News State Tasmania News Police warn opium poppy head thefts a game of Russian roulette

Police warn opium poppy head thefts a game of Russian roulette

Grown legally in Tasmania for the pharmaceutical industry, opium poppies can be a lethal temptation for drug users. Photo: ABC
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The eye-catching flower on opium poppies growing on farms close to Tasmania’s roadsides are pretty, but the heads they are attached to can be deadly.

Tasmania is a major producer of the world’s legal opiates, and the industry claims some of the most stringent plantation security in the world.

But a 24-fold increase in the number of thefts has the industry and police worried.

In the 2015-16 financial year, 516 poppy heads were stolen – and last financial year, poppy thefts skyrocketed to 12,239.

Tasmania Police Detective Inspector Jason Elmer said it was down to a few drug users, not organised crime.

“We believe that these poppies are being taken for the use of the individuals involved,” he said.

“[It could be] two or three people operating together, and being able to quickly gather large numbers of the poppies and take them back for their use.”

Eight people have been arrested over the latest thefts, and more than half of the stolen poppies have been recovered.

Chief executive of Poppy Growers Tasmania Keith Rice said Tasmanian poppies were highly toxic if ingested and could even kill.

Opium poppy warning sign
Stolen opium poppies have killed three people in Tasmania. Photo: Libby Price/ABC

Mr Rice said the plants grown for commercial harvesting were different to standard poppies, and were developed to produce chemicals suitable for industrial processing only.

“It’s enormously concerning for the industry,” he said.

“These things can be lethal. You don’t know their toxicity — no one knows — until it comes off and it [the poppy capsule] goes through the extraction process.”

Three people in three years have died in Tasmania after drinking tea brewed from stolen poppies: a 26-year-old Danish backpacker in 2014; a 17-year-old Hobart boy in 2012; and a 50-year-old Launceston man in 2011.

Police said those well-publicised deaths probably accounted for the lower number of thefts immediately after.

“The consequences can and have been horrific, and it can be a game of Russian roulette with people drinking this substance or putting it into their body,” Detective Inspective Elmer said.

The increased thefts come as the industry faces pressure from a global oversupply, and competition from other states legalising poppy farming.
That has led to fewer Tasmanian growers and smaller harvests.

Over the past three financial years, the number of licences issued has fallen from almost 800 to just over 500, and less than half the number of hectares were harvested last financial year than three years ago.

The surge in thefts has now sparked another major poppy industry security review.