Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

High Stakes

March 6th, 2013 · 6 Comments

Tasmanian PoppiesI was recently intrigued to learn that 45 percent of the world’s opiate alkaloids—that is, the ones incorporated into prescription medicines rather than illicit narcotics—come from Tasmanian poppies. The Australian state’s dominance in this industry is the result of several factors, starting with its unique geography; tucked away in the Southern Hemisphere and surrounded by water, it has natural security advantages over more accessible rivals. But Tasmanian poppy growers have also benefitted from astute regulatory oversight, which has included healthy public investment in agricultural research—research that has dramatically increased the per-poppy opiate yield over the decades.

But Tasmania evidently isn’t producing enough poppies, at least according to TPI Enterprises, the dominant processor on the island. TPI now wants to import additional poppies from Turkey, a plan that is causing no small amount of consternation among their domestic growers. To press their case, those growers are arguing that TPI’s Turkish plans could undermine Tasmania in some rather unexpected ways:

At the hearing, held in Launceston, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association’s Jan Davis raised concerns surrounding biosecurity, which Mr Rice shared.

“If you’re going to import 2000 tonnes of raw poppy capsule into Tasmania and that’s going to take a minimum of 150 to 200 containers … the bio-sec and risk associated with that is enormous,” he said.

Mr Rice said there was also the issue of intellectual property theft, with Tasmanian poppy seeds being taken over to Turkey to be modelled and grown.

I find the last point most interesting, and perhaps most convincing. While it is hard to imagine a transnational crime syndicate having the wherewithal to steal massive quantities of poppy capsules from container ships, I can easily see the dangers in poppy-related IP theft. Yield is everything in industries such as this, and the secrets of those yields are bound up in the unique genetic makeup of each seed. If a country with lower labor and land costs can figure out how to produce a crop on par with Tasmania’s, they could dominate the market a decade down the line. The advantages of being a remote island can only take Tasmania so far.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jeremy

    Interesting take on the subject. I’d say that, despite the signs on the fields, it would be a whole lot easier to reach over the fence close to harvest time and grab a couple of pods, and that’s about all you would need to get hold of all that IP. Of course, you would also need to be able to maintain selection, but I don’t think that would be too difficult.

    Haven’t heard too much lately about Tasmanian breeders’ attempts to select a poppy with a truncated synthesis pathway that would stop at thebaine, making it useless for illicit opiates but OK for medical supplies.

  • Jordan

    It looks like the UN is sponsoring research into how to genetically modify poppies. http://mvgs.iaea.org/PDF/13-PS2-4-314-FACCHINI_unreviewed.pdf

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Belated thanks for the sharp comments. I’m in the process of taking a closer look at the future of poppy development. The research you cited is a tremendous help.

  • sturt

    Interestingly the Tasmanian action could be a form of regulatory arbitrage. Currently the DEA rules goverining licit opiate imports require 80% to come from Turkey and India, with the other 20% coming from Spain, France, Hungary, Poland and Australia. Buying a stake in Turkey’s industry could be one of the few ways Tasmania can grow its market. Worth including in your investigations.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @sturt: Fascinating, I had no idea. Not very free market of us, huh? Wonder what the rationale is for those rules–maybe just a matter of excellent lobbying by Turkey and India?

  • sturt

    Hey, it’s a “controlled” substance, so therefore market rules are conveniently covered in a black cloth and never spoken of again, to bowdlerize Akhmatova.

    I recall from my own reading on the subject that its genesis is in the Cold War – a sop to Turkey, a carrot to India, and a stick with which to punish the Vietcong. Again, a potentially interesting digression in your research – not that I would ever want to send you down a blind alley.

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