Shake-Up on Opium Island

By KEITH BRADSHER / New York Times News Service

Now is the sowing season for opium poppies in the Australian state of Tasmania. Tractors chug up and down paddocks, pulling elaborate machinery that drills pairs of adjacent, miniature holes in the dirt, and then drops a dozen tiny kernels of fertilizer in one of the holes and a tiny poppy seed in the other.

By November, the fields will be carpeted in pink flowers with an occasional splash of white or mauve. Then the flowers will drop away, leaving behind distinctive, cup-shaped pods packed with tiny poppy seeds along with the opium latex that surrounds them. When the latex dries two months later, the pods are harvested and hauled to factories, where machinery separates the seeds and grinds up the rest to extract the valuable narcotic alkaloids.

Tasmania, an island off Australia’s southern coast, is the start of a global supply chain that encompasses the biggest drug companies and produces $12 billion a year of opiate painkillers. Nearly a half-century of assiduous plant breeding, a gentle climate and tight regulations have given Tasmania a hammerlock on production of one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most important raw materials.

Tasmania, which is about the size of West Virginia, grows about 85 percent of the world’s thebaine, an opium poppy extract used to make OxyContin and a family of similarly powerful prescription drugs that have transformed pain management over the last two decades. It produces all of the world’s oripavine, another extract, which is used to treat heroin overdoses and shows promise in controlling other addictions. Tasmania also accounts for a quarter of the world’s morphine and codeine, two older painkillers from opium poppies that are still widely used, particularly outside North America.

But the global pharmaceutical industry is increasingly worried that it is hooked on the island’s opium poppy supplies.

The two manufacturers that dominate Tasmanian opium extract production have begun twin battles to diversify supply sources and alter the plant’s genome to produce a stronger, more productive crop. The manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, provide narcotic alkaloids to their own painkiller units and to other companies worldwide, which have started demanding that the two giants act to ensure reliable supplies.

“They look at the map of the world, see Tasmania at the bottom, and say, ‘Are we taking a hemispheric risk, and putting all our eggs in one basket?’” said Steve Morris, the general manager of opiates for GlaxoSmithKline.

The drug companies are pushing for regulatory approval to cultivate opium poppies for export on the Australian mainland near Melbourne. The two companies are also trying to persuade the Tasmanian government to legalize genetic engineering for poppies, to develop varieties that produce more concentrated narcotics and are less vulnerable to storms or diseases.

Tasmanian farmers have had a mixed response. They strongly oppose production on the Australian mainland and want to hold on to the poppy business, which accounts for nearly one-tenth of the farm revenue in Tasmania, or roughly $80 million a year. But they know they can’t keep the industry if they can’t ensure supply, and they are enthusiastic supporters of genetic engineering. Environmentalists and, so far, the Tasmanian government favor keeping the Australian state clean of genetically manipulated organisms, a goal that growers dismiss.

“We grow narcotic drugs - by definition they’re not clean,” said Glynn Williams, the president of Poppy Growers Tasmania, a trade group.

Cockatoos and Poppies

Rohan Kile, the poppy crop supply manager for Glaxo, knows Tasmania well. As a child there, he moved from town to town every three years because his father was a state forests manager. Now, Kile, a lanky outdoorsman, travels from farm to farm to assess opium production.

On a recent crystalline morning, overlooking a valley with a wide, meandering stream, he gave advice on loading the fertilizer and seeds behind the tractor for planting. Later in the season, he will discuss harvesting. The pods need to be dry enough for processing, but if left too long, they may be eaten by hungry, sulphur-crested cockatoos and other birds that roost in eucalyptus trees or the golden-flowering gorse bushes that hug the low hills.

Kile recommends strong fences to prevent wallabies - close relatives of kangaroos - and people from hopping or walking into fields, eating the poppies and suffering narcotic effects. Stoned wallabies “can become disoriented and lose their ability to find water,” he said. Humans who ingest Tasmanian poppies can die.

After harvest in February, farmers deliver the cups to two main factories, Johnson & Johnson’s green-walled complex in Westbury and Glaxo’s smaller operation in Latrobe, a Tasmanian river town that calls itself the “platypus capital of the world.” The bulk of the opium poppy extract produced in Tasmania is shipped to pharmaceutical factories in the Northeastern United States. With its wealth and a largely private health care system willing to pay up for drugs, the United States accounts for three-quarters of global opiate painkiller sales by tonnage and five-sixths by value.

The entire process is tightly monitored by a United Nations-authorized board, which tracks production and requires strict security. This body, the International Narcotics Control Board, discourages holding big stockpiles for fear that they might be diverted into the production of heroin, whose market is more than four times the size of the opiate painkillers market.

But without excess stockpiles, the industry can get caught flat-footed in a bad year. Kile recalls the torrential downpours in northern Tasmania three years ago that devastated the morphine poppy crop just as it was flowering. Although Glaxo said it met all existing orders, pharmaceutical companies and health agencies around the world suddenly found themselves watching their stocks and hoping that they would last until the next harvest.

