell, or market finished pharmaceutical products. Moreover, the type and amount of raw materials that Tasmanian Alkaloids sells, as well as the recipients of its products, are tightly regulated by government agencies. Any suggestion that Tasmanian Alkaloids engaged in any improper conduct is baseless.”

Max McKenna is a little more empathetic, but he too denies any guilt.

“People need pain relief and if it’s used properly it’s very good,” he says. “But nobody is forcing people to take drugs. People are making decisions themselves. The governments are trying to do the best they can with it, but I don’t know how they can completely control it.

“As a grower we’ve got no control or any input,” he says. “To me it’s just the regulations and laws in those countries.”

Follow Julian on Instagram and Twitter. With additional reporting by Dylan Raffaele

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