Why a US crackdown on painkillers is hurting Tasmanian farmers

With the US imposing stricter rules on the use of painkillers, demand for the raw material of poppy has tumbled.

Australia provides half of the world’s legal supply of raw opiate, but demand and prices are tumbling.

By Bruce Einhorn

Glynn Williams, a fifth-generation Australian farmer, is feeling the impact of a public health crisis unfolding 12,000 kilometres away. His family plants potatoes and raises cattle on Tasmania’s wind-swept northwest. Williams also grows poppies, the plants that produce the raw opiate in such prescription drugs as oxycodone, which are blamed for an epidemic of overdose deaths in the US. 

With the US imposing stricter rules on the use of painkillers, demand for the raw material has tumbled. Poppy growers in Tasmania have responded by scaling back or giving up on the crop altogether. The state is the source of about half of global supply, thanks to a 1971 agreement with the Commonwealth of Australia that granted it a decades-long monopoly on poppy cultivation.

Seven years ago, poppies covered about a sixth of Williams’s 255-hectare farm. Two years ago, he planted some 14 hectares of the pink-flowering crop and dialled that back to about 10 hectares last season. “We’ve said, ‘no, we can’t afford to take the risk,’” he says. “We’ve had to recalibrate our farm significantly.”

US epidemic

Supervising the opiate production line.

Tasmanian farmers like Williams are reeling from the impact of government and corporate efforts to stem the abuse of prescription painkillers and their illegal knockoffs. The volume of opioid-based medicines prescribed in the US has dropped 28 per cent since 2012 following moves by the Drug Enforcement Agency to tighten access, according to a report published by Bloomberg Intelligence. “The prescription branded-opioid market is at its lowest point in almost a decade,” Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Curt Wanek and Elizabeth Krutoholow wrote. 

On 21 September last year, CVS Health Corp., one of the largest drugstore chains in the US, announced a series of measures targeting opioid abuse, including a new seven-day limit for certain prescriptions of the addictive drugs. Constituting 5 per cent of the world’s population, the US consumes an estimated 80 per cent of the world’s opioids, Sir Angus Deaton, a British-American economist and 2015 Nobel laureate, told a (US) Senate committee. 

Thebaine – extracted from poppy straw – is the main opiate alkaloid in oxycodone, and Australia is its largest producer, accounting for 80 per cent of global supply in 2015, according to the most recent data from the International Narcotics Control Board, an agency that monitors compliance with United Nations conventions on drugs. Australia’s production of poppy straw plunged to 156 tonnes in 2015, from 243 tonnes a year earlier. 

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Tasmanian farmers planted about 12,000 hectares of poppies last season, less than half the 2013 harvest of about 28,000 hectares, according to Poppy Growers Tasmania Inc., a trade group that represents about 90 per cent of the state’s producers. The decline reflects a steep drop in what processing companies are willing to pay: the crop harvested in early 2017 was worth about A$35 million at the farm gate, compared with about A$100 million after the 2013 harvest. 

“Growers are now looking at the price reductions and asking whether it’s a viable operation,” says Keith Rice, chief executive of.cer of Poppy Growers Tasmania, which estimates its membership has fallen to about 450 from 850 in 2013. He declined to say how much his members typically receive for their crop. 

Mainland competition

A Tasmanian poppy farmer holds an award for the best crop.

Tasmania is facing more competition: three states on the Australian mainland have eased restrictions on poppy growing in recent years. Farmers such as Williams are also having to contend with changes along the supply chain, as two of the country’s three licensed poppy processors have gone through ownership changes in recent years. GlaxoSmithKline Plc sold its business to Sun Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., India’s largest drug maker, in 2015. SK Capital Partners LP, a New York-based private equity firm, bought Johnson & Johnson’s Tasmanian Alkaloids subsidiary in March 2016. Prices were not disclosed in either transaction.

Sun Pharma declined to comment on plans for its opiates business. Tasmanian Alkaloids says it’s looking into alternatives to opiates. In May 2017, it formed a partnership with AusCann Group Holdings Ltd., a medicinal marijuana company from Adelaide, in South Australia, to manufacture and distribute cannabis products. 

“Demand has softened, but Tasmanian Alkaloids is a diverse company that also sells non-controlled finished goods”, such as materials that are used to make treatments for conditions other than pain, including obesity and constipation, said managing director Doug Blackaby in an emailed response to questions. “We are actively looking at numerous opportunities to diversify our customer and product range.” 

"Growers are now looking at price reduction and asking whether that's a viable option." Keith Rice, Poppy Growers Tasmania

The smallest Australian poppy processor, Melbourne-based TPI Enterprises Ltd., also is interested in moving into marijuana: it was granted licences by Australia’s Department of Health for medicinal cannabis cultivation and research. 

The company isn’t giving up on opioids, though. On 3 October 2017, it completed the acquisition of the opiate ingredients and tablets business of Norway’s Vistin Pharma ASA for A$25.6 million. The only Australian-based processor that’s publicly traded, TPI will have revenue of A$48.9 million in the year ending 31 December 2018, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg, up from A$10.5 million in 2016.

This advertisement from a 1900 magazine juxtaposes two pharmaceuticals which have since achieved distinct images in the public mind: heroin and aspirin.Managing director Jarrod Ritchie says that despite the opioid backlash in the US, companies like his still have room to grow. “Ninety per cent of the world’s population doesn’t get access to the cheapest pain relief product, which is morphine,” he says.

As they wait for a rebound in demand, Tasmania’s poppy farmers need to focus on becoming more efficient, according to Rice of Poppy Growers Tasmania. Some growers have managed to boost their yields to an average of about 40 kilograms of active raw material per hectare, up from 25 kilograms five years ago. “It is a really, really tough marketplace out there, and it doesn’t look like it’s improving,” he says. “The only thing at the present time to make it viable is increasing productivity. That’s the message we’re giving our people.”

This article was originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek.

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