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.