The industry is quietly increasing its reserves of raw thebaine. It had only an eight-month supply on hand at the start of last year - not enough to cover the total loss of one harvest - but it now appears to have the recommended one-year supply, according to the narcotics board.

“The likelihood of complete failure of the Tasmanian crop is extremely remote,” said Rachel David, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson. But “more and more, our customers are asking for a plan in case of a dramatic catastrophe in Tasmania.”

The Road to Tasmania

The modern poppy industry can be traced to the early 1950s, when Stephen King, an agricultural scientist for what was then the Glaxo Group, tried in Britain to find a better way to harvest the seed pods. During World War II, morphine was widely used to care for wounded soldiers and civilians but was sometimes in short supply.

Building on the findings of a Hungarian scientist in the 1920s, King looked to commercialize a labor-efficient process to extract opium from poppies - by using machinery to grind up dried pods instead of making tiny incisions by hand to drain pods that were still green. In the initial phase, he discovered that poppies grown in Britain had too little opium because of frequent rain, and he began searching for a better climate in a secure location. He wanted to start production on the southern coast of Australia, near Melbourne.

But his work coincided with the rise of heroin. As heroin poured into Europe and the United States, world leaders struggled to respond. International pacts in 1961 and 1972 called for limiting production to heavily regulated areas, notably Australia, France, Hungary, India, Spain and Turkey.

The United States also decided to buy 80 percent of its morphine from Turkey and India, a rule that remains in place today. Turkey was given particular preference, as a bulwark to halt the spread of communism and as a heavily Muslim country that had warm relations with Israel.

With concerns increasing over heroin, Australian officials rebuffed King’s plan to grow poppies on the mainland. Instead, they sent him to start poppy farms on an island that the rest of the world barely remembered: Tasmania.

The isolation proved an advantage.

Towns like Launceston, Longford, Evandale and other current-day hubs of poppy production in north and central Tasmania had been settled by tens of thousands of British and Irish convicts transported here in the early 19th century as a cheap alternative to prisons in the British Isles. They were followed by thousands of so-called free settlers, who built communities with main streets still lined by two- and three-story pink sandstone buildings.

Then people largely stopped moving there. With 500,000 people, Tasmania now rivals Iceland in having one of the world’s least mobile populations, with little immigration or emigration. Particularly in rural Tasmania, people do not just know everyone in their towns - their families tend to have known one another for at least four generations, and often five or six. Secrets are few, helping to keep drug use in check.

While marijuana and methamphetamines have sometimes been a problem in Tasmania, heroin production has been virtually nonexistent despite all the raw opium grown and collected each year. Arriving aircraft and ships are closely watched.

“You won’t see many tie-dyed shirts in Longford,” said Kile, the Glaxo manager, as he drove past Longford’s brick Anglican church, which dates to 1839.

More Than Morphine

Moving to Tasmania in 1965, King set up a laboratory and a plant-breeding program that would transform poppy production, turning each flower into a tiny factory churning out a range of highly specialized narcotic alkaloids suited to pharmaceutical manufacturing. His team, soon followed to Tasmania by Johnson & Johnson scientists, began breeding different strains tailored to each of the island’s seven microclimates and figuring out the right combination of fertilizers for each variety.

As the breeding program developed, drug researchers in Europe and the United States figured out that morphine was not the only alkaloid narcotic of value in opium poppies. They experimented with thebaine, oripavine and other chemicals in opium, finding important uses.

In 1998, scientists at Johnson & Johnson commercialized “Norman,” a variety that produced a much higher concentration of thebaine. They followed in 2009 with “Ted,” a variety that made mostly thebaine. Glaxo developed its own varieties.

Tasmania’s dominance of poppy production emerged with the rapid rise of OxyContin and other thebaine-based drugs in the 1990s. Thebaine, unlike morphine, was not included in the U.S. government’s policy of buying 80 percent of opiate raw material from Turkey and India. That allowed Glaxo and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the drug companies that bought from them, to turn almost entirely to Tasmania for the raw materials needed for newer painkillers and addiction treatments.

Few medicines in the past quarter-century have made as big a difference in treatment as thebaine-based painkillers - and few have been as quickly profitable for the pharmaceutical industry. OxyContin, which is made by Purdue Pharma and produces $2 billion a year in retail sales, is derived mainly from Tasmania-grown thebaine. Rival makers have introduced more than 40 other chemically similar opiate painkillers, like Roxicodone and Percocet.

The worldwide sales boom for OxyContin and its siblings has resulted in a tripling of Tasmania’s poppy acreage since the late 1990s, to nearly 30,000 hectares, or 74,000 acres. Poppies tailored for thebaine production now are about two-thirds of Tasmania’s crop, with morphine poppies making up an additional quarter and codeine and a few other alkaloids the rest.

The Mainland Threat

Charlie Mackinnon, a square-shouldered, fifth-generation farmer, takes pride in his family’s attachment to the land. He is even a little embarrassed when he says his ancestors didn’t build his 1832 homestead themselves - his great-great-grandfather bought it from another farmer.

Standing beside his field, Mackinnon, 35, described the concerns for poppy farmers. Downy mildew, a plant pest, is a constant fear. The big worry is rain.

He recounted how a friend planted almost 300 acres of opium poppies last year, only to lose the entire crop when a heavy rain left his fields so soggy that the plants’ roots died. “They don’t like wet feet,” he said. “They don’t like too much moisture.”

Tasmania’s climate has become a little less gentle lately, for reasons not well understood. An increasingly severe drought from 2006 to 2010 ended in northern Tasmania only with rains and flooding that devastated the 2011 crop, though central Tasmania had a bumper crop that year.

Tasmanian farmers can sell their poppy harvests for at least $1,600 an acre, significantly more than other crops. But Mackinnon and other farmers said herbicide and fungicide costs were high. Poppies also deplete beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil. So they can be grown only once every third year in fertile northern Tasmania, alternating with potatoes, and as little as once every seventh year in drier areas farther south, where they alternate with sheep pastures.

Poppies have become Tasmania’s third-largest farm sector by revenue, after dairy and beef. “If it’s done correctly, it can give a good return,” said Williams, the president of Poppy Growers Tasmania, who is a longtime farmer. Tasmanian farmers are fighting to preserve their role. France and Spain are looking at ways to expand the tiny, heavily regulated production of state-affiliated companies that run their modest opium poppy fields. Britain and Portugal have unilaterally approved legalizing regulated opium production, but they don’t have the backing of the U.N.-authorized board.

The bigger threat for Tasmanian farmers is closer to home. Hidden deep inside a few farms on the Australian mainland, and not visible from any road, are the secret opium gardens of Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline. The locations are known only to the farmers, a few state and federal Australian regulators and some managers from the two pharmaceutical giants. Neither company will provide any details except that the fields are near Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria.

After months of debate, the state parliament in Victoria voted in March to authorize commercial growing of opium poppies. Tasmanian farmers and politicians are now lobbying the national government not to issue export permits for opiate material grown in Victoria.

The drug companies contend that export permits are a national prerogative not linked to the states where crops are grown. The national health ministry declined to comment except to say: “Export approval is granted by the federal government, subject to legislation and international obligations.”

One possible solution under discussion has been to limit poppies on the mainland to thebaine varieties, because it is nearly impossible to convert them into heroin. But the drug companies have been wary of any limits. And requiring thebaine varieties on the mainland could intensify another problem: illegal poppy tea.

At least three people have died in the last four years in Tasmania after stealing poppy seed pods and trying to make them into tea. More deaths could occur if poppies are grown on the mainland, where the drug culture is stronger and not everyone understands the dangers. (Raw thebaine can cause convulsions when consumed.)

Tasmanian officials have been replacing warning signs at poppy fields. The old ones said illegal use “may cause death.” The new warning says, “Has caused deaths.”

‘You Can Pop a Gene In’

While walking along the edge of Mackinnon’s field, Kile noticed a plant a few inches high growing in an adjacent area of untilled dirt. He bent down and ripped it out, tap root and all. Poppies that grow from stray seeds on unlicensed land, he said, have to be sprayed or plowed under, a task overseen by a special Tasmanian state agency. He also keeps a wary eye out for pests like downy mildew.

The drug companies say they have the answer to plant pests: the tools of genetic engineering. “If a disease comes along, you can pop a gene in,” Kile said.

Agronomists have already mapped much of the opium poppy’s genome. But Tasmania has had two consecutive five-year bans on genetic engineering in agriculture. The second will expire in November, and Jeremy Rockliff, Tasmania’s minister for primary industries, said the state government plans to introduce legislation to extend a broad ban for another five years. Poppy farmers and the pharmaceutical companies want an exemption.

Surprisingly little consensus exists on what kind of genetic engineering would be done, if authorized. During a recent dinner interview in Canberra after a day of lobbying national officials, Keith Rice, the chief executive of Poppy Growers Tasmania, and Williams, the same group’s president, sharply disagreed with each other on whether the industry should genetically modify poppies to add resistance to Roundup, a Monsanto product that is one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.

Williams said that introducing Roundup resistance was a bad idea because it would make it harder to spray and kill poppies like the one Kile had found. If herbicide resistance spread, drug-control officials elsewhere might struggle to kill illegal opium plants.

But Rice strongly disagreed, saying Tasmanian farmers should be able to spray their fields with Roundup to kill all the weeds, leaving only the resistant poppy plants alive. That would sharply reduce costs and help eliminate the need for growing poppies in other, less secure locations.

Either way, farmers here say that if Tasmania does not allow genetic engineering, it will probably happen elsewhere, including around Melbourne, where there is no comparable ban. Their worry is that this scenic island of historic towns and bucolic hills may become little more than another quaint farming area if it does not act.

“If Tasmania continues with a ban on it,” said Michael Badcock, another longtime farmer, “Tasmania may get left behind.”