The Dark Underbelly of Tasmania

There's more to Tasmania than meets the eye. But could this present a golden opportunity?

Famous for its clean air, beautiful landscapes, and Tasmanian devils, Tasmania is a popular holiday destination that attracts over one million visitors each year. It's often reported that celebrities seek refuge in Tasmania in order to get away from the paparazzi, as they bask in some of the oldest trees, and drink some of the purest water on earth.

However, alongside these natural wonders of Tasmania is a darker underbelly that has created some controversy for the State. That controversy is its poppy fields.

Tasmania is one of the largest producers and exporters of the narcotic raw material of opiate pain killers in the entire world. In fact, Tasmania grows enough poppy to satiate almost half of the world's demand. This makes sense given that the state has low-risk and optimal growing conditions, relatively inexpensive land, limited pests and diseases, and abundant, pure water resources.

However, what impact does this have?

The Opioid Epidemic

Opioids are powerful, and highly effective medicines that are able to greatly improve the living conditions of people suffering from chronic pain. However, as many will know, they also have the ability to be wrongly prescribed, misused, abused, and can be potentially fatal.

The issues associated with the misuse of opioids have been discussed at length and remain a topic of great focus, as the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States quadrupled between 1999 and 2018, with nearly 70% of the 67,367 deaths in 2018 involving an opioid. This rate of opioid deaths, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC), translates to 130 American deaths per day.

The opioid epidemic largely began in the 1990s, when health professionals began to prescribe them more frequently for chronic pain and general pain relief. At the time, the dangers of opioid abuse and addiction weren't yet widely known among the public, or even among many health professionals, and over the next two decades, the rate of opioid prescription would continue to climb. As such, prescriptions for opioid painkillers leapt from 76 million to 207 million between 1991 and 2013, and many deaths followed.

Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Of course, many opioid deaths occur from the use of its illicit counterparts like heroin and fentanyl, but even in these instances,  70% of heroin users have stated that their abuse began through the initial misuse of a legal opioid prescription. And of course, much of the narcotic raw material of these opiate pain killers is grown and extracted in Tasmania.

In fact, in Oklahoma in 2019, opioid addiction had grown so bad that a US state judge decreed that Johnson & Johnson, a major manufacturer of opioids in the U.S., had greatly contributed to the State's opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay $US572 million ($844 million) to help rectify the issue.

At the time, the Oklahoman Attorney General stated that Johnson & Johnson "have been the principal origin for the active pharmaceutical ingredient in prescription opioids in the country for the last two decades."

Though fingers were also pointed at another company, one which had provided Johnson & Johnson with its poppy supplies – that company was Tasmanian Alkaloids. The judge involved in the 2019 case against Johnson and Johnson stated that "in concert with subsidiary Tasmanian alkaloids, 'anticipated demand' for oxycodone."

This brought widespread attention to Tasmania's poppy farms as well as the company Tasmanian Alkaloids, the State's largest poppy processing company.

Evidently, there are issues involved with growing poppies, and Tasmania is at the heart of many of these issues. Though that's not to say that Tasmania, or its farmers, are to blame for the opioid epidemic, as opioids do serve a legitimate purpose in many cases, and Tasmanian farmers have no say in how those products are prescribed, nor should they.

However, there are a number of issues surrounding Tasmania's involvement in the poppy industry, with the first being precisely this possibility for Tasmanian companies to be brought up in cases such as the aforementioned Johnson & Johnson lawsuit. No company wants that kind of negative attention or association with an epidemic as harmful as opioid abuse.

Though another issue which may also cause concern for farmers is the current downsizing of the poppy industry in Tasmania.

This downsizing is caused by an excess of the supply of the raw materials used in narcotics, and changing legislation in States such as New South Wales and South Australia that allowed them to both begin growing poppy.

Moreover, as the potential harms of opioid misuse became more widely known in the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Administration began to tighten the laws surrounding opioid prescriptions, forcing poppy companies to drastically reduce the size of their contract farming operations.

Could This Be a Solution to the Poppy Problem?

As the world looks for solutions and alternatives to the ongoing opioid epidemic, many are looking to cannabinoid medicines to potentially fill the void.

Similarly to opioids, chronic pain is one of the primary reasons people use medicinal cannabis, and studies are beginning to confirm why. One study, for example, involved 2897 medical cannabis patients who suffered from chronic pain. The patients overwhelmingly reported that cannabis provided equal relief to their other medications while avoiding the unwanted side effects that come with opioids.

Another study involving 274 participants found that upon taking cannabis, their pain severity score improved together with most social and emotional disability scores. Not only that, but opioid consumption at follow-up decreased by 44%.

And this trend of substituting opioids for medicinal cannabis is seen more broadly in states where marijuana is legal, opioid prescriptions go down.

Tasmania is known to have some of the best conditions for farming in the entire world, with winds that bring Tasmania the freshest air on earth as well as clean rains and deep, nutrient-rich soil. Could Tassie be the perfect place to become a global exporter of cannabis products?

Growing Cannabis in Tasmania

The benefits of growing cannabis in Tasmania are many and varied. Firstly, it's no coincidence that Tasmania is famous for its agriculture industry; the state is perfect for farming. The low risk, cool climates, abundant UV, and lack of pests and hail all combine to make Tasmania the optimal climate for growing cannabis.

Tasmania's consistent and optimal climate allows for cannabis cultivators to take their operations outdoors, saving companies enormous amounts on electricity while also often resulting in larger yields.

Moreover, the global cannabis industry is growing, particularly here in Australia, as we recently saw a record-high number of Special Access Scheme Portal B (SAS-B) approvals for medicinal marijuana medicines for the month of June. Utilizing the perfect climate in Tasmania to capitalise on a growing industry may be a wise move, given that poppy companies are beginning to shrink their operations.

Moreover, the broader shift from opioid medicines toward cannabinoid medicines will greatly reduce the fatalities and complications which arise from the misuse of opioids.

Though it isn't just the medicinal benefits of cannabis and its derivatives that may provide an economic boom to Tasmania, as there are plenty of dietary and nutraceutical benefits too – predominantly when it comes to hemp.

Firstly, hemp can be used to produce hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are non-intoxicating, have many of the same medicinal benefits as marijuana, and are growing rapidly in popularity. CBD is federally legal in the U.S., throughout Europe, in India and parts of China, as well as in plenty of other places across the world. Here in Australia, CBD may become available over-the-counter in pharmacies within the next year, which would open the floodgates for Australian citizens to access CBD medicines and supplements.

Then there are hemp-food derivatives such as hemp-seed oil, hemp bread, hemp proteins and hemp-based pet products to name just a few, as well as the capacity for hemp to be made into more eco-friendly textiles.

In Australia, there are around 2,500 hectares of hemp being cultivated, with Tasmania at the helm as the leading state for hemp growing. Should CBD indeed become de-scheduled in the coming years, demand will surely follow, as will the demand for medicinal cannabis products as prescription numbers continue to climb throughout the country.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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