Why you should care
Because these unexpected countries are feeding America’s opioid addiction.
Opium. The word alone conjures images of poppy fields guarded by drug lords in the mountains of Afghanistan. Yet billions of these infamous little flowers are grown, picked and processed every year to manufacture legal painkillers. And most of them are not pushed in war-torn countries but in the sunny farmlands of two countries: Australia and Spain.
Opioid production is tightly regulated by a U.N. body called the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). And, according to their numbers:
Australia produces about half of the world’s legal narcotics, with most plants growing on the small island of Tasmania.
Spain follows close behind with one single company, Alcaliber, accounting for 27 percent of the world’s production of morphine and 18 percent of thebaine, another opium extract commonly used to make prescription drugs like OxyContin.
This highly profitable yet little-known industry has been flourishing for half a century, thanks to these countries’ strict safety policies and generous weather. But now America’s raging opioid crisis threatens to derail their trajectory of record profits.
Some narcotics companies are already investing in the next champion of medicinal plants: cannabis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses kill 91 Americans every day, causing more accidental deaths than firearms and car accidents combined. So the picture is very different on both ends of the narcotic journey.
Down in Tasmania and southern Spain, well-paid farmers tend to vast, rolling fields of beautiful, tiny purple flowers. Meanwhile, in the streets of Charleston or Baltimore, paramedics and social workers struggle to care for the increasing number of overdosing addicts and orphaned children.
Big pharmaceutical companies have been accused of fueling the epidemic, with New York City going as far as to sue three of them for “feeding the addiction.” Now some think the corporations growing the narcotics should also share the blame.
“Everyone in the business of opioid production is responsible for harm and deaths,” says David A. Patterson Silver Wolf, a scholar specializing in substance abuse at the Washington University Institute for Public Health. “They are all culpable,” he adds. “Tobacco producers know their product is deadly and poppy producers operate with the same understanding.”
No poppy-growing companies replied to OZY’s repeated requests for comment, but, in previous statements to the press, their spokespeople have insisted that opioid painkillers are a source of relief for millions of people and should not be associated only with the American crisis. Professor Richard Mattick, Australia’s representative on the INCB, agrees, saying that narcotic producers are not to blame because “the availability is caused by the government’s regulatory approvals, not by supply.”
Whether poppy-growing companies are responsible or not, their business is already feeling the impact of the U.S. health crisis. For one, demand from the U.S. has gone down. And public perception is shifting. Late last year, Spain’s opioid manufacturer Alcaliber was looking for a buyer. The initial price was set at $250 million, but the deal was suddenly postponed because of the growing concern about addiction in the U.S.
Still, America’s “national crisis” may just be a hiccup for the $13 billion opioid industry. While production is set to drop this year, the INCB estimates it will grow again in the near future as emerging economies look for pain relief and countries like Hungary and India step up their poppy-farming efforts.
Meanwhile, some narcotics companies are already investing in the next champion of medicinal plants: cannabis. Alcaliber just signed an export deal with the Canadian marijuana giant Canopy Growth, while Tasmanian Alkaloids was recently granted permission to grow medicinal cannabis.
Switching drugs, however, will likely prove much easier for the companies that grow them than for the addicts who use them.