They’ve started dirty wars, inspired beat poets, ruined lives and eased pain. Poppies are the planet’s ‘most dangerous plant’ and they’re grown in Australia’s smallest state.
Published in Smith Journal, Volume 7
OUT the back of Campbell Town, across the railway tracks, down a gravel lane – somewhere in Tasmania’s golden triangle – the Lyne family are preparing their fields for a covert crop. Shh! On the other side of town, off the highway and over a hill, the youngest son, Angus, has been ploughing another paddock. The family recently bought this extra land so they can grow even more of the state’s most lucrative, secretive harvest.
They’re growing opium poppies. I’m a witness.
Lyne is 28 years old; a handsome, wholesome, 6-foot-5-inch, “very uncoordinated reserve ruckman” and 8th generation farmer. His father, Crosby, grows poppies, and so too does his brother, Sam. We’re sitting in the front of his ute, looking out over the dry midland valley to the green hills beyond.
“There are probably twenty families in the area that could tell you the same thing,” he says between bites of his sandwich, utterly bewildered by my interest.
No – it isn’t really a secret. But opium poppies are, however, Australia’s least known, most successful, least dispensable and, potentially, most dangerous industry.
Tasmanian farmers grow half the whole world’s supply of poppies for pain relief. Morphine, codeine, oxycodone, oxymorphone and more; if it hurts real bad, you’ll be treated with the Apple Isle’s best.
“For some reason people don’t like to be quoting this, but it’s the only Tasmanian industry in which we’re a significant world player,” says Rick Rockliff, from Tasmanian Alkaloids, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and one of the major poppy processors on the island.
Rockliff was the company’s first employee in Tasmania, way back in 1975. His family grows poppies too, on the rich red soils at Sassafras, west of here, south of there, somewhere else in the golden triangle.
“It’s really been the salvation of Tasmanian agriculture,” he tells me, early one autumn morning. “It’s the only thing farmers can make a few dollars out of. Most of their income comes from poppies.” Rockliff is speaking with pride – this is the high point of our conversation. Otherwise, he is polite enough, but keeps his arms crossed and his sentences clipped.
Inspector Glenn Lathey doesn’t want to talk to me either. He’s from the Tasmania Police poppy squad, which guards against “diversion” of the crop. “It’s not something we talk about, for obvious reasons,” he says. “I’m not going to talk to you on the phone. You could be anyone.”
Humans have been using poppies since we began farming and maybe before – the seed pods have been unearthed at more than a dozen Neolithic sites, settlements from several thousand years BCE, way back in the New Stone Age. Later, the Sumerians cultivated it in Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq. They called it hul gil, the “joy plant”. The Egyptian goddess Isis gave opium to Ra, the sun-god, to cure his headache.
According to the opium poppy’s botanical name, Papaver somniferum, it’s the sleep-maker. Over centuries, it’s been used to treat everything from bad eyesight, coughs and sleeplessness, to asthma and diarrhoea, and by everyone from the Ancient Greeks and the Islamic Empires, to injured soldiers and beat poets.
The plant contains dozens of alkaloids – a kind of chemical compound that does profound things to the nervous system of humans and animals (other alkaloids include caffeine, cocaine, nicotine, strychnine, quinine and mescaline).
So far, scientists have deduced uses for only a handful of the poppy alkaloids, but as research continues, they’re likely to find more. Morphine was the first – it was isolated from opium gum in the early 19th century – and it takes its name from the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.
But the plant has also caused nightmares, too many to comprehend.
Among the ethical abominations perpetrated by the British Empire, the Opium Wars rank particularly highly: at the time, one parliamentarian said there had never been “a war more unjust” or “more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace”. Having introduced the habit of smoking opium with tobacco to the Chinese, the British then fought wars to stop the Qing Empire from outlawing it. Twice in the mid-19th century, they attacked the Chinese coast to defend their right to sell large amounts of the drug into the country, and take out boatloads of tea in profit.
Shortly after, a British chemist named C.R. Alder Wright synthesised heroin from morphine. He was searching for an alternative that wasn’t addictive, but he failed very, very badly. This spring, 140 years later, Afghani farmers are likely to produce a record opium crop, which will find its way through traffickers and corrupt officials and onto the streets, in an illicit heroin trade bigger than three-quarters of the world’s economies.
On 29 January 1986, a small group gathered in working class Devonport, on the northern Tasmanian coast, wearing suits on a sunny morning. They unveiled a bronze plaque to a man – long since dead and from far, far away – named János Kabay.
In his speech, the Hungarian diplomat Pal Ipper expressed his official astonishment: “That here in Tasmania there are people who want to dedicate a memorial to a Hungarian from 20,000 kilometres and 50 years away is practically unbelievable,” he said.
The memorial was sponsored by the local poppy growers and processing companies. Without Kabay, there would be no poppies in Tasmania.
During the great depression, not long after his country was defeated and broken-up in World War I, Kabay worked speculatively and feverishly in Budszentmihaly, the small town where he was born. Trained as a pharmacist, he discovered a way to extract morphine from dried poppy capsules.
