Global rise in pain drug use puts the hurt on Tasmania's poppy production

Courtesy of Forestry Tasmania

Opium poppy plants contain morphine, codeine and thebaine, ingredients needed for essential pain drugs. But because they can also be used to make heroin, global production is strictly regulated. With a shortage of ingredients looming, there is a fight going on in Australia over whether production can be widened from the island of Tasmania, the source of about half the world's supply.

According to the Financial Times, drugmakers including GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and TPI Enterprises of Australia have asked the government to expand production to the mainland. A United Nations report cited by the newspaper says France, Hungary, Turkey, India and Spain also produce opium poppies, but their production together equals that of Tasmania. The area planted with poppies there has nearly tripled in recent years, but it still cannot keep up with growing demand, drugmakers claim.

"There is increasing demand for pain relief drugs as the global middle classes expand. But there is a limit on the available land in Tasmania for growing," Jarrod Ritchie, chief executive of TPI, tells the Financial Times. "We've recently suffered drought and storms in Tasmania and we just can't get enough crops. The existing monopoly situation is damaging the industry."

Tasmanian farmers are none too pleased with the idea of losing their monopoly. They earn about $120 million a year off of poppy production. But drugmakers say that if weather patterns persist, Australia could lose its place in the market unless it moves some production to other areas of the country. While politicians have been sensitive to the concerns of Tasmanian farmers ahead of impending elections, the government is testing production in Victoria, allowing GSK to conduct trials there. Now farmers in that area are also lobbying on behalf of expanded production, seeing the potential for themselves in a law that would decriminalize production on the mainland.

Tasmanian farmers are pushing the idea that its island production helps Australia prevent illegal production. "Poppies are not just pretty flowers, they are potentially dangerous plants," Glynn Williams, president of Poppy Growers Tasmania, told the newspaper.

The expansion of the use of pain drugs in the U.S. has been a thorny issue for the FDA. It is in the midst of a controversy now after its approval in October of Zohydro, the first hydrocodone-only drug approved in the U.S. and one without any tamper-resistant technology. The agency has been asked by state attorneys general who have been fighting crime related to drug abuse to either pull the approval or give its manufacturer, Zogenix ($ZGNX), a strict timeline to reformulate Zohydro with abuse-deterrent features.

- read the Financial Times story (sub. req.)
- here's the U.N. report (pdf)