The original process for doing so – now used only in India – requires the production of opium, initially, by scoring the head of a green poppy and scraping the sap that seeps out.
Kabay’s method, however, bypasses the opium stage. Farmers leave the poppies in their fields until they dry on the stem. Then, once harvested, the “poppy straw” can be stacked and stored for months before processing. His insight allowed the creation of a commercial industry, one where the production could be more easily controlled and monitored.
In Devonport that sunny morning, Kabay’s son and daughter – who emigrated after he died and made Sydney their home – were listening as seven different speechmakers praised their father. Sir Edward Williams, from the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, paid tribute: “Today we honour a great pioneer,” he said. “Here is a man who really made an industry.”
While he was alive Kabay did not receive so many accolades. Tormented by ill health, family disputes, money shortages and bureaucratic hurdles, he died young, in great pain, on 29 January 1936. In his final hours, he refused morphine.
“So what’s the process?” I ask Rohan Kile, casually. We are in the belly of the triangle, where it all began: a town called Latrobe, somewhere near Devonport. Kile is the crop-supply manager for pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline, and he’s leading me into a giant shed – about 70 metres long and 40 wide – which harbours a three-storey mound of dried poppy straw, ready for processing.
“For extracting alkaloid? I can’t really tell you that,” he replies, with an inscrutable grin. “As an industry we don’t advertise how we extract alkaloid out of plants. People do try different things.”
In the shed, we stay well back from the precarious poppy chaff cliff. It’s a monstrous pile, but it’s only the remains of the harvest; ten times this amount has gone through here in the last two months.
Kile’s job is to make sure exactly the right quantity is grown. Each autumn, he calculates the contracts with growers, specifying the acres they’ll cultivate come springtime.
It’s an uncommon industry: obsessively regulated and managed at every stage. Together with state and federal bureaucrats, the processors licence, register and monitor the exact amount produced. Prospective growers must pass a police check to qualify for a licence, which is administered by the Poppy Advisory and Control Board. When the plants are in flower, from late spring, the board’s inspectors roam the back roads and fields, searching for signs of tampering.
Their numbers are fed all the way to the top. “Globally, the United Nations keeps track of how much legal opiate material is available,” Kile explains (he too, must pass regular federal police checks). No more than a year’s supply is stockpiled.
The processors hire their own contractors – not the farmers – to sow the seed and do the harvesting. Kile supervises a dozen field officers, who counsel the growers week by week, if need be, until the year’s job is done. “They advise on everything from pre-planting and ground preparation right through to managing the crop and harvesting,” he says.
Kile was born in the year of Tasmania’s first commercial crop, 1971. Twenty years earlier, in the aftermath of World War II, the Allied countries were seeking a stable, secure source of poppies for morphine. The drug company Macfarlan Smith hired an agronomist called Stephen King to conduct trials in England. After several washouts, he continued the quest in the southern hemisphere, with experimental crops in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and New Zealand (Victoria said no). “On a couple of days Stephen had spare, he came to Tasmania to have a look around,” Kile says. “He decided he liked what he saw – and the rest is history.”
King set up his headquarters in Latrobe, and began to grow. It’s grown ever since: the pain business is good business. As global population and incomes rise, so too does the demand for painkillers. The poor put up with it, or die – or both. But once you’ve got enough money, you’ll pay what it takes for blessed relief.
For decades, all over the country, young people have been leaving the land. Farms are growing bigger, and farming communities, smaller.
“Anyone who’s half-smart realises they could get more money elsewhere than the rural industry can afford to pay them,” Angus Lyne says. “They go to the mines.”
Not him, though. After several years travelling and farming in Australia and Europe, he returned home five years ago. “I wouldn’t do anything else. I feel very lucky to be a farmer,” he says. “It’s the whole package really, all the clichés: being your own boss and working outdoors.” He saw his opportunity in poppies.
Since then, the family has significantly increased the acreage they devote to the crop, and Lyne has begun share-farming to expand even further. He stewards a hefty harvest on other people’s land.
“Back in the drought I started doing that so there’d be enough work for all of us,” he says. “Now, with the way the industry is going, we’ll probably have to employ someone else here because we’ve got so much work on.”
They grow other crops too – barley, wheat and canola – but the return on poppies is much higher. Per hectare, he says, the margin is about five times that of wheat. On the Lynes’ land, poppies account for less than one-tenth of the territory, but half the farm’s income.
“They’re more intensive to manage. But the reward is there if you grow a really good crop,” he says.
Today hasn’t been Lyne’s best – he spent the morning dead-bored behind the wheel of the tractor, ploughing and talking on the phone to pass the time. It’ll be another three days before his digging is done. Now, he’s wolfed his sandwiches, and it’s time to get back on the machine.
“Is there anything else I should include?” I ask, searching for some intrigue to smuggle back across the border from the golden triangle, a good yarn gleaned from these taciturn Tasmanians. He’s silent, so I press again. “Got any curious stories?”
Only this: “If you eat them you’ll die